Week 8:#52 Ancestors – Prosperity
By Eilene Lyon
Citing health issues, Dr. Moses S. Stahl packed up his family and left Blackford County, Indiana, for Coleman County, Texas. With him were his wife, Mary Agnes (Ransom) and their two daughters, Florence (13) and May (11).
Two of Mary A. Stahl’s brothers, Robert and William Ransom, had gone to California in the gold rush. It was her turn to explore the frontier. No one would ever call the Ransoms timid or wary of adventure.
In Texas, Dr. Stahl enlisted in Company P of the Texas Rangers, serving as the company surgeon from September 1870 to February 1871. This short term of service qualified him for a federal pension late in life for serving in the “Indian Wars.”
For some reason, Texas held no lasting appeal and the Stahl family headed to southeastern Kansas. They settled in Independence, Montgomery County, founded in 1869 on the west bank of the Verdigris River. They rolled into the dusty town of false-fronted wood-framed buildings and Dr. Stahl set up his medical practice. (KansasMemory.org has two photos of Independence from the 1870s here and here.)
Mary bought a small lot on Main Street and Dr. Stahl acquired homestead land out in Montgomery County. But the Stahls hadn’t explored enough, yet. So they headed west to Colorado and New Mexico for a year or two, likely chasing various mineral speculations.
In 1875, they returned to Independence, ready to settle down. Dr. Stahl gave up his medical career for a life in the hospitality industry. He bought a 3-story stone building on Main Street and, with Mary’s able assistance, began renovating it into the Main Street Hotel, opening in spring 1876.*
They widely promoted its spacious, airy rooms, convenience, fine dining, and the fact that it was fireproof. The doctor set up his collection of high-grade ores in a cabinet of curiosities to impress his guests.
The family’s hard work paid off; the enterprise proved a great success and the Stahls prospered. Dr. Stahl engaged in a variety of business opportunities and political ventures over the next decade.
Probably with Mary’s encouragement, many of her siblings and their families relocated to Montgomery County in the 1880s. She undoubtedly appreciated having family nearby. The Ransoms, Landons, and Kesslers played a role in the early growth of Independence and nearby towns.
One blemish in the Stahl’s lives was the illness of their older daughter, Florence. The family’s fortunes enabled them to provide her with trips to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and later Eureka Springs, where she remained recuperating for several years. The nature of her illness is never specified, but by 1880 Florence had lost her sight.
Dr. Stahl spent many months in Eureka Springs with Florence, but needing an outlet for his energy, he took over management of one of the local hotels. He loved playing the host. Mary was equally enthused about running the Main Street Hotel and she taught her daughter, May, much about the business.
The Stahls’ financial success enabled them to travel widely. Kansas City and Arkansas were favorite destinations. They also visited the World’s Fair in New Orleans for a month. Mrs. Stahl made a trip to New York and went to the Exposition in St. Louis on two separate trips.
They were generous to their community. Mrs. Stahl invited the “poor white children…boot-blacks, and orphans” to a dinner at the hotel, and served 40 youngsters in her elegant dining room that day. May threw a tea party for 25 of her closest friends. Mary had an even larger party for 50 friends and their spouses.
Business was so good, the Stahls took over a building west of the hotel for overflow guest rooms, a laundry, and a retail shop they rented out. It was connected to the hotel by a second-story bridge. The Stahls also renovated the dining room to add a large bay window area with a fountain and flowering plants.
Elon G. Millikan (“E.G.”) and his family had also come to Independence from Indiana. He and his brother, Clark, opened a real estate business in town in the mid-1880s. E.G. was a powerfully built man and quite gregarious. And he had his eye on one of the most popular and eligible women in the area: May W. Stahl.
After their marriage at the hotel in April 1887, the newlyweds honeymooned in Kansas City, then assumed management of the Main Street Hotel. They took up residence in the two upstairs front rooms of the overflow building.
The Stahls used the opportunity to explore again, this time going to Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Florence went with them. They loved it and soon had a new hotel there to run. The doctor also dabbled in the real estate business.
There are confusing reports as to what happened around the time the Stahls left town again in August 1887. Two of the local papers (perhaps with conservative bent) had great admiration for the Stahls and Millikans.
But a third paper, The Southern Kansas Tribune, took a dim view. They reported that the Main Street Hotel had been stripped of its furnishings and leased to Wade Hampton.
A month later, J.S. Way advertised that he had taken over the hotel, refurbished it, and was offering rooms for a dollar a day. In that time, many people stayed in such hotels for extended periods; nightly guests were less frequent. E.G. and May Millikan retained their rooms.
At 2 a.m. on October 18, a fire alarm went out. Mr. Parker of the cornice works, living in the overflow building, discovered the flames in the northeast corner of the building and sounded the call. The first firemen to respond were inexperienced and had trouble with the hydrant. In the delay, the fire made it up into the attic crawl space, dooming the building.
E.G. Millikan managed to remove his furnishings and the laundry equipment was also rescued with minimal damage. Supposedly, the fire began near the laundry furnace, but there had been no fire in the furnace that night. Everything was insured and eventually settlements were made to Millikan and the Stahls. The exterior shell of the building was sold for $100 and hauled away to a nearby farm.
By December, the Millikans decided to follow May’s family to Ft. Smith, but they were not finished with the Main Street Hotel.
Feature image: Bullock Hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota. The Main Street Hotel would not have been as wide, but perhaps was built in a similar style. (Wikimedia Commons)
*Moses Stahl bought this property from a man named Jonathan Stahl. These two also bought property together in Montgomery County. Their relationship is unknown at this time, but likely they were cousins.
Mary Agnes Ransom at Ancestry.com