-by Greg Hoots-
No single structure is more iconic and fundamental to ranching heritage than the hay barn. Many of the earliest barns in the Wabaunsee County were log structures, but by 1870 stonemasons had settled in the Flint Hills, and behemoth barns of limestone and native lumber were being constructed. The story of the evolution of the hay barn can be told by examining the history of two barns in Wabaunsee County, the Wiser barn and the Schepp barn. An even more insightful look at the barns includes an examination of the men who ordered the construction of each. Both of the barns were considered to be state-of-the-art when they were constructed, although they were built twenty years apart. In both cases, the barn was a central piece of the ranch.
The Wiser barn, located nine miles southwest of Eskridge, was built in 1884 for cattle baron, John Philip “J.P.” Wiser, a New York-born stockman who resided in Prescott, Ontario where he operated an alcohol distillery.
John Wiser was born on October 4, 1825 in Trenton, New York, the son of a farmer, Isaac Wiser and Mary Egert Wiser. John was educated in the Oneida County public schools. On February 5, 1856, J. P. Wiser married Emily Godard, the daughter of the Honorable Harlow Godard of Richville, New York. Soon, Wiser took a job as the manager of the Charles Payne Distillery and Farm in Prescott, Ontario, owned by Mary Wiser’s brother, Charles Egert and his partner, Amos Averall. The distillery was located on the north banks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, approximately 100-miles north of Wiser’s birthplace in New York. In 1857, Wiser purchased an interest in the distillery, and by 1862, he had purchased the business in its entirety. J. P. and Emily Wiser had six children, five of whom survived to adulthood. His oldest, Harlow Godard Wiser, was J. P.’s “right-hand man”, overseeing both the distillery in Ontario and the cattle operation in Kansas.
Wiser learned that the spent grain from the whiskey-making process could be fed to cattle with excellent results, and he established a large feed lot next to his distillery. Wiser’s distillery created alcohol through the cooking of fermented grains from which the alcohol vapor was captured, condensed, filtered, aged, and packaged. When operating at full production, Wiser’s distillery produced 900 bushels of spent grain or “slops” per day. It is noteworthy that Wiser’s cattle feedlot was located only a few feet from his distillery. Wiser’s distillery feedlot could accommodate 1,000 cattle and operated year-round. Wiser’s ranch “harvested” the manure from the feedlot to use as fertilizer for his farm’s cropland, and his stock farm was considered to be the finest in the Dominion.
Wiser’s distillery introduced bottled whiskey to the public at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Prior to that innovation, whiskey had only been sold in barrels or casks. By 1894, Wiser’s distillery under the direction of Harlow Wiser increased its whiskey production to about 500,000 gallons per year.
Wiser’s business interests were diverse, as were his personal achievements. In addition to owning the distillery which employed more than 100 men, Wiser owned a brick manufacturing company which had 40 employees, and his 600-acre ranch at Prescott, the Rysdyk Stock Farm along with his feed lot, employed another thirty men. Wiser also owned the Prescott Elevator Company, a major grain trading enterprise, and he served on the board of directors of the Montreal Lighterage Company, which owned and operated barge-like boats which unloaded freight from seagoing vessels on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Wiser also served on the board of directors of the Montreal Stock Yards Company and the Imperial Starch Company.
From 1878 to 1882 J. P. Wiser served as a member of the Canadian Parliament in the House of Commons. In an amazing feat, Wiser was elected in 1878 in absentia without any campaigning on his part; in fact, while the campaign and the election were underway, Wiser was not even in Canada, as he was in the states managing his stock business.
