Stories of Liberal, Missouri from George Ashley’s “Reminiscences of a Circuit Rider”

Note: Thanks to Greg Olson for sending me the pages of the book from which I made the following transcription.

It was a surprise to see Mrs. Harmon mentioned by Ashley. This would have been Emma Viola Noyes, wife of Orrin Ellie Harmon. She was born 1860 and was the daughter of my ancestors James Allen Noyes and Caroline Atwell, both freethinkers and spiritualists and early members of the town of Liberal, having moved there in 1882. Orrin Ellie and Emma, however, did not move there until 1897–according to both Orrin’s autobiographical sketch in his book on Liberal, and also an obituary–yet Ashley gives himself as meeting “Mrs. Harmon” in 1890. So though the Harmons are understood as having been in Washington state until 1897, apparently they were also in Liberal during 1890 or Emma was there during that time. Her sister, Cora, had died in 1887 and they had taken in her son to raise. Though there is no 1890 census, O. E. Harmon’s father, Asa, in the 1890 Veteran’s census, is found in Nagapine Precinct, Lewis, Washington, so it would seem he was living with his son and daughter-in-law and this record may suggest that that the primary residence of the Harmon’s would have still been in Washington State.

Though the book is given as published in 1941, the year of Ashley’s death, there was either an earlier publication date in a different form, or O.E. Harmon, who wrote “The Story of Liberal, Missouri” was given a copy of the unpublished manuscript, as Harmon included an extract found in these pages, and his book was published in 1921. Ashley, in the 1941 edition, makes mention of his son being 55 years old at the time of the writing, so the work Harmon referenced was not the one which was published in 1941, though the extract he published is verbatim as it appears in this biography.

Two other people mentioned are Mr. Umbrite and Mrs. Yale. Mr. Umbrite was one of the town druggists. The Yale family had been one of the early members of the town. J. P. Moore’s book gives them as later moving to Joplin.

REMINISCENCES OF A CIRCUIT RIDER by George Ashley (1864-1941) published in 1941.

CHAPTER XVIII

LIBERAL IN 1890

Perhaps this is as good place as any to give a brief account of the town of Liberal, in Barton County, Missouri in 1890. Only six miles east of the Kansas line, it was laid out when the Kansas City, Fort Scot and Memphis Railroad (now the Frisco) was built thru there in the early ’80’s. The land of the town site belonged to a lawyer by the name of Walser, who lived in Lamar, the county seat, about fifteen miles east; and altho a small village called Pedro had already been started on a branch of the Missouri Pacific Railroad that ran just west of Walser’s land where it crossed the K. C. F. S. & M. R. R., he induced the R. R. company to lay out another town there and call it “Liberal”.

Walser called himself a liberal–a free-thinker, tho most church people called him an infidel. He certainly had a deep antipathy to the church and Christianity. His purpose was to establish a Freethinker’s paradise in his new town of Liberal, to which he certainly hoped to draw only the better element of free-thinking people. Hence, he wrote in all deeds to lots a provision that it should never be sold to any religious organization or used for any religious purpose. Walser was a man of some means and he advertised his new town far and wide as a town that prohibited preachers and churches, and where Free-thinkers could pursue their course without molestation by religious fools and fanatics. While he thus attracted a few very fine, high-minded, free-thinking people to the town, it turned out later that more had come who were not of the best type.

He started a Free-Thinking newspaper; a Free-Thinking school, and a small corporation to promote these, in which he held a majority of the stock. They put up two buildings, one a small frame hall for lectures, the other a two story building for a school and class rooms.

On the front of the hall was painted in big letters, “U.M.L.” meaning, University Mental Liberty. They invited anyone and all to speak in it who wished, preachers and all, on condition that an opponent might reply to him then and there. They did not get many takers, tho a few did try it once.

This situation went on a few years without any material growth. In fact, the whole thing was a failure from the start. It is true, no church or religious movement has been started in the town; tho a number of religious people in the vicinity were anxious for an opening. It came about in the following way:

Walser, who had the controlling stock in the institution and tried to completely dominate it, had trouble with some of his followers and the whole thing was going to pieces. Apparently, to spite his associates whom he could not control, he formed a plot to sell the U.M.L. Hall to a church. One day, he met a prominent Methodist layman who lived a few miles out, and offered to sell him the U.M.L. Hall fora church if he wanted it, and set a price. This man consulted a neighbor, another Methodist layman next day, and they bought the hall and the land it was on for $500.00 cash; a few laymen advancing the money.

