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Abundant underground water and deep fertile soil in the broad Solomon valley in Belmont Township, Rooks County Kansas made an ideal site for a town, which was approximately eight miles west of the established town of Stockton. In 1876 a trading point was located there to care for the early settlers in the western part of Rooks County. There were still buffalo in the area in the spring of 1878 when the town of Belmont was officially surveyed although the plat was not filed at the Rooks County Courthouse until March 24, 1881. The town started on the south side of the river with one store, but due to floods it was soon moved across the river. Webster's patent for 48 acres was issued in June, 1885, and surveyed June 23, 1885 with the plat filed two days later. The new patent for Belmont was issued Sept. 15, 1885 planed on 120 acres adjoining the south side of Webster. Both towns shared two common avenues, Main Street which ran north to south connecting them and Broadway Street running east and west which separated them. Neither town was ever incorporated.
John Stephenson had named the township Belmont in honor of August Belmont of New York, one of the leading Democrats of the nation. When he applied for a post office for the combined town, he asked for the same name, but the application was returned as state records showed a Belmont already existed in Kansas. Demonstrating his patriotism, he reapplied for Webster, after Daniel Webster, one of America's greatest statesmen. The name was adopted and the Webster Post Office was established on the south side of town on December 6, 1879 with Stephenson as postmaster. Both towns were surveyed again, on November 10, 1885, replatted and listed only as Webster with no mention of Belmont.
Webster had a boom in 1885 when the railroad was being built from Downs up the Solomon River into Rooks County. During 1886, there were 36 new buildings, the lumber for them hauled from Hays, a distance of 60 miles. In 1888, the Webster Enterprise newspaper showed that nearby farmers and Webster's 300 residents were served by one bank, two hotels, four grocery stores, three livery barns, two blacksmith shops, three real estate and loan offices, a furniture and harness shop, a hardware store, lumber yard, telephone system, newspaper, barbershop, drugstore, two physicians, two churches, and advertising showed a manufacture of soda pop for Webster and neighboring towns. To cross the Solomon, it was necessary to go up river to the ford about a mile southwest of town near the Charles Doughty farm. There is an early picture of a wooden bridge, location unknown, which washed out. Will Cline, blacksmith, stated he made over four hundred plow lays out of the iron pilings from the old bridge. On August 23, 1888, a contract was let for an all steel bridge for $2424 and completed by November, 1888 just south of town, which stood until the floods of 1951 washed it out. It was soon replaced by a temporary low water bridge. The railroad stopped in Stockton, but again in 1907 Webster's hopes were revived with surveying of a north-south railroad. The road bed was completed from Plainville to a few miles north of Webster when the money panic bit and was never continued.
The Webster School, District #23, was organized March 20, 1879. School was held in John Enick's old log house with a dirt floor,with the 21 pupils sitting on planks placed on blocks of wood. Lola Thompson taught during the summer of 1882 for three months at a salary of $12 per month with the privilege of boarding with local families. The first school, built that fall, was a small one room rock building. An 1886 newspaper stated "Webster is to have a new $1200 school house", which was the two story frame school built that year. It was a village school until 1911 when it was consolidated with adjoining districts in Belmont and Rush townships, the territory including 27 sections. School consolidation in Kansas was an experimental project, Webster being only the second in the state. The new school, Union 3, voted bonds and built a suitable modern two story brick building.Its plans were drawn by Professor Walters and his graduate students at Kansas State College in Manhattan. New school desks were purchased for the classrooms and opera chairs for the auditorium. It was dedicated January 1, 1914, and the students were transported by horse drawn buses. Of the 29 high school students in 1915, 20 were freshmen. Ellsworth Dodrill, a graduate of the Fort Hays Kansas Normal School, was superintendent the first five years, and the high school was soon fully accredited with courses in Vocational Agriculture, Home Economics, Normal Training and Music. Enrollment increased rapidly, and the first graduating class was in 1918. In the 1920's it was the only school in Rooks County qualified to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements. Several years later a gymnasium was added north of the school and a shop on the west. When the government lunch program began,a lunch room was added west of the shop. The 1954 High School class was the last to graduate from the old 1911 brick building, one of the many brick and limestone buildings demolished due to building of the Webster Dam.
Webster Schoolhouse dedicated in 1914
Webster school playground
Churches were an important part of the lives of the pioneers of Webster. Records of church denominations include:
(1) an early Catholic missionary priest from Plainville included Webster in his circuit, but a church was never established.
