Schemer Ben Blanchard left his mark on South Hutch

Sunday, September 27, 1987

He created South Hutchinson. He discovered the salt that lies under Reno County. He helped pour Eastern capital into this area when it was needed most.

Reno County owes a debt to Ben Blanchard it can never repay.

And, in a way, that is the most fitting memorial we could make for the man - considering that Blanchard's whole life was spent racking up debts he could never repay, either.

A flashy entrepreneur and land speculator from Terre Haute, Ind., Blanchard had taken an interest in Reno County some time in the early 1880s.

By September 1885, he was already a well-known face in Hutchinson. A headline called him "the irrepressible Ben in all his Pullman glory."

The Pullman railroad car referred to was one of Blanchard's trademarks, along with his red neckties and diamond stickpin. The rail car had been made to his own specifications, and constituted $20,000 of the Pullman company's finest work, 64 feet long with sleeping space for 34 passengers.

A drawing room, kitchen, and saloon graced the car, as well as a lavishly decorated parlor and a drawing-room that held a custom-made piano worth $1,000. Under the car was a reservoir that held up to a ton of ice, meats and vegetables.

In that extravagant rolling office, named "La Paradis," Blanchard traveled between Hutchinson and his native Terre Haute, bringing investors from Indiana to sink money into his South Hutchinson ventures.

Blanchard's major attempt to cash in on the Kansas real estate boom was South Hutchinson itself, which he created and platted in 1886. He started a dozen building projects there, throwing up a flour mill, barbed wire factory, numerous residences, and many Main Street business buildings to make the area enticing to out-of-state speculators.

But when the coal, oil and natural gas he had promised his investors turned into a much less lucrative 300-foot-thick vein of rock salt, Blanchard's Hutchinson days were numbered. Less than a year later, with nothing to keep prices high, the real estate boom began to bust. Ben Blanchard moved on.

So memorable were the schemes and winning personality of Ben Blanchard, however, that they were still talked about in Hutchinson fifty years later.

"You'd have thought he was the most wonderful little fellow you ever saw if you didn't know about his manipulations," recalled one woman who knew him. "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."

An attorney who once did some legal business for Blanchard called him "the most convincing fellow you ever met in your life.

"It was a liberal education to see how he 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 he was selling something ... "He never had anything to do with a man," the lawyer remembered, "that he didn't stick him."

After Hutchinson, Blanchard is said to have traveled to Arizona, where he organized a mining company and built a mining town called Blanchard near Prescott.

When the investors in the Iron King mine there figured out they were being swindled, Blanchard moved on to Nevada, and from there to Kansas City, Mo. He disappeared there around 1910, perhaps emigrating to England.

Among the legacies Blanchard left Hutchinson were tall tales told about his arrivals and departures. He may or may not ever have come to Hutch dressed as an old woman to avoid Terre Haute detectives, but stories written about him never fail to include that legend.

One of the gallant detectives is supposed to have helped him/her off the train.

"You might not believe," said a man who sold real estate in those days, "but anybody who knew Ben Blanchard as well as I knew him knows it's true."