Those familiar only with Frederick Funston’s diminutive size might be surprised by his feats. The 5-foot 4-inch Funston, namesake of two Allen County Historical Society museums, accomplished much in his abbreviated life.
The limited crowd that attended Friday night’s “Evening With the Funstons” — the latest in a series of outreach events by new Historical Society director Jeff Kluever — was treated to a thorough history of the man and his personal life.
Funston was born in New Carlisle, Ohio, but relocated at two to Carlyle, Kansas. He would always consider the Iola area his home, even after moving into the national spotlight because of his military daring.
Funston’s father, Edward, was a political man, rising to the U.S. Congress in 1884, when Fred was 19.
The Funston house, now part of the museum complex on the Iola square, was originally located about north of Iola.
Edward Funston added to the house as his family grew, expanding a two-room house to 10 over time.
Frederick Funston grew up listening to the many political discussions held in his father’s home. The family library held 600 books, Kluever noted, “Probably the largest collection in Allen County at the time.”
Funston “inherited his father’s combative personality but his mother’s petite size,” visitors were told.
In the Funston house near a bed laid with an overshot coverlet — part of his mother’s dowry — stands one of Anna Funston’s original dresses. She was even smaller than her son. A life-size bronze statue of Funston gazes at passersby in front of the Funston Museum. Kluever noted both make great rulers to measure the Funston tales by.
In contrast, Edward Funston stood 6 feet 2, and had to bend to pass through doorways in the family home. Kluever noted he built his and his wife’s bedroom with ceilings tall enough for himself, while other rooms in the house better matched the rest of the family’s more compact size.
FUNSTON BEGAN his rise to fame through his father’s contacts. He joined a United States Department of Agriculture botanical expedition to Death Valley, and succeeded in an inhospitable climate where previous ventures had led to failure or death.
From there, he was sent to the Alaskan wilderness, where he again proved resilient, withstanding elements and mishaps.
Funston wrote about his adventures for the popular press upon each return, a habit begun after a near-death experience during a climbing expedition to Colorado in the winter of 1889-90, the year before his Death Valley trip.
His next adventure was precipitated by a short stint as secretary for the Santa Fe Railroad during its bankruptcy reorganization in New York City in 1895. There, Funston strolled one day through the Cuban Fair and decided to join Cuba’s fight for freedom from Spain.
His entry into the cause allowed him a military career denied by the United States due to his size.
Although conditions were difficult, Funston rose to the rank of Lt. Col. in the Cuban army.
Granted medical leave in 1897, Funston returned to Kansas and began a speaking tour. When the United States joined the Spanish American War, Funston’s experience allowed him entry into the U.S. Army.
In 1899, he was sent as a colonel to the Philippines.
Shortly before leaving, though, he met and married Eda Blankart of San Francisco.
Blankart was a cultured woman, “well-read and musical,” he noted in a letter to Iola friends Charles and May Scott.
“She is a great Kipling girl, a stunner in looks,” three inches taller than Fred and “in politics a Presbyterian,” he told his friends. “I have not yet figured out how she came to marry me.”
He urged them to contact her immediately, for he was leaving to fight the Philippine insurgency.
In short order, Funston was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, and “in only three years, he went from private citizen to Brigadier General of the regular army,” the Funston video noted.
He was joined in the Philippines by his wife, who wrote her own story of their trip for Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Upon their return, Funston was stationed in San Francisco, where he led efforts to squelch fires after the 1906 earthquake.
Funston organized refugee camps, food distribution and established regimens of hygiene unprecedented at the time, Kluever noted.
Funston and his wife led a happy life, and he was frequently seen playing and gardening with his children at the family’s San Francisco home.
In 1914, he was sent to the Texas border region to quell unrest and occupied Vera Cruz, Mexico. He was promoted to Major General, then the highest rank in the army, Kluever said.
Funston died in Texas of a heart attack at age 51.
On display Friday evening were two flags owned by the Historical Society. One was a hand-stitched and hand-painted Philippine flag brought back by Funston; the other the American flag that draped his casket.
Both artifacts are too delicate to be on display permanently, Kluever noted, but he hopes, through more such evenings, to unveil other artifacts held by the Society that cannot be regularly displayed.
In doing so, Kluever hopes to combat the two complaints he hears most often: that the museums are not open enough and that the displays do not change rapidly enough.
On tap for the summer are a walking tour of the Iola square highlighting buildings bombed by Charlie Melvin and a late July display on community baseball in Allen County.
“We have a lot more than George Sweatt and Walter Johnson,” Kluever noted, letting on that “Mickey Mantle played on the field at Riverside Park when he played for a team in Joplin.”
“I’m the only employee, but I’m trying to do more,” Kluever said of his efforts.