Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.
It was 140 years ago this week that US inventor Thomas Edison demonstrated his hand-cranked phonograph for the first time. It was recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder. According to Wikipedia, “Despite its limited sound quality and that the recordings could be played only a few times, the phonograph made Edison a celebrity.”
About five months later, Edison would travel to Washington to demonstrate his invention to President Hayes, a host of Senators and Congressmen, and to a panel of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences. Already, research was underway at his Menlo Park laboratory for the development of the electric light. His first commercially practical light bulb was tested Nov. 4, 1879.
Meanwhile, 1,400 miles west of Menlo Park, give or take a few, Great Bend subscribers of the Inland Tribune, one of a couple newspapers circulating at the time, read Sitting Bull’s first-hand account of “How Custer Died” according to a New York correspondent. The battle had occurred already nearly 18 mos. earlier.
“We thought we were whipped; not at first, but by and by; afterwards, no. Your people were killed. I tell no lies about dead men. These men who came with the Long Hair were as good men as ever fought. When they rode up their horses were tired and they were tired. When they got off their horses they could not stand firmly on their feet. They swayed to and fro - so my young men have told me- like limbs of cypress in a great wind. Some of them staggered under the weight of their guns, but they began to fight at once. But by this time our camps were aroused, and there were plenty of warriors to meet them. They fired with needle guns. We replied with magazine guns (repeating rifles.)( Sitting Bull illustrated by putting his hands together with the rapidity of a fusillade.) Our young men rained lead across the river and drove the white braves back, and then they rushed across themselves, and then they found they had a good deal to do.”
As for Custer’s fate, the correspondent asked, “When did he fall?”
Sitting Bull responded, “He killed a man. When he fell he laughed. He had fired his last shot...He rose up on his hands, and tried another shot, but his pistol would not go off.”
Bull clarified, Custer had been shooting a pistol, not a carbine. He also noted that Reno had not been able to assist Custer prevented by the presence of “only squaws, old men and little children.”
A column of his own
There were perks to being the son of a newspaperman, 10 year-old A.J. Townsley was learning. In November and December of 1877, the boy had his own column on the back page of the Tribune.
Deputy “Devil’s” Column led with this editorial note: This column is under the management of our son, 10 years of age, who makes his own selections, writes his own articles, and sets the type and is responsible to the public for what he says. The work is done at leisure moments when not at school.
This particular week, he provided a clever wordplay on current events concerning Russia, Turkey and the need for Kars. He also took an excerpt from the Pittsburgh Chronicle concerning the lack of a monument to Washington in D.C. Then, he offered his opinion:
I think in these Centennial times when so many monuments are being erected to commemorate Revolutionary battles, that it would not be out of place to notice Washington a little. I have read in history that he had a hand in battles and that he was a very good man. It made me mad when I read in Harper’s Weekly they were putting up a $200,000 monument to commemorate Burgoyne’s defeat and Washington without one.
One can only imagine what young Townsley might think of the public discourse on Civil War monuments today.
‘Keep it local,’ 140 years ago
While Townsley was keeping up on civics, others were asking questions pertinent to the local economy. One, questioning the sanity of a common practice here at the time.
“Does it not seem a little strange, that with the vast amount of wheat raised in Barton County, we are continually shipping in large supplies of flour? The county now has four flouring mills, and good ones, three here and one at Ellinwood -- and we expect soon to hear of one at Pawnee Rock. With all these mills, we should be shipping flour, and not wheat away from home, much less should we be shipping flour in. The people pay heavy freight to ship wheat away, and the same to get flour brought back. All this money can be saved to the farmer to get his wheat ground at home, and if he has any to sell, have it sent off in the shape of flour. The vast territory of Colorado and the mining region west of here are our natural market, and we can just as well save a large amount of wealth each year by manufacturing and shipping flour west, rather than practice the suicidal policy of the past. Our millers should give this subject their most careful attention and our farmers by all means should not eat one mouthful of imported flour. Stop it at once, and let us begin to keep house for ourselves, and ship our surplus flour west.”
Wow! Now that’s an opinion. So, what happened to all these mills? Why isn’t Great Bend a milling powerhouse today? According to Karen Neuforth, historian at the Barton County Historical Society Museum, the answer stems from the consolidation of the milling companies over time.
“What is left now is owned by Great Bend Coop, including the Walnut Creek Mill. Walnut Creek sold to Garvey’s, then Garvey’s pulled out of here and sold the Walnut Creek Mill to Great Bend Coop. They don’t mill flour, but they do process feed,” she said. “Also, keep in mind that after the 1917 tornado two of the mills didn’t rebuild.”
Neuforth added that the Moses Mill rebuilt and so did the Walnut Creek Mill. The Gun Mill on Kansas St. was not hurt and kept going. But as companies consolidated, it spelled the end of milling flour here.”
Today, the nearest flour mill is the Hudson Flour Mill 25 miles south of Great Bend.