So Sue Me

According to legend, Samuel and Stephen Morlan became storekeepers at White Rock almost by accident.  The brothers had headed to California separately in the 1850’s to prospect for gold, Sam taking the sea route, punctuated by a jolting, mosquito-plagued wagon ride across the Isthmus of Panama.  His younger brother joined him a few years later, opting for the overland trek by oxcart.  

Settling at White Rock with their gleanings from the gold fields, the brothers were often pestered by settlers begging for a twist from their large caddy of tobacco, and decided that they might as well make some money out of it.  Just as White Rock began to be settled in earnest in the early 1870’s, they bought out the inventory of Jack Galbraith’s general store, which largely consisted of various forms of tobacco and assorted bitters.  The brothers stocked their new store with seed, canned goods, hardware, shoes, fabric - anything a pioneer family might want.  They accepted produce for payment, allowed customers to run up a tab, and even made small loans to local farmers.  

While the Morlans were renowned for their generosity, I discovered over a decade ago that their patience had its limits.  Spooling through a reel of microfilm one day at the Kansas Center for Historical Research, I found a legal notice from 1876 that the brothers were suing to have a quarter-section of a neighbor’s land sold at auction to pay his debt of $47.75.  I assumed back then that the Morlans must have resorted to litigation from time to time, but after conducting a systematic search later on, came to realize that I had evidently stumbled across the only known instance right out of the gate.  The brothers brought suit against a young farmer and blacksmith named William Rubendall, who would find himself in a nearly identical situation nearly a decade later - though with a different set of brothers.

Will Garman had been Thomas Lovewell’s partner in the seed-corn and farm implement business at White Rock in 1873.  Will and his brother Henry apparently took over the hardware side of the firm a few years later, while Thomas would continue to sell his seed-corn independently.  In 1885 the Garman brothers sought and received an order of attachment against Rubendall for $45.90.  Again, this is the only evidence I’ve seen of any legal action by the Garmans against a customer.  By the time of the 1900 census William Rubendall had relocated to Julian, Nebraska, and would move on to Boulder, Colorado, by 1910 - perhaps one step ahead of wrathful creditors - unless he had learned his lesson at White Rock.  

A few weeks back, while researching White Rock pioneers Robert Watson and Samuel M. Fisher, I found their names paired up together in a legal notice.  The late Mr. Watson’s estate had a suit pending with Fisher in 1890, four years after Watson’s death and two years after Fisher had sold all of his livestock at public auction and moved to Arkansas.  The auction was held in February 1888, shortly before an item appeared in the Republic paper suggesting that the stalwart pioneer had been swindled out of his farm by unscrupulous loan agents (see Munchausen on the Plains).  That bit of editorial gossip is the only contemporary record I’ve seen to support a family tradition that Samuel Martin Fisher was financially ruined by a shady farm loan.

There is an 1888 publication notice of foreclosure on a $35.00 mortgage from Samuel and Effie Fisher in Rooks County, near Stockton, but there’s no apparent connection between the Samuel Fisher at Stockton and the one in Republic County, and no firm evidence that skullduggery was involved in either man’s predicament.  It should be noted, however, that this was a very busy time for the Central Kansas Loan and Investment Co., the firm which was suing the Fishers in Rooks County. 

 The company's name turns up over a thousand times in Kansas papers printed between 1888 and 1890, usually connected with foreclosures.  Some of these records must be duplicates - legal announcements concerning the same case printed in consecutive editions of small-town newspapers.  Still, considering that my search was for the name of a single loan company among several candidates (looking for the similarly-named Central Kansas Loan and Trust Co. yields another 500 results), it’s apparent that quite a number of Kansas farmers took out small loans using their land as collateral, and had trouble with the repayment schedule.  Times must have been hard in rural Kansas long before the crash of 1893 brought business to a standstill.

The story of the Morlans is also a reminder of just how little actual cash was jingling in the pockets of Kansans in the late 1800’s.  Accepting eggs, cream and butter as legal tender and extending credit rather liberally, were ways merchants gave the local economy a pulse, even if a feeble one.  A farm family’s limited supply of cash had to be stashed away for taxes and shopping trips to distant towns.  Payments between close neighbors or family members often took the form of promissory notes.  

At his death in 1892, nearly a quarter of the value of Samuel M. Fisher’s estate consisted of a single I.O.U. from his son William for $150, written back at White Rock when the old man was pulling up stakes for Arkansas.  Stipulations in wills probably dissolved many such debts, but not this one.  His father’s will granted William Fisher only a $5 slice of the note, the bulk going to William’s brother George.  Thus, after his father’s death, William Fisher not only inherited nothing, but suddenly owed his brother $145.

As for that 1890 court case in Republic County - we don’t know why Robert Watson’s estate was still open four years after the White Rock pioneer’s death, or why the executor, Thomas Tow, continued to press a lawsuit to wring some money out of Samuel Fisher, the deceased man’s former neighbor.  It’s possible that Fisher had written Watson a promissory note years earlier, or perhaps Tow suspected that not all of the stock Fisher sold at auction in 1888 was technically his to sell.  With a lawsuit against him pending in Republic County, Samuel Fisher’s sudden urge to move away from his sons and start over in Arkansas at the age of 73, can be seen in a different light. 

Neither are we sure how the Morlan brothers made out in their case against William Rubendall in 1876.   After consulting an 1884 Jewell County plat book, I imagined that the White Rock merchants had managed to get their money, since the acreage in question was now in the hands of someone named E. J. Porter, while Rubendall had retreated to a smaller adjoining plot of ground to the northwest of his old farm.  However, “Porter" happened to be the family name of William Rubendall’s father-in-law Lewis, who resided with William and Angeline Rubendall, their daughter Gertrude, and Angeline’s younger sister Louella Porter.

There were a number of Porters in Jewell County, including an Eliza J. Porter ("E. J.") who, like the Rubendalls, had arrived from Pennsylvania.  So, William Rubendall may have sold his farm to pay creditors such as the Morlan brothers, or he simply may  have transferred the title to an older sister to keep it safe from attachment.  I know.  It’s unkind of me to be so suspicious.  

© Dale Switzer 2023