Seward County

Early History of Seward County & Liberal, Kansas by William Brush

In 1954, Mr. William L. Brush wrote a thesis for graduate school which was entitled, ''The Early History of Seward county." The following is excerpted from his thesis.


    From the nearest railroad point at Dodge City in the early days it was a long, lonely trail to the Texas Panhandle and the weary traveler eagerly watched the distant horizon for that welcome speck of the far distant ranch, the oasis of the short grass country. Finally at long last the little sod house with the wire corral and the water tanks, crude and simple, but a haven of hospitality and rest, was reached and the long ride of the day was over. Because water was scarce on the plains in those early days, it was often sold in sparing amounts as the well had to be dug by hand and very deep with, perhaps, a limited capacity of water.

     One lonely little ranch however, was an exception to this rule as the water was given freely even though the little sod house could have used the money. Mr. Rogers, the settler, would smilingly answer the query of ''how much?'' with a “Oh, that's alright. Water's always free here!'' and the traveler quite often returned, “Well, that's liberal.” As the years went by, many people were directed to pass this friendly home. People soon spoke of it as "the Liberal well'' and finally shortened it to just "Liberal." By August, 1885, Mr. Rogers had added a general store and the government soon established a post office at the ranch home, and it seemed only natural to call it ''Liberal.''

     In August, 1885, from No Man's Land came Mr. Benjamin B. Gant, who located southwest of what was to become Liberal and freighted supplies from Dodge City to the Rogers' store. The round trip required four days. On the way to Dodge City his wagons carried buffalo bones and occasionally what little local farm surplus there might be and returned with processed staples, piece goods, farm tools, and occasionally some farmer's order.

     Within three years, with the coming of the railroad which established a townsite a mile east of the Rogers place, the long haul from Dodge City became unnecessary and even the post office was moved to the townsite which adopted the name of ''Liberal.''

     Marcus A. Low, Division Solicitor for the Rock Island at Trenton: Missouri, and Hilon A. Parker, chief engineer, were chiefly responsible for pushing the Rock Island into Seward County. They first began organizing the project in 1885. A charter was issued March 19, 1886, which first provided for building a railroad southwest toward Liberal. It was issued at the time to the Chicago, Kansas, and Nebraska Railway Company, an affiliate of Rock Island. Surveys began on December 8, 1885, the grading commenced on the following July 1, and by October 1, track laying had begun. The entire mileage from Horton to Liberal was placed for operation on February 26, 1888.

     Because of county seat difficulties between Springfield and Fargo Springs, the Rock Island deflected its route southward and created the town of Liberal. Originally the survey called for the road to leave Plains in Meade County and go through the center of Springfield in central Seward County and cross at the more accessible crossing of the Cimarron River but somehow the townspeople of Springfield offended the construction crew and the road changed its course and crossed the Cimarron River at Arkalon. Upon reaching the end-of-the-line, Mr. Low ordered the surveying of a new townsite a mile east of the Rogers place, having purchased part of four sections of land there for that purpose in the center of the present townsite of Liberal.

     The plat of the townsite of Liberal was opened April 13, 1888. During the following twenty-four hours the sale of lots totaled $180,000 of which total some $60,000 was paid in cash. Although there were no houses that day, three small shacks appeared the next day, April 14. By April 21, you could count eighty-three plank constructed houses. The boom was on and within a year the population had grown to 8,000 and Liberal was incorporated as a third class city. In the next few years Liberal continued to grow as the citizens of Arkalon and Springfield, following the example of those of Fargo Springs, continued to move their homes and businesses to the new county seat.

     Upon completion of the terminal facilities and the establishment of the town, the railroad was to construct two other buildings in 1888; one was a brick roundhouse with one employee to man it and the other building was the big and impressive "depot hotel'' to be operated by a man named W. Omer. Within three months the big boom was over and people left in crowds on every train because land prices were so inflated and because of the discontinuance of railroad construction as the Rock Island decided not to go any farther west. The fabulous hotel was closed, its furniture crated and moved away.

