Truly One of the Pioneers of Kansas: J.H. ‘Pap’ Anderson

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

“Three Cheers for Pap Anderson Friend of Newton!”

Late summer and early fall in 1899 was a time filled with optimism about the future of Newton, Kansas.

Newton Main Street, ca. 1885 looking north from the Clark Hotel.

“Newton is  Entering upon a Career of Unexpected Progress, Unparalleled Prosperity. “

Newton Daily Republican, 13 August 1889.

The Ragsdale Opera House was full to overflowing on a Monday evening in 1899 as a group of business leaders and citizens met to “consider the welfare of the city and provide for future prosperity.” Members of the Newton Board of Trade were on hand to report on their efforts and to secure more funds to promote the town. Prominent men, including S.R. Peters, H.W. Hubbard, J.C. Johnston, were on the board and had already contributed significant money. These men were the “Boomers,” promising the future growth of the community.

James H. ‘Pap’ Anderson was one of the most outspoken “boomers” on the Board. At the Monday evening meeting, he spoke of the need for an additional $75,000 to  be added to the what had already been raised.  By the end of the evening, the full amount was raised. The Newton Kansan gave much of the credit to James H. Anderson, noting that the group gave “three cheers for Pap Anderson” at the conclusion of the meeting.

James H. ‘Pap’ Anderson. Photo in the E.L. Parris Family Photo Album.

Anderson also invested.  The reported noted that he “was so confident the results would be in his favor that he put his last cent into real estate . . . “

For much of 1890, Anderson traveled around the country promoting Newton.  The Newton Kansan called Anderson “the most persistent worker and most enthusiastic friend that Newton has ever had.” When he returned to Newton in April. He was greeted at the train station by three hundred people “anxious to grasp the hand of the man who had devoted so much of his valuable time to the interests” of Newton.  At a “Reception and Banquet” in his honor at the Clark Hotel, he assured people that there would soon be results from all of the hard work and money.  His speech was frequently interrupted by applause from the audience indicating their “gratification.”  The event concluded at 11:30 pm with another “three cheers for Pap Anderson, Friend of Newton.”

Again in September 1890, Anderson returned to Newton to assure people “that in a very short time Newton would be a hive of industry.”

“Fortunes were swept away in an instant”

Newton Kansan, 27 November 1890, p.1.

Thursday evening, November 20, 1890, “men who retired at night happy in the thought that they were on the road to wealth, awoke in the morning to find that the boom had busted and their wealth only a myth . . . the collapsing of the boom left him  [Anderson]  penniless.”

In the years following the Newton Panic, Anderson worked on promoting and selling his inventions. One invention was a chimney cleaner and he traveled the U.S. promoting and selling.

“But, as many of our readers know, it was a constant struggle to obtain enough to keep body and soul together, and Mr. Anderson was no exception to this rule.”

“Once a Man of Good Circumstance”

Trouble began to appear in fall 1896. Under the heading, “Mixed Politics and Business,” the Newton Kansan reported while selling his inventions in Logansport, IN, Anderson began to “appeal to people to vote for Bryan . . . because the single gold standard impoverished people.”  The report gave some background on Anderson noting that he came from Newton, Ks and was “once a man of good circumstance . . . and he has always been a Republican until this year. . . ”  The report concluded that while he had permission to sell his wares on the street, he did not have permission “for preaching free silver.” 

“His One Queer Idea”

In October 1899, Anderson was arrested in New York for disorderly conduct outside of Helen Gould’s Fifth Avenue home.  He insisted that she was his wife and he needed to see her.  Gould reported that he had sent her 48 letters, addressing her as his wife. At that time the New York authorities sent him back to Kansas at some expense “where he was turned loose.” 

Wichita Beacon, 6 October 1899.

His wife, Estella Berry Anderson, had remained in Newton while Anderson traveled. She died 10 June 1900. The writer of her obituary noted that “the family seems to have had more than its share of misfortune lately.” 

In June 1901, Anderson was again arrested in front of  Helen Gould’s New York home, insisting she was his wife.  The authorities in New York, not wanting the expense of sending him back to Kansas a second time, committed him to Believue for “mental observation.”   Drs. Fitch and Wildman examined Anderson and noted that “he is sane on everything except the delusion that Miss Gould is his wife.” They  “pronounced him a hopeless lunatic” and recommended hospitalization. He remain in a Washington hospital until his death.

Evening Kansan Republican, 3 June 1901

Topeka Daily Capital, 12 October 1901.

“Truly One of the Pioneers of Kansas”

Despite his difficulties in later years, his obituary portrays a hard working man that somehow was over come by the struggles of life.

“But, as many of our readers know, it was a constant struggle to obtain enough to keep body and soul together, and Mr. Anderson was no exception to this rule.”

