Voices of the Past & Present

Osa Clark Nichols "Liberal aournd 1900"

In 1961 the Southwest Daily Times published a Kansas Centennial Futurama Edition. This included an article by Osa Clark Nicholson headlined “Liberal Sinks from 3000 to 400 at the Turn of the Century” with the subhead “Railroad Kept us Out of the Ghost Town Category.” The article is presented unedited.


     Liberal had a population of only 400 people when I first came here March 27, 1900, and from what friends tell me then his hardy nucleus was all that stood between this city and the fate of around a half dozen or so ghost towns around us. Liberal was founded in 1999 and its trade territory comprised a radius of many miles—down into Oklahoma and northwest of here to include all of Stevens County.

     Incidentally, I arrived here about three weeks   behind the advent of my parents and brother, Mr. and Mrs. S.F. Clark and Otis because I had some visiting to do in Missouri and Atchison before I got here. The McDermotts, who ran the boarding train for the construction men who built the railroad into Liberal, told me   there once was a population of some 3,000 persons in Liberal and they had a picture of all kinds of building going on -- houses and foundations for houses,   all still in framework stages.

     Liberal's boom went by the boards just as the situations which excited beginnings of other villages around here -- Springfield, Fargo Springs and Arkalon in Seward County, and Vorhees and Woodsdale in Stevens County....and, oh, yes, Oak City west of Liberal. Others faded out entirely. The 400 souls who were residents of Liberal when I first came here actually were the core to the prominent city we know today -- except for their faith in the future of this town, we could well have experienced the same fate as these ghost towns. At the time Will Stout still had a general store at Arkalon and was doing a big business among the ranchers up and down the Cimarron river.

     The railroad missed Arkalon, so a lot of people over there picked up their houses and brought them over to Liberal and planted them in one block which went by the name of the Arkalon Block. One of the houses was the home of W.H. Feather. The next house north was the Charles Summers home. The Judge Etzold family lived in the corner house on the north. Another family that lived in the Arkalon block was the Keyes, later the Dudley family from Vorhees lived in the Keyes house. Dr. Campion's Clinic occupies the location of the Abe K. Stoufer home brought over from Arkalon. I think the block should be known as the "Arkalon Block'' for historic reasons.

     Kansas Avenue at that time still had the high sounding name, yet it was only a dusty road, no sidewalks. The business places were widely spaced along two blocks between Third and First Streets. There were covered porches in front of the buildings, enabling the cowboys and loafers to get out of the sun.  

     I mentioned the Arkalon Block, there was another section of residences that had a special name, "Quality Hill." It extended from First Street south to the railroad on Grant.

     Two ranchers had moved to town, Cort Brown, who had two houses on his ranch twenty mites apart, and I John George, who had a ranch down on the Beaver River and in the earlier days was a cowboy himself. He later   bought out the OK Mercantile Co. which was doing business when I came here, on the west side of Kansas Avenue, between Second and Third Streets. Later Mr. George was president of the First National Bank.

     H.V. Tucker, prominent attorney, Henry Tucker's father and family had a house on the Hill. And Cort Brown's brother-in-law and sister lived next door south of Corts.

     Otto DeVois ran the Dry Goods part of the OK Mercantile Co. A.L. Buchanan, a former cowhand, operated the grocery and feed part of the OK.

     A short time later, Jack and Pat Craig built a home on the hill at the south end, having moved in from their ranch. The two families lived teether, the brothers having married sisters. The sisters were aunts of   Mrs. Mary Sutton.

     The daily train that came into Liberal had one passenger coach and the rest were freight cars. It was a daily ritual of towns-people to go to see the train come in. The passengers had to get off at Bucklin and wait until the train went to Dodge City and back and then board the train again. Liberal was the end of the road. The train would come in around seven o'clock in the evening and return the next morning. It was dark the evening of my arrival. The coal oil lamps dimly lighted the houses. My folks were living in the lower floor of a two story building midway between Second and Third Streets on Kansas Avenue. Jim Campbell, county attorney, had his law office upstairs. Across the street was the Liberal News office and the Post Office was in the same building.

