Voices of the Past & Present

Myra (McDermott) Stevenson "Early Days in Liberal"

     The early memories of Myra (McDermott) Stevenson (1874-1956), daughter of T J McDermott who ran the Grier House at the Rock Island Depot, were published as a series of articles in the Southwest Tribune in October and November 1936. The text is unedited with the exception of headings inserted for ease of reference.


     I came to Liberal in the early summer of 1888. The "boom" was over and people were leaving by every train, but the "false front'' business houses and the corner stakes reaching into the surrounding country bore witness to the wild dreams and hopes of the men who laid out the ''metropolis of the southwest." My father. T.J. McDermott, who had followed the track layers into town in a Rock Island boarding train and had fed the vast crowds of people who came and went, had bought heavily of real estate and even then knew he had invested "not wisely but too wel1.'' However, as he stayed there for 30 years and went through other booms, of much less magnitude, and depressions, he was able gradually to turn some of his property into things of value to him, as he was a natural born trader of the old type. So many people had come in and taken claims and then abandoned them, that there were many chances to deal in real estate at very low figures. Later my father bought many quarters of land on tax title deeds, and gradually acquired a large amount of land quite near town. I particularly remember one quarter that he bought for $55.00, a tax title deed, and held onto it for years and finally sold it for $9,000.00 -- probably more than it would bring now, although it now joins the town.

     People came and went. Farmers tried out the virgin soil for wheat, feed crops, etc. with varying success. An occasional year of seasonal rains and resultant good crops would bring an influx of new people, then a year or two of drought would send most of them scurrying back as is usual in all new countries. As is also true everywhere, there were a few persistent men and women who came and stayed through good years and bad and most of these finally won out to the extent of reaching the point of at least making a modest living. These were the men and women who became the real foundation of the community, who by their steadfastness and courage made the present day possible. These were the real pioneers, whether they were farmers, merchants or laborers along different lines.

      The first store in Liberal was a grocery store, the beginning of the big Star Grocery Company that played such an important part in the early day development of the town and country, and it was run by Ed Guymon and was in a big tent. This store and the big plank dining room the Rock Island built near our boarding train in which to feed the hungry hordes who came flocking to Liberal in those early months, were the first places of business in Liberal. A little later the Rock Island built the big and impressive -- in those days -- ''depot hotel'' and railroad station combined and this hotel was opened and run by a man named Omer. By this time however, the boom was so deflated that the hotel was closed and the furniture moved away. About a year later my father arranged with the Rock Island Company to take the hotel over and we furnished ten bedrooms and opened up the hotel as a chance venture, which turned out very well in later years and was run continuously by our family for seventeen years.

     The hotel was a dream of elegance for those days, with an immense dining room, kitchen, pantry, office, old fashioned parlor downstairs and 21 large bedrooms upstairs. The waiting room, adjoining the dining room and the same size, the agents office and family living rooms, were in the other end of the lower floor. Of course the hotel faced the tracks, but back of it was the Rock Island park, over half a block in extent and carefully fenced and set to trees. The town faced this park and a wide walk with a turn stile at each end made a pleasant interlude between the smoky railroad yards and the dusty and rather barren looking town.

     Seward County was one that settled the county seat question with very little serious trouble. Of course there was some sounded bitterness, and at times threats that sounded bad, but nothing came of all this, and Liberal became the county seat after about a year of work along that line. The situation was this: Springfield, having been located ahead of the railroad, and on what was supposed to be the line, was in the central part of the county, and had the county seat. Liberal, on the railroad and wanting the county seat, and Arkalon, thirteen mites east of Liberal, and on the railroad, but a very small town, was neutral. Liberal businessmen made the offer that if Arkalon would vote with Liberal and the case was won, the Liberal men would move the town of Arkalon to Liberal and support the business of these merchants and tradesmen.

     After the election they kept their word, moving about fifteen or twenty houses to Liberal, and placing the residences all in one block, what was known for years as "Arkalon Row." Judge Etzold was probably one of the original group. The few business houses were either moved over or the owners were given locations of about the same value in Liberal. The Arkalon News, owned and edited by our old friend, Abe Stoufer, was one of the most important and welcome business enterprises brought over, and as we had the Liberal Lyre at that time, we folded our wings and faded away, and let Mr. Stoufer have the field, and that was much to the interest of Liberal, for he was a real editor and we knew practically nothing of the business. Most of you know how many years he served the people of Liberal and vicinity with this very excellent paper, known as the Liberal News.