His obituary gives some details of his early life.  James H. Anderson was born in 1835. During the Civil War, he was with Co. K, 5th Ind Calvary. Anderson married Estella Berry in 1868.  She had two children, Luella and Sebastian, from a previous marriage to Thomas Berry.  Berry had been killed at the battle of New Hope Church in Georgia on 24 May 1864.

“Took up a  Homestead”

The J.H.  Anderson family arrived in Harvey County in March 1871.  They homesteaded a claim in Macon Township, Harvey County, Ks.

[Anderson] “took up a  homestead . . . he erected a sod house for the protection of himself and wife, and with the aid of a team of oxen proceeded to break up the prairie and prepare the ground for the reception of seed.”

The couple had one additional child, Belle.

In the early 1880s, the family moved closer to Newton and for a short time, he ran a one-horse dray business. Anderson soon saw opportunities in real estate and he invested heavily.  The newspaper frequently referred to “Pap” Anderson as “the most enthusiastic man in the city . . .his faith in the success and prosperity of Newton is unbounded. . . “ and “he always backs his faith in the future events by his money.”

After the 1890 Newton Panic, Anderson was “penniless.”  He invented a chimney cleaner and traveled the country selling his invention.  During one of his travels, he saw Helen Gould, the daughter of New York financier Jay Gould, and became convinced that she was his wife.

Following his third arrest in 1901, Anderson was “confined in a hospital in Washington” until he died June 26, 1908. Anderson was survived by a daughter, Mrs. (Belle) Carl Sasher, and stepson, S. T. Berry.

“Pap” Anderson was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Ks following “simple services” attended by “old time friends.”


  • Newton Daily Republican: 17 May 1887, 16 September 1887, 13 November 1887, 15 December 1887, 8 March 1888, 11 May 1888, 6 June 1888, 13 August 1889, 15 August 1889, 29 November 1890,25 May 1896.
  • Newton Kansan: 10 April 1890, 25 September 1890, 27 November 1890, 4 December 1890,  22 October 1896.
  • Evening Kansan Republican:4 January 1892, 6 October 1899, 11 June 1900, 13 June 1900, 3 June 1900, 22 April 1901, 12 October 1901, 31 March 1908, 9 May 1908, 27 June 1908, 2 July 1908.
  • Hutchinson News: 13 October 1888.
  • Wichita Daily Eagle: 11 January 1889.
  • Wichita Beacon: 5 October 1899.
  • Topeka Daily Capital: 24 April 1901, 12 October 1901.

New Year’s Day Disaster: Ragsdale Opera House

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

The Ragsdale Opera House, 1885-1915

The Ragsdale Opera House, 1885-1915

Early Morning, New Year’s Day, January 1, 1915.

Early in the morning on New Year’s Day in 1915, Hal Somers and Mary Russell, ran out of gas on their way home from the Knights Templar Ball and New Year’s Eve lunch at George Glenn’s.  As a result, they were walking through town at about 2:30 am.  They had reached Broadway and Main, when they noticed a light coming from the back of the otherwise dark opera house. They “soon discovered a blaze coming out of the back door in the second story.”  They ran to a nearby home and sounded the alarm.

“In a remarkably short time the rear of the building was ablaze all over, and by the time the fire department reached the scene it had gained considerable headway.”

Ragsdale/Knoepker Opera House, 1 January 1915.

Ragsdale/Knoepker Opera House, 1 January 1915.

While the firefighters worked to get the fire under control and keep it from spreading to neighboring buildings, other volunteers tried to save what they could, carrying out valuables and merchandise.

The Newton Journal described the scene.

“In less than an hour the flames licked up the offices and shops at the west end and swept through the McManus dry goods and clothing store at the front of the building and the south wall and belfry were down.”

The Weekly Kansan Republican noted the loss of the clock, 45 minutes after the fire was discovered.

“The last time the old town clock struck the hour was at the third hour of the New Year, and at fifteen minutes after three the hands of the clock dropped from sight.”

By daylight, the entire building, a landmark since 1885, was gone.

Opera House Fire.  Photo taken by Lucile Mitchell Miller, January 1, 1915.

Opera House Fire. Photo taken by Lucile Mitchell Miller, January 1, 1915.



Evening Kansan Republican,  2 January 1915

Evening Kansan Republican, 1 January 1915

30 Years Earlier, Spring 1884

Two brothers, James M. and Thaddeus P. Ragsdale, decided to invest in the future of Newton, Ks.  Already successful businessmen, the brothers sold their grocery business in 1879 and began “dealing in real estate.” Using their own money, they bought lots, built homes or businesses and sold the improved property.  They added over one hundred houses and seven business blocks to Newton. (Fent, p. 24)  In 1884, they turned their attention to their largest project, building an opera house at the corner of Broadway and Main.

It took a year and a half to construct the Ragsdale Opera House beginning in May 1884 and completed in  1885. The massive three story structure covered  three lots at 701 Main. Although the exterior had brick and stone, the interior was entirely wooden. The brothers paid $8,000 for the lots and the nearly completed structure cost eighty thousand dollars.