     When the first freight train rolled into the newly established town, it had aboard a large consignment of grocery stock for Ed T. Guymon. Mr. Guymon, at this point, not having a building, erected some tents, as soon as they were properly pegged and the supplies brought in, he opened his business to the general public. The Star Grocery, as it was called, was shortly housed in a wooden building and Mr. Guymon continued to operate the business until 1901, when he followed the railroad southwest into the Guymon Panhandle where the town of Guymon was named after him.

     In much the same manner T.J. McDermott also followed the track layers into town and established the first restaurant to help feed the vast crowd of people that converged on Liberal. About a year later he made arrangements with the Rock Island to take over the closed "depot hotel." Ten bedrooms were furnished and opened and this was the beginning of the business which the McDermott's were to run for seventeen years.

     During these first few weeks before the bubble burst other businesses were established. Among these businesses was a lumber yard established by L.J. White in partnership with Mr. Flagg. George S. and T.J. Smith moved their drug store from Fargo Springs and Dr. George Smith established his office in Liberal. Charles Summers packed his shoe repair shop along with his stock of shoes and boots at Fargo Springs and came to the new town where he was to establish a dry goods business and the beginnings of a fortune.

     Liberal also became the terminus for the cattle drives of the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle country, northeastern New Mexico, and the southwest corner of Kansas. Cattle pens were built and in the fall of each year great herds of cattle were shipped from Liberal until the railroad moved south and west. After that time the shipping of the herds lessened until only the local herds were shipped from Liberal. Liberal's economy fluctuated with the good and bad years of the farmer and of the railroad which had given it birth.

     The first post office building for the Liberal station was a mile west of Kansas Avenue on Second Street on the site known as "old Liberal." This building was an old adobe shack. The adobe shack post office did a meager business and very little mail was received or sent. The postmaster, Cal Hurd, moved the post office from the adobe shack to a small frame building just a block off Kansas Avenue in 1888 when the present townsite was established. In 1890 Mrs. Menier Vessels became the postmistress, followed in 1894 by Miss Ada Mills. During this period from 1888 to 1896, the post office occupied various locations.

     In 1896 Abe K. Stoufer was appointed postmaster and immediately moved the post office into the office of his newspaper, The Liberal News. In 1900, when he sold his newspaper, he also resigned as postmaster, and his successor, Ray Millman, was also appointed as postmaster and served in the dual capacity until 1903 when he was succeeded as postmaster by J.N. Evans.

    In 1907, Mr. Evans moved the post office from the News building into the building vacated by the Smith Drug Store. In 1908 under the auspices of A.E. Blake the post office finally acquired a building of its own. The need for increased postal facilities led to the building of a brick structure on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Second Street especially designed to house the postal equipment. Upon Mr. Blake's offer of one year's free rent, the postal authorities promptly accepted the offer and moved the post office into its modern plant where it remained until 1914 when the Kansas Avenue businessmen built on the Third and Kansas location and induced the post office to move once more.

     E.S. Irwin was appointed postmaster in April 1914, and remained until 1922 when he was succeeded by Abe Stoufer, who was appointed for his second term. During this time the post office made its last move into its present location [Ed., 1954] at Fourth and Kansas. From the days of the adobe shack, it has been enlarged to a post office of the first class. The first star routes were the Hugoton route and Shade's Well, followed later by routes to Beaver, Oklahoma, and Ochiltree, Texas.

     Rural free delivery from the Liberal post office was established in 1908 and four routes were established which were served by carriers with their horses and buggies. Later they were combined into three routes with the coming of the automobile to supply the farm population with daily service. Postal service was enlarged within the Liberal city limits in 1915 with the beginning of city free delivery with the first carriers being Harold Sutton and Harry Stewart.

