• 1938 Caption:├é┬áTypical of Ben Blanchard's sucker bait, this newspaper advertisement brought many investors eager to speculate on real estate in what a half century ago was to be Kansas' leading metropolis.

Bursting of Blanchard Bubble: One Man Caused Town Boom, Worst Depression

Sunday, March 20, 1938

Major Catastrophe to South Hutchinson; Many Lost Savings Through Praying Speculator Who Discovered Salt Vein

Its prosperity would have made 1928-29 look palsied. The bubble's inevitable burst was in every way as complete as the depression which brought forth the most ambitious PWA projects since Pharaoh built the pyramids. There was no PWA 50 years ago.

What latter day Kansan who knows South Hutchinson as a modest suburb of 900 souls and a few small businesses along Highway K17, would guess it was a thriving metropolis of 2,500, with choice lots along Main street selling for thousands of dollars in 1887?

Or that it once "possessed a three-story hotel, a machine works, flour mill, two-story brick bank building, a block of business buildings and a railroad depot? Now South Hutchinson's growth is steady. Mayor W. J. Leatherman reported last week it gained 100 residents in four years.

Fifty years ago was a different story. The 2,500 of 1887-88 came almost overnight!

This phenomenal growth, which saw dozens of buildings mushroom in a few months, was partly a reflection of boom days in Hutchinson itself, partly the work of as amazing a man as ever transacted real estate deals on a street corner. It also was responsible for the discovery of the mid-Kansas salt vein, next to wheat, Hutchinson's greatest long-time boon.

"Salted" The Salt Vein

The man's name was Ben Blanchard. He drilled for coal, allegedly "salted" the first deep well in central Kansas with a chunk of anthracite and several barrels of crude oil, dreamed of finding gas and then struck the salt vein which still produces the nation's finest seasoning.

He induced trainloads of easterners to come to Kansas to view the "new metropolis" of the west. He sold a pious banker a batch of South Hutchinson bonds on the strength of attending a Terre Haute. Ind., Methodist church and by earning the banker's wife enough on two building lots to pay for a trip to Europe.

Fled in Dress

If rumor is true, he both slipped in and out of Hutchinson in a woman's dress to save himself from being ridden on a rail. An alternate recollection about his departure, unsubstantiated by written records, is that he spent a year after the South Hutchinson bubble burst farming a place on Cow creek east of town "to show how poor" he was. Those who knew him say the last is a lie. He never was known to do a day's work in his life.

From here he went west, some say to Montana, others to Mexico, one to Colorado, urging converts in new fields to share with him rich yields of some gilt-edged pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He is supposed to have returned home to Terre Haute, Ind., to die.

Yet if he left a good many purses empty, precipitated a depression worse than the 1938 "recession" and earned himself such nicknames as "that geranium" and "Get-Rich-Quick" Blanchard, he uncovered wealth still being realized in Hutchinson today. At his worst, he only reflected the booming spirit of the times. Hutchinson, itself, according to newspaper stories, had set a goal of 74.000 additional residents in three years.

Joke On Blanchard

The joke was Blanchard profited only second hand from his greatest discovery, the salt vein. If he made suckers of some, their successors have reaped a steady harvest from his find. The first salt mine opened exactly 50 years ago this week. Local salt officials estimate as many as 115 different companies have organized to drill for salt here since then. As many as a score of plants have been operated at once. Now only three concerns together produce approximately as much salt daily as all of the early day plants could refine in a month.

A second joke, according to Frank C. Neal, superintendent at a local salt plant, is men employed to drill Blanchard's famous discovery well in South Hutchinson spiced their food with $8-a-barrel salt from New York state at the same time they were unknowingly drilling through a 400-foot vein of the substance here.

Life A Mystery

Another joke was,if Blanchard had drilled a few hundred feet deeper, he might even have found the oil and gas he advertised he was seeking.

