My great-grandfather, Joseph Smarsh, was born on a farm in Pennsylvania then raised, lived and died on a south-central Kansas farm. He was a farmer through and through. He, like the majority of our agrarian ancestors, did very little that we would today consider “newsworthy.”
But then we forget what constituted “news” 100+ years ago.
“Buys Land Cheap – Joseph Smarsh Buys a Farm for $1,500”
This was the headline of a newspaper article in The Wichita Eagle dated Saturday Morning, April 20, 1901. Seriously, my great-grandfather apparently got a deal on some land, and it made the morning news! I can’t even begin to imagine a similar headline crossing the pages of a modern newspaper or even a digital news outlet. Who would talk about the price they paid for land to a reporter?
What’s even more amazing is the detail to which the reporter indulges in crafting a full narrative of Joseph Smarsh’s good fortune. Maybe Joseph had a good shot of whisky and was happy to have an audience with which to relate his tale. We won’t know, but we do learn a tremendous amount about this business exchange from the story. Here are a few fun tidbits that help illuminate the life of an ancestor, whom I never met and preceded my presence on this Earth by 100 years.
Great Detail About Joseph Smarsh
- He lived in the “prosperous German settlement northwest of this city (Wichita).” Really? St. Mark’s Kansas was considered prosperous? It looks like any other farm community sans stop signs or stop lights to me!
- Apparently, the locals, including Joseph Smarsh, “have a great faith in the country (Arkansas Valley)” that exceeds those “back east.” This gives the locals an ability to buy out easterners at a great bargain.
- Joseph pulled up to a “high stool at a Main Street (Wichita) restaurant and ordered a porterhouse steak” as he laughed and began to share his story to the reporter. He ate a porterhouse steak at a restaurant! He’s doing well for himself, and maybe treated himself to celebrate his good fortune.
- The story of how he got the deal on the land goes something like this, “(he) was in town a couple of days ago when Michael Block (a real estate agent?) told him that a mortgage company back east told him to sell a half-section of land in Reno County [that’s near Wichita, specifically Hutchison if you are familiar with the area] for $1,500. That was less than $5 an acre.” You see even in 1901 the prevailing price for good farm land was $40/acre. If the land was good, it was indeed a heck of a price!
- Joseph “went up to Reno County and found that it was all good for pasture and half of it good farm land.”
- “Mr. Smarsh did not tarry in Reno County,” we learn. “He turned his horses heads for Wichita and when he came across the Douglas avenue bridge, a policeman threatened to run him in for fast driving, but Joe said he was going after a doctor and the cop let him pass.” OMG! He was busted for speeding and lied his way out of a ticket! Is that not priceless!
- “He drove his team to the West End Livery Barn and ordered them rubbed down and fed.” Good job, Joe! Take care of your horses.
- “He then went to Mr. Block’s office, counted out $300 and said, ‘I’ll take the land as you priced it to me. I will pay you the balance when you give me the deed’.” He had $300 cash on him! I’ve never in my life had $300 in cash on me, then again, Joseph probably didn’t have a checking account!
That’s something. As genealogists we quickly turn to newspapers for obits and marriage records, but I must say I didn’t expect to find a jewel of a story like this.
Where did I find it?
I’ve written about newspapers in this forum before, so you may recall my mentioning the Chronicling America database on the Library of Congress website. Honestly, I was looking for an obit when I came upon this article. I simply chose “Kansas” and searched the last name, “Smarsh.” Would you believe I got 52 hits? What’s extra nice about this feature is if you view the results as a “gallery,” it will highlight the name/search term (Smarsh) on the page, so you don’t have to fish through 2,000 words on a newspaper page to find the reference to your ancestor. For some reason if you view the results as a list of hyperlinks, it doesn’t highlight the names.
Check it out! Hopefully you’ll find a great article that adds life, color, and texture to your anscestors’ stories.