In the early 1880s, Wiser was elected president of the Dominion Cattle Company, a corporate cattle empire which ran tens of thousands of head of beef on 1,750,000-acres of leased Cherokee land located in Indian Territory in the panhandle. The Caldwell Daily Standard of June 19, 1884 reported on the company’s early success, “The Dominion Cattle Company, which has 97,000 cattle on 234,000 acres of the Cherokee reservation, which it leased for two cents an acre from the United States government, has thus far proved a decided success. Last year its capital stock amounted to almost $950,000, out of which a dividend of 50% has been declared.” The property along “the strip” had long been disputed in litigation that was headed to the United States Supreme Court, but the real battle was being fought on the ground. Much of the land had been accurately dubbed, “no-man’s-land.” Wiser rightly feared that the massive grazing land that he controlled in the panhandle district was a short-lived luxury, and in response to the real possibility that the nearly two-million acres which the Dominion Cattle Company used might soon disappear, Wiser began purchasing land in the Kansas Flint Hills in 1881. The majority of his purchases were made in southern Wabaunsee County and northern Lyon County. By 1884, the Wiser Ranch in Kansas contained nearly 7,500 acres of land with 2,000 head of cattle and 1,800 hogs.
Wiser purchased eleven sections of land along the Wabaunsee-Lyon county line, and he employed stonemasons to enclose the property and establish corrals with twenty-two miles of stone fence. The ranch also had nine miles of interior wire fences which were strung on cedar posts imported from Canada. In 1884, J. P. Wiser contracted with Eskridge stonemason, C. McNair to construct a massive three-story stone barn as a center-point of his ranch in southern Wabaunsee County. McNair employed ten stonemasons and four stone-cutters, along with ten carpenters, twelve laborers, and seven teamsters in constructing the barn. A windmill protruded from center of the barn’s roof which pumped water from a well in the basement for the livestock, while providing power for feed grinding and mixing equipment. The windmill and the associated equipment were designed and installed by civil engineer, Dion Geraldine of Topeka at a cost of $8,000. More than forty-five men worked on the barn’s construction to ensure its timely completion by the beginning of fall. The Wiser Ranch also contained nine residences and a bunkhouse dormitory, as well as a variety of other sheds, barns, and outbuildings.
When the big barn was officially completed, Harlow Wiser planned a barbecue and barn dance to celebrate its opening, sending engraved invitations to hundreds for an October 30, 1884 event. The Emporia Democrat of November 4, 1884 reported on the gala party. “The completion of the new stone barn on the Wiser ranch which is located about twenty-five miles north of this city was celebrated on last Thursday by a grand barbecue and dance in which some five hundred people from Emporia and the country surrounding the ranch took part. The fine weather and the excellent condition of the roads made the drive across the country very pleasant, which was heightened by the novelty of the occasion. Buggies loaded with merry individuals began arriving shortly after 10 o’clock and from that on till one o’clock they could be seen strung out for miles along the road leading to the ranch until at least five hundred people had arrived to take part in the festivities.”
The barn-warming event began with dinner at 1:00 pm, followed by field sports commencing at 2:00 pm, and a barbecue at 5:00 pm, before the dancing began in the barn at 8:00 pm. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises found in a first-hand account of the party authored by J. T. Van Derlip, a stonemason who worked on the barn’s construction, was the alcohol-free rule for the party. Van Derlip said it “was just the gayest affair that I ever saw on the proud prairies of Kansas, and no intoxicating liquor was allowed to be brought into the celebration.” Reportedly, the party lasted throughout the night, and many attendees did not begin their journey home until the next morning.
An oddity at the Wiser Ranch was the presence of a pet Canadian black bear which amazed and amused visitors to the ranch. In the late summer of 1887, the bear escaped its pen at the ranch, and for some time it roamed the southwest portion of Wabaunsee County. The Alma Enterprise of September 9, 1887 reported on the unfortunate end to the escape. “The black bear that escaped from Wiser’s ranch some time ago and had been playing havoc with the watermelon patches near Chalk Mound, was shot and killed last week by a son of Frank Cooper, four miles north of Chalk Mound. Several parties were hunting bruin in the timber, when he came out of the bushes near young Cooper, who was armed with a shot gun loaded with four balls.”
By 1887, J. P. Wiser’s second-oldest son, Frank, had moved to Wabaunsee County with his wife to live on the Wiser ranch and manage the Kansas stock farm. Various documents throughout the 1880s alternately show Harlow Wiser and Frank Wiser as managers of the Kansas ranch.
