ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
By Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the August 2007 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
A Healthy Business
Asa Titus Soule was born in Duanesburg, NY on 2 August 1824 and lived through some of the most turbulent years in American history. As well as the political differences between the northern Union and the southern Confederacy culminating in the Civil War, still the largest loss of American lives in any conflict, there was also the contrast between the east and west of the emergent nation, one developed, civilised and law-abiding, the other undeveloped, untamed and lawless.
Asa Soule was the eleventh child of a Quaker family and given his beliefs it is unlikely he played an active part in the Civil War. He tried his hand at farming, fruit growing, banking and hotel management, but it was only when he was well into his forties that he decided to buy a patent medicine business, Doyles Bitters, in New York. Asa changed the formula and rebranded the products, having some initial success with Dr Soule’s Balm Syrup and Soule’s Hop Cure for Colds and Coughs. In 1873 he moved the plant to Rochester NY where it became the Hop Bitters Company.
Asa Soule had a real talent for marketing, composing all his own advertising slogans and making outrageous claims for his mixture of bitters, hops and alcohol:
Realising that baseball was growing in popularity, he bought a baseball club, and in a very early example of sports sponsorship he renamed the team Rochester Hop Bitters and the sports ground Hop Bitters Park. He even made sure that the players were given a dose of his elixir before every game but the substance appears not to have been performance-enhancing! The team finished bottom of the league and was eventually expelled.
Another of his remedies, Soule’s Panacea, had been selling well in the Rochester area but began to lose out to a rival product, Warner’s Sake Kidney and Liver Cure. Warner had gained a lot of publicity by sponsoring the local observatory but Soule’s attempt to upstage him by offering to fund the University of Rochester was turned down. Frustrated by this rejection and the difficulty of buying more influence in the established towns and cities of the east, Asa decided to use his vast wealth to start his own town and exploit the opportunities presented by the new lands in the west.
Way Out West
Kansas had been shown on old maps as the Great American Desert, but by the 1880s it was being touted as a one of the best prospects for settlement and investment in the United States. The government was selling land in west Kansas very cheaply and Asa saw his opportunity.
Now reputedly the richest man in western Kansa, he used his wealth to establish the town of Ingalls and competed with other towns in the area for new investors and more settlers. It was common for these new communities to exaggerate their town’s qualities over their rivals, citing such factors as soil quality, proximity to water and to the new railroad. Asa Soule, however, was prepared to use his vast wealth to add substance to Ingalls’ claims.
In 1882, Asa purchased the nearby Dodge City waterworks and founded the Eureka Irrigating Canal Company with the intention of diverting the Arkansas River into a 96-mile canal through Gray and Ford Counties. The canal took two years to complete but the erratic flow of the Arkansas River often failed to fill it, and what water there was seeped away through the porous sandy soil. Fortunately for Asa, he managed to recover his investment by selling bonds to a group of English investors. The canal soon became known as ‘Soule’s Folly’ but the promise it once held to ‘make Kansas bloom like a rose’ had attracted hundreds of settlers to the region, flooding in to establish farms and businesses. Small clusters of habitation grew into townships seemingly overnight and at the height of the boom the population in some parts of Kansas grew by 500 per cent in a single year.
Each county was to have a county seat, the administrative centre where the council offices and court house would be built, thus helping to ensure the town’s future prosperity. It was essential to Asa Soule’s plans that Ingalls found favour with the voters of Gray County. However, the nearby town of Cimarron was also in Gray County and, having been first settled in 1878, four years earlier than Ingalls, Cimarron held the early advantage. To persuade voters to support Ingalls’ claim to be the county seat, Asa Soule, now president of the Dodge City First National Bank, promised to build a sugar mill in Ensign, a city hall in Montezuma and gave forty acres of land in Dodge City to establish Soule College, which opened in 1888. Asa also announced the building of his privately financed Dodge City, Montezuma & Trinidad Railroad.
Bad Medicine at Cimarron
Asa Soule had every expectation that all his new projects would persuade voters to choose the town of Ingalls as the county seat. When on 31 October 1887 Ingalls lost the election despite his substantial investment, Soule discovered that Cimarron had fraudulently purchased a number of votes and he obtained a court order to delay the result being ratified. However in summer 1888 the court records were removed to Cimarron and in a further election in November 1888 both towns claimed victory. After months of seemingly inconclusive legal wrangling, Soule lost patience and decided to hire a group of mercenaries to raid the courthouse in Cimarron and return the court records to Ingalls, thereby giving further legitimacy to Ingalls’ claim to be the rightful county seat.
