Future leaders of Allen County were given a walk through time Wednesday afternoon as part of the first Allen County Together class.
Through five classes over seven months, ACT hopes to develop a new crop of community advocates. The first step, learning about former leaders, took place at the Allen County Historical Museum.
Museum docents Ray and Donna Houser introduced 11 participants — predominantly members of Iola’s banking and business community — to the movers and shakers who established Iola and Allen County. All, Society Director Jeff Kluever said, made large “personal investments in this community.”
Early Iola leaders were businessmen and entrepreneurs with their fingers in many pies, Donna Houser told the group. And they believed in networking.
“All the people who ran things, started things, operated things, were all friends,” she said.
“Fred Horton,” she noted, “drilled the first significant gas well in Allen County. He was brought here by the Bowlus and Northrup families.”
Before such early leaders built the grand mansions and brick buildings that still make up old Iola, “This town was a bunch of wooden structures,” Ray Houser noted. “They decided to make something of this town. These people came to Iola as pioneers.”
Early leaders, Donna Houser said, saw potential in the railroads and waterways that crossed Allen County.
They brought with them memories, and marked the landscape with names from their youths.
George Bowlus, Donna Houser said, came from Piqua, Ohio, and named his new town after his old. Bowlus then started the second bank in town; Levi Northrup had the first, she said.
The Funston family moved from New Carlisle, Ohio, to found Carlyle, Kan.
Ed Funston was a political leader. His son Fred became a two-star general in the Army, the highest possible rank at that time. Serving under him were generals Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and John Pershing, Ray Houser said.
But some early leaders were either disingenuous or shortsighted, Ray Houser said.
“Cofachique promised they’d have the first grist mill, but they didn’t think the Neosho River was clean enough to drink from,” he said.
So Humboldt was built, and used the river’s plentiful waters for drinking and other needs, and quickly surpassed Cofachique in size and prosperity.
A vegetarian colony attempted in the mid 1850s promised settlers housing, gardens and mills — but didn’t deliver on any of it. Only one of its three “leaders” settled there himself. It was gone in less than a year.
The communities that prospered did so because of the conviction of leadership, Donna Houser said.
“Northrup leant money on a handshake. It’s because of him Iola prospered,” she said.
“Tom Bowlus also leant that way,” docent Amy Specht added.
“You don’t do that anymore,” Donna Houser nodded to Heather Curry, an ACT participant who works at Citizen’s Bank.
“No,” Curry agreed.
It was that early trust, though, that allowed the town to grow, Donna Houser said.
“At one point, Iola was the fastest growing community in the United States,” Ray Houser said.
That was due to the discovery of gas just after the Civil War, he noted.
“There was thought to be so much gas that it would last forever. Any business that came to town was given free gas. We had lumber mills, brick factories, an electric railway,” Ray Houser noted. “But forever turned out to be about 20 years,” then the gas dried up, he said.
Population peaked at 15,000 around 1918, he said.
Now, “Savonburg and Elsmore are really dying concerns,” Ray said. “Gas City is still a bedroom community for Iola. MIldred is thinking of unincorporating. Nobody cares anymore,” Ray Houser said.
Donna Houser touched on the role of women in leadership in Allen County
“To get to be a leader you had to be a brazen person,” she said.
The mindset worked against women, she noted.
“When I was in dental school, I was told, ‘you don’t need this education, you’re just going to get married,’” she noted.
Women “had to work against all the rules,” Donna Houser said. She called them “silent leaders.”
Blacks, too, had taken leadership roles in Allen County, Ray Houser noted.
“Spencer Ambler was the first black postmaster in Kansas,” he said. “Salis Bass was the first black doctor,” Donna Houser added. “Whites and blacks went to him. He was a very good doctor.”
His funeral, she noted, was attended by crowds of both races.
Modern day leaders can look to the challenges faced by Iola pioneers to understand the commitment necessary in growing a town, the Housers said.
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