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Cash City Booms, Then Goes Bust

By Rita Ackerman
5/15/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Kansas farmers’ field day could not last.

The cattlemen of the 1870s were the first white settlers to occupy the watershed of the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers in southwestern Kansas. The rolling plain, covered with a mat of close-curled buffalo grass, soon attracted farmers, and their migration to the area in the early 1880s was so swift and determined that it was compared by at least one old-timer to the California Gold Rush.

Among the many land-hungry folks from the East were members of the Keith family of Illinois. The Keiths loaded their covered wagons and left their homes in 1880, headed for the Crooked Creek Valley. They became lost and found themselves on the Tuttle Trail, which linked Texas with the notorious old cow town Dodge City. The Keiths [author’s ancestors] settled in the red hills between John’s and Sand creeks and, according to a family account, “felt as if they owned a little heaven of their own.”

Early settlers such as the Keiths made long treks to Dodge City, Ashland or Fort Supply to buy food and supplies. More towns were needed to meet the needs of the new farmers, and plenty of entrepreneurs emerged to fill that need.

In early 1886, Cash Henderson, a Wichita, Kan., merchant, headed a town company that purchased 640 acres of school land and had it platted. The location was favorably situated 40 miles south of Dodge City and 15 miles north of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) at the crossing of the Tuttle and Ashland and Meade Center trails. The town, fittingly enough, was named Cash City.

Lafe Merritt, the local town lot agent, started the Cash City Cashier. The weekly newspaper was instrumental in promoting the town with ample advertising and colorful headlines. The following item appeared on November 12, 1886:


One of the Seven Wonders!

INFANT OF THE PLAINS! Less than Six Months Old, with all Branches of Business Represented!


Felix Keith and his son, John O., made the first deliveries of lumber to Cash City. John collected a load at Dodge City and met his father along the Tuttle Trail, about halfway to Cash City, where they swapped wagons. Felix took the load on down to the new farming town, and John returned to Dodge City for more of that much-needed lumber.

The Keiths used some of the lumber to build the first grocery and eating place in town. John’s sister, Lizzie, later recalled how she came to hate the sight of the stacks of dirty dishes from the popular restaurant. The first wedding in Cash City was held on September 26, 1886, when Lizzie Keith married John Clay, a local rancher.

The largest building in town was the Cash City Hotel, owned by town founder Cash Henderson. The Cashier of November 12, 1886, described the establishment: “On the corner of Wichita Street [and Michigan Avenue] is the Cash City Hotel, which is without an exception the best house in this or adjoining counties. It is a large two-story building, with convenient and neatly furnished rooms, and under the deft management of the Jackson family has gained extended public favor.”

The town company promised “lots given away to those going into business,” and many settlers took advantage of the offer. The newspaper soon advertised Harmer & Grimes, general merchants; C.E. West, sign painter; Joe Penn, boot and shoemaker; and C.F. Jackson of the Cash City Feed Stables. The Cashier editor, in the May 13, 1887, edition, made his own tongue-in-cheek request for a future business:

Dr. J.H. Hoag, resident physician [of Cash City], looks after the health of the people so effectually that as yet no grave-yard has been required. (Liberal inducements are offered to some enterprising man who will come here and die in order to start this industry.)

Elma and Elias Branch, friends of the Keith family, made frequent trips to Cash City. A few notations from Mrs. Branch’s diary provide a glimpse of daily life during the last week of July 1886: “….was down to Lucas’s to day all doing well…went to Cash got 75¢ worth of meat….Elias went to tree claim I am very sick…washed, Elias raked millet…stacked millet, carried some milk & butter to Halls…went to Mr. Curtrights had melons…. Elias went to Cash and got me a dress.”

Harry Keith, older brother of John O., was one of the early teachers of the Cash City school. The small structure was also used for church services, community meetings and social events. Clubs were formed, including the Cash City Literary and Debating Society. At the first meeting, the debaters considered the advantages and disadvantages of having a railroad come to town. It’s hard to imagine what those who spoke up against the railroad said.

By the town’s first anniversary, the Cashier noted that Cash City was expecting the arrival of two railroads. The future looked bright for the entire area, even though there was a temporary lull in the economy in early July 1887. The lull soon ended when the Chicago, Kansas & Western Railroad surveyed the location for tracks just over a mile north of Cash City. A new town company formed in August 1887, and F.R. Gammin, the townsite man for the railroad, became president. Hopes grew ever higher for Cash City to boom, albeit at a new location.

On August 12, 1887, workers began to load the buildings on wagons and move them across the prairie to the new townsite, which was on the north side of John’s Creek, along the proposed line of the C, K & W Railroad. J.M. Hovey, another townsite officer, purchased the Cash City Hotel and made plans to move the structure to the corner of Main Street and Michigan Avenue. On October 14, 1887, the Cashier announced the hotel had passed out of sight of the old town and would soon be coming into view of New Cash City. On the 28th, the hotel “had got there” and was being set up on its pins and prepared for travelers. It then became the St. Clair Hotel, which was advertised on December 30, 1887. C.W. Putnam was put in charge of moving the Cash City Hotel barn, which had to be cut in half to fit on the wagons. On January 27, 1888, the Cashier announced: “The traveling men all say Cash City is a ‘daisy’ and bound to win. That’s what she is, boys.”

The traveling men were wrong. Later in 1888 and on through 1890, dry hot winds withered the crops and most of the farmers in the area went bust and moved on. The town was on the way out. The final blow came when the railroad cancelled the extension, and the town, according to various accounts, “blew up” and disappeared, at least in name. Cash Henderson, who never actually moved to Cash City, continued his merchandizing business in Wichita. The Keiths spread out through the area. John O. became a businessman in Meade; Felix, Harry and others went to Ashland. Lizzie and John Clay continued ranching and are buried in Ashland.

The land and most of the Cash City buildings became the property of early rancher David S. John, who rented them in 1892 to the Erie Cattle Company of E.A. Shattuck and J.E. McNair. The company shipped almost 3,000 head of cattle from its ranch in southern Arizona Territory, where Shattuck had made a name for himself as a deputy in Tombstone.

In 1893 John sold the ranch to B.H. “Bar-B-Que” Campbell. Campbell’s outfit camped along John’s Creek until Shattuck-McNair left. Campbell took over the old stone livery and store of Cash City. That was about the time a photo was taken featuring Willis Peoples, an ex-slave who earned the thanks of area stockman by killing a 6-foot gray wolf.

Today, the Cash City location looks much as it did when Cash Henderson first saw it—a pasture with grazing cattle. Some depressions left by long-gone buildings and shards of broken dishes are the only physical reminders of the once-thriving, though short-lived, Kansas community.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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