     It was in January of the year following the vote to move the county seat to Liberal that a party of 21 men and two women, two hay racks with four mules to each one, several buggies, surreys and a wagon or two, and a few arms, just in case of need, left Liberal early one cold morning and drove to Springfield to move the records, safes, etc. to the new location. This was a secret move of course, as Springfield had never acknowledged that Liberal had been awarded the county seat, and there being no telephone, there was no warning of the arrival of the party until we were in town. I forgot to say that I was one of the two women, and will not soon forget the quiet animosity that greeted us when they knew what we were after. No thought had been given to taking the proper tools for loading the heavy safes, no boxes for the packing of papers, etc., and we found it absolutely impossible to buy, at any price, even a paper box for this purpose.

     Word was sent out by the Springfield people, to their friends, and as the afternoon came along the town became filled with these men, and it looked rather threatening, but no open outburst took place. There were two women, or girls, from Liberal, holding down deputy offices in the courthouse, and these, with myself and the other woman had gone up from Liberal, were loaded into one of the surreys and sent out of town towards home about an hour ahead of the wagon train and its guards.

     We drove over the snow covered roads in the failing light of the winter's afternoon, crossed the Cimarron valley and drove up on the other side to where we could be sheltered from the wind and cold and waited there until we counted thirteen ''rigs'' come down the road and into the valley. Then we drove like mad to Liberal to bring the word to anxious wives and children that the trouble was over and the records on their way home.

     My memory of that day is very clear, and I have always had, and had even then, a kind of sympathy for those people in losing what they had worked so hard to win. Many of you will remember what a good looking town Springfield was, with its well laid out courthouse square, its water plant with ornamental hydrants at each corner, the well put up hitching racks surrounding the square and some work had been done on the landscaping of the square itself. Those people had faith in their town, and such loyalty to it, and when, a few years later, we drove through it and saw nothing but the rusted hydrants sticking up in the middle of a wheat field it seemed to me almost like viewing the grave of some brave soul who guessed wrong but had backed up his judgment with all his heart and soul. "Arkalon Row'' became one of our best residence districts and its fine people, were assimilated and were soon among our most public spirited citizens. I often wonder if just such a move was ever made elsewhere.

     While Springfield was still holding together as a town, with a forlorn hope of some miracle making it possible for it to remain a town, although so many had been forced to move away, my father bought, from some mortgage company, the entire furnishings of the small two story hotel up there, as we needed the furniture to finish the opening of the rest of the rooms in the hotel at Liberal, and I happened to go up with him the day he went for those things. The hotel had been closed for months and no one could ever hope to see it opened up again, but the real grief of those people was such as to touch your hearts, at the taking away of the furniture, and my father was so impressed with it that he offered to leave the things if they could pay him just what he had paid for them, only a matter of a few hundred dollars. I can see them working yet, men racing madly back and forth trying to raise this amount, from people already taking a big loss on their property there, and finally they said they could not quite raise the money, so the word was given to begin loading the furniture. One bed was carried down and put on the hay racks, and in less than ten minutes the rest of the money was raised and we went home empty handed. The furniture of that hotel lay there and went to rack and ruin or was carted away before the hotel was torn down, and it was a total loss to the people who had so bravely given of their little to save it for the town. One cannot but admire a spirit like that, even though one may doubt the wisdom of their judgment. That was the kind of people who made the southwest what it is today, and I salute them, even now. Valiant spirits they were!




     One of my earliest memories of that first year is of the big prairie fire that so nearly took the town. As I remember, it started late in the afternoon and came nearer and nearer from the north and east. Every able bodied man in town was out with wet sacks and they hitched every available horse and mule to plows and ran them in plowing fire guards, two rows of plowing with a backfire between. At the last the railroad men got out the one lone engine and hitched to the one baggage and passenger coach combined, with several flat cars between ready to take the people out of danger, and many persons came to the station with big bundles and bags ready to get on the train, but just as all seemed hopeless the wind changed, a light rain came up, and the town was saved.

     I shall never forget the haggard dirty faces and tired dragging steps of those valiant fire fighters as they came back to the little homes they had so bravely worked to save.

     Those were strenuous days, and the very hardships and dangers knit us all together into a loyalty and friendship I have not known since.

     And yet we had the best times! We were like one big family and as we had to use our own ideas for entertainment, we had a lot of unusual and unique forms of diversion. There were no automobiles to go driving in, no picture shows, not even an ice cream parlor, no parks for easily planned picnics, but that did not keep us from getting up picnics, parties, dances, ice cream socials, etc., and having glorious times from our own efforts.  