When this became known consternation prevailed in the town. To the Free-Thinkers Walser had sold them out. To the church people who had drifted into the town, and also many in the surrounding country, it was a great feeling of victory. The Presiding Elder of the district was called in, and with the aid of a neighboring preacher, a short revival was held and a Methodist Church organized early in the year 1890. It was placed on a circuit with three other churches, all within a radius of ten miles. This was the circuit the Presiding Elder had written me about while I was in Louisiana, and at which we arrived on the 10th day of May, 1890.

CHAPTER XIX

ARRIVAL IN LIBERAL

Upon our arrival at Liberal about 10 A.M., I left my family at the station while I went to the post office for my letter of instructions. I found that I was first to call on one of the stewards, Mrs. Harmon, who lived in town. I asked the postmaster the way to her house and he told me she was at that hour down at the church at a funeral, and directed me to it. I wondered if it was our church. When I arrived at the church, they were just coming out. I asked Mrs. Harmon and she was pointed out to me. I introduced myself to her. She treated me very cordially and told me to bring my family to her house for the time being and she would be there by the time we got there.

Of course my first question, when I arrived at her home, was whether that was our church where I found her, and if it was one of our people who had died. But I learned it was a Spiritualist church; that there was quite a Spiritualist community in town; that the funeral was for a middle-aged lady, one of their members, who committed suicide–unintentionally.

* * *

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE?

As the ban against religion had broken down, not only the Methodists had invaded it, but the Spiritualists, who were mostly of the Free-thinking type and already there, came forth and built a chapel. A Christian Science lecturer had also visited the town and made a few converts, among them this lady who had inadvertently committed suicide. She had imbibed the idea there was no such thing as disease, pain, ache, or other ailments; that it was all only “mortal mind”‘ that medicine, not even poison, had any effect on the body except thru “mortal mind”‘ and if the mind was strong enough to resist it, it would have no effect at all. And she had set out to demonstrate this fact by deliberately taking a dose of “Rough on Rats”, and proved it by dying. This was my first introduction to Christian Science, not a very favorable one. This is not said in disparagement of Christian Science, as I have since learned to know it better, but only of her misinterpretation of it.

One of the leading men on the circuit was old Brother Ford, a saintly old man of the early Methodist type, who had a definite antipathy to any form of amusement or other diversion. His daughter was organist at one of my churches and often visited at our house. It just so happened that I had learned to play a little on a violin, and we played together one day at my house, when she cautioned me not to let her father know that I had a “fiddle” in the house, lest it would be all off with me on the circuit. We stayed there two years and old Brother Ford never learned that his preacher played the fiddle. If he had, it would have been just too bad for me.

Yes, Brother Ford was one of the finest men that I ever knew, but he belonged to the old time group that had a definite antipathy to almost any kind of amusement; especially dancing, theatres, circuses, etc. I want to say here that exactly thirty-five years later I visited Liberal again and found a fine new church building with an orchestra furnishing part of the music at the services in which there were two violins. I thought of old Brother Ford, who, as the saying goes, would turn over in his grave if he could see it.

Brother Fenis was another good man, one of the stewards who had a small dairy, fruit, and truck farm just outside the town. He supplied the preacher’s two small children with fresh milk every morning without charge. When the blackberries, raspberries or strawberries were ripe, they had to be picked and shipped daily to keep them bearing thru the season. So Brother Fenis stayed home from church one Sunday and picked his berries, and the ultra-pious Sabbath keepers could not endure it. He should have let the berries go and trusted in the Lord and He would take care of it. And the preacher almost lost his reputation because he ignored the complaints and would not bring Brother Fenis before the church board for discipline. Did the free milk cause it? “Strain out a gnat and swallow the camel.”

One of the first things I had to do when I got into the M.E. Church (North) was to procure a Book of Discipline, from which I learned that the use of tobacco by ministers was prohibited. As there was no such prohibition in the South, and the custom was quite common among all classes, I had developed the smoking habit, in a rather mild form; but still I smoked occasionally. Fortunately, I made the discovery before anyone “caught” me at it, and stopped.

CHAPTER XX

THE SPIRITUALISTS

I have referred to the Spiritualist “Chapel”, as they called it, where the funeral was held of the unfortunate woman who died in her effort to demonstrate the truth of her faith, as she understood it. After this, the Christian Scientists could make but little impression in the town, tho one or two more lecturers visited it while we were there. But there was quite a group of Spiritualists and they seemed to flourish, and I had opportunity to become quite well acquainted with it as it was preached and practiced there. I found many good, honest, sincere people who firmly believed in this cult, but many others were charlatans, deliberate impostors, playing upon the credulity of the people.