The Wiser barn became known far and wide, appearing in newspapers and etchings, including a full-page view in the 1887 Everts Atlas of Kansas. Wiser cattle and horses were known worldwide, and by 1894 a movement was underway in south Wabaunsee and north Lyon Counties to create a new county, “Wiser County, Kansas”. The plan called for land to be taken from the northern edge of Lyon County and likewise from the southern section of Wabaunsee County to form the new county. The city of Allen was to be named the county seat, and a railway depot was to be constructed on the Wiser Ranch. The plan was not to be.
Almost simultaneously, the Wiser cattle empire suffered serious setbacks, first triggered by the closing of the Cherokee Strip in 1893. The Wisers had long-relied on nearly 2-million acres of unfenced pasture in the panhandle district, and the loss of unfettered access to that land was disastrous to the Dominion Cattle Company and J. P. Wiser.
A more terrible tragedy struck on June 5, 1895. Harlow Wiser, while on a trip to Prescott, died suddenly of a heart attack two days short of his 36th birthday. Harlow had managed the Cherokee Strip ranch and the distillery in Ontario and was instrumental in organizing the Kansas ranch. The loss of his eldest son was a tremendous blow to J. P. Wiser. While Harlow’s younger brother, Frank assisted his brother both at the distillery and managing the Kansas ranch, Harlow Wiser’s death was too much for his father. J. P. Wiser immediately decided to cease ranching in Kansas. In August and September of 1895, Wiser held two major cattle sales, as the ranch reduced its stock. The final auction, held on September 10-12, 1895, involved about 700 head of Hereford cattle, including 125 registered head which were sold individually, while the balance was sold in in lots. Newspapers reported that more than 1,200 people attended the September auction. In 1896, Wiser’s longtime ranch foreman, W. H. Patton, leased the Wiser Ranch in Wabaunsee and Lyon counties, operating it for three years.
The elder Wiser began to take steps to remove himself entirely from ranching in the United States. The Dominion Cattle Company declared bankruptcy, effectively ending that phase of his cattle business. While he continued to operate his distillery and feedlot in Ontario, in 1899 Wiser found an opportunity to divest himself of his Kansas property, selling the ranch and the remaining 1,000 head of cattle. The Alma Enterprise of June 16, 1899 reported that, “the Wiser Ranch recently sold to McIntosh of Kansas City and Waugh Bros. of Eskridge for $120,000, cash.”
After disposing of his ranch in Kansas, J. P. Wiser devoted much of his time to his stock farm in Ontario. On December 22, 1907, Wiser’s wife, Emily passed away, creating a huge void in J. P. Wiser’s life. His own health was failing, necessitating a change in his lifestyle. On April 20, 1911, J. P. Wiser passed away. The Ogdensburg Journal reported on Wiser’s final days, “After the death of Mrs. Wiser, Mr. Wiser’s health, which had been failing for some time, became more delicate, necessitating his passing his winters in Florida. During the month of March, he was so enfeebled that he started homeward, resting in New York. After a stay of three weeks, he had a stroke of paralysis…he was conveyed to his home in Prescott, where he died Sunday afternoon.”
There had been considerable speculation as to Wiser’s motivation for selling the Kansas ranch in 1899, and a story appeared in the press after the sale, claiming that Wiser had been forced to sell the ranch because of the “Alien Act” which allegedly prohibited the ownership of property by “aliens.” There was no truth to that story, and the inaccuracies in the article are numerous. First and foremost, J. P. Wiser was an American citizen. He was born in New York, as was his wife. Secondly, the “Alien Act” in fact did not prohibit foreigners from owning land, instead it allowed any aliens who owned land to keep it until their death, and then their heirs would have three years to obtain citizenship or sell the property. Finally, consider if you will, that the Waugh brothers, who were two of the three purchasers of the Wiser Ranch, were born in Canada, unlike Wiser who was born in the United States. The story’s origin was most likely rooted in ignorance, as was the “Alien Act.”