     Ray Millman had arrived here about three months before and taken over the Liberal News from the editor, Abe K. Stoufer. Mr. Stoufer was the postmaster.

     To digress, there was a publication here once called the Liberal Lyre.

     We lived at this place only until my father and brother could build a house on the claim. My folks were lucky enough to find a claim to file on at such a late date. It was located a quarter of a mile west of the cemetery -later a part of the air field. Our house stood on a hill which was later cut down for the field's runways. Harry Evans, a surveyor and Bob Evans' father, said the hill as 65 feet higher than Liberal because of the general rise of the altitude going west.

     I forget just which, but a married couple had to live on a claim either five or seven years to prove it up. A single person could take a claim and just sleep on it every six months to prove up. I remember going 60 miles down on the Fresco with Myra McDermott and her father, driving a mule team hitched to their surry to sleep in the shack on her claim one time: as she filled her obligation. I think her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Rogers still is getting money regularly from the land.

     Land was so cheap that nobody wanted to buy it. My father bought a quarter section of land from Abe K. Stoufer which was back of our claim for only $75. He bought a tax title on another quarter for $200.

     The Nichols' owned most of the land which is now the south part of Liberal but never got anything out of it. A friend of my father back in Unionville, Missouri, where we came from, had plenty of money and asked Papa to pick up any bargains he saw for him. Papa had a chance to buy a lot in the 200 block on Kansas Avenue with a building on it for only $40. But he wrote back to his friend that ''they aren't worth the money!"

     When Dr. Ross Nichols and I were married, we went to housekeeping in a house his father, Dr. H.V. Nichols, had moved over from Richfield. It stood about 25 feet or so north of the present location of the Peoples National Bank. The Nichols Drug Store was at the present location of the Citizens State Bank. Dr. H.V. Nichols and his two doctor sons, Schuyler and Ross, shared offices in the rear of the store. My mother-in-law, Mrs. H.V. Nichols, owned the drug store but later sold out to Dr. Fannon, who in time sold to Charlie Taylor.

     I want to say a word for the doctors of Liberal in those days. Now, patients are put into hospitals if they are not able to go to the doctor. But, doctors in those days drove long distances to see their patients, having relay teams stationed along the way. Horseless carriages were beginning to be talked about but there were no automobiles in Liberal then.

     The first summer Dr. Ross was out of school, he had a typhoid patient up at Old Santa Fe, which was a ghost town, too. He drove up there every day to see him. He had a patient 100 miles away -- down below where Guymon is now -- whom he went to call on. Seemed like he would never have a call to Gray or Beaver but what he would have to go to Hugoton or some far away place in another direction when he got back. They went through all kinds of sandstones or snow, rain, hail or just anything.

      Dr. H.V. Nichols lived on the corner where the Peoples National Bank is. There was a livery barn at Anna Trahern's store location. Cash Waters in later years bought the Nichols home and built a hotel there. This building later was turned into Mercy Hospital and operated by Dr. Morrow.

     We built our house at Sixth and Washington in 1910. The house we had lived in, where my three children were born, was out close to the powerhouse on New York Street. I used to hitch up a horse and drive up here to try on dresses two houses north of my present home. Now I often walk to town twice a day. It seemed quite far then. There were very few houses between my home and uptown.

     One of Liberal's greatest assets then and now was the culture and friendliness of the people.

     The Rock Island Hotel was operated by genial people -- Tom and Mary McDermott and their daughter, Myra. The hotel was a real social center. Ranchers and their wives and families would come to Liberal and spend a week or more at a time at the hotel. Diamonds! I have never seen so many!