Dodge City had sprung up five miles from Fort Dodge on the Santa Fe Trail and for three years it was the centre for the trade in buffalo hides. Once the buffalo herds had been slaughtered, the town earned a living from the longhorn cattle being driven along the Chisholm and Western Trails. Fort Dodge closed in 1882 and the last of the big cattle drives was in 1886 but at the start of 1889 Dodge City still had a fearsome reputation. Men brought up in the tradition of the ‘Wild West’ could be hired on a daily basis as enforcers in circumstances where a gang of armed men might be more persuasive than a piece of paper. Asa Soule could afford to hire the best.
Bill Tilghman was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1854. A buffalo hunter from the age of 15, he opened a saloon in Dodge City, Kansas in 1875, scouted for the US Cavalry during the Cheyenne raids of 1878 and served as deputy sheriff under Bat Masterson from 1878 to 1884. Jim Masterson, born in 1855, was the younger brother of Bat Masterson, the professional gambler, friend of Wyatt Earp and marshall of Tombstone. Also a former buffalo hunter, Jim was marshall of Dodge City from 1879 to 1881, when he was relieved of his duty and ordered out of town after shooting a man. Fred Singer, Neal Brown, Ben Daniels, George Bolds and Ed Brooks were also in Asa Soule’s pay, most being former lawmen, renowned gunfighters and members of the infamous Dodge City Peace Commission. Soule must have expected the people of Cimarron to surrender the court records without a shot being fired.
On the morning of 12 January 1889 Soule’s gunmen rode into Cimarron with the intention of seizing the documents, by force if necessary, and taking them to Ingalls. They reached the courthouse and held town clerk Riley at gunpoint, demanding he hand over the records. Riley played for time and when eventually the gang began to load the documents onto a wagon, they found themselves surrounded by an estimated 200 Cimarron townsfolk armed with Winchester rifles and shotguns. Shots were exchanged and some of Soule’s men sought refuge in the county clerk’s office, which was on the first floor over the grocery store. The Cimarron mob then entered the store and fired into the ceiling to flush out the gunfighters. In the furious gun battle that followed, a prominent citizen of Cimarron, John Wesley English, died and a score of others were wounded. Soule’s gang fought a desperate rearguard action in which some of them were badly injured before throwing down their weapons.
Having lost the battle and perhaps the moral high ground too, a disillusioned Asa returned to Rochester to launch the Hop Bitters Company’s latest product, Soule’s Absolute and Irresistible Cure for the Liquor, Narcotic and Tobacco Habits. Asa Titus Soule died in Rochester NY on 17 January 1890, barely a year after the infamous gunfight at Cimarron, and is buried in the Butler-Savannah Cemetery, Wayne County NY.
After the battle of Cimarron, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that Ingalls was indeed to be the county seat, but in the following years drought hit the region and without the financial backing of Asa Soule the town of Ingalls faltered and many of its people left in the hope of better prospects elsewhere. Cimarron’s settlers stayed to ride out the storm and a special election in February 1893 returned the county seat to Cimarron. In the decades that followed, Cimarron thrived while the town of Ingalls stagnated and slowly declined
Advances in medicine eventually undermined the market for patent medicines like Hop Bitters and for all his ambitious schemes there are few reminders today of Asa Soule’s colourful life. The Dodge City, Montezuma and Trinidad Railroad was never really a success but the embankments that carried the track remain. From certain points on US 50 sections of the Eureka Irrigation Canal can still be seen by the Arkansas River. Soule College changed hands several times before its destruction in 1942 by a tornado. It was rebuilt as St Mary of the Plains College but closed for good in 1992.
There is little doubt that the Gray County Seat War would never have taken place had a self-made millionaire from the east not tried to manipulate this part of Kansas for his own aggrandisement. Perhaps the most poignant memorial to Asa Soule’s influence is the headstone beneath a tree in Cimarron’s only cemetery. It states simply, “Killed in the County Seat War’ and marks the final resting place of John Wesley English, the only casualty of a senseless and futile dispute sparked by the ambition of Asa T Soule.
Below is a photograph of Jim Masterton and also the town of Cimarron:
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