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LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — C.H. Strong started a town of his own

J.T. Knoll
Dr. Charles Strong

The following is excerpted from The Genesis of Girard by William C. Cuthbertson, the centennial edition of the Pittsburg Headlight-Sun and The Joplin Globe. — J.T.K.

Crawford County, organized February 13, 1867, was named after Samuel J. Crawford, then governor of Kansas, who also gave his name to the town of Crawfordsville (once located two miles west of Girard on Hwy 57).

In 1867 the Fort Scott Weekly Monitor stated: “There has been two buildings erected on the town site in the last week: another under contract, 22 by 28 feet, two stories high, to be commenced immediately for school purposes and to hold courts in. There will be a saw mill put up this fall … A grocery and dry goods store would do a good business, as there is nothing of the kind in that section of the country; also a drug store is needed, as there is no chance of getting medicine short of Ft. Scott.

In February of 1868 Dr. C.H. Strong set out from Crawfordsville on an expedition that spelled the doom of the town as the county seat. He shot a deer on what now is the lawn of the courthouse at Girard and marked the spot, naming it Girard after his hometown in Pennsylvania. Late in his life he wrote the following concerning the incident:

“While at Crawfordsville I applied to the town company for a lot, but purchase or otherwise, on which to put my drug store, which as then at Cato, but I was put off. Knowing to the voice of the people as to the county seat, I mounted my horse, Bob, on the 28th day of February, my birthday, and shouldered my old carbine.

“I told John Foss and J.T. Bridgens I was going to hunt for a deer and a county seat. I got the deer and dressed him near the southwest corner of where the courthouse now stands.

“While the deer was struggling after the shot, I hunted a sprig about four feet long, pulled up some grass, tied it to the top and wrote the name ‘Girard’ for my home in Pennsylvania.”

When Strong got back to Crawfordsville he told the officials to just forget his lot … that he was ‘starting a town of his own.’ In July of 1868 he organized the Girard Town Company, which led to the laying out of Girard.

According to an 1870 article in The Kansas City Journal, Girard had 150 houses, six hotels, four eating houses, over 20 businesses, three livery stables, four lumber yards, 12 saloons, seven law and land offices, and several doctors. The Odd Fellows were building a hall.

Unlike many other communities in Southeast Kansas, Girard, home to 2,800 people, was never a mining town.

“That’s rare because when a majority of the towns were started — Pittsburg, Frontenac, Galena — they were basically mining towns,” said Terri Harley, president of Friends of Historic Girard in a Joplin Globe article about the town’s sesquicentennial.

“Girard was kind of a cultural center for all of that, actually. We had the schools, the opera houses, theaters, a trolley and shopping centers. That made it kind of unique.”

Girard also was a hotbed of socialism in its early years, beginning when J.A. Wayland moved to the city in the late 1800s with his socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason. “It was a once-a-week paper when he was printing it, and they would send out 250 tons a week,” Harley said. “It was the largest weekly newspaper on the face of the earth, is what they say, at that time.”

J.A. Wayland gained worldwide notoriety not only because of his newspaper but for his connections with notables like Upton Sinclair, Mother Jones and Margaret Sanger, according to Harley.

“Wayland committed suicide at his home in Girard in 1912,” Harley said. “His wife had died, he had lost a daughter, and the government was constantly after him.”

The paper was eventually purchased by Appeal to Reason editor, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius and his wife, Marcet. As the readership declined during and after WWI, they moved to publishing the Little Blue Books. Their goal was to get great works of literature, a wide range of ideas, common sense knowledge and various points of view out to as large an audience as possible. At approximately 3½ by 5 inches they easily fit into a workingman's back pocket or shirt pocket.

The books were produced, marketed and sold so well that Haldeman-Julius was dubbed “The Henry Ford of Literature.”

An even earlier Girard entrepreneur was Franklin Playter. Originally from Canada, he moved to Girard from Ft. Scott to set up a law practice, form a real estate business and construct a bank, the first brick business building in the county (it still stands on the south side of the square).

It was just the first of many "firsts" associated with Playter who moved on from Girard to join with Joplin businessmen to bring railroads through from Joplin and Kansas City and plot the city of Pittsburg at the center of the Weir-Pittsburg coalfield.

There’s plenty more to learn about the history of Girard. A good place to start is the Girard History Museum located in what was formerly St. John’s Episcopal Church, built in 1888. It’s closed this week due to the weather but its regular hours are: Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Also by appointment by calling Terri at 620-238-1706.

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309.