Five months after purchasing the Wiser Ranch, Waugh and McIntosh sold about 4,000 acres of the property to Edward Swift of the Swift Meat Packing Co. family. In 1902, Swift sold at least 960 acres of his portion of the Wiser Ranch in Wabaunsee County, including the giant barn, to Charles Coffman. The Coffman family has owned the property since that time.
In the 1970s a two-story section of the center of the north wall of the barn collapsed without warning. The Coffman family hired stonemasons to repair and re-lay the failed wall, and repairs were made to sections of the aging roof. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the Wiser barn was used in ranching, but as the building had been designed for the storage of loose hay, it had simply outlasted its usefulness.
By 2000, the multiple-level roofs of the massive barn began to fail, slowly but surely. A decision had to be made to repair the roof or abandon the barn, and the latter was chosen. The barn’s value in agriculture was far less than the cost of maintaining the building. In the early 2000s, a strong thunderstorm from the southwest ripped tin from the roof and side of the barn. Within five years, the barn began to collapse, and today it is leveled.
The Schepp barn, constructed in 1905 by Alma, Kansas stonemason, August Falk, was located in Farmer Township, seven miles southwest of Alma. John Ludwig Schepp, often known as “Louie” or “J. L.” by his friends, was a very successful rancher and land baron when he contracted for the construction of the mammoth stone barn at his family’s ranch. The history of the ranch was a long one; by the time J. L. Schepp built the new barn in 1905, his family had been farming that Wabaunsee County property for almost fifty years.
The Muehlenbacher family settled on Illinois Creek in the summer of 1857, including three brothers, Johann, Friedrich and Peter, their sisters, Margaretha (Schepp) and Louise, and their mother, M. Margaretha Muehlenbacher. The younger Margaretha Muehlenbacher married a Deep Creek rancher, Frederick Schepp, and on October 29, 1867 a son, John Ludwig Schepp was born. The Schepps divorced when John was still a toddler, and he and his mother returned to the Muehlenbacher ranch to live. By that time, the brothers had made considerable investments in land, cattle, and mortgages, and the ranch had grown to more than two-thousand acres. Frugality was the hallmark of the brothers’ success. Despite the presence of a two-story stone house on the property, the family resided in the log cabin where they first settled, while they used the stone house as a granary.
Despite their considerable success in ranching, land, and investments, the Muehlenbachers were beset with bad luck. All three of the Muehlenbacher brothers were civil war veterans and had returned to the family farm in Wabaunsee County after the war. In 1880, Friedrich Muehlenbacher, the middle brother, was found dead in an apparent suicide, hung from a grapevine in a tree in the timber on the family farm. In 1883, Johann Ludwig Muehlenbacher, the eldest member of the family, was killed in an accident while cutting a tree on the family farm.
Then, less than a year later, on March 17, 1894, three robbers descended on the Muehlenbacher ranch at dusk as Peter Muehlenbacher, Margaretha Schepp, J. L. Schepp, and hired man, Frank Walker were seated at the small dinner table, eating their evening meal. Three men, intent on robbing the farm family, approached the log cabin, first firing a shot at the front door before entering the home and immediately shooting Peter Muehlenbacher in the chest. The mortally wounded man fell forward, grabbing his arms around the shooter’s ankles in what The Alma Signal called “a death grip.” The robber fired more shots, one bullet narrowly missing Margaretha, while another round struck sixteen-year-old J. L. Schepp in his side. The shooter backed from the cabin, the dying man still gripping the killer’s legs. The robber fired another shot from his pistol, striking Peter Muehlenbacher in the back of the head, killing him instantly. As the intruder stood in the yard in front of the doorway, reloading his pistol, J. L. Schepp, bleeding badly, loaded a lead ball into his double-barrel shotgun, pointing the end of the weapon through an open window of the cabin. Schepp pulled the trigger, and the man fell to the ground before recovering and running into the night. Three men, Jerry Carpenter, his brother Chris Carpenter, and Tom McClain were tried for the crime. Jerry Carpenter, wounded by Schepp in the commission of the crime, confessed to his captors, saying that he had done the shooting, but that his brother and McClain were in the cabin with him and assisted him in fleeing in his wounded condition. Both of the Carpenter brothers were convicted of the crime of murder and sentenced first to death and then to life imprisonment for the murder of Peter Muehlenbacher. Tom McClain was tried in Wabaunsee County District Court, as well, and was acquitted by a jury which deliberated on McClain’s fate for twelve hours.