     My father, who was very public spirited, felt that the town needed a band, and there were a few people who had a little musical talent among us, but there were no instruments nor any possible way of buying them, so my father, a born trader as I had said, conceived the brilliant idea of trading a quarter of land for a set of band instruments, and I, as his emissary, was practically forced to write the letters making this offer. I can remember yet how foolish I thought the idea, and how embarrassed I felt over writing big firms like Conn and Company and many others, but I was loyal and wrote them every time we could find a new firm listed. Many did not answer at all and those who did were very firm in refusing and would not even investigate nor discuss the matter. Knowing how that land advanced in value within a few years and that my father would have given them their choice of many quarters and would have taken any kind of a set of instruments in return, for he knew nothing whatever about them, I feel quite sure that they made a bad bet, but his idea did not bear fruit and Liberal did not have a band for a good many years afterwards.

     The first telephone in that part of the country was a party line put up by my father and G.C. "Cort" Brown and "Doc" Smith, Dr. George S. Smith. There were five stations on the line, our hotel, Dr. Smith's and Brown's residences, the Smith Drug Store, the I.B. Ranch, owned and operated at that time by Cort Brown. It was a primitive affair with bell signals for each station, but it worked, and was not only a novelty for all our friends but a great convenience as well. No Zeppelin could now attract the attention that the simple telephone line did in the old days.  

     I shall not soon forget the day our good friend, "Boss" Neff, came into the hotel and asked if it were really true that one could talk to the I.B. Ranch and actually hear their voices. He was plainly doubtful about the whole thing so my father called up the ranch -- three long and two short rings, I think it was -- and when he   heard Cort Brown at the phone, he handed the receiver to Boss and told him to talk into the transmitter and see what happened. Well, I am almost sure that if Boss had gone out on the platform and talked in the same way that they could have heard him at the I.B., for he had a voice of great volume and he used it all, but he was convinced that the thing would work, and when, in later years he was president of the bank, a telephone company, and other big undertakings, I am sure he often smiled over his first telephone conversation, for Boss had a keen sense of humor and enjoyed a good joke though it was on himself.

     Our first school in Liberal was held in a deserted business building, facing north on what is now, I think, Third Street. We were very fortunate in having a good teacher and while the equipment was crude, and the classes and courses of study, not well standardized, we learned a lot and made a fair showing from the first. “Professor'' C.E. Locke was one of our first teachers and was hard to beat. Later we had a "Professor" Beeeson who was also good. They were all ''Professors'' in those days! Within a few years the big brick school building was built up in the northwest part of town. Even now I cannot see why they put it so far out, as there were many vacant blocks closer in going for taxes, but those early day citizens never lost their vision of a big city and planned accordingly.




     Liberal's trade territory, although we had never heard the expression in those days, took in all the country south and west for a distance of 75 to 90 miles. Most of the ranches in that territory had been established before the building of the railroad when all supplies had beer freighted from Dodge City, so the coming of the railroad meant a great deal to these men.

     Of course the one big enterprise at Liberal, the thing that made it possible for the town to live through the hard years, was the shipping of cattle, and all the attendant business that this created.

     While Liberal was called the end of the railroad, the track actually extended for seven miles southwest, to just across the state line, about where the old Al Blake place was located, and where the big shipping pens were boil and all loading of cattle was done at this point. Fifteen miles southwest the Rock Island drilled a deep well and built big watering tanks, thus establishing a holding station for cattle while waiting for cars.

     There being no water at the loading pens this was necessary. This place was called "Shaede's Well," being named for J.U. Shade, at that time the Rock Island livestock agent. The name was later shortened to "Shade" and there was a star route post office there also later on. Our good friend and pioneer, "Zack" Cain,   lived there for a number of years and made the place an oasis in the desert of lonely prairie, that was as a camping ground for the many weary travelers, to say nothing of the many ''cow outfits" that held cattle there. I remember being down there once when nine thousand head of cattle were being held for shipment, This meant herds from many ranches, of course, and each bunch had to be kept separate, requiring many cowboys. There were cattle in every direction and you could hardly see the prairie for a long distance around the well. Each outfit had its own ''chuck wagon'' and cook, and when the call ''chuck-a-way'' came, what joy it was to gather round that campfire and fill up on ''sour doughs'' and beans and whatever else the Gods provided that day. Of course with several big outfits in camp at Shade, some of the men were always in town, and those were the busy days in Liberal. Often the ranch families would come along driving up to Liberal in the old fashioned surreys we used then, and spend a few days or a week at the hotel and how we all enjoyed them! 