If Blanchard's extravagant projects were shrewdly advertised, his personal life was more of a mystery. According to recollections of Hutchinson residents, he was a small man, possibly weighing 140 pounds. He was. in his early 40's, at the height of his activities here.

His personal appearance was prepossessing, in spite of his small stature.

Looked Like McGill

"He looked almost like Senator George McGill, except he wasn't so tall and not as full in the face," recalls George W. Holloway, long-time South Hutchinson citizen, who moved north of the river only last year to Gov. Walter A. Huxman's former home, 324 East Fifth.

"He was some fellow," declares Holloway. "He built churches and tore 'em down. He built banks and tore 'em down. He got the people's money and then skeedaddled!"

Others remember he was inordinantly neat, resplendent in dress but never flashy. Even the red neckties he invariably wore pinned to snow white shirt fronts

with a big diamond stickpin were not gaudy. Rather, his handsome clothing gave him an aura of rich respectability.

Enhancing his prestige in the city wiis his private railroad car which stood on a Santa Fe siding while he transacted business here. After eastern trips he would

emerge airily to speak of big deals in Washington, in Torre Haute, in Peru, Ind., where one of the two women he introduced here as Mrs. Blanchard was supposed to have lived, or New York where he sold his South Hutchinson bonds.

C. M. Williams, Hutchinson attorney still practicing at 86, once transacted some legal business for him. Williams declares Blanchard was the "most convincing

fellow you ever met in your life."

"He could talk about any subject under the sun, and he never saw a stranger," Williams recalls. "It was a liberal education lo see how ho worked. He never acted eager. He would meet a man and talk about everything in the world but his development in South Hutchinson. But pretty soon they would be sitting down on the curb, still talking, with their heads close together. Before long Ben was selling something.

An Accommodating Fellow

"He was an accommodating fellow, too, with lots of influence in the east," Williams declares. "If somebody wanted a railroad, or some pressure brought to bear for a deal, Blanchard would be ready to go to Washington. But he would never get clear through with a proposition. Somebody else always had to finish it up or hold the sack."

Williams says Blanchard used his salt well only for advertising purposes. "He was a boomer. He just threw in his salt mine for good measure. And it was about the only thing he did that turned but to be a good thing for the town. I don't believe he ever lost any money here, as some said he did. He never had anything to do with a man that he didn't stick him.

Shortchanged Elder

"He told me this story, himself, how he found a banker who was an elder in a New York Methodist church and become friendly with him by professing to be a great believer in the church," Williams tells. "Blanchard told him he would like to get acquainted with speaker so-and-so at the church. The up-shot was the banker invited him to his home. Pretty soon Blanchard got up a special trainload of people there and brought them all the way out to Hutchinson. On the way, the banker's wife mentioned she was going to Europe in a few weeks. Blanchard asked her why she didn't buy some of his lots and make enough money for her expenses.

"Before they got here, she bought the lots," Williams continues Blanchard's story. "And sure enough, he didn't give them much more than time to get back

to New York when he sent her back a check and a statement showing he had sold the lots at a handsome profit. It wasn't long after that that he sold the bonds."

Said Beautiful Prayers

Vinnie Skinner. RFD 3, who knew Blanchard personally and has seen written evidences of his deeds hundreds of times as former register of deeds and present head of a WPA project renovating old county records, remembers him best for his praying ability.

"That man prayed by night and stole by day," she exclaims. "He would get up and pray in the Methodist church and you'd be carried straight to heaven. He

was the same way when he talked to you. His voice would begin to tremble and shake and you were sure he was talking from the bottom of his heart. My mother used to say he must be a good man or he couldn't pray like that. He always stood up lo pray so everybody could see him.

Preyed On Methodists

"You'd have thought he was the most wonderful little fellow you ever saw if you didn't know about his manipulations. He preyed mostly on the Methodists. After he built his big hotel, he built a big Methodist church in South Hutchinson. A few years later they were both gone. I guess they were torn down and sold to satisfy the creditors."