In a postscript to the crime, Chris Carpenter died in the Kansas State Penitentiary, while his brother’s sentence was commuted by Governor Stubbs in 1912, because Jerry Carpenter had prevented rioting prisoners from accessing the “powder house” at the prison coal mine. Upon learning of the governor’s consideration of a commutation of sentence for Jerry Carpenter, J. L. Schepp wrote the state’s leader, protesting any release of the convicted murderer, to no avail. Carpenter was released from prison the week of Christmas, 1912.
By the time John Ludwig Schepp reached twenty years old, he was an established cattleman in the county of some reputation. Schepp contracted with an Alma stonemason, August Falk in 1905 to construct a huge limestone barn at the ranch on Illinois Creek. Dubbed “a whopper” by The Alma Enterprise, the three-story barn measured 40×80-feet in size and sported a 38×64-foot granary on the west side of the building. A sawmill was established on the site to cut lumber for the interior of the barn and the granary. Under the granary, a large arched-ceiling water reservoir was built to store the runoff from the expansive roof of the barn, and plumbing was installed down the hillside for a cattle-watering tank that was gravity-fed.
In July of 1913 Margaretha Schepp died from typhoid fever at her home on Illinois Creek at the age of 75-years. Her son, J. L. Schepp was her only heir. For the next thirty years, Schepp excelled in ranching, expanding his holdings to over 4,000 acres, becoming known as one of the county’s top producers of cattle and hogs. Both Margaretha and J. L. Schepp made many loans to Wabaunsee County farmers and businessmen. During the 1890s, the number of mortgages that Schepp and his mother held exceeded those of the Alma banks. J. L. Schepp sat on the board of directors of the Alma National Bank, and he was a long-serving trustee of Farmer Township.
The Alma Enterprise of August 17, 1934 reports on the death of J. L. Schepp. “This community lost a man last Thursday that they could ill afford to lose when Louis Schepp died about 6 o’clock that evening. Just shortly after the Enterprise was in the post office, word came that he had died in his car on the road south of Herman Grensing’s, evidently from the heat and a heart attack. He had trouble with the car and evidently had been working with it and had backed in the ditch along the road when Mr. Grensing came by and found him, and he died a few minutes later. He had not been well for a year or more and it was thought he was on the way to Alta Vista to see the doctor when he had this last attack. Although in no shape to do so, he kept at work every day and had phoned Henry Redemske that afternoon to come after a truck load of hogs that night.
Louie Schepp was our idea of a useful citizen. He owned much property and had been worth a lot of money, and he used that property and money for the benefit of his community. He was one of the most extensive cattle and hog raisers and feeders in this section of Kansas for many years. He controlled over 4,000 acres of land southwest of Alma and on Rock Creek and always had from 600 to 1,000 heard of cattle on his place. He provided a good cash market for all the surplus corn and feed around Volland and on Rock Creek and he employed many men. Every man who worked for him and tried to do the right thing, was his friend. He was fair and square in all his dealings and loaned money to many a poor man who was trying to get a start and get along in the world.
His tragic and sudden death recalled memories of the deaths of his three uncles, the Muehlenbacher brothers, who all died from unnatural causes. The only close relatives he left are his two half-brothers, Albert and Herman Schepp of Deep Creek.
John Ludwig Schepp was born on Deep Creek, October 29, 1867 and practically all his life had been spent on the big farm on Illinois Creek in this county. He had never married. His whole life was devoted to his business. The stone barn he built was probably the largest in the county and was his pride for many years. One of his delights was to have the biggest and best load of steers on the Kansas City and Chicago market every season and to top the market with them. He had lost heavily in the cattle and farming business in recent years and the big estate had shrunken much from its value in the prosperous times, but Louie spent but little time complaining. He was too busy.