    One of the most picturesque men who made regular trips to Liberal was Judge Hutchinson of Garden City. He always wore a white tie and a Prince Albert coat. His red, shortly-cropped beard was parted in the middle and carefully brushed to each side. He was so refined in looks and behavior, yet his business here was to hold court and deal with the roughest of them....especially cattle thieves. He never lost his composure. His picture, at advanced age, was in the Life Magazine of February 14, 1944. He still had on his white tie!

     Another man of culture and refinement was Judge Etzold, who came here with his wife on account of her health. They came from Chicago and raised a family of five daughters and spent the rest of their lives here. Judge Etzold played the organ as an enjoyable pasttime.

     The merchants nearly all carried on business in wholesale volume. Freighting teams, two loaded wagons fastened together, pulled by as many as five teams hitched tandem, would leave here for ranches and small   trading places. The Star Grocery did a banking business. There was no regular bank here until the First National Bank was opened with Paul Woods as cashier.

     I went home with Josephine Hitch, daughter of J.K. Hitch, and spent a week on their ranch. Was I ever surprised to find that, with a thousand or more cattle, they served oleo and condensed milk! It was the same on any ranch, but I was new out here.

     There was a visitor one time out in this country   who certainly sized it up in a few words saying, ''There are more cows and less butter, more rivers and less water, and you can see farther and see less than any place I ever saw."

     My uncle from Kansas City when he was out here once said, "My there's a lot of room for a city out here."

     I have been out on the prairie when we would be driving some great distance when there wasn't one thing any direction showing up between us and the horizon. But there were things to be seen on the ground -- wild flowers, prairie dogs, prairie owls, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes.

     I used to ride to town often and out in what is now Parkview were piles of bleached buffalo bones, ready for   someone to pick up for shipment...just for what purpose I never knew.

     The roads never followed section lines. They were always angling the shortest distance between two points. The road to our house out Second Street began to angle near Pershing and Second down through Can Creek, now   covered over, and Parkview and from there past our place on to Hugoton.

     Hugoton people came to Liberal for everything until the Santa Fe railroad built into town in 1913. Sometimes there would be two wagons, one behind the other, the   drivers carrying on conversations with each other which could be heard a quarter of a mile away (the distance we were from the Hugoton road).

     The railroad was extended from Liberal southwest in 1902. Guymon (bearing the name of Ed Guymon of Liberal) was the first town down that way to be on the map. A crowd of us went down on the first train that went to Guymon. All it was at the time were stacks of lumber and a place thrown together for a place to eat.

     Then some women wonder why I like Westerns on TV! I never saw or heard any shooting in the Liberal streets since I came here. But I do know positively that     all the tin signs in town and the neighboring places were full of holes and the cowboys were still carrying six-shooters.

     Yes, it warms the heart to be part of the modern Liberal today. But those yesteryears were a happy, exciting and full, though toilsome and distracting times. To see Liberal today can make one think, it was worth every bit of it and we’re richer for having lived through it all.

About Seward County Historical Society

The Seward County Historical Society provides historic and entertainment opportunities for the local, regional and international visitors to Southwest Kansas. From Dorothy's House to traveling exhibits and a repository of local history from the Spanish exploration of Coronado to current events, SCHS provides a venue and a committed group of staff and volunteers to insure local history is preserved and to reinforce the belief that Kansas truly is a place over the rainbow.

Get In Touch

Address: 567 E. Cedar, Liberal, KS 67901

Phone: 620-624-7624

Email: schs@swko.net

Website: www.sewardheritage.com

Join Our Community

Sign up to receive email for the latest information.

The Seward County Historical Society provides historic and entertainment opportunities for the local, regional and international visitors to Southwest Kansas. From Dorothy's House to traveling exhibits and a repository of local history from the Spanish exploration of Coronado to current events, SCHS provides a venue and a committed group of staff and volunteers to insure local history is preserved and to reinforce the belief that Kansas truly is a place over the rainbow.

Copyright © 2021 Seward County Historical Society. All rights reserved.