     The telephone industry in Liberal began in 1897 and consisted of a single line with five telephones. Service was established by George S. and Thomas J. Smith and was operated from their drug store. The three telephones inside the city limits were located at the drug store, the Rock Island Eatery and the G.C. Brown home. The O.K. Ranch and the Smith's Ranch on Sharp's Creek were the rural members. The system covered a total of thirty-two miles and was a great convenience, particularly to the ranchers who lived in town. Anticipating future needs the Smith Brothers applied for a telephone franchise from the city council which was granted in 1906. In 1909 a one hundred line switchboard replaced the old ten line board. Upon completion of the new Smith Drug Store at Second and Kansas, the telephone exchange was moved to the second story of that building. In 1909 L.W. Stevesson bought out the telephone company, which by now included three toll lines with one to Meade, Kansas, and one each to Beaver and Hooker, Oklahoma. In 1917 Stevesson built a new telephone building on Third Street and installed the first common battery telephone service in Liberal. This was used until 1926 when it was further modernized.

     Mr. Benjamin B. Gant told of the first well dug on the Liberal townsite. A Mr. Alphan owned a quarter section which is now a part of Liberal and in about 1885 dug a well near what was later known as Can Creek. The first well was dug by hand three feet square and one evening water was struck at a depth of 118 feet. Paul W. Light tells how his father, George E. Light, dug a second well south of what is now Second Street on their homestead and reached water at a depth of 150 feet. In 1890 the first city-owned wells were dug along Kansas Avenue and a small storage tank built. Pipes supplied the business section but homes kept large barrels in front of the house which were filled twice a week for a fee of fifty cents per barrel. As a result of becoming the broomcorn capital of the world and other successful farm ventures, some five hundred buildings were erected in the years of 1907 and 1908 alone. Consequently, in 1909, a successful $45,000 waterworks bond was voted and in 1911 at the Seventh and Grant location a huge tank was erected along with a pipe system for the rest of the city. In 1917, three more welts and another huge standby-pipe was added to the water system.

     Liberal in 1899 installed its first city lights. They consisted of coal-oil lamps placed on street corners on eight-foot poles and were the pride of the city. Local boosters bragged about being able to read their mail under the street lights, unless, of course, one of three things had happened, such as the lamps were burned dry or the wind having blown them out, or even worse, their having not been lighted. These lights were used until the Liberal Light, Ice, and Power Company was established by Harry Magruder. The company was incorporated January 11, 1908, with the following officers: H.W. Magruder, president and manager; Henry Walker, secretary; and E.E. Cook, electrician. A few electric street lights were set up in the business district. The power was furnished by a steam engine and two boilers which produced a maximum capacity of 200 kilowatts. These lights were available only in the business district and the homes continued to use coal-oil or kerosene lamps. It took four times as much power for an incandescent bulb in those days as it does today. By 1909 there were some 3,000 lights ranging from eight to 200 candle power. A 200 horse power engine supplied the few motors in the business district. The two generators had a capacity of 175 kilowatts along with a Corliss engine of 175 horsepower and a Russell engine of 100 horsepower. In addition to doing electrical repair work, the company also carried a complete line of electrics fixtures, fans and motors. The residential district was not served by electric lights until the middle of the 1920's.

     The ice plant was increased until it had a capacity of twenty tons daily in 1921. The ice plant had two large storage rooms and it manufactured ice in 200 pound cakes. The freight trains passing through Liberal were serviced by the ice plant. Ice was distributed to the local homes and business houses and it was sent to the surrounding towns and communities in Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle. The electric and ice plants were housed in frame buildings.

     The homes and business houses were heated mostly by coal during the period. The first gas company was established in Liberal in 1928 under the name of the Liberal Gas Company. Coal in large quantities was carried by the lumber companies.

     Paul Woods was brought from Rapid City, South Dakota, to help establish Liberal's first bank to fill one of the great needs of the fast-growing city. The bank which was organized as a result on July 13, 1900, was incorporated as ''The Liberal State Bank'' with a capital of $10,000.œ. The bank served Seward, Stevens, and Haskell counties in Kansas; Beaver and Beaver County, Oklahoma; and Ochiltree and Hansford counties in Texas. At this time the closest banks were at Meade, Kansas, on the east and El Paso, Texas, on the west while the north was the bank at Garden City, Kansas, and south at Higgins, Texas. On April 13, 1903 ''The Liberal State Bank'' became "The First National Bank of Liberal'' with a capital of $25,000.00. J.E. George, the first president, remained at the head of the institution until 1926.

