About 80 people on Saturday heard about the lives of early Parsonians, many of whom had rich histories and were pioneers in their own right.
The “unorthodox” tour of Oakwood Cemetery featured brief stories of 16 of some of Parsons earliest citizens, many of them buried at Oakwood. Local historians Mike Brotherton and Dave Mattox studied the lives of businessmen and former slaves who found a home and a voice in Parsons. The walking tour took less than two hours and was reminiscent of the tours organized by late Parsons historian Maynard Harding.
“We didn’t want to try to outdo Maynard Harding, who started these tours. We would never be able to outdo his legacy in terms of history in the community, and especially at Oakwood,” Brotherton said.
Graves visited included one in the original Grand Army of the Republic circle at Oakwood. The gazebo and flagpole base had been freshly painted by city crews, creating a bright backdrop for the tour. Other graves visited were in some of the original blocks and lots of the cemetery. A couple of the people discussed aren’t even buried in Oakwood.
J.J. Pierson and W.K. Hayes opened, arguably, one of the first — if not the first — stores in Parsons. Pierson arrived in Parsons in 1870 and Hayes in 1869, both before the city became incorporated in March 1871.
Pierson and Hayes had different paths before they joined each other in commerce. Pierson had cut wood along Labette Creek when he first came to the area. Hayes had a small store on Labette Creek, but not in Parsons.
Pierson and Hayes joined forces in 1870 with the store that included a post office. The store moved several times and Pierson took over its operation in 1878. In 1893, Pierson erected a large building at 111-113 Central to house the business.
He sold the book and stationary part of his business in 1895 and dedicated the store to groceries.
Pierson lived at 1812 Stevens with his family and retired in 1915 after 46 years of operating a business in Parsons. Hayes was involved in city operations, served on the Parsons water company, on the school board and was Parsons’ first postmaster. Hayes married twice and had seven children.
When they operated their store together, one of them had to make weekly wagon trips to Fort Scott to restock. The trip took three days.
Brotherton noted that they were business partners and now spend eternity about 50 yards apart at Oakwood. “They’re still kind of together,” he said.
John Sipple was another businessman. He, too, arrived in the area in 1870, before Parsons was a city. He operated a store in Dayton, which is near current day Labette City. He moved that store to Parsons.
He served on the city council in Parsons. It was on his motion that the council passed a law prohibiting hogs from running at large in the city.
“So this man right here, you can thank him that there’s not hogs running at large in the city anymore,” Mattox said.
Brotherton said it’s difficult to say if Pierson and Hayes had the first store in Parsons or if Sipple did. But the three of them had the first such businesses in Parsons.
Several people featured on the tour served in the Civil War and came to Southeast Kansas when Americans were searching for a new life.
Lt. Willis W. Wood came to Parsons in 1870. He served in Vermont, was wounded in 1864 and mustered out in 1865, Mattox said. He got a job on the Katy Railroad and died in 1871. He was the first person buried in Parsons, though it was in a cemetery in the Weeks addition. When Oakwood opened, Wood’s wife wanted him buried in it. The family moved the body to Oakwood in 1921. She was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and before she died requested that her husband’s body be relocated there. So on May 21, 1921, Willis Wood’s body was moved by railroad, along with his headstone, to Arlington. Mattox found Wood’s and his wife’s graves on a visit to Arlington.
“We picked him because he’s one of the few people I know who’s basically had three funerals,” Brotherton said.
Peter Hogan was another Civil War veteran, serving in the 151st Kentucky Infantry. He’s buried in the Grand Army of the Republic circle. He was the last surviving Civil War veteran in Parsons when he died at age 98.
Brotherton said Hogan was born a slave in 1842. As a teenager, he and his brother, Reuben, ran from the plantation near Bowling Green, Kentucky, and traveled to a Union recruiting station to enlist. Peter Hogan became a sharpshooter. He was at the Appomattox Courthouse when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.
He lived at 1530 Clark for many years. This house was the original store building from 16th and Thornton used by Pierson and Hayes. In 1938, Hogan attended the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, accompanied by his son, Roy. Soldiers camped on the battleground for a week in July to commemorate one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War.
Hogan was a barber in Parsons and had a shop in the Matthewson Hotel. He and his wife, Mattie, had eight children.
James French was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1831. He served in the Union Army in Kentucky and after his service moved to Parsons. He lived in a house in the 1800 block of Clark for nearly 50 years. He was well liked and Mattox said his home was the gathering spot for the Black community. French also served as the Labette County coroner and was active in the local Republican Party. French and his wife, Tuscarrora, had two children.