W. A. Fair, RFD, who was a boy in South Hutchinson in the 1880s, was chiefly impressed by Blanchard's flour mill, which never ground a pound of flour. "The

bottom dropped out of the boom before it was ready to run," he recalls.

Gyped But Once

As remembered here, Blanchard had the wool pulled over his eyes only once. Even then he came out slightly ahead of the victims. His triumph was his own downfall. George O. Combs. RFD 1, old time real estate man, tells this story:

"Ben Blanchard came here in the last part of 1886. He was a wonder. He got land on time and went to work selling it. He could preach. He could sell land. He

could do any dumbed thing. Here's something you might not believe, but anybody who knew Ben Blanchard as well as I knew him knows it's true. Ben came to town dressed in a woman's clothes. And the detective who came out of Terre Haute, Indiana, after him helped him off the train here thinking he was a woman.

It was along about midsummer 1887 when Ben starged to build his town. He got his salt well down, built a flour factory and a barbed wire factory, besides a lot of buildings. It wasn't any little development. Ben built big buildings! Finally he got his trouble straightened out back in Terre Haute and brought his first excursion out here from there. He wired ahead to get me to drive his lead team. We were all ready when the excursion got off the train. Ben had carpenters measuring and surveying lots to build. He had lumber and rock hauled over there. It had to be a busy day when the excursion got there.

Swanky Livery

"When the train pulled in, there I was up on the high seat of the lead landau rented from Carpenter's livery stable. We took those people over to South Hutchinson and Ben sold one of the men a half interest in a development called the Pennsylvania block for S30.000. The same property is worth about $750 today.

"That banker who bought it reached into his pocket and took out a draft for $10,000 to make a first payment. Blanchard - just to show how unimportant the whole thing was — just told him to hand it to the driver. So the banker handed it up to me, after he took out his big gold pen and endorsed it.

"'There,' he said, 'I think you'll find that's all right.'

"I was just as good as he was. That's what Ben wanted me along for, with my stovepipe hat and fancy landau, all for show. I just folded up the check and stuffed it in my vest pocket as if it was an every day occurrence.

Put Money in Bank

"Then's when I got even with Ben. I had $6,000 stock in the old People's bank, which stood on the southeast corner of Sherman and Main. Ben owed the bank $13,000. I don't know how he ever got into them. I told the cashier they were a bunch of fools to lend him money. So I went in and left the draft at the bank. I told them to apply $9,500 of it on what he owed.

"Then I went down the street. Ben was entertaining his guests at the hotel, but I knew he'd be looking for me. Sure enough, here he came.

"The first thing he said was, 'Where's that draft?' I just looked up in the air and said, 'Huh?'

"'I want you to produce that draft right away, or I'll have you arrested,' he said.

"'Listen, Ben,' I said. 'You couldn't have anybody arrested. You owe that bank $13,000, and that's where the draft is.'

Ben Cried For Mercy

"Then Ben almost got down on his knees and cried. He didn't have any money to feed his guests down at the hotel, he said. I told him he ought to have thought of that before he brought them out here. Finally he agreed to take $500 of the money. I went down to the bank and got it. But I waited there for 30 minutes, letting on I had a hard time getting it, just to make him sweat.

"We never did get any more money out of him, though, so we might as well have kept the $500 too."

Combs recalls Blanchard never had a bank corporation—only a building, in South Hutchinson. Finally he went to Colorado, after "he darsent stay in Hutchinson, he had so many deep deals on," the veteran real estate man declares. Combs thinks it was in Denver that Blanchard finally sealed his doom in Hutchinson. He wrote a $1,500 check on the South Hutchinson bank — and obtained the money.

Death Beat The Creditors

Combs says, "If Ben had lived long enough, they would have caught up to him and put him in the penitentiary. Finally the mortgage companies got everything he started: Even they lost money. You wouldn't believe it, but I've sold as high as 40 houses in a week, for practically nothing, after the mortgage companies got stuck."

