Hold Your Horses

I have a daughter that has always wanted a horse for Christmas. I made her a deal; I would buy the horse if she would buy the feed. She still doesn’t understand why the feed is the problem and therefore she doesn’t have a horse.

Horses have always been a crucial part of Butler County history. Whether your talking about horse-power in oil field and farm equipment or literal horses. Horses have been the driving force of progress and industry.

In fact, the first white settler in El Dorado to “stick it out” was William Hildebrande. He arrived in May of 1857 and helped with the organization and establishment of El Dorado. However, Hildebrande’s neighbors also believed his home was a rendezvous for those who partook in the act of horse thievery. In 1859, a party of neighbors surrounded his home, flogged him