Washington Davis came to town in 1879 with his wife, Hannah. He was born into slavery in Georgia about 1835. He moved to Texas after the war then to Parsons. They lived at 1324 Thornton for 39 years and were members of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. He cast his first vote in 1876 in the presidential election that placed Grant in the White House. He was well known for his weather forecasting and prognostications. The Sun at the time featured several articles about his forecasting. He and his wife survived smallpox in 1901.
Davis walked with his cane every day to the Sun to buy “his paper.” If he failed to show up by 4 p.m., workers knew something was wrong. Davis died in 1917.
Davis and his wife are two of hundreds of Black migrants traveling out of the south after the war. From 1879 to 1881, the Black population in Parsons quadrupled from 39 to 154. These migrants were called exodusters. The city of Parsons tried to find or create shelter for them. Some ended up in tents along Labette Creek during cold winters.
“So it wasn’t an easy life for them. And like many of those in those circumstances, when they died, they are in unmarked graves in what is called potter’s field,” Brotherton said, including Davis and his wife.
Potter’s field at Oakwood is in the southwest loop of the cemetery where sparse headstones are located. Mattox said city records show that more than 960 people are buried in potter’s field because they had little or no money for burial or a headstone. The county had its own potter’s field in another area of the cemetery. The last burial on city books in potter’s field was in 1932, Mattox said.
Mattox said a lot of exodusters unfortunately ended up there. In some cases, their families gathered friends to dig a grave. The city provided a casket and families buried their loved ones.
Aritha Dorsey Clayton’s grave was another stop on the tour. Her parents were exodusters. She attended Hobson Normal Institute, a Black school. The family homestead was at 2313 Grand. Her father, E.W. Dorsey, founded the Parsons Weekly Blade, a Black-run newspaper. Aritha was a beauty operator and married Simeon Clayton, a gifted musician.
One of Aritha and Simeon’s children, Wilbur, became a famous trumpeter, Buck Clayton. He was born in Parsons in 1911 and died in 1991.
Adam Darkis was another exoduster. He was a laborer in Parsons. He and his wife, Mary, had nine children. He opened a hotel and grocery at 2129 Grand in 1906 called Darkis Hotel. The hotel had a checkered history. He later worked for the Katy Railroad and later was enveloped in the back to Africa movement when a recruiter came to Parsons and convinced him to travel to Africa to a better life. The movement was racially motivated. Darkis traveled as far as Cuba before he became ill and had to return to the United States.
Darkis returned to Parsons. He died in New York in 1946.
Richard Fulton of Parsons, who attended Saturday’s tour, said he is Darkis’ great-grandson.
Other names on the tour:
Mattox and Brotherton also visited the grave of Dr. George Gabriel, who was the first physician in Parsons and had an office above the Pierson and Hays store. He was involved in local and state politics.
Millard Kohler came to Parsons from Pennsylvania. He operated a jewelry store in Parsons for a number of years. He had a 10-foot tall grandfather clock outside his store for many years.
During World War II, the one-ton clock was scrapped for $8.55. Kohler was 7 when he and his father heard Lincoln recite his Gettysburg Address in 1863.
Charles Rasbach was an entrepreneur and built and ran the Belmont House, the first hotel in Parsons. He later managed the Abbott House and then the famous 100-room Matthewson Hotel.
A.O. Brown worked for the Katy Railroad and settled in Parsons in 1871. He served on the city council, too, and built a large house at 1600 Broadway. His first wife died and is buried in Oakwood. Brown remarried. His second wife didn’t want her husband buried with his first wife in Oakwood, so Brown and his second wife are buried in Memorial Lawn Cemetery.
Abraham Cary was a real estate developer. He served on the city council and was known as a fearless sort. His other claim to fame is historical. On March 8, 1871, he bought the first lots sold for the newly incorporated Parsons, lots 14, 15 and 16 of Block 42 at Central and Broadway. There, he built the first business block in Parsons in 1871, where Sun Graphics is now.
John Holcomb had a short life in Parsons and was killed in 1874 working for the Katy Railroad. He had a 1-year-old son at home and his wife was pregnant with his second child. The railroad was a dangerous job. Brotherton said Oakwood Cemetery’s burial logs sometimes showed the cause of death for those buried. Many names had “R.R.” beside their name, indicating a railroad accident killed them. Holcomb’s son joined the Katy, too. He died at 35 working in the Katy yards, 34 years to the month after his father died.
J.F. Standiford was a photographer and he moved to Parsons in late 1882 or early 1883 from Muskogee, Oklahoma. He opened a photo gallery on the north side of Johnson Avenue and advertised himself as “the people’s photographer.” His wife, Sarah, joined his business in 1885. He sold his business and moved to Fort Scott in 1893.