     Cattle shipping was mostly in the fall and the heaviest days were Sundays, when most of Liberal would drive or ride down and watch the cattle being loaded. These were gala days, and we didn't even miss the hot dog and pop stands we didn't even think of having.   People walked and rode around from one carriage or group to another, visiting with old friends and meeting new ones. The younger people climbed up on the high fences around the pens and watched the actual loading,   and did the cowboys do their stuff then! Many a romance started there and ended happily in ranch homes that are still part of the big ranch country south and west.

     The freighting of goods to these ranches was a wonderful undertaking In itself and helped to keep business alive at Liberal during the long idle seasons between cattle shipping and other activities that develop- ed later. Six or eight horses or mules hitched to two or three wagons with double side boards and each outfit equipped with a chuck box on the rear wagon and tarps to cover the goods in case of rain or snow, would drive into Liberal after a two or three days trip, stay several days for loading, leaving Liberal at dawn or earlier and after taking several days driving with heavy loads, would reach home, camping at night, or staying with friends if any were on the way. During the summer these trips were made by the men, often accompanied by their families, but during the winter months, when storms and blizzards threatened the cattle, for no one had fences in those days, and cattle would ''drift'' with the storm out of the country, the ranch women often did the freighting leaving all the men to care for the cattle. Usually women from two ranches would come together, or at least drive their wagons in company, camping together at night if it were not possible to reach a ranch where they could stay over night and have a good visit with friends, for we were all neighbors then, and no ranch was too small to care for friends going through the country.

     My father was so interested in all this and his high regard for these brave women who did this hard driving during the winter months caused him to make a rule that they were never charged for their accumulations at our hotel, and he enjoyed their visits as much as anyone and always tried to see that particular things they did not have at home at that season were on the table while they were in. My mother enjoyed these visits as much as he did, and they usually took a trip through the ranch country some time during the summer and how they were entertained in return for these favors. Although the welcome would have been as hearty if there had been no thought of obligations I am sure. Our cowboy guests in those days came and went mostly at night and often came in after all had retired and as we always wrote on the register what rooms were vacant they would find themselves a bed and often left before dawn, so after trying vainly for several years to keep their accounts, we gave it up and they would come in about twice a year and pay us what they owed, and as they always owed us more than we had listed it worked very well.

     My time was spent mostly in the hotel office and I can surely give those men of the early days a splendid reputation as to the language they used in my presence. Only once during those years did one of them ''forget'' and let out a string of oaths that almost seared the walls, and as it was in the evening when the office was filled with men and I was, as usual, at the desk back of the counter. I would hardly have noticed the swearing if it had not been for the perfect quiet that suddenly settled in that room, for instantly the laughter and talk stopped as though it had been cut off, and in the intense quiet of that moment I heard the click of high heels on the floor as this man, instantly sober from his shock at what he had done, walked up to the counter and in a loud voice, apologized to me, much to my embarrassment. In another moment the talk and laughter had swept over the room.

     As to the industries of the early days I wonder how many remember the two that came and went almost before the town was settled, the sugar mill and the watermelon seed industry. I think the sugar mill came first, and from what I remember, it was some kind of a graft worked by men from the east. Anyway, the farmers were asked to buy stock in the enterprise and also signed up to raise so much "sorghum," which they did, and the big mill was built a mile east of town on the north side of the tracks, and the railroad company put in a sidetrack or two and by fall it made quite a showing. The farmers delivered the cane, the mill set to work and after some time a little very crude sugar was run off and evenings found most of Liberal out there, seeing the big new enterprise that was to put Liberal on the map. For some reason the mill did not open again, and the farmers lost what they put into it. The building soon was torn down and hauled away, and even the side track was taken up.

     The watermelon seed project was more successful, and I do not remember why it was discontinued, but it was probably because the next year was a bad one with no rain. Some big seed company, and I think it was the D.M. Ferry Company, sent out men who contracted with the farmers around town and they plowed the sod land, planted the seed furnished by this company, and in the fall delivered the melons to the big thresher where the seeds were extracted. There were many hundreds of acres of land planted to melons and after the first frost in the fall, it was an amazing sight to see the acres of land apparently covered with melons almost touching each other, for the vines faded out of the picture and the melons were so large and fine looking, that they seemed to cover the ground. Farmers hauled the melons to the thresher, a rather crude affair that did the work well, in wagons with side boards on, and they were shoveled into the maw of the machine with big shovels. The machine ground them up and so handled them that the seeds alone came out of one side and the rinds the other while the sticky, sweet juice ran over everything and everybody and the flies made life almost unbearable for everyone concerned. People came for many miles to see this unusual machine working and all visitors were given all the melons they could eat, and they also allowed people who lived around there to carry them away if they would bring back the seeds. There was only one thresher and from it two carloads of seeds were shipped east that fall. We took everyone who came to the hotel from the east out to see the machine work and their wonder was great. The sod land produced the finest melons ever seen and the flavor was something to dream about. The thresher was located southwest of town, not far from the Al Blake farm, and it may have been on that place.

