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By LARRY PHILLIPS
A community is often judged by its overall amenities: schools, churches, shopping, entertainment, employment opportunities and so forth. It can also be influenced by the caliber of personalities that have developed its character since its founding – its pioneering spirit, if you will.
While the railroad didn’t come to Liberal until 1888, its character was started some years earlier when a farmer by the name of Seymour Rogers hand dug a water well down to 88 feet approximately 3 miles west of where the railroad tracks ended in Liberal (at today’s site of the Depot).
The well was dug prior to Liberal getting a post office (at Rogers’ place) in June of 1886. He claimed on his homestead proof, dated Junes 8, 1885, the well was part of his assests.
After Rogers had created a shaft of about 3-feet in diameter, he apparently had help from someone above who assisted in removing dirt one-painstaking bucket at a time until he finally hit water.
History doesn’t record how long this man took to dig down 88 feet, but most would agree it had to be a tiresome, if not daunting, effort.
It is documented that families living south and west of where Liberal is today, would make weekly trips in wagons to Fargo Springs some 16 miles north of Liberal to fetch fresh water in barrels before Rogers dug his well.
Therein lies the irony – after all that hard work, Rogers decided he would allow area folks and travelers free access to his water rather than charge money for it.
Thus the phrase, “That’s mighty liberal of ya neighbor” gave birth to the town’s name.
As Southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, known as “No Man’s Land,” was being settled in the late 1800s, several of those families that put down roots still have progeny in the area. There are the Hitch’s, the Fitzgeralds, the Lights, the Larrabees, the Keatings, the Davies, the Smiths, the Lemmerts – and more – including a Civil War veteran who came west at a fairly old age to settle in Stevens County in 1887 – Thomas T. Boles the second.
“My great-grandfather, Tom T. Boles, was born in Salem, Ind., in 1824,” Liberal’s rancher E. Paul Boles said recently. “And at the age of 38, he decided to enter the Civil War fighting for the Union Army.”
Thomas T. Boles fought in the Illinois Volunteer Militia, 123rd Infantry. One of his early commanders was replaced by a Union Army captain by the name of Grant in order to mold the unit into shape.
“That was Capt. Ulysses S. Grant,” Paul explained.
Thomas T. fought in 30 battles in the war and never got a scratch, according to his great-grandson.
Two of Thomas T.’s sons, Charlie and Will, had moved to Stevens county in 1880 and owned a dray service (hauling goods in a heavy dray wagon) between the Santa Fe Railroad line in Lakin and Voorhees, a settlement about 18 miles west of Liberal in what is now Stevens County. (In 1883, Seward County ranged from the Colorado border and into part of Meade County. Morton and Stevens counties were not established until Feb. 20, 1886). Another son of Thomas T.’s, John Boles, also had moved to Stevens County.
“Then those sons talked (Thomas T.) into moving out here,” Paul said. “Can you imagine picking up when you’re 68 years old and starting anew out in western Kansas?”
Thomas T. arrived in Stevens County in 1887 with two more children in tow; his youngest son, 16-year-old Ed. T. Boles, Paul’s grandfather, and his 8-year-old grandson, Frank Boles (Frank’s father, Thomas T., the third, stayed back east). Frank is the father of Liberal’s Tom Boles, the fourth.
Thomas T. got into local politics and civic life quickly and became Stevens County Treasurer in 1890 – as well as participating in numerous other civic and government groups.
By this time, Ed T.’s older brother, John, had moved into Seward County about 5 miles west of Liberal off Second Street Road.
Ed T. had become a prosperous farmer in Stevens County by raising watermelons, not necessarily for the fruit, but for the seeds. According to the book Kansas And Kansans, Ed T. “shipped his seed to a number of the well known seed houses of the East, and seed grown on the Boles farm were planted in probably every state east of the Mississippi.”
Ed T. got married in 1892.
“He also had a place about 16 miles west of town,” Paul said.
Ed T. and his wife, Katie, produced five children; Clarence, Lloyd, Eva L., Ernest P. and Chester A.
“Ernest P. was my father,” Paul said. “He went to school here and graduated from Liberal High School in 1920.
“The high school then was down on the corner where Washington School is now,” he added.
Ed T. died at age 52 in the Morrow Hospital in Liberal.
“It used to be where the Bank of America is now,” Paul said. “There were actually two hospitals – there was Dr. Morrow’s hospital and the Liberal Hospital. Then in 1925, the Methodists bought the Liberal Hospital and changed it to Epworth Hospital – that’s where I was born.”
Ernest maintained his father’s farm and ranch property west of Liberal, where Paul remembers working during the summers as a boy. Ernest then bought a little ranch up north in 1951, the place Paul and his wife, Patsy, live to this day.
But Ernest wasn’t solely a farmer and rancher. He also got into other businesses.
He and his brother, Chester, started the Boles Brothers Implement Co. in 1931 just south of the railroad tracks on the west side of Kansas Avenue. The same building houses a billiards hall today.
The brothers were suppliers of Oliver Equipment, and Chester moved to Dodge City in 1934 and started another Oliver distributorship.
Running a dairy was also a part of Ernest’s endeavors.
“That dairy was up there around Applebees – he farmed that quarter section,” Paul said. “In fact, my sister JoAnne (now Mrs. Bill Fitzgerald) was born almost exactly where Applebees sits. The house sat behind there where those office buildings are.
“He delivered milk for 10-cents a quart in a bottle – and cream,” Paul added.
From 1940 until 1954, Ernest also had a Firestone store located where the parking lot is next to Liberal’s City Hall.
Ernest was also elected to the Kansas Sate Legislature and was the district’s Representative for 8 years.
As Paul’s family had farmed and raised cattle since 1890 in Seward County (even earlier counting time in Stevens County), it was a natural for Paul to go into the cattle business.
While attending Friends University in Wichita, Paul met his soul mate, Patsy, a girl from Sedgwick County also attending Friends, and the two were married in 1954.
“We moved up there (the north ranch) in 1954, and I’ve accumulated a little bit more and a little bit more, and now our daughter lives on the place just west of us,” Paul said, adding their other child, Ernest, lives in Germany and has lived in Europe for about 20 years.
Some common threads for Liberal’s founders, and those who carved a living out of the inhospitable country of Southwest Kansas were: hard work, dedication against tremendous odds, civic duty and a certain charity for all.
“That’s mighty liberal of ya neighbor” isn’t just a saying, it’s been a way of life for 130 years on the High Plains.
It’s not only a tradition, it’s part of Liberal’s character.