Blanchard's most ambitious building project was the "Indiana" block, which was started at one end with a three-story hotel, dwindled to two and finally one

story at the end. The gaps were never filled. After the boom burst and Blanchard departed, the buildings were razed. Now even the foundations are gone.

Excitement Over Well

The salt well caused tremendous excitement in its day. Blanchard at first feigned secretiveness about it. One of the earlier newspaper items concerning the well told, on July 21, 1887, it had been moved a mile west of its first location because of unfavorable strata.

Later, on Sept. 22. 1887, The News said: "As we go to press at the last moment of delay, there comes to us the most encouraging — if, indeed, We do not say the most exciting — reports from the big exploration well." At that time it had been going down steadily for three months. The article continued to report Palmer & Davis, drilling contractors, said character of the strata indicated coal at 600 feet, gas 200 feet lower. It said the company would drill to 2,000 feet if necessary. It was reported a second drilling company was being formed.

Boom Was Swift

Showing how fast the boom spread, a year after South Hutchinson was platted on 1,400 acres of unbroken sod June 1, 1886, 1,200 persons lived there. A few months later 2,500 were claimed.

Hutchinson was also booming. The Hutchinson Fair association, headed by Fred A. Forsha, staged its first exposition in October, 1887. A million dollar reformatory was under construction. On July 28, 1887, an ardent newspaper writer showed how Hutchinson could expect to grow from 12,000 to 96,000 population in three years, after a gain from 6,000 in 1886. Nearly 100 business houses and 1,000 residences were reported under construction.

Builders were busy. Bricklayers were receiving $4.50 a day, carpenters $2.50 to $3.50 and common laborers $2, according to newspaper stories. The South Hutchinson well added to the excitement. On Oct. 9, it was reported the "Blanchard well" was "down 705 feet and had been through 225 feet of salt, the last 51 feet a solid vein. The News said: "The excitement over the gas well will keep on gathering force each day. Yesterday we learned that in addition to several more large veins of salt that were passed through, there was an eight-inch vein of cannal coal passed through."

Very Secretive

A salt history prepared locally a few years ago contains this: "He (Blanchard) was very secretive about the reason for the derrick and natives soon called it the 'none of your business derrick.' A few days later Ben showed the folks a chunk of anthracite coal which he claimed to have taken from his well and proclaimed the the opening of one of the largest anthracite fields in the world. Ben kept on drilling and then announced he had a well which was producing several thousand cubic feet of gas each day and that with each building purchased, gas would be furnished for heat for the life of the well. However, investigation proved there was no gas."

His next exhibit, the salt company history continued, "was several pieces of white crystal, but as it appeared worthless, it was thrown away and not even Get-Rich-Quick Blanchard knew it\ was pure rock salt and that he had thrown away a fortune."

The salt company history erred. Newspaper stories at the time reported the discovery of salt. in subsequent years it was recalled how a "News reporter was taken behind Blanchard's team of spanking bays to the well, where'there was great excitement."

At last Ben Blanchard had found his bonanza!

Never Sold a Pound

To him it was only a peg to hang up more promotional schemes. He never sold a pound of salt directly. After he left town other operators began retrieving the product, first by drawing brine Into tanks and allowing the sun to evaporate it. A New York chemist named Gouinlock came to start the Gouinlock & Humphrey plant which began operations a half century ago this week. Inside of a year, 10 plants were operating here.

It was soon an accepted industry. On Aug. 18, 1892, The News reported Hutchinson's first strike. Employes of the Kansas Salt Co., had quit work and were demanding an advance from $1.50 to $1.80 a day.

In 1892. of course, the boom was over. It started in February, 1887. It was almost a memory a year later.

In Celestial Real Estate?

And what of B. Blanchard - His history after he left Hutchinson is the vaguest hearsay.

They say he "went west," returned to Terre Haute, Ind., eventually to die. One thing is certain. If his church faith was strong enough to take him to a happier land, he is probably spending his time now subdividing the golden streets and selling celestial real estate to the angels.