Hard Times In Gumbo

We’re not sure exactly how Ben Stofer ran afoul of the law in 1894, only that his local township provided plenty of company in the Jewell County Courthouse.

Earlier in the year, James Manning and John Paugh, two young men from the Lovewell area, pleaded guilty to stealing thirteen head of cattle from a neighbor’s pasture and driving most of them to Jewell City, where the thieves had hoped to make a quick sale.  Ben Stofer’s brother Jake, charged as an accessory, was acquitted.  According one newspaper, the accusation against Jake Stofer apparently arose because Jake testified against Manning and Paugh, who retaliated by implicating him in the cattle theft, claiming that he had been part of their gang.

Ben Stofer’s legal problems may have stemmed from the same source, although it’s hard to tell for sure simply from reading old newspapers, which printed no details about Ben’s arrest or the indictment against him.  Ben and Jake’s brother Burr, or “Bursy,” did not escape the dragnet.  The names of all three young Stofer men were listed when fee bills for the recent term of district court came up for approval at a county commission meeting in January 1895.  Listed once by name, either Ben or Burr was named in a second indictment as “B Stofer.”

As the local justice of the peace or police judge, Thomas Lovewell’s friend James William Logan presided over prelimary hearings for the three men.  Logan presented a fee bill of $7.80 for “State vs B and J Stofer,” as well as one for “State vs Bursy Stofer,” amounting to $10.30.  Logan was not involved in Bringing Paugh and Manning to justice, a process which cost Jewell County the modest sum of $78.90.  The largest fee bill listed in January was for “State vs Ben Stofer 201.20.”  Jake Stofer had been swiftly acquitted, while Manning and Paugh pleaded guilty.  Ben saw the legal process through to the end, resulting in a longer trial but no punishment, except for a tongue-lashing - at least according to the November 23, 1894 edition of the Western Advocate:

The jury in the case of the State vs. Benjamin Stofer returned a verdict of not guilty, with a recommendation that the court give the defendant a lecture.   

The jury in Mankato may have decided that while Ben was certainly up to something that warranted a good talking-to, his culpability did not rise to the level of a crime.  It’s also possible that the lecture had less to do with alleged wrongdoing, than his courtroom demeanor.  

Discovering Ben Stofer’s youthful run-in with the law, adds another bit of detail to the portrait of Thomas Lovewell as a frontier father with a growing son-in-law problem.  Two eligible bachelors who would later wed Thomas’s two youngest daughters, were arrested and prosecuted in Jewell County, Kansas, in 1894.  One year later, after being run to ground in Kansas City, Thomas Lovewell’s current son-in-law T. C. Smith was hauled back home to face embezzlement charges.  Home, by then, was Dodge City, but Smith had been station agent a few years previously at Lovewell, where his predecessor had committed exactly the same crime.

Although lawlessness seemed to be on the upswing, it was commonly blamed on outsiders, rootless drifters aiming to cause trouble.  In 1901 the Jewell County Monitor announced that after enduring an era of infamy “the metropolis of Sinclair township” had turned a corner.

This town has been called “hard luck town” and been dubbed “Gumbo” and been looked down on because she had the misfortune to have a number of her transient citizens photographed for the rogues’ gallery.

“Gumbo” was a term for worthless soil, suited for nothing except producing a mud that clumped to the sides and soles of shoes.  As late as 1910 a column of White Rock news items noted sneeringly that “John Miller drove to Gumbo Thursday.”  However, most of the lads facing magistrates and juries in 1894-5 had not been “transients” passing through the streets of “Gumbo.”  The Stofer boys were sons of local gentry, a respected and well-to-do cattleman.  Another name that came up in legal fees presented to the Jewell County Council, was one that surprised me as much as it had his neighbors.  An update on his situation followed in 1895:  

Last week the people of this county were much surprised by the announcement that Willard Woodruff of Sinclair township, had left for parts unkown, leaving many creditors, among them being the school district of which he was treasurer.  The loss to the district amounts to a little over $500.  Woodruff was one of the early settlers in this county and enjoyed the confidence of his neighbors but had been shipping stock and sustained some severe losses, which, taken in connection with the crop failures, doubtless caused him to appropriate the school money to his own use and his ruin.  He leaves his family in straightened circumstances.

Nothing sinister was introduced into the Kansas water supply to cause bad behavior by good people in the 1890’s.  The Crash of 1893 had settled into what promised to be a long and deep economic depression.  Banks closed, the nation’s money supply dried up, and northern Kansas remained in the grip of a merciless drought.  Younger men no doubt turned to shady activities when honest work became hard to find.  Willard Woodruff’s money woes were made worse in 1893 when he invested a nest egg in the Everest family’s bank at Courtland and lost all of it.  Insurance companies he had turned to for agricultural loans began suing him.  He was sixty-two when he fled from Kansas in 1895.  Two years later his wife Lizzie filed for divorce and alimony, essentially asking for nothing more than the land she was living on.

Some of the young men of Lovewell also fled, according to the Courtland Register of July 19, 1895.

Ben and Burr Stofer and Steve Lovewell started Tuesday morning for Elendale North Dakota where they expect to work this fall and winter.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com