(2) The Seventh Day Adventists would preach in the school house or other locations, but had no church building.
(3) According to the official record of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Webster was on a circuit with Mt. Pleasant and Liberty. Their first regular pastor was sent to the Webster charge in 1881. They and the Baptists both held separate worship services in a little stone building, also used as the town hall, which was later part of the J.W. Anderson residence. In 1886 plans were begun to build a church in Webster. The Baptists were in charge of the enterprise, but both groups worked together to build the small wooden structure. Both denominations worshipped in this building for several years. But difficulties between them arose and the Methodists purchased a hall on Main Street, which previously was a pool hall and saloon. In 1892 the Methodists selected a building site and laid the corner stone, but due to hard times the project was abandoned. In 1901 a small parsonage was built, then added onto in 1905. Again in 1910 they began to raise finds to build a new church. $3200 was raised in the first two months and the foundation was begun. Miss Alice Mott was visiting in the community at the time and offered to give $250 if the church be named Philander Mott Memorial in honor of her father. The donation was accepted and the church became known as the Philander Mott Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church. The $6000 cinder block building was free of debt for the June 11, 1911 service of dedication. On Sunday evening, December 17, 1944, fire completely destroyed the interior and contents of the building, including two pianos. Only the cement block walls were left standing. Some thought that when pre-warming the church for the Christmas program, a small stove exploded causing the fire, others said it was arson. In 1947, $500 of the $2000 insurance check was used to purchase the country school house from Fairview District #99 which had recently consolidated with Webster. Church services were held in the High School auditorium after the fire until 1950. The school house was moved to the old location, then remodeled and refurbished, mostly by volunteer labor. The dedication service was held May 21, 1950.
(4) We know from the above records that the Baptist Church was active in the early years. A newspaper article in 1915 mentions them trying to get services started again. One source said the small stone church was built by the Baptists. Memories tell us that their last services were in approximately 1923.
(5) Around 1920 the Pentecostal Assembly Church met in a store building on Main Street. When the Baptists closed their doors, the Assembly purchased the church and property. Some time later plans were to build a new church building but only the basement and foundation were ever completed.
In the 1920's and 1930's, there was still a post office, bank, several repair shops, an elevator, a hardware store, at least three grocery stores, two churches and approximately the same number of residents. Four newspapers tried their luck in Webster: Webster Eagle, 1995/1887; Webster Enterprise, March/November 1888; Merchants Journal, 1894/1895; and Webster Blade, for four years around 1910. Two telephone centrals were located there in 1915, one on the south side of town which they called Belmont, the other answered to Webster. With the coming of cars, a highway was built from Stockton following the river, going through Webster on Broadway Street and on to Alcona. In 1920 the highway was moved two miles north, leaving Webster isolated. The last bank closed in 1926. A few years later, oil was discovered two miles south of the town, the last chance for a boom but it was not to be. About 1950 the BRA brought electricity to the area and dial telephones were installed in 1952.
In the early years, times for entertainment were few but they made the most of them especially at the annual Pioneer Settlers Reunion. It was an all day affair held after harvest under the towering cottonwoods in the public park. There was a basket dinner and plenty of good homemade lemonade, a visiting band provided music and a few political speeches thrown in for good measure. A merry-go-round was operating and games of baseball (including a girls team), horseshoes, checkers and horse racing were enjoyed. The race track was 1 1/2 miles east of town. This was an annual affair from around 1910 until the early 1920's. Swimming in the Solomon and hay rack rides in the summer and ice skating and sleigh rides in the winter were enjoyed by the young people. Literary debates, box suppers, political rallies and church revival meetings were all times to socialize. School sports were basketball (both boys and girls), baseball and football, although football was taken out of their program in the early 1920's due to a death occurring in a game. Residents were active in many organizations: Union Labor Organization, Knights of Labor, Grand Army of the Republic, Sons & Daughters of Justice Lodge, Women's Christian Temperance Union, Ladies Aid, Young Women's Christian Association, Rooks County Poultry Club, Neighbors Circle, Home Extension Unit and the 4W-4-H Club.