Even in his most prosperous days, the things that appeal to so man did not interest him. He lived simply and frugally. He drove his old car and spent little on clothes or household conveniences. But his going will be a big loss to a large section of this county that had come to depend on him in so many ways and who went to him whenever they needed help.”
Like many ranches and farms, in the seventy-five-year history of the Muehlenbacher and Schepp ranch, the property was mortgaged regularly to acquire capital for livestock and equipment. When Schepp died suddenly in August of 1934, he had an outstanding mortgage of just over $17,000 on his ranch. J. L. Schepp had never married, and his only relatives were two half-brothers, Albert and Herman Schepp of Manhattan, Kansas. The heirs to J. L. Schepp’s estate chose to let the farm go to repossession after disposing of the livestock. Sheriff C. R. McCauley held a sheriff’s sale on November 23, 1936 to satisfy the repossession action by the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co. The high bidder was the mortgage holder, as no one’s bid exceeded the outstanding balance of $18,213.50. Penn Mutual held the property until July 28, 1943 when they sold the land to the partnership of McComb and Hubbert, while simultaneously issuing a mortgage in the amount of $17,000. McComb and Hubbert leased the property to local ranchers for seventeen years before selling the Schepp Ranch on September 6, 1960 to Edward Brinkman who formed the Brinkman Ranch.
In 1950 Lee McComb had assigned the first oil and gas lease on the property, and during the years of ownership by the Brinkman family, numerous oil and gas leases and assignments were made on the ranch.
For the next 34 years, the Schepp Ranch was part of the Brinkman Ranch. During those years, a handful of local ranchers leased the Brinkman Ranch pastures, and the barns received some use but little maintenance. By the 1990s, the Schepp barn was in need of a new roof. Water had made its way to the first floor, damaging the massive floor joists. Of the three cupolas that once adorned the roof, only one remained, and it was collapsing into the barn. It was a pivotal point in the history and the future of the barn.
In July of 1994, the Brinkman family sold the Schepp Ranch to Anthony J. Aniello. Aniello owned the property for just five months before selling it to H-Z Inc. in December of that year. Don Hazlett of Lawrence, Kansas was the principal owner of H-Z Inc. and the new owner of the Schepp ranch. Hazlett immediately addressed the failing condition of the historic barn. The barn was re-roofed and the last cupola removed. Several massive floor joists were replaced as the water damage was mitigated. Turnbuckles were installed on the corners of the building in an attempt to thwart the movement of the walls.
After owning the property for a dozen years, Hazlett sold the Schepp Ranch to Ron and Kelly Lockton. The Locktons immediately began the restoration of the large frame horse barn and a similar dairy barn on the ranch, before beginning a massive restoration of the stone hay barn. Flint Hills stonemason, Luke Koch and crew were hired to restore and re-point the huge stone barn, and major sections of the walls were removed to the ground level and re-laid. Paul Schutter of S & S Contracting rebuilt the interior of the barn, replacing the floor with tongue-and-grove, 2-inch barn flooring, throughout. A new roof was installed as rafters and sheeting were restored. To say that the restoration left no stone unturned would be both literally and figuratively correct.
Today, the Schepp barn, located on the Lockton Ranch, is the finest barn in the Flint Hills, barring none.
On the night of August 15, 2019, a thunderstorm generated a tornado that ripped across the Lockton Ranch property, leveling the “horse barn,” a long frame barn just northwest of the stone hay barn. For more than half of a century, the horse barn was the location of barn dances hosted on the Schepp ranch. In addition to the loss of the horse barn, a detached garage located at the “hired-man’s” house was destroyed, and the north wall of the newly-restored granary located on the west side of the stone barn was damaged by storm winds. Reportedly, the Locktons have made plans to rebuild the horse barn and repair the damage to the granary.
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