The ground floor consisted of businesses, including the Newton Kansan.   Phil H. Knowlton, editor of the Daily and Weekly Kansan (1896-1898) recalled that “it was in the basement of this historic building that I began my newspaper career” after graduating from Newton High.

Newton Kansan, Ragsdale Opera House, Broadway & Main, 1887

Newton Kansan, Ragsdale Opera House, Broadway & Main, 1887

Detail of Newton Kansan Offices, Ragsdale Opera House, Broadway & Main, 1887

Detail of Newton Kansan Offices, Ragsdale Opera House, Broadway & Main, 1887

Other businesses included Schumacher’s Furniture.


Schumacher's Furniture Business, Interior, 1901

Schumacher’s Furniture Business, Interior, 1901

Schumacher's Furniture Business, exterior, 1901

Schumacher’s Furniture Business, exterior, Opera Block,1901

The east section of the structure had eight rooms each on the second and third floors with several used for apartments. A winding staircase led to an observatory and a three faced Seth Thomas Clock. The six hundred dollar clock  was paid for by donations from the community.  The clock had a six foot dial and a six hundred pound bell which, some claimed, could be heard from two miles away on a clear day.

Panoramic View taken from the roof of the Opera House,  Main and Broadway in 1911 by Stovall Studio.

Panoramic View taken from the roof of the Opera House, Main and Broadway in 1911 by Stovall Studio.

The Post Office was located in a space along Main Street until 1912 and for some of that time tickets to performances were available.

Post Office in the Ragsdale Opera House, 1903.  Man on the left is Guy Sawyer and the far right is Chalres Benfer.

Post Office in the Ragsdale Opera House, 1903. Man on the left is Guy Sawyer and the far right is Charles Benfer.

The actual theater was located at the west end on the second and third floors.

The main entrance to the actual theater was on Broadway and was marked with a semi-circular sign “Ragsdale Opera House.”  This was the only indication that it was an opera house on the exterior.  From a small lobby, patrons would go up the main stairway, which was constructed of oak and “gracefully curved up up to the main theatre lobby.”   There was a smaller secondary staircase from the Main Street entrance. The house itself had three levels and seated eight hundred in addition to eight private boxes which could seat five each. The ceiling had ornate frescoes and the walls and woodwork were painted a dark red.  Over the next several years, the interior would be repaired, cleaned, and repainted several times. The last improvement to the theater was made in 1911-12, when it was again cleaned and the drop curtain repainted.

Ragsdale Opera House, 1885

Ragsdale Opera House, 1885

In a remembrance column for the 50th Anniversary of the Newton Kansan, Knowlton described the Opera House “as the town’s pride and joy-parquet, balcony . . . ‘neverything.  

Gas lights were furnished by a Hagen & DeWitt gas machine in the basement.  And the boxes! Varied-colored rosettes, fringes, draperies and gingerbread stand out in my memory as a creation worthy of a patch-quilt super-artist!”

The Ragsdale brothers lost possession of the opera house on 11 August 1892, as a result of the financial panic of 1890 which was particularly hard on those who had invested in real estate. Despite several new owners, the building continued to be known as the Ragsdale until November 1907. The new owner had the name plate obliterated and replaced with the name “Knoepker Opera House.” At about the same time, changes were made to comply with the latest fire regulations.

By 1910, the building was showing its age and deteriorating from general neglect.  At that time, the possibility of constructing a new opera house was briefly discussed.  However, nothing ever came of the discussions.

For thirty years, the Opera House was a Newton landmark, home to several businesses and the main center for entertainment.

On that early New Year’s Day morning, the community lost more than an aging building.  One life was lost, several businesses lost everything and a unique historical landmark was gone.  The cause of the fire was believed to be broken gas pipes in the southwest room of the stage.  However, local residents claimed that a “distinctive odor of oil was detected in the vicinity of the stage” causing many to suspect arson. The actual cause of the fire was never verified.

Part 2: The fate of  Willis T. Green, who was living in rooms at the opera house, was not known until a day later.  His story will be the focus of our next post.

Part 3: Several businesses also lost a great deal. For one man, T.H. McManus, it was the second time he was forced to rebuild after a fire destroyed his business. Part 3 of our series on the Ragsdale Fire will conclude with stories of various businesses that were affected.


  • Newton Republican, 11 December 1885.
  • Newton Kansan, 12 November 1885.
  • Evening Kansan Republican, 1 January 1915,
  • Newton Journal 8 January 1915.
  • Early Fire Protection In Newton, Kansas, 1872-1922.
  • Newton Kansan 50th Anniversary, 22 August 1922.
  • Fent, Mary Jeanine. Ragsdale Opera House — Newton, Kansas, 1885-1915. MA Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1977. HCHM Archives.
  • HCHM Photo Archives