As early as 1932, Webster resident Mrs. Lavinia Fry was in correspondence with Kansas State officials urging that a dam be built over the South Solomon River for flood control. Her scrapbook held twenty two letters as well as 228 column inches on the subject from the Rooks County Record and her statement that she had 83 letters from George Knapp regarding a dam. An organizational meeting was held in Webster in 1938, and a committee was formed to circulate petitions which got 1186 signatures, and then were sent to the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1940 the Kansas Reclamation Association was formed to promote such projects, and the Water Resource Division of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, headed by George Knapp, became interested. The Webster Unit was approved and authorized for construction under the Flood Control Act of 1944 as a unit of the Missouri River Basin Plan. The Kansas River Flood of July, 1951, which was very destructive all the way to the Missouri River, washed out Webster's steel bridge which increased demand for adequate flood control. This led to the US Bureau of Reclamation surveying three sites in the area: (1) one mile west of Stockton, (2) between Stockton and Woodston, and (3) the Webster town site location. Approximately one million dollars was appropriated for the foundation of the dam which was completed December 2, 1953, but there were still doubts about Congress allowing money to complete the dam. But after much persuasion from Kansas politicians and citizens, the last of December, 1953, a contract for Completion of the Webster Dam was awarded in the amount of approximately six million dollars with work to begin in March, 1954 and to be completed in July, 1956.
After many town meetings, the new town site was founded two miles southeast of old Webster. A new $186,000 school structure was built, and the Methodist Church and several residences moved to the new location. Sixty-six adults and filly-nine children moved out of the Webster Reservoir area on account of the dam being built, but only a dozen or so residents made the move to the new town, with the rest moving to other locations of their choice. Approximately 30 buildings were moved to the Stockton area, nearly all by Bigge House Movers. Harry Griffin of Stockton Monument Service with helper Gerald McLaughlin moved all of the bodies from the Webster Cemetery, 200 to the Stockton Cemetery and 29 to other parts of the state. Gerald was hired because he had recently been discharged from the army and had all the necessary vaccinations for moving the dead.
Dr. H.C. Brown was the last medical doctor in Webster, moving his medical practice to Stockton. The Methodist and Pentecostal Assembly Churches, Fry's Store, Northup's Store which included the post office were the last churches and business in Webster. The last stamping at the old Webster post office was June 30, 1953 by Margaret H. (Amy) Northup, post mistress. This office was never known by any other name.
The dam was completed July 26, 1956. Water was impounded May 13, and on July 23, 1956 water covered 700 acres which was the end of old Webster. The program of dedication was held October 5, 1956 in Stockton with a parade on Main Street and a dance in the evening at the city auditorium. The official dedication was held the next day, October 6th, at the Webster Dam site with a free barbecue meal. The speaker was Fred G. Aandahl, Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Mrs. Curtis Fry was among the following dignitaries attending: Wilbur A. Dexheiner, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner; Andrew F. Schoeppel and Frank Carlson, U.S. Senators; and Wint Smith, 6th District Congressman. The main purpose of the dam is for flood control, but irrigation, recreation, fishing, and wildlife are all important reasons for its construction. The dam stores flood runoff of the South Fork of the Solomon River to permit the irrigation of 8500 acres of lands in the lower valley between Woodston and Osborne. The maximum water storage during a flood period is 415,000 acre feet, covering a surface area of 19 square miles. At the time the dam was built, a small airstrip was put in at the south end of the dam, but has since been closed.
The little village of new Webster is a cluster of well kept homes and yards. The residents are good neighbors who are there for each other and the farm families in the area in good times and bad. At the present time there are three resident families living in new Webster and four seasonal homes. The church, later a community building, and the school building both are now owned by individuals. The last high school graduating class was in 1963 and the grade school transferred to Stockton in the fall of 1969. The small convenience store/bait shop has been closed for the past few years.
All that is left of the town of old Webster are pictures and fond memories, but more important has been the control of flood waters for towns and farms below the Webster Dam along the South Solomon River. Campers, boats, hunters and fishermen abound which is good for the economy of the area.
Written by Jean Lindsey, Stockton, 2001
The ethnicity of its settlers is unknown.
History of Webster from resident interviews by Beulah Kellogg 1930
History of Webster from resident interviews by Jeanice Blauer 1952
Webster Dam Dedication Book including writings by Carl Brown 1956
Centennial History of Rooks County Townships, including Belmont 1961
Lest We Forget, Rooks County History, copyright 1980
Rooks County Record newspaper microfilms at Stockton Library 2001
Interviews with Duane Dunning, Myrtle & Mike Hassett, Beulah Kellogg, Harold Lowry, Neva Marshall, Gladys Northup, Don & Earl Richardson, and Elva Walker 2001
Forsyth Library Photo Archives
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