     On March 30, 1907, the Citizens State Bank was organized with a capital of $25,000. The first officers were: Charles Summers, president, a leading dry goods merchant who had moved his business from Fargo Springs several years earlier; E.T. Guymon, vice president; George E. Ellison, cashier; Lee Larrabee, assistant cashier. The small frame building that housed the bank opened for business on April 10, 1907, with the first day's deposits totaling $31,168.10. By 1926 its total assets were over $700,000. Bert DuBois was elected assistant cashier in January 1908, and later succeeded Mr. Ellison as cashier. In 1912 Mr. Frank Summers followed in his footsteps.

     While many people left Seward County during the Oklahoma strip opening, Liberal was to gain from this migration in the long run as her trade area was increased to include the Oklahoma Panhandle. People who came from the east to file on the government land made Liberal their temporary headquarters. As it became the trade center, Liberal also became the center of social life and the educational center for the area.

     J.E. George came to Liberal from his Beaver County, Oklahoma ranch in 1900 and bought an interest in a grocery store and a little later expanded it into a wholesale and retail businesses of considerable size. Customers used four horse teams to haul groceries after making their purchases. The business had a personnel of six to eight salesmen who did the selling, delivering and keeping of the accounts. The store handled canned goods, flour, feed, potatoes and crockery for both wholesale and retail business. It was housed in a two-story brick building. When H.J. Smith left the concern, it was incorporated with a capital stock of $25,000 which was paid in full. The business continued to grow through the period of this study.

     When Mr. E. T. Guymon followed the railroad southwest to the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1901, he sold a twenty-five per cent interest in his grocery business to Lee Larrabee, who became the manager of the store. Under his management it continued to prosper until 1907 when Mr. Larrabee organized the Star Lumber Company.

     The Enterprise Mercantile Company was organized in June, 1906, by Frank G. Boles and John N. Evans with D.L. Longnecker as manager. It started as a small grocery store but in 1909 was housed at Second and Lincoln in a building twenty-five by one hundred thirty feet. The stock included potatoes, syrups, and canned goods in carload lots. In season they also had produce and garden and field seeds. In September, 1908, Frank Boles sold his interest in the business and in October bought the Liberal Cash Store from its founder, M.W. Travis. His announced policy in regard to his new store was to buy and sell on a cash basis and pass along the savings amounting to as much as ten to thirty per cent to his customers. He published a catalog showing the advantages of this system for savings by doing away with bookkeeping, collecting, and the loss of bad accounts. He announced that the quick sales and small profits would insure the customers of new, clean stock in seasonable and up-to-date styles. His stock included piece goods, ladies ready-to-wear, white goods, notions, hosiery, novelties, combs, handkerchiefs, men's wear, work clothes, shoes, valises, telescopes, blankets and oil cloths.

     By 1907 Charles Summers had enlarged and expanded the little business he had moved from Fargo Springs until it was one of Liberal's leading dry goods department stores. The store was housed in a building 50 x 130 feet and had branches in Guymon, Oklahoma and Dalhart, Texas. The manager of the Liberal store was Ralph Summers.

     Bolin, Hall and Company was established in Liberal in 1900 by J.R. Bolin. The building contained offices, warehouse rooms, lumber, lime, cement, plaster and other building materials. Yards enclosed roomy double decked sheds that were 200 feet in length. Stock also included brick, stone, posts! and fencing. In 1909 the company expanded and equipped a grain elevator with a capacity of 15,000 bushels. The railroad laid a side track to accommodate cars for the grain and coal. The company had branches in both Kansas and Oklahoma.

     Lee Larrabee organized the Star Lumber Company in 1906 with the help of E.T. Guymon, Sr., Ezra Shorb and Link Smith. Later Mr. Larrabee bought their interest. In 1913 the company began expanding to other towns, establishing the first yard in Elkhart. Later they opened branches in Hugoton and Kismet in Kansas; Keyes and Boise City in Oklahoma; and Clayton and Santa Fe in NewMexico.

