THE DUCK MAN—THE JACK MINER OF THE UNITED STATES
1933 map showing where Frank Robl’s banded waterfowl were recovered and some of their migratory routes that they took from Cheyenne Bottom. His banding operations over the years showed the pintail to be the most widely ranging of our waterfowl.
For thousands of years, humans have marveled at the magnificent universal spectacle and ancient tradition of waterfowl migrating along ancient flyways. We find in Jeremiah 8:7: “The stork in the heavens knoweth her appointed time; and the turtle dove, and the crane, and the swallow, observed the time of their coming.” With millions of migratory waterfowl passing through the sky, it is one of the largest, greatest natural spectacles on earth.
There was a boy that lived southeast of the Cheyenne Bottoms, or Bottoms as it was better known, his father being a farmer, duck hunter, and conservationist. The Bottoms located in the very center of the United States, was a critical stopover point for tens of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds. Ever since he was a young boy, the birds of passage had its hooks in him and that passion never diminished. He wondered where did they come from, where did they go?
In 1924, having a farm five miles southeast of the Bottoms, Frank Warren Robl, banded 88 birds, ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, and shorebirds, after he received a federal bird-banding permit. It happened this way. Waterfowl had always stopped at his dad’s fields for a few days’ rest and feed during migration. There was also a creek a quarter mile away from the house where his dad fed them grain, as early as 1907. As his dad said, “the waterfowl stay because the birds sense they are safe here away from hunters and predators.”
In the fall of 1923, a large flock of ducks landed on the creek while the young Robl was nearby. During the spring of 1924, the same event happened on their northward migration. Young Frank thought, “are these the same ones that stopped here last fall?” So, he decided he would “trap a few with bait” and, to these, he attached “a tag to their leg” to “get a survey.”
It became a hobby from October on into May, or April if conditions were right. In 1927, his father built a two-acre pond and windmill to supply water to the pond, while installing a six-foot fence around 16-acres for a “game refuge” to keep predators out. The pond was surrounded by a windbreak of trees, bushes, and tall grasses for nesting cover. On the refuge pond and 500-acre farm, which included the homestead tract, hunting was not allowed. Wheat and alfalfa were planted in the fields for waterfowl.
Located between the salt marshes of Oklahoma and Cheyenne Bottoms, the farm got plenty of sojourners. So many, at times, they had to drive the ducks away from the fields, while their 16-acre refuge got “boarders.” It was not unusual to have thousands of ducks in the refuge along with sandhill cranes and geese.
His father, Frank Xavier Robl, Jr., when he was ten years old, migrated to America in 1876 from the Bavaria area of Germany. One year later, the family migrated to the German community in Barton County, Kansas, living on a 160-acre farm obtained by the Homestead Act.
The Catholic Advocate reported on his father’s death in 1932: “He was for many years a member of the Isaak Walton League, in which he played a very prominent part. He maintained a game refuge on his farm and banded ducks for the government for a good many years. At the time of his retirement  from farm life, he turned this work over to his sons [Frank and George], who have since taken a great interest in this kind of work.” He was keenly interested in the great flocks of waterfowl that coursed up and down the Central Flyway, with the Bottoms as the principal stopping place. His son Frank was born in 1896, and he would devote his life to farming, conservation, and the banding of waterfowl.
In 1928, the elder Frank retired from farming, and he and his wife moved to the nearby town of Ellinwood, turning the farm and the duck-banding operations over to his sons. It was son Frank who headed the operations.
He captured waterfowl for banding during the breeding season in the summer at the Bottoms and also trapped them during migration inside his fence, using clipped-wing waterfowl as decoys. Only he was allowed to go inside the enclosure. He fashioned bands from tin cans putting a number, his name and address on each band.
For years, locally, he was known as the “The Duck Man.” Nationally, he had several sobriquets: “Jack Miner of the United States,” Miner being the Canadian who began the practice of banding ducks, and “Dean of American Bird Banders.” The back of his business card read: “Plant a Tree–Grow a Bush–Build a Pond–Kill a Cat–Save a Duck, Frank W. Robl, ‘The Duck Man’.”