There were all kinds of mediums dealing with every variety of physical phenomena common to the cult. My wife got along with them much better than I did, for she would always listen with manifest interest to their stories, never expressing any doubts as to their truth, but only amazement and wonder; and they would often tell her that she had all the natural qualities of a successful medium if she would only permit herself to be developed. But I was always skeptical, asking too many foolish questions. A few episodes are worth mentioning as illustrations of what went on.

An elderly lady who lived with a bachelor son in a little two-room cottage at the edge of the town was a prominent medium. All sorts of messages could be had thru table rapping under her dining table in her kitchen, at the low price of ten cents a seance. However no act with less than ten people. The group gathered around the table, all joining hands and placing them on the table, sang a song and rapping would be heard apparently against the leaf of the table on the under side. That was the signal that the spirits had come. Question would be asked and the answers indicated by so many raps. Thus things went on until the old lady died many years later; and when the cult was much run down. Then the son “spilled the beans.”

Note that the seance was always held in the kitchen around the table, in the night the lights out. No one apparently ever noticed that the son was never present at the seance, or that there was a small cellar right under the table and he did the rapping against the floor in such a way that the credulous thought it was against the under side of the table itself. He could easily hear the questions through the thin board floor, and give the answers in raps which the medium, his mother, interpreted.

The man Walser, founder of the town, referred to in the previous chapter, having failed in his great Free-thinking paradise, married a second wife, a prominent spirit medium, and he became in due time an ardent Spiritualist. They promoted a Spiritualist Camp-meeting in a near-by grove one summer, and members of the cult from far and wide came to it; and of course, among them all the real fake mediums in reach, as well as the honest sincere Spiritualists. Among these was a Spirit Photographer who could take your picture with a number of your departed relatives showing in the picture. This was a new phenomenon there and everybody was having their pictures taken with their Spirit friends on it at a dollar a picture.

An old leader among them, but not a medium himself, an ex presbyterian minister who had made several efforts to convert me, came to me with his story about the spirit photographer who wanted to take my picture for nothing, just to convince me. I told him that I did not want the picture for nothing but would gladly pay him ten dollars for it if any of my spirit friends were on it, on one condition: that he let the local photographer of the town, a friend of mine, furnish the plate on which the picture was to be made, and then let the photographer stay with him in the dark room through all the process of preparing the plate for exposure and then developing it. The old man assured me that the photographer would be glad to do it and went away. I did not see him any more until the meeting was over and the photographer was gone. Then he told me that the medium said that I was so skeptical and “negative in character”–whatever that means, that my spirit friends could not gather around me while sitting for the picture and therefore it was useless to try.

They had “materialization” mediums who could made the corpus delicti, or astral body of the departed appear visible to the natural eye, always under certain favorable conditions which were very rare; and some of them could even audibly speak. And here was a case: I have already stated that many of the first settlers in Liberal were Free-thinkers, skeptics who did not believe in any continuity of life after death, much less the return of discarnate spirits. Among these were two close friends, one whose wife was a Spiritualist. One had some years before moved to Carthage, some fifty miles away; the other still lived in Liberal and the two men corresponded regularly. So they fixed up this plot:

It was known that Mrs. Yale would some day come to the camp meeting. So one day, Mr. Umbrite, who still lived in Liberal received a telegram–a real one–from Mr. Yale, saying: “Mrs. Yale has departed from us. Body will arrive in Liberal tomorrow on 11 A.M. train. Make all arrangements. I will follow on next train.” You may guess what affect that had when announced that night at the camp meeting. The Spirit of Sister Yale was called up and communicated with in various ways. Next morning at the 9 o’clock meeting, good old Sister Green, a materializing medium, reported having seen and talked with the spirit of Sister Yale early that morning in her garden.

At 11 A.M., everyone was at the station except Mr. Umbrite, who received the telegram. As the train pulled in, all rushed to the baggage car where the casket was supposed to be. When lo! Sister Yale stepped off the train in her real flesh and blood! Imagine the consternation that followed and what that crowd might have done to the two men if they had been present. At the camp meeting that afternoon, explanations were in order, chief of which was that: Everyone has a “double” and it was Sister Yale’s double or astral body, which had the power of manifesting itself with which they had communicated instead of her real spirit.

Just one other incident that is worth nothing. A door neighbor of ours was a very ardent Spiritualist. She and my wife became intimate friends. They were reading Ben Hur together, reading in turns. On this evening it was her time to read and at our house.

It was washday and my wife was tired. As Mrs. Wheeler was reading, about 9 P.M., my wife dropped off to sleep. When she awoke, Mrs. W. was gone. Next morning my wife went to her house to apologize. “Oh, no,” said Mr.s W., “You were not asleep. You were under control of Belthasar, the Wise Man from Egypt, about whom I was reading. I saw him and left you with him.”

