A History of Cunningham
This history of Cunningham begins with a history of Ninnescah. The Ninnescah Post Office opened August 20, 1885. The earliest existing copy of the Ninnescah Herald is dated August 12, 1886, being Volume 1, Number 20. This would place Volume 1, Number 1 at April 1, 1886, assuming that the paper was a weekly as it has been since. The editors and publishers of the Ninnescah Herald were C.L. Severy and J. Geo. Smith. These two names figure prominently in the history of both Ninnescah and Cunningham.
Communities developed for a number of reasons. Some started with one family, joined by friends or relatives. Many grew around a church. A trading post, fort, or a way station gave birth to others. In western Kansas, many towns were started by capitalists hoping to turn a profit. An evening spent with one of Fitzgerald’s Ghost Town’s of Kansas books verifies that fortunes were made and lost in the business of town-building.
In the 1870’s and 1880’s, the arrival of a railroad often determined which towns survived and which faded into history. While more research is needed, the relationship of C.L. Severy and J. Geo. Smith and their involvement in the development of Ninnescah, Kansas can be gleaned from the early newspapers and books available. C.L. Severy was the son of Luther Severy, an Emporia cattleman with vast holdings in land who was also a director of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad. He invested in several town companies, including one named for him in Greenwood County. C.L. Severy was the secretary of the Ninnescah Town Company, a real estate agent and loan agent, and owner of the first hotel in Ninnescah. J. Geo.Smith was Severy’s partner in the Ninnescah Herald. He was also involved in real estate and loans. It appears that the two were partners in several ventures centering on promoting the town of Ninnescah.
On September 2, 1886, the partners sold the Herald to W. M. Bacheller, who published the paper until October 28, 1886, when J. Geo. Smith reappears as editor and publisher. During this time, Mr. Severy returned to Emporia and Mr. Smith became partners with T.N. Price in the “land, loan, and insurance company of Price, Smith & Co.” Mr. Price was also a farmer, implement dealer, and owner of a hardware store in Ninnescah.
The first mention of Col. J. D. Cunningham in the Ninnescah Herald is on October 7, 1886. W.M. Bacheller writes: “Col. J.D. Cunningham of Chapin, Illinois, who has been in Ninnescah several weeks, has fallen in love completely with the west. He is largely interested in Kingman County and is one of the most sociable and pleasant gentlemen to be met anywhere and has met a host of friends who would gladly welcome him as a citizen. In behalf of our town we extend him the right hand of fellowship and tender him the welcome of all its citizens.”
In this same edition of the Herald Mr. Bacheller lists and describes many of the businesses in Ninnescah at the time. The town was prospering. The role of the Kingman, Pratt, and Western railroad was often mentioned along with the town’s prosperity. For a short time Ninnescah was its western terminus due to a delay brought on by a feud between Pratt Center and Saratoga.
These were boom times, with much happening in the area over a period of a few months. By February 3, 1887, Mr. Price had moved to Greensburg. Mr. Smith was in partnership with Mr. Clark in real estate.
The following is reprinted from an advertisement for Clark & Smith: “Hurrah! Hurrah! Now is Your Time to Buy Town Lots in Ninnescah. This rapidly growing little city is situated on the new extension of the Wichita & Western under the name of the Kingman, Pratt & Western. It has a beautiful location twenty miles to the west of Kingman and eighteen miles to the east of Pratt Center. The water is excellent and the large scope of the country tributary is rich and productive. Town lots are going up at a lively rate. Now is your opportunity. If you decide to build, three and five years will be given. It is bound to make a good town.”
On June 30, 1887, the following notice appeared in the Ninnescah Herald: “The books for the subscription of stock in the new town of Cunningham, will be closed Saturday, July 9th, 1887, and we respectfully request all those wishing an interest or add to their already acquired interest in the new “Farmer’s Town,” a mutual town with bright prospects in a highly cultivated country, should avail themselves before it is too late. A thorough explanation of the conditions, aims, and objects of the town will be given with the pleasure of application. One and all interested in this section of the country should not fail to investigate its advantages and invest. Shares, $10 each. Only a limited number left. COMMITTEE Headquarters: HERALD OFFICE”
Three items from the August 4, 1887, Ninnescah Herald show that while Cunningham was being born on the north side of the tracks, Ninnescah refused to yield on the south: “Col. J. D. Cunningham of Winsboro, Texas, is in the city for the purpose of transferring the new town site to the Town Company, and also to invest largely in the stock. The Col. is no stranger in our midst, having paid our city several visits in the past. Whole souled, jolly, and generous to a fault, his name will be a credit to the new town.”
“L. Severy, a prominent capitalist of Emporia, went east on the W & W on Friday. He had been at Ninnescah, where he has large property interests, seeing what there is to the Cunningham move…While the Leader has no desire to take part in the controversy over our western neighbors, it has no hopes of Mr. Severy ever doing the town any good.” (Kingman Leader quoted in the Ninnescah Herald).
“Mr. L. Severy had a streak of generosity and presented the Presbyterian church with an 800 lb. bell. It is already placed in position in the belfry and its ringing notes can be heard by all the community ‘round.”
Mr. Smith began using the name The Cunningham Herald for his paper on October 27, 1887. He provided his readers with several arguments for the new town of Cunningham, although his real estate company listed lots and buildings for sale in Ninnescah at the same time. Some buildings were physically moved from Ninnescah to Cunningham. While the move and change seemed popular, there are several names mentioned as being opposed to the move.
Tornado of March 24, 1888
By the time the tornado devastated Ninnescah in 1888, the town of Cunningham was well established. Many businesses and residences had moved to the new town. The post office was still in Ninnescah and a handful of businesses and residents held onto the old name, but the new town company had been successful in its efforts to form a town north of the railroad tracks.
The following accounts are reprinted from The Cunningham Herald of April 5, 1888, J. George Smith, editor and publisher:
Swept Over Our Beautiful City
Leaving Destruction in
Although a little late for publication, we are induced by many of our patrons to publish a condensed account of the storm and its effect. When the heavy black clouds were seen in the southwest that eventful Saturday afternoon (March 24th) very few of our people expected anything more than a rain storm. Soon a terrible commotion was perceptible in the heavens; little black funnel shaped clouds darting about in every direction almost touching the ground at times. To all appearances it seemed to form within sight of our little city, and when—notwithstanding the timely warning—at about 5:30, these funnel shaped agents of destruction swept down over us, very few were prepared to receive it. The crash of timbers and the rattle of tin roofs was simply terrible. A fearful hail storm followed, some as large as hen’s eggs, breaking hundreds of panes of glass.
The storm seemed to last an age, so say some—possibly owing to the fact that not a few were scared out of several years growth—but from our best recollection it continued fully twenty minutes.
Fortunately no lives were lost but a number were injured more or less. A false report has been going the rounds of the press to the effect that several persons were killed and many wounded.
It is almost impossible to give an accurate statement of the losses incurred, many buildings being badly racked but still standing. We will give them as near as we could ascertain.
The roof of the Sheard Hotel was entirely blown off. Loss estimated at $1,000.
Ransom Kelloggs’s store building on Commercial street is a total wreck. Loss, $600.
The new Presbyterian Church is a heap of ruins and was valued at $2,000.
The old town company building on Commercial street belonging to L. Severy was badly racked. Loss about $200.
Rev. J. R. Millsap’s residence and barn were swept out of existence, destroying contents. Loss, $600.
T. N. Price’s large store and office building—occupied by The Herald and the Methodists—was totally demolished. Loss, $1,000.
The National Hotel was damaged $250.
Tom Long’s livery stable was badly torn up and scattered. Loss, $500.
Sam Harris residence, $100. Carey Lumber Co., 100; L. L. Michener, store building and residence, 200; M. Rouse, stable and residence, 50; Depot buildings and tool house, 400; W. F. Fielder, store buildings, 50; Phil Weiss, store building, 25; A. Click, residence, 50; Chas. Doan, residence, 25; E. Bupp, residence, 25; C. S. Davis, stable and horses injured, 150; Geo. Shapley, residence, 25; G. A. Lakin, residence, 50; Herald office, 200, and others. Northeast of town on the ranch of John A. Cragun, the dwelling house is a complete wreck and the lumber for a new stable was scattered in every direction, the loss over $600; James Branaman’s dwelling house was damaged to the amount of $300, and Mr. Mosher’s the same.
Mr. Joseph McPeek’s fine orchard is completely stripped of its beauty.
They say that Station Agent Igon interviewed the pump house for two hours after the storm.
Jim Brower and James McAdams give a very graffic [sic] account of the cyclone and its tragic effects.
The Presbyterian Church, one of the finest structures west of Kingman, was picked up bodily and crushed to the earth.
Frank Carman and Chas Doty were out battling with the storm, finally seeking protection in one of the railroad sewer pipes.
Rev. J. R. Millsap’s residence was swept over their heads leaving them exposed to the terrible hail storm. They lost nearly everything.
Tom Long was blown against a wagon in front of his barn and carried to the railroad depot, a distance of six or seven hundred feet. He was injured internally.
Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Cragun, Mr. James Branaman and family, and Mr. Mosher and family, all relate terrible experiences, their dwelling houses having been wrecked leaving them exposed to the terrible hail and wind storm.
John Hicks received a letter from a friend in Indiana offering substantial aid, having read of the total destruction of the town in some of the eastern dailies and supposed, of course, that John was one of the sufferers. John appreciates the generous offer, we can assure you.
Col. J. D. Cunningham and the writer were in The Herald office when it collapsed. It has been reported that the Col. offered up a prayer for the first time in fourteen years. We know not how true the report is having been busy at the critical period holding the door frame after the glass front was destroyed.
On the next page of the April 5, 1888 Herald, Mr. Smith adds to the account of the tornado. Also included below is another view of the damage to the Presbyterian Church by B. F. Haviland, minister of the church at the time.
Cunningham Bobs Up Serenely
More Beautiful that Ever
A Booming Cyclone
Notwithstanding the destruction of property by the late cyclone, the rush of business continues unbroken as if nothing had occurred. When the business of the surrounding country demands a town, it is a necessity and the effect of the late atmospheric disturbances only had a tendency to encourage the people to renewed vigor in not only rebuilding the wrecked buildings but many new ones are being projected. Store room and house room are scarcer that gold guineas and the demand continues to increase. Two new churches, beautiful in architectural design, will soon grace the beautiful residence site on the north side of town. A large and commodious school building is also contemplated by the people of this district, the present one being entirely too small to accommodate the rapidly increasing school population. Already the sound of the hammer and the rasp of the saw is heard on every hand.
Cast Down But Not Destroyed
Careful inspection reveals the fact that the wreck of the Presbyterian Church in Ninnescah week from last Saturday is not so bad as first reported. Most of the material is uninjured; both ends were taken out bodily; five large and beautiful front windows suffered only the loss of a portion of the glass. One half the roof is in two sections. The foundation, floor, rostrum, and joists are injured but very little. A portion of the seats are unharmed; two sides of the vestibule are intact; the spire with trifling exception is “solid” and the frame work unharmed. The bell and fixing are uninjured save the wheel for the rope. Measures will be taken immediately for rebuilding.
We recently spent an afternoon at the Kingman Public Library and gleaned the following account from the Kingman Daily Courier, Smith & Buckley, editors and publishers. The date is March 27, 1888. Unfortunately the March 26th paper referred to in this article was unavailable.
But Little Changes to Note From Yesterday’s Report
The Courier’s report of the Cunningham disaster, though gathered hastily, is verified to-day by a gentleman just in from that unfortunate village. It was a matter of impossibility to give anything like a correct estimate of the losses yesterday, but to-day the Courier is enabled to present its readers a fair statement of the damage resulting from Saturday’s storm.
Presbyterian Church, $1,600;
Shear Hotel, $1,800; M. E. Church, $250; R. Kellogg, store house, $600; Carey Lumber Company, $1,100; J. R. Millsap, dwelling, $500; T. U. Price, store house, $2,200; Tom Long, livery stable, $850; Wm. Brana- [line of type missing] residence (hotel building), $300; L. L. Michener, hardware, $125; Jim George Smith, Esquire, Herald office, $150; C. S. Davis, coal merchant, $25; Charles Doan, residence, $40; M. Rouse, livery stable, $60; Clyde Doty, drug store, $50; G. A. Lakin, residence, $75; John Cragun, residence and outbuildings, $1,000. There are many other losses reported but all of them are of so minor a character that mention is unnecessary. The injuries received by Mrs. Branaman and Mrs. Millspaugh are not so severe as reported.
The tornado of 1888 sealed the fate of Ninnescah, although a reading of the newspapers from the months prior indicates that the Cunningham Town Company had already won the battle for the site. When Cunningham was first formed north of the railroad tracks, it was a separate town born of local efforts. The major investor in the Ninnescah Town Company lived in Emporia and spent but a few months in Ninnescah in her infancy. His former partner in some business ventures, J. George Smith, stayed in Ninnescah and was instrumental in the creation of the Cunningham Town Company.
On May 29, 1888, the Post Office in Ninnescah was discontinued and the name changed to Cunningham. The plat for Ninnescah was not abandoned until much later.
We end this account of Cunningham’s early days with a promise to continue as time and space permit. The tornado which struck Ninnescah on March 24th, 1888, seems to have been the death blow for the town, although many businesses and residences had moved prior to that date. It appears likely that Cunningham would have succeeded and Ninnescah faded without this disaster.