Sunday, November 14, 2010

Soule's Folly

One of the cool things about living in the old Wild West is the history associated with the area. What you see north of US50 meandering across the terrain is the remains of an old canal dubbed Soule's Folly. The dry riverbed to the south is the Arkansas River.

Asa Titus Soule, born in Duanesberg, NY on August 2, 1824, was hardly the prototypical western hero. The eleventh child of Quakers, it is believed he had no involvement in the Civil War. In fact, it wasn't until he was in his forties that he found success as a patent medicine manufacturer - the Hops Bitters Company, with its showcase products Dr. Soule's Balm Syrup and Soule's Hop Cure for Colds and Coughs.

Armed with money, he was convinced by some friends from Dodge City to invest in the area by developing it. In the 1880s the area was being touted by the government as a potential paradise, and land was cheap. Irrigation could make the area bloom. He decided to found a town - Ingalls. Emerging towns, in order to survive, really needed about any advantage they could obtain - rail service was important, plus the legitimacy conferred by becoming the county seat. Soule sought this for his new town.

The problem was Cimarron (my hometown). Founded several years earlier and fairly well established, Cimarron was determined to become the seat of Gray County. It already had a fairly established farm based economy. Plus, Cimarron won the initial census and vote count for county seat, with Montezuma coming in second and Ingalls a distant third. Enter Soule with his money. He promised Montezuma and Ensign (another town in Gray County) a railroad. Ingalls was to get a sugar mill. Dodge City was to get a college - which it did. Soule College was built on the north side of town, eventually becoming St. Mary of the Plains College. Destroyed by a tornado in the forties, it was rebuilt, and I studied pre-med on an academic scholarship there.

Plus, Soule began build a ninety mile irrigation canal starting around Ingalls and ending in Edwards County between Spearville and Kinsley. Water rights along the way would be for sale. The local population along the canal exploded.

So, on October 21, 1887, the stage was set for the election for the county seat. Was it all aboveboard and legit? Are you kidding me? Cimarron won, but probably the most egregious perfidy among the gunplay and ballot box stuffing was from a group of Foote Township (where I live, and I'll gladly entertain bids for my vote - just sayin') Equalization Society, aka The Oark (sp???) Lantern Society. Apparently 72 farmers sold their votes to a group of Cimarron businessmen for a bond worth $10,000. The bond was found to be a forgery since the businessmen all signed each others' names, so the Foote Township farmers didn't make a dime for selling out. 

Naturally, charges of fraud were brought up by Ingalls. Cimarron gained a leg up when the County Commissioners appointed a County Clerk Pro Tem, who on the order of writ from the Kansas Supreme Court obtained the county records from Dodge City and brought them to Cimarron. A temporary courthouse was established on the second floor of a building downtown. It used to be the Western Auto store when I was a kid.

On November 8, 1888 a second election was held, with both sides claiming victory. The Kansas Supreme Court determined that Ingalls had won the Sheriff and County Clerk positions, but the citizens of Cimarron refused to part with the records. Soule tired of this and hired (remember, this is the Old West) several gunmen to take the records by force. Two of the notables were Bill Tilghman and Jim Masterson (younger brother of Bat). There were other members of the notorious Dodge City Peace Commission hired as well.

On January 12, 1889, the "Ingalls" men rode into Cimarron. The pro tem clerk, threatened with his life, played for time as the records were loaded into a wagon. The "Ingalls" men found themselves surrounded by about two hundred Cimarron men. In the ensuing gun battle, some of the Ingalls men tried to hide out in the "courthouse," but were shot at through the floor from below. Many were wounded, but only one man from Cimarron was killed - a John Wesley English (I had some neighbors named English). The governor sent two companies of militia to maintain order, and Ingalls got their county seat.

A disillusioned Soule retreated to New York and his elixer business. Within a year, he was dead. His canal (which he had fortuitously sold) failed - the ground was too sandy and the water just disappeared into the ground in the first several miles. Plus, a drought hit the area, bringing water levels down and hurting the economic viability of Ingalls, who no longer had their benefactor for support. Many Ingalls residents left the area. On February 1, 1893, a special election for county seat was held, which Cimarron won. There are still hard feelings between Ingalls and Cimarron over the dispute.

A flood in 1895 destroyed some of the buildings at the head of the canal, but it filled the reservoir the canal was to obtain it's water. Some investors installed two centrifugal pumps, but once again, the canal absorbed too much water in too short a distance. A second flood in 1921 buried the pumps - one of which has been recovered and is on display in Ingalls. Also, in a battle still fought in the courts today - in 1902 the US Supreme Court ruled that the State of Colorado could use as much water from the Arkansas River as it wished. They did, and still do, leaving bupkis for Western Kansas. Can you say John Martin Reservoir? But, to be fair, continual depletion of the water table from irrigation from water wells has a lot to do with not having a river in our river.

So, Soule's everlasting monument is some mounds of dirt left only in virgin prairie - the canal has been farmed over for most of it's length. Of course, Soule Street in Dodge City is named for him, and Canal Street in Cimarron marks where the canal actually passed through town. It's pretty likely without his interference, the Gray County Seat War would have never happened.

My sources for this post were mostly from Cimarron's premier third grade teacher Elsie Wagner. Her passion was local history, and she published her book Cimarron, the Growth of a Town after she retired. She wasn't my assigned third grade teacher (not my choice at the time, I really wanted in her class), but she did teach my class history. Excerpts are available at our former John Deere dealer Pete Thomas's site - a neat destination in it's own right. Not many towns have a site like this. Also, I used information from kansapedia, the Sole Society, and the Kansas Collection. I have seen some of the old bullet holes in the old Western Auto building - the second floor was converted into an apartment where a friend lived many moons ago.

Gunfight at the OK Corral? Professional gunfighters in quick draw battles? High Noon?

Not really. But pitched battles between mostly ordinary citizens in a small downtown? Hired gunmen? It happened in my hometown, so many years ago.


Lisa Paul said...

Great slice of Western gunslingin' history. And I love the history of the West, even when it's NOT history. Here in Sonoma, the Sons of the Golden West proudly placed a plaque on one of the old hotels (dating from 1840) to note that the notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta stayed there. Except that Murrieta is -- according to most historians -- a complete fabrication. An amalgam of more than a dozen bandits who were active at the time, but nevertheless, the inspiration for Zorro. So that's akin to having a plaque in your town saying the Easter Bunny or Long John Silver or Huck Finn lived there.

Jinglebob said...

Yup, there was lots of history that few pay attention to know. They will go ahead and reinvent the wheel! Good story!

Earl said...

The Daley's hadn't gotten to ban firearms from the folks? That is the coolest story. Thanks.

Tim said...

nice history lesson dude! makes me want to go to kansas. Nice race track over in Dodge if its still running. Were you by chance on I-70 yesterday heading eastbound through Indiana or Ohio? I saw one of those tank haulers out of Kansas running through there yesterday. Nobody answered my C.B. call though. Hell I never have mine on anymore.

Jeffro said...

Tim: Tuesday I was in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska on the way home. Most of our trucks are white W9s with blue fenders - while mine is a rust 9900i. The track is now dirt.

Lisa: History and television are somewhat blurred at the Dodge City Front Street Replica, where the gang from Gunsmoke holds sway.

Unknown said...

We visited the remains of Soule's Canal this week. My Grandmother's maiden name was Soule and I had heard the story before, but to actually see it was pretty amazing. She's been gone for several years, but I've got the pictures and the story. I'm sure she's proud I followed through.