|The Sam Hertha Collection
ONE OF A KIND
After Sam Hertha, they broke the mold
He forever changed the face of farming in Miami County. He had a hand in the nation’s
defense in the days following the Cuban missile crisis. He has uncovered scores of Indian
campsites, long buried and forgotten.
Today, at 82, Sam Hertha is still called upon to share his expertise, be it to assess
growing conditions internationally or to instill in schoolchildren an appreciation of Kansas
The Louisburg man is at once an agronomist, an archaeologist, a geologist, in a word,
He was born on the 7th of July in 1912 in the tiny Colorado town of Berthoud.
The particulars of his mother’s situation forged his interest in scholarship. “My mother
was a full-blooded Swede, and she came over to this country alone when she was 17,”
he said, the measured cadence of his sonorous voice reminiscent of Walter Cronkite.
“When I was a little kid, I doubt her vocabulary was more than 150 or 200 (English)
words. So you can imagine what mine was like. I was timid.”
His classmates mostly were German boys whose families had fled the fatherland to avoid
the draft preceding World War I, seeking refuge in Russia. Soon that nation turned to
the draft and the Germans made their way to the United States.
“Those German boys were robust, I was tall and skinny.”
So he immersed himself in his studies: “I learned to like to read. I would work my
lessons a week or to ahead of time.”
Eventually, he “read the Encyclopedia Americana from front to back, I loved math, physics,
chemistry. That made it natural that in college I selected organic chemistry” as his field of
However, for reasons dubious at best, that degree required the study of German.
Unfortunately, said Mr. Hertha, “I’m not very good with languages.” He jumped course
and holds a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from then Colorado A & M.
Near the end of his college career he took a civil service exam in soil science, scored
well and eventually was offered a job paying $2,000 a year on a soil conservation
service project in Texas.
The year was 1940. Hitler’s tanks had crushed Poland, and the world was on the brink of
Americans, in the immediate years, would be drafted by the hundreds of thousands. But
not Mr. Hertha. His expertise in soils and agronomy by then was evident. His service
would be in the states, helping boost crop production. As the saying goes, an army
travels on it’s stomach.
During the ensuing years, as the allies successfully prosecuted the war, Mr. Hetha’s
career was advancing. A stint here, a stint there, eventually to Kansas and, in 1946, to
The reputation here was of poor land and weak yields. The challenge suited Mr. Hertha:
“The County had a reputation for having poor soils. I asked for this county. I thought I
could improve the soils.”
At the time, the average wheat yield in Miami County was 12.6 bushel per acre. “Real
quick I pushed that up to 40 bushels an acre, in some cases up to 55.”
He did so by challenging orthodoxy.
“I broke a bunch of rules. You were only supposed to use a little bit of nitrogen.” The
state Extension service was recommending no more than 20 pounds of
potassium/nitrogen fertilizer per acre planted in legumes. Mr. Hertha was pushing 30 lbs.
“I knew the chemistry of fertilizers,” he said. “That put me ahead of most agronomy
It’s a tricky business. Nitrate fertilizers have a strong affinity for water. Too much and
“they can take water out of the root and kill the plant.”
He pushed the limits beyond conventional wisdom and the once nearly effete soil began
producing at unprecedented levels for the area. Still, there were those who did not take
kindly to his experiments.
“They went out and tried to get me fired. But the upper soil conservation people liked
what I was doing, and the farmers would not let me go.”
Now, nearly 50 years after the fact, he dismisses one of his critics summarily: quite
simply, said Mr. Hertha, “He did not know piddly-boo.”
Today Mr. Hertha lives in a comfortable brick-faced home on Louisburg’s east side. A
converted two-car garage is a spacious family room. On one wall, the shelves of a towering
bookcase bear hefty tomes carrying scholarly titles: “Principles of Genetics,” “Essentials
of Qualitative Chemical Analysis,” “Outline of Theoretical Chemistry,” “Soil Physics,”
“Plant Physiology,” and the like.
Twice widowed, he has been married the past 8 years to Mildred Hertha, nee Snouffer, a
former schoolteacher in the Louisburg area, herself a widow.
His sartorial style is no-nonsense, field-ready. He dresses a bit like a retired military man
still admiring of service: khaki pants, shirt, even his suspenders are a faded olive drab.
His white hair sweeps backward in a style that is now fashionable among the trend-
conscious college set.
He wears his watch inward in the fashion of a man accustomed to having his hands full,
the time always accessible at a glance.
For Mr. Hertha time is rooted deep in the past. Among his personal collection of hundreds
of Indian artifacts are some dating back 55 centuries.
He can read them well. He scrutinizes one, turns it over in his hand and pronounces,
“This was made by a right-handed man”.
The observation evokes a certain magic. It is easy to see that long-dead, right-handed
craftsman striking the small wedge of chert with a deer’s antler, flaking the rock to a
His interest in the native stone tools dates to his childhood.
“When I was 8 in Colorado, our teacher took us on a picnic,” he said. “We had to walk
four or five miles along a cow path and found this,” he said, holding an arrowhead
no more than ¾ of an inch in length between a tweezer of thumb and index finger.
Now, when I’m out hunting them, I can spot an arrowhead from 35 to 40 feet”.
He can spot vestiges of otherwise long-vanished Indian camps by analyzing aerial
photographs. That skill, after his retirement from the Soil Conservation Service in 1972,
brought him to the attention of Wichita State University anthropologists contracted
by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey from the archaeological viewpoint the land
that now lays drowned beneath Hillsdale Lake.
He worked at the site intermittently for the better part of eight years, helping unearth
evidence of Indian life in the area from centuries past.
Dr. Arthur Rohn, a professor of anthropology at Wichita State University, was the project
director at the Hillsdale archaeological site. “Sam was indispensable to us,” Said Dr.
Rohn. “He made our job so much easier. He has a very disciplined mind.”
According to Dr. Rohn’s report of the investigation, “Hertha could point out spots he had
never before visited which would contain sites, but he was not able to explain clearly
how he knew. After several years of discussion and friendly argument, the basic
principles underlying this ability were elucidated.”
Those principles included “aspects of bedrock geology, geomorphology, soils, water
resources and vegetational distributions.”
In other words, Mr. Hertha was able to define the location of long-hidden sites by
analyzing the present to reveal the lay of the past.
The result, “Hertha and the principal investigator used topographic maps and aerial
photographs to delineate along one portion of Big Bull Creek (which feeds the reservoir)
which should and should not contain sites. The stretch of the creek had been previously
surveyed, but under very poor conditions. The resurvey produced evidence of sites only
where the model predicted they should be located.”
Another report of the project is inscribed by hand: “Sam, We cold not have done it
without your help! Art Rohn.”
Fro his part, Mr. Hertha makes his vestigial skill sound simple: “I studied aerial
photographs and, in my head, reconstructed the environment as far back as 5,500 years,”
he said. “I could then predict where the Indians would have had their camps. I was able
to pinpoint them within 20 feet. I knew where the timber had been from the timber soil left
behind though they had been plowed under more than 100 years ago.”
His sympathies for the brutally treated Native American population come out as he
describes efforts to relocate the tribes. They were, he said, shaking his head, “driven like
His expertise has been immortalized. One particular phase of Indian culture, a brief
period of one to two centuries, is named after Mr. Hertha, and a key one at that: the
transition from the thrown dart, a type of short spear, to the bow and arrow.
His virtually unique skills were put to use in other ways.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1961, Boeing Inc. was given a contract to
develop a jam-proof radio system for communications between our own intercontinental
ballistic missile silos.
“You can send a radio signal through the air or through the ground. The latter can’t be
jammed, but can only travel about 100 miles,” he said. “Then you have to pick up the signal,
clean it up, boost it and send it on along.”
“They told me they wanted sites that didn’t have any pipelines or power lines and certain
other things. They took me to a site they had selected. I walked out across it and told
them, ‘You don’t want this site; it doesn’t meet your specifications.’ I could feel in my
toes the surge of pumps along the pipeline. That shocked them a little bit. I told them,
there should be a marker up along the road on one side or another hidden in the weeds.
“Sure enough, we searched around and there it was: ‘Panhandle.’ ”
He subsequently found what the company was seeking, five or six sites -- (he’s no longer
certain of the exact number. “The mind is like a computer,” he said. “As it gets older it
groans a bit as it works.”) -- where the underground antennae could be buried, securing a
safe means of communication in the event of a nuclear emergency.
His abilities continue to be desired. Last year, an American company sent him to Yucatan
to do some soil analysis. He accomplished the task in a matter of days.
His is a career that has spanned a stretch of time from the distant past to the
unforeseeable future. From the days of the dinosaur to the days of who-knows-what.
A visitor to his home is taken along for the time travel. He hands over an agatized
dinosaur bone, the calcium long ago displaced through chemical transition.
“This particular bone is 140 million years old,” he said, and chuckled. “About as old as
me, I guess.”
collections of Indian Artifacts in the State of Kansas. This collection was donated to our
Museum by none other than Sam Hertha and his daughter Helen. Sam’s life was a journey
of time travel through centuries past, discovering relics of a people who before us roamed
the land that we now call ours. Many of the things on display came from excavations that
took place in an area that is now covered by the waters of Hillsdale Lake.
Samuel Pohl Hertha. How could I ever do justice to the life he led and the man he
was? His contributions to the field of soil conservation, as well as his unique abilities in
locating ancient Native American sites, were heralded by the press and academia.
Equally amazing was his courage to live by his high principles, even though by doing so
often led to censure by his superiors.
He devoted his life to the farmers he served while working with the Soil Conservation
Service in Kansas. Hardly an evening or weekend would pass without a farmer calling
him for advice, which he generously gave. It would not be uncommon for a farmer to
drop by early in the morning, whereby Dad would persuade him to pull up a chair to the
kitchen table and join us for breakfast.
My father loved to share his knowledge with others. His friend, Bob Harrington, a
longtime outdoors editor for The Miami Republican once wrote, “Sam Hertha, retired soil
conservationist, has done a remarkable job in this area of stimulating interest among
outdoor enthusiasts in the rocks and fossils of the county. Hertha is an authority on
soils, rocks, and Indian artifacts. He can tell by the lay of the land and soil formations
where Indians likely would camp, hunt, and fish. The nicest part about it is he will tell
Now it is my turn to share my father’s life with others in hopes that his legacy will
continue to encourage others in their lifetime endeavors.
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