     As Liberal grew a little larger, after the first deflation, an interesting development was the traveling doctors, opticians, preachers, and many other kind of professional men and tradesmen who came to town and catered to the people there. I remember that it was a long time before we had a dentist there and about twice a year one would come and stay a few days or a week, and of course always stayed at our hotel and as they would send word ahead and people so needed the service they would usually be swamped with work. As they were good customers, usually having a bedroom and an office while there, we were expected to trade some of the bill out and I can remember having teeth filled and many things done in the dental line that I did not need, in this way. Our good friend and later our neighbor, the late Dr. O.H. Simpson, who was one of these men and his visits were always looked forward to, as much for the pleasure we got from his visit as from his professional ability. He was just out of dental college then and gave us the best of the times. The preachers who came and held meetings were men of courage and much ability, and as we never charged them for accommodations, they were frequent visitors.

     Among other lines of traveling artisans and artists, all the old timers will, I am sure, remember George Beardsly and his mother, who came and stayed for a month the first time and returned several times later. George was an artist, although I cannot say now how good he was, for none of us were good judges, but he taught painting and used the big ''parlor'' at the hotel for his classes, and as they required two rooms I had to take a lot of lessons from him and think I ''did'' probably a dozen or more so called paintings, that I am sure deserved ''hanging'' but probably hardly rated frames. I can remember that when he was through and gone I had so many tubes of paint left, that my father suggested that I mix them all and paint the fence around the park. I didn't do this, but I can claim truthfully that I have never desecrated the profession of painting since then, I am sure you could find a good many Beardsly paintings in Liberal yet.

     I have not mentioned the newspapers, and they deserve a chapter to themselves, but I do know that Dr. Nichols who was one of the early day doctors there, and man of great genius, started the first paper, the Liberal Lyre, and this paper filled a long felt want and was much read and used by all of us in those days. However, Dr. Nichols was too busy to spend any time on a paper, so within a year my father traded him something, I can't remember what it was, for the paper and I took this over with as much enthusiasm as though I had known something about it, which I didn't, but some way we got by and the paper lasted until the Arkalon News edited by our old friend and neighbor, Abe Stoufer, moved to Liberal and absorbed The Lyre.

     This brings us to the moving of the town of Arkalon to Liberal, and will have to be told in a later story. As to doctors, the need was great and Dr. Nichols was nearly worked to exhaustion trying to take care of the needs of this far scattered territory. I cannot remember in just what order our later doctors came, but I know Dr. Sutherland was one of them, but I shall not soon forget when someone came in and said, ''What do you think? George Smith is home with a handle to his name! He is actually calling himself a doctor!'' and while we may have been a little doubtful about him then, we soon knew that he was a real doctor and many can bear witness to his skill and patience and courage from that time on. The pioneers were not all farmers! I have seen Dr, Nichols come in from a sixty mile drive in a buggy, with the temperature below zero, so worn out that he would fall asleep at the table, for his family did not come for some time after he started to practice there, and he had his office in our hotel. He wore out about two teams a year, for while he gave them good care when not in use, they had to make all the time possible when needed.

     This brings to mind the hiring of a doctor down on the Palo-Dure by some ranch men there after one of the children of a prominent rancher so nearly died from an accident while waiting for a man to ride to Liberal 75 miles and the doctor to get back there and take care of him. There were five or six men living down there who counted their cattle by the thousands, if they ever knew how many they had, and money was worth less to them than service for their families, so when young Dr. Langston came down that way to visit relatives, these men offered him a contract to stay and look after the people of that community paying him a stated amount for   his care of the five families and allowing him to practice all he could on the side. This arrangement meant safety to the entire community and many people were grateful for this service, and Dr. Langston soon became one of the most beloved men down that way, and as the country filled up and the road extended, he moved to Guymon and was one of the leading doctors and citizens of that town for many years and his recent death was a grief to many old timers.


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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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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