Thursday, August 10, 2017

Pratt County Seat Dispute

Early photograph of Pratt Businesses
Gaining the county seat in the westward expansion was extremely important to developing communities.  Often the seed for a town was not much more than a school.  Gradually a nearby home might be designated the community post office, a church might be built, and a few businesses might establish themselves there.  Rather than towns being far apart, there were many of these tiny settlements, almost all of which have now disappeared without a trace remaining today.  Even some of the larger towns have failed to thrive as automobiles and highways allow residents in the surrounding area to travel elsewhere for their shopping.  But for about one hundred years, being the county seat meant the likelihood that the town would prosper.  Naturally, people were willing to fight for that designation, sometimes with marketing, sometimes with trickery, and sometimes with guns.

Pratt County engaged in a bit of all three.  Here is a very brief summary of that history, starting with the designation of the area as a county.  A certain number of residents were necessary, and it is suggested that Pratt County may have counted its population a little generously.

Early photograph of Iuka Businesses
The governor came to investigate, and if it was a legitimate county to determine between Iuka and Saratoga which settlement should be the County Seat.  Clever Iuka promoters met the governor's train with a brass band (so the story goes) and escorted him to their community where he was entertained so 'graciously' that he never made it to Saratoga.

Naturally, Saratoga was not happy.  They contested the temporary designation of Iuka, but when irregularities were found among the necessary signatures, it was decided not to disturb the status quo while the irregularities were investigated.  Iuka retained its title.

Stone in the neglected Saratoga Cemetery 
Iuka's claim was based largely on being the center of the county; however, a legislative attempt to erase Stafford from the map of counties by giving parts of it away to its neighboring counties was defeated, at least partly because two townships had been overlooked in the giveaway.  That allowed Stafford County to survive and demand that its original boundaries be returned.  Once that happened, the reach of Pratt County was reduced, and Iuka was no longer at the center of the county.

A group of businessmen decided to form an investment company to establish a new town called Pratt Center.  Their citizen count involved the same sort of exaggerated numbers that the county itself had used to be recognized.  For a time the accusation was that for Pratt Center to have enough residents to be recognized as a town they must have counted the prairie dogs, which earned it the nickname of Dog City.

Nevertheless, the battle for the county seat now involved three communities.  Perhaps because the investment company used smarter legal tactics than the settlers in the other two communities, Pratt Center was named as the county seat and remains so today.  The small community of Iuka remains, but Saratoga has disappeared.

During those years of disputing claims to the county seat, there was certainly significant marketing, a serious amount of chicanery, and even a bit of gun fire (although most of it was probably aimed into the air rather than at each other).  Once Pratt Center gained the prize it wasn't long before the citizens voted to drop Center from the name of the town.  Today Pratt remains a thriving small city, with museums, a community college, proud citizens, and not a prairie dog to be found!

More stories about these early communities may be found in the blog archives.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.

(Notice the deceased woman's name on the old grave stone.  Many of these stones may be found in old cemeteries on which neither the woman's given name nor maiden name appears, but rather, the name of the husband at the time of her death is inscribed.  This often makes researching maternal family lines almost impossible.  Even if the given name appears, the maternal family line may still be difficult to ascertain.)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Story of Mary

Mary Elizabeth Lease, Wichita Library Lawn
Rudyard Kipling wrote, If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.  I love that quote!  Although I never put it so simply, it is exactly what I am trying to do in telling the story of Isaac B. Werner, his community, and the populist movement of the late 1800s.  The story about the populist movement, in which working class people--farmers, factory workers, miners, ranchers--came together politically to confront what they saw as excessive political influence by the wealthy men of the Gilded Age, is a great drama which most of us today know little about.  Isaac recorded in his journal a first hand account of the movement and the many leaders he heard speak, and one of those influential Populist speakers was Kansan, Mary Elizabeth Lease.  Let me tell you her story!

Mary Elizabeth Lease came to Kansas to teach in the Osage Mission, met and married a successful man, and enjoyed a comfortable life until the economic depression of 1874.  They moved to Texas and started over, from scratch, and it was there that she became involved in the Women's Christian Temperance Union.  Her organizing and speaking activities for the WCTU led to her involvement in women's rights, declaring, "There is no difference between the mind of a smart man and that of a smart woman."

Plaque, Wichita Library Lawn
They returned to Kansas, first living in Kingman, where she published articles in the local paper and studied law at home, juggling all of this with responsibilities as wife and mother.  They moved to Wichita, where she supplemented her legal studies reading law with a local attorney, and she was admitted to the Bar.  Her political involvement began with the Union Labor Party, but as the non-political Farmers' Alliance morphed into the People's Party she, like most other populists in Kansas, shifted her allegiance to that party. She became a paid speaker and a newspaper editor, always focusing on Prohibition, women's suffrage, and economic reforms.  In 1890, when the Populists challenged Republican US Senator Ingalls, Mrs. Lease traveled Kansas in support of William A. Peffer, giving 160 speeches on his behalf during the campaign season.  Following Peffer's victory, Mrs. Lease was often called, "the woman who beat Senator Ingalls."  At a time when women did not have the vote, she made a difference.

She was one of the most effective Populist orators and strategists, but she was provocative and intolerant of being marginalized by leaders who either disagreed with her or were disinclined to regard a woman with full respect.  Her place in the populist movement declined with the decline of the movement itself, and she is too little remembered and respected in history.

Mary Elizabeth Lease
Isaac B. Werner was among her strongest supporters, and he traveled to hear her speak, was published in her newspaper, and corresponded with her regularly.  It was through his journal entries that I first became acquainted with Mary Elizabeth Lease, and finding research about her was challenging.  You can imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that a larger-than-life bronze statue of Mrs. Lease stands on the lawn between the Wichita Public Library and Century II!  She was a strikingly beautiful woman, nearly six feet tall and quite slender for a woman of her times who had borne five children.  She could hold the attention of a crowd for three hours, modulating her voice from a whisper to a challenging call to arms.

Remember her story!  Mary Elizabeth Lease made a difference, not only to the Populist Movement in Kansas but also to all of us today who take for granted many of the Populist ideas that have become a part of our nation.


(You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.)