He was an active bander for more than 50 years, being most active from 1924 through 1939. During his lifetime, he banded 25,000 ducks, 500 geese, 1,350 starlings, 700 crows, and over 70 species of birds, with recoveries from Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and Cuba. He was also a district game warden, a federal deputy game protector, member of Isaak Walton League, National Inland Bird Banders Association, National Audubon Society, and Ducks Unlimited.
His early banding activities contributed much to our knowledge of the varying migration routes, longevity, survival, and general life history of our many species of ducks. Much of what we now know came from researchers who worked before the days of satellites and radio transmitters. Bird banders, like Frank, labored tirelessly to net, trap, measure, band, and release birds, illuminating the migration miracle. His meticulous record keeping of his banding operations convinced Kansas and national wildlife officials and politicians that the Bottoms would be a good place for a refuge.
A good deal of his later life was devoted to programs in which he told of waterfowl. He talked to grade school children, college classes, conservation organizations, and scientific bodies. As a conservationist, he served as an ambassador for federal and local projects to protect the habitat and develop the wetlands’ recreational potential for over fifty years.
Cheyenne Bottoms has been a wetland intermittently since the inter glacial period between the third and fourth glaciations during the Pleistocene era, 100,000 years ago. During major flooding from rains, the marsh would become a lake covering 20,000 acres, while during the drought years it was dry enough to allow grazing of cattle, farming of alfalfa, wheat, and corn, and harvesting of prairie hay.
Being a saucer-shaped depression, after heavy rains, its deepest part was only seven or eight feet. One could wade half a mile from the edge and not get water over his boot tops. Dr. Frederick Wislizenus, botanist, said in 1839, “The water was not very deep. All sorts of water birds swarmed around from all sides. Never have I seen such quantities of swans, cranes, pelicans, geese, and ducks, as were here.”
After becoming a lake, it dried through evaporation, about 40 inches a year. Many attempts were made to permanently drain it for farming and grazing purposes, but none were ever successful. However, in 1904, dreamers constructed a ditch from the Arkansas River, which allowed water to flow into the Bottoms. The plan, financed by stock selling, was to create a huge lake, using the water for recreational and irrigation purposes. They managed to run water to the Bottoms for 100 days before they went bust.
However, it was during this year that the greatest slaughter of ducks ever known in Kansas followed. Market hunters flocked to the Bottoms. Dealers made regular trips to the camps, taking ammunition with them and buying waterfowl, which were shipped in refrigerated rail cars from Hoisington, Great Bend, and Ellinwood to eastern game markets. Half a million waterfowl went to markets that year.
Market hunting began at the Bottoms during wet years after the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad went through in 1872. It really took off after the Missouri Pacific reached the western edge of what was to become Hoisington in 1886. From the 1880s through the early years of the twentieth century, market hunting routinely was practiced at the Bottoms. The game was salted, put on refrigerated rail cars, and taken East for sale. Prices ranged from eight dollars per dozen for canvasbacks, six dollars for redheads, three for mallards, and one and a half dollars for a dozen “mixed ducks.”
Concerns about declining duck populations led the Kansas State Legislature to enact laws attempting to regulate this practice. In 1897, an act passed which prohibited market hunting, at least in the legal sense. An act, also, passed which imposed penalties upon railroad companies for shipping game out of state during the closed season. This was amended in 1901, 1903, and again in 1905. The 1905 act followed a particularly brutal year for the duck population at Cheyenne Bottoms.
Culminating in 1904, the traditional practice had been for suppliers to come out to the market-hunting camps, sell ammunition, and buy ducks. The new act of 1905 placed a bag limit on game bird and gave game wardens unprecedented powers to inspect the area where the game was being sold or shipped from. The limit on grouse was fifteen birds, likewise with prairie chickens. Quail, plovers, and ducks were limited to twenty each; the limit on geese and brant was ten. Essentially, this brought an end to market hunting at the Bottoms. However, it was the start of duck-hunting clubs, which leased hunting ground from owners, like the Black Swamp Shooting Club, Hoisington Gun Club, Mallard Gun Club, and the Barton County Sportsmen’s Association.