     In 1907 J.E. George, C.E. Woods and Paul W. Light organized a lumber company under the name of the J.E. George Lumber Company. A little later Mr. Light purchased the other members' interest and the company name changed to the Paul W. Light Lumber Company, which still operates [Ed. 1954]. The original company platted an addition to the city of Liberal, reserving one block for their use. The company carried a complete line of building supplies and had coal sheds in the yard to handle its business in Colorado coal. A sidetrack was laid to the yard to facilitate loading and unloading. For awhile the company expanded and included a Ford agency as a part of their business.

     In 1907 B.E. Blake came to Liberal from his stock farm which he had established in 1897 near the Oklahoma line and established a hardware business on October 7, under the name of Blake and Son. The officers were: B.E. Blake, president; A.E. Blake, vice president; A. Moore, secretary; and James McMullen, general manager, and they incorporated with a capital of $25,000. The building proper was 140 feet by 165 feet with several additional storage houses and yard space for machinery, vehicles and windmills. Inside the building was 25,000 square feet with shelf and heavy hardware of all kinds, furniture, queensware, tools, seeds, buggies, wagons, machinery, pumps, tanks and a manufacturing tin shop. There were also enclosed offices for the accountants and consulting rooms as well as a retiring room for the ladies who came shopping from the surrounding area. Blake and Son expanded to include the Blake Oil Company, which distributed all kinds of lubricating and illuminating oil. This was done with tank wagons. The undertaking department was stocked with coffins, caskets and related funeral supplies. The company kept a hearse and the personnel were qualified to act as funeral directors. The company claimed, overall, to have the most complete stock in Kansas.

     The Eureka Steam Laundry was established in 1907 by C.H. Leete. In the original twenty by thirty-six feet building one small gasoline engine powered the machinery. The laundry also had a hand-powered shirt and collar ironer and two washers. The laundry washed, dried, and finished clothes and maintained a delivery service. By 1909 it had a steam heated drying room and a steam heated mangle for the flat work. The laundry has been run by the Leete family through the years.

     The Security Elevator Company was organized in 1907 and is the oldest grain company in Liberal. It was organized by Charles Summers, Lee Larrabee, Frank and Ralph Summers when most people still doubted that this was the hard wheat section of the United States. By 1922, Hutchinson had become the headquarters of the Security Elevator Company and there were nineteen elevators in the organization with Frank Summers as the general manager.

     The Light Milling and Grain Company was organized in 1915 by C.M. Light and started with one elevator with a capacity of 15,000 bushels. In 1921 an office building was added and the elevator facilities increased to 60,000 bushels. Lights added branches in Tyrone, Hooker, Guymon and Beaver, Oklahoma, as well as Tucumcari, New Mexico. The feed plant had a capacity of 50 tons daily while the flour mill had a daily capacity of 500 barrels.

     Charles Taylor and Company had its beginnings in 1908 when Charles Taylor purchased a small drug store from Dr. Fannon at Third and Kansas. Upon the completion of the Miller Block he enlarged his stock and added a small line of musical instruments and sheet music. The music department continued to grow and he added pianos, phonographs, and radios.

     As we have seen in the past few pages, Liberal started with an early boom which was over in a few months to be followed by hard times when cash was practically non-existent. Many people became discouraged and left, some of them going back home while others tried their luck in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Those who stayed, however, achieved comfortable homes and many of them became moderately wealthy.

     The years of 1906 through 1908 seemed to set a seal of approval on the expanding economy of Liberal when many business enterprises were successfully established. Many of the businessmen were sons of the homesteaders who had the tenacity to "stick it out." Another reason, perhaps, for the growing business boom was the fact that there was little land left to be homesteader. This combined with the general good times prior to and during World War I gave these businesses a good margin for security. This business growth in Liberal was accelerated by the farming development of the Oklahoma Panhandle from 1900 to 1910. Many of the businesses starting in Liberal expanded and added branches in the surrounding area.


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.

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Address: 567 E. Cedar, Liberal, KS 67901

Phone: 620-624-7624

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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.

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