Chasing the Wild Goose

A newspaper editor on the Kansas frontier treaded a narrow path poised between boosterism and alarm bells, often forced to decide whether to paint a rosy picture designed to attract new settlers, or warn current neighbors of imminent danger.  Sometimes he had to do both simultaneously, as we observe in June 1869 issues of the Western Observer, a newspaper which was published for about fifteen months in Washington County.  The paper did a creditable job of promoting the new land, extolling the beauty and abundant resources to be found there, noting improvements which seemed to pop up overnight like toadstools.

Where only two years ago the buffalo and Indian held high carnival on the open prairie, now the white man has taken possession, and farms and villages are springing up as if by magic.  Three months ago in Jewell County there were not more than four families, where there is now in the neighborhood of 150.

However, those very same issues of the Observer contained reports about a disturbing string of events - the land’s prior owners had returned to slaughter white newcomers half-a-dozen at a time.  Settlers in Jewell County, who as the paper noted had quickly become so numerous, suddenly fled en masse leaving the white population there at zero.  

Ironically, just as the landscape started filling up with permanent residents the following year, the Western Observer ceased publication.  Tales of brain-splattered tomahawks and bloody scalping knives had been devoured avidly, spreading news about this embattled garden spot.  But, while a new wave immigrants arriving in northern Kansas would increase the paper’s circulation, it would also invite more competition.  In 1869 the Western Observer was the only newspaper being published in Washington County.  By 1870 there were four.  During the decade that followed, the number of papers competing for readers grew to seventeen.

By the time the town of Cortland (the name was soon transformed into Courtland thanks to a misspelled depot sign) became a bustling trade center in 1890, the Plains tribes had been subdued and the chief concerns for local farmers were the weather and the economic climate.  Both were bad at the moment and turning worse.  Drought was settling over the Great Plains and the booming railroad industry which kept the Gilded Age chugging forward, was about to run out of steam.  Still, newspapermen considered it their solemn duty to put a positive spin on local troubles.  

When the State Exchange Bank of Courtland closed, the editor of the Courtland Register first tried to console readers by assuring them that deposits would likely be repaid in full, being “very small.”  This was a complete about-face for the newspaper, which nine months earlier had proudly announced that “the Exchange Bank of this place has more money on deposit than is carried by any bank, in a town of this size, in the state.”  To underline the point that it had no fiscal worries, the bank itself ran two-column display ads on the front page of every edition of the Register for several weeks, through the end of July 1893, boasting of “$50,000 Cash Resources” or “$50,000 Paid Up."   

Larger papers in nearby cities recognized no obligation to soft-pedal the calamities befalling their neighbors.  The following item appeared in the Belleville Telescope and many other newspapers across Kansas - though not in Courtland.

Two Kansas Banks Wrecked.

Topeka, Kan., Aug. 14. - State Bank Commissioner Briedenthal has returned from Courtland, Republic county, and Jamestown, Cloud county, where he had been to take possession of two banks.  The managers of the banks had left the state, leaving behind little available assets for the benefit of their creditors.  The money was taken from the banks and invested in mining speculations in Colorado.

After the appointment of receivers for the two banks, F. A. Lane at Jamestown and S. C. Crummer at Courtland, it fell to another area paper, the Concordia Empire, to publish an assessment of the damage.

Joined the Crowd.

The Jamestown bank went to the wall last Friday and from rumors there appears to be considerable crookedness connected with it.  The bank of Courtland, a half brother to the Jamestown bank kept the latter company.  Both banks were owned principally by Lawyer Everest of Atchison and it appears that when the time was ripe he came out and raked in about all the securities.  The stockholders applied to have F. A. Lane appointed receiver and his appointment has been made.  

The assets of the bank as found in an examination by the directors amount on the face to about $3,000, believed to be worth not to exceed $500.  The two banks had a way of getting money by borrowing from each other;  that is each borrowed all the cash the other had and gave the bank as security.  It looks like a total loss to the depositors.  N. C. Christenson had over $1000 in the bank.  About $130 was the cash on hand when the light went out.

The pattern of arranging each Everest bank to borrow the assets of the other, would seem suspiciously familiar after the death of Col. Aaron S. Everest the following year, when his estate was found to contain thousands of dollars in promissory notes to his son Frank and other family members, who had also written promissory to each other.  The notes to Frank were designated as payment for “value received," evidently as ostensible president of the State Exchange Bank of Courtland.  It was a circular paper trail with no end, as if designed to make anyone dizzy who tried to follow it.  

Another echo of the Everest banks which reverberated through the Everest estate was the fact that the banks had been founded with the bare minimum capital of $5,000 each, while as executrix of her husband’s estate, Marie Everest was allowed to post a bond for only $2,500 - the tip of the iceberg, with respect to the eventual claims involving her husband’s business shenanigans.  The paltry amounts virtually guaranteed that no defrauded depositor would ever be paid.

No news about F. A. Lane’s findings at the Jamestown bank would ever appear in the Courtland paper, nor was there any word about S. C. Crummer’s attempt to untangle the mess at their own town’s bank.  Aaron S. Everest’s hometown newspaper, the Daily Champion, finally printed a story about one of F. A. Lane’s suits against the Everest Estate, but not until 1896.  Although not connected with his duties as a bank receiver, an item about Lane was printed by the Daily Champion shortly before the bank failures of 1893, one that would later seem amusingly appropriate.

F. A. Lane, one of our sports, killed the largest wild goose ever seen in this section of the state.  Weight after is was dressed, twelve pounds.

© Dale Switzer 2023