The year 1927 was a fateful one. In August, over fourteen inches of rain fell over a two-day period creating “Lake Cheyenne,” a lake with sixty-four square miles of surface area, “becoming the largest body of water from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains.” In the lowlands on the northwest side, several marshes were flooded, creating smaller lakes: Rush, Clear, McLain, and Pfister Lakes. For the first time in living memory, water was flowing out of the Bottoms through Little Cheyenne Creek. A waterfowl census done that October recorded 180,000 ducks, geese, and cranes.
The 1928 rains increased the Bottoms from 16,000 acres to 20,000. Once again, it was a fantastic year for duck hunting, while waterfowl bred at the Bottoms in great numbers that summer and for three years thereafter. Such numbers had not been seen since the 1904 flood. That August of 1927, pintails and teal began arriving immediately with mallards arriving later. The Kansas Game Commission got the farmers to build blinds and put out decoys, which they could then charge hunters one dollar for a day’s shoot. It didn’t dry completely until 1931 during the Dust Bowl years.
1927 and 1828 made everyone realized that the lake needed to stay 20,000 acres in perpetuity. These two years set the stage that would start a campaign for a refuge, which was backed by numerous national conservation organizations and local communities. Even more so, Robl’s banding records and maps showing where his bands had been recovered were taken to Washington, D.C. This was the turning point that showed the decision makers that the Bottoms should be set aside as a wildlife refuge.
Following this, Frank gave presentations to national organizations and federal governmental agencies. In 1928, the U.S. Congress recommended that $350,000 be used to acquire land for the refuge, after the U.S. Biological Survey had sent a representative to the Bottoms for an investigation. In 1930, the federal government gave its approval to purchase 20,000 acres of land to establish the Cheyenne Bottoms Migratory Bird Refuge, not to exceed $250,000. Unfortunately, money got appropriated but little used due to the Great Depression, the drying up of the lake during the Dust Bowl Years in the 1930s, to difficult negotiations related to speculative oil leases with the 52-tract owners covering the area which escalated land prices, and the slow process of condemnation of the land, which was needed because of difficulty negotiating with the landowners and the difficulty of clearing title to most of the lands.
Consequently, the federal government urged the alternative—establishment of state-owned marsh and water areas. This took effect in 1937 when the Pittman-Roberson bill was passed, with the federal and state sharing in the cost. In 1941, the Kansas Game Commission began buying land. In 1942, the Stafford Courier news reported that the Bottoms will “afford an immense reservoir of ducks, which certainly would circle over this area and give everybody some shooting.” By 1953, all the land in the immediate basin—over 18,000 acres—had been purchased, with the help of the federal Pittman-Robertson Fund. Thus, the state’s Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area was dedicated in 1957 as a “refuge and public shooting ground for migratory waterfowl.”
Today, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area is the largest inland marsh in the U.S. Its 41,00 acres is made up of the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area (19,857 acres) and the Nature Conservancy’s Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve (7,848 acres). Ducks Unlimited is also a key partner in protecting waterfowl and shorebird habitat at Cheyenne Bottoms. It was designated a Wetland of International Importance in 1988 by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and is listed as a Hemispheric Reserve by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Preserve Network.
ADDENDUM: In the spring of 1929, he banded three ducks. Within nine months, they had been killed on three different coasts. One was shot at Deering, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean; one in Jasper County, South Carolina, on the Atlantic Ocean, and the third at San Diego, California, on the Pacific Ocean. One spring, he banded a north bound duck. That fall, the band was taken from the stomach of a catfish caught in the Gulf of Mexico. How far do the ducks go? One pintail he banded was brought down at Point Barrow, Alaska, and another at the Isle of Trinidad, British West indies. How long do ducks live? He offered this, “In the fall of 1938, I received a letter from Juan Ortiz of Mexico City relating the recent shooting of two pintails. One had been banded 11 years and 7 months earlier, the other 10 years and 9 months previously. Both were mature ducks when banded.”