Chip Happens

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Competitive cow-chip tossing starts early in Russell Springs.  Image Courtesy Ward Taylor, Butterfield Trail Association and Historical Society Treasurer.

Competitive cow-chip tossing starts early in Russell Springs. Image Courtesy Ward Taylor, Butterfield Trail Association and Historical Society Treasurer.

Kansas in late summer is home to many beautiful sights. Waving fields of wheat. Cloudless blue skies. Sunrises so vivid they make you want to cry.

And, if you happen to be in the tiny northwestern town of Russell Springs, cow chips—which is to say, dried cow dung—flying through the air.

That’s because every year since 1955, Russell Springs has held an annual cow-chip throwing competition during its Old Settlers’ Day celebrations. Competitors from around the state gather to take part in the contest, which includes Men’s, Women’s and Junior’s classes, as well as Politicians and VIP classes.

According to one source, cow-chip tossing developed out of the need for winter fuel on the frontier. Settlers held informal games to see who could load their wagons with the most cow chips, which could be burned. Over time, the practice became purely recreational—and more competitive.

The sport isn’t complicated, but like any other, it has rules: two chips per contestant. Farthest chip counts. If there’s a dispute over whose chip goes farther, the committee’s decision is final. And contestants can’t provide their own “equipment.” Instead, the Cow Chip Committee spends the week before the contest gathering competition-worthy cow chips of at least six inches in diameter.

The annual contest helps foster a sense of identity in the residents of the very small town (population as of 2010: 24). The competition even earned Russell Springs the title of “Cow Chip Capital of Kansas” in March 1974, according to Pat Haremza, secretary of the Butterfield Trail Association and Historical Society.

Kansas have had considerable success in the sport, too. Jim Pass of Plains, Kansas, couldn’t break the world record (Oklahoman Leland Searcy’s 182’3” toss in 1979 still stands), but he did manage the title of 1998 World Champion, hurling his cow chip 158’1” at the annual national championships in Beaver, Oklahoma.