A postcard, a burial vault, and the search for Belle: A Kansas building story


Not long after we moved to Ottawa, Jim and I were exploring an antique store that occupies a building that once belonged to the local Coca-Cola bottling facility. I picked up several old postcards featuring local places and then promptly forgot about them until my friend Patsy Terrell, who collects handwriting samples for her blog, Words by Hand, asked for submissions.

A postcard featuring a building at the corner of 1st and Main in Ottawa, Kansas.

A postcard featuring a building at the corner of 1st and Main in Ottawa, Kansas.

I pulled out my favorite new-to-me postcard–a card full of admonishments to the recipient for not writing–and scanned it for her. But then I really looked at what the sender wrote and realized I had something important.

Bella A.'s letter to Mrs. T. E. Kennedy on the back of the postcard.

Belle A.’s letter to Mrs. T. E. Kennedy on the back of the postcard.

This is my new store building how do you like it ask Mr. K. what he thinks of concrete for a building. Solid concrete except ceiling and roof.

And that’s when I realized I was holding a postcard from someone connected to the construction of one of the only buildings built with formed concrete blocks in historic downtown Ottawa.

What is now Franklin County had been settled by Native Americans for a very long time before the Ottawa Town Company plotted out what would become downtown Ottawa. The first official sale of the property that would become 101 North Main Street was sold to E.D. Hall in November of 1865. During the next forty-five years, the land would change hands at least ten times. According to the Sandborn Fire Insurance Maps of 1884, 1888, 1893, 1899, and 1905, the property would house a harness maker, a blacksmith, a few lunch diners, a barber or two, a secondhand store, a coal storage facility and even a hay and feed store.

Charles F. Lamb served as secretary and general manager of the Ottawa Vault & Construction Company.

In 1909, F. E. and Alta Sumstine bought the building from the estate of Curtis S. Glass and then sold it to a new buyer: the Ottawa Cement Burial Vault Company, which had incorporated the year before by J. M. McWharf, a local physician serving as president; C. F. Lamb, whose family was also connected to the undertaker business, served as the secretary and general manager; D. H. McCullough, served as vice president, and C. F. Crain, who was in real estate, served as treasurer. The company would change its name to the Ottawa Vault & Construction Company by 1910, when it was featured in the Ottawa, Kansas Souvenir, a publication that featured area businesses.

The Ottawa Vault and Construction Company, a large plant devoted exclusively to the manufacture of the Stevenson Burial Vault and concrete building material, is located at First and Main streets. They also manufacture concrete blocks, chimneys and porch columns, shingles, fancy hitching posts and they will make anything to order out of cement. This plant employs fifteen skillful mechanics and has a pay roll [sic] of $300.00 a week. This firm manufactured the first air-tight, indestructible burial vault, which has met with public favor and has received universal commendation from all.

Stevenson Burial Vault, patented in 1906.

Stevenson Burial Vault, patented in 1906.

It would make sense that a company specializing in the formation of cement into useful objects would choose to build its building out of the stuff. Unlike many modern buildings made of concrete blocks, the building at 101 North Main Street is constructed from blocks shaped like rough-hewn limestone, not unlike most of the building foundations being constructed at the time.  It is only their uniform roughness that gives them away.

Only the uniformity of the rough-hewn stone gives away the fact that the stones are formed concrete.

Only the uniformity of the rough-hewn stone gives away the fact that the stones are formed concrete.

What becomes of the Ottawa Vault & Construction Company is not clear. At the Franklin County Register of Deeds, I found that by 1911, the building became the property of William Berg, whose family was also in the undertaker/funeral director business. The building would be sold twice more until it belong to John Scott, who ran Ottawa Transfer & Storage Company out of it until the 1960s while renting out parts of the building to barbers, taxi services, eateries, a distributor of the Kansas City Star newspaper, and various shops. My personal favorite pair of businesses were run by Adelbert F. and Elizabeth Hay: they ran both Top Hat Taxi company and City Cab Co. and Wake-Up Service.

Ad from the 1936 Polk Directory for Ottawa, Kansas.

Ad from the 1936 Polk Directory for Ottawa, Kansas.

In 1966, the building sat vacant for the first time.

In 1975, Charles Underwood would purchase the building from the Scott family and the building would become the storefront for Underwood Plumbing. The Underwood family would own the building for the next three-and-a-half decades. Today, the building is owned by Timothy Harris and houses a branch of Edward Jones.

The structure has undergone modifications during the past 102 years, but the basic concrete stonework remains.

The structure has undergone modifications during the past 102 years, but the basic concrete stonework remains.

And now we return to the postcard.

Determining the identity of Mrs. T. E. Kennedy was the easy part. The 1903-1904 Polk Directory for Ottawa lists a Kennedy, Thomas E and Mrs. Roeina [sic] R. at 124 South Maple in Ottawa. Thomas Kennedy was an employee with the AT&SF railroad. According to Rowena Kennedy’s obituary (which ran in the Amarillo Daily News on October 30, 1950, Rowena Ross was born in 1865 along an old San Antonio Cattle Trail to parents from Tennessee and Louisiana. She made her way to Kansas, where she met Thomas E. Kennedy, whose Irish/English family settled in Wellsville. Sometime between 1905 and 1910, they made their way to Belton, Texas, where they show up in the 1910 U.S. Census. In 1912, they would move to Amarillo, where they would stay for the rest of their lives.

But who was Belle A.? That is a bigger mystery. The postcard was mailed in 1910. None of the men listed in the Ottawa, Kansas Souvenir had wives or daughters named Belle, Isabella, or anything similar who would have been of an age to be friends with Rowena Kennedy.

Connected to C. F. Crain are two possibilities. His own wife was named Nellie A., and could have gone by Belle. Another possibility is a woman who appears only in the 1907 in the Polk Directory–Belle Crain, a boarder at 623 West 5th who is employed by the Martin Post Card company, which was owned by William H. “Dad” Martin, who was famous for his exaggerated postcards. However, Belle Crain never appears in the directory again, and it is unclear if she moved, married, passed away, or was actually a typo in the directory..

Another interesting possibility comes from the original deed for the Ottawa Cement Burial Vault Company, which lists a man named F. C. Dobson as secretary. Dobson would go on to run Ottawa Milling, but at one point, he was married to a woman named Isabella, who is mysteriously named his widow (though I wonder if the Polk Directory didn’t actually mean his divorcee) in the 1903-1904 directory, and who is sometimes called Bella in newspaper articles. Isabella Sinclair Dobson Knowlton was a fascinating woman. The daughter of a Civil War hero who settled in Lawrence, she married Dobson in 1893, but would end up remarrying a newspaper man named Phil Knowlton, who ran a paper in Newton after the original editor lost it when a local judge sued him for libel. Phil Knowlton was full of scandal himself, having moved to Cripple Creek, Colorado, where he nearly died of mushroom poisoning and was sued by a woman for garnering her affections and then alienating her. Phil and Isabella were apparently meant to be; they lived out their lives together in the Denver area.

I was not able to find any other viable options for Belle A.’s identity, nor for the hardware store she ran out of the 101 North Main Street building. Maybe she married; maybe she moved away. But perhaps if Rowena Kennedy had written Belle A. back, we’d have a postcard addressed to Belle, as well.

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