CHAPTER XXI

AN INCIDENT OF HUMAN INTEREST

It was during our second year at Liberal that a little matter especially of deep human interest to me and my wife occurred. I have already said that we had two children, our little boy then approaching five years of age and a little girl nearly three years younger. The little boy was old enough to run errands uptown, about three blocks, and we often sent him on such. One day, he came home from such an errand just before noon, all heart-broken and crying bitterly. In response to his mother’s question as to what was the matter, he buried his face in her lap and sobbed out his story. He had seen an old blind man up on the street corner with a little cup in his hand singing one of our church hymns–he had heard at church–“Lord, Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole,” etc; and he wanted to know if his mother would let him go back and bring the old man whom with him for dinner, as it was then nearly noon.

Of course, she let him do it, and in due time we saw him up the street, leading the man along the narrow board walk by a big stick that the old man carried, which was as high as his waist. The little boy had the little end and the old man the other. They were coming along quite slowly, as the old man knew the walk was narrow and that only a little child was leading him and might inadvertently lead him off the walk. When they arrived, I knew the old man, as he lived in another small town not far away and often made the rounds of the small towns with his cup and singing. We served him a good dinner and he ate it as the blind usually do; and after an hour’s visit, the little boy led him back to his station on the street.

The significance of this story does not consist in the fact that the circuit rider and his wife fed a poor blind man, but in the deep impression the whole thing made on that little boy under five years of age; how his little heart was touched by his singing one of our familiar church songs, which of course, he did not understand; and by his apparent instinctive realization of the handicap of the man’s blindness, and his desire to help him in some way that sent him home crying to ask permission to do this simple little thing for him–bring him home to dinner; and then the immense satisfaction that he derived out of it when he had performed this service.

We can never forget the beaming countenance and the smile of satisfaction on his face when he brought the old man in the house and presented him to us; the satisfaction he took in the man’s eating, and the privilege of returning him to his post on the street corner. I think he got a thrill out of this experience that he has never forgotten; for he is now a man past fifty, a high officer in the U.S. Navy, whose entire adult life has been associated with men of his profession; and yet, he has the same tender heart that always beats with tender sympathy and deep human interest for all the unfortunate sons of mankind.

* * *

WHERE HASTE MADE WASTE

One Sunday evening, just as the sun was setting, I heard a call at my gate, went out and found a couple in a buggy who wanted to get married. I invited them in, but they said they were in a hurry and wanted to know if I could marry them sitting in the buggy. I called my wife out for a witness, examined the license, pronounced the ceremony, left my wife to entertain them a moment while I went in the house to make out the certificate. When I went out and handed them the certificate, they said good-bye and hurriedly drove off. My wife, who has received all the marriage fees ever paid me, made some remark about being the loser this time, and we went in the house. Ten minutes later, there was another call at the gate. I went out and learned that a half mile up the road, the Bride reminded the Groom that he had not paid the preacher, so they turned around, drove back and handed me a five dollar bill with apologies.

We were now approaching the end of our second years on this circuit and it was quite certain that we would move, because that was the custom at that time. But they were pleasant years in which we made friendships that can never be forgotten, and they were fairly successful years from the standpoint of church affairs.

A few years ago, we had the privilege of visiting there again after an absence of over thirty-five years. Of course, the personnel of the town had greatly changed, an it had more than doubled in size; yet we found many old friends who were among the younger people of the town when we lived there; and I spoke again to my old organization in a new church and to a much changed congregation.

Walser, the founder of the town as a Free-thinker’s paradise was long dead and his cult had passed away. The Spiritualists had greatly disintegrated; their organization disbanded and their chapel sold. But the Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples all had flourishing churches. Such is life.

Thus after two years in the M.E. Church, I did not see very much difference between it and the M.E. Church, South, which I had left. They had exactly the same doctrinal standards and general church policy. And so far as politics are concerned, I saw less of politics in the M.E. Church than I did in the M.E. Church, South. While it is probably true that at that time most of the members of the M.E. Church were Republicans, all the members of the M.E. Church, South, were Democrats. But I heard far less general political discussions among members of the M.E. Church than I did in the South among members of the Southern branch. One marked difference I noted at the Conference at Carthage in March 1893. I have refereed to the rigid custom in the South concerning a minister knowing anything about where he might go, or the church knowing anything about the minister it might get until the appointments were read. At this Conference, any Presiding Elder introduced me to a layman I judged to be about fifty-five, who asked me to take a walk with him. He asked me much about myself and my background, and what I thought of going to his church. Of course, I was appreciative and when the appointments were read, I was sent to his church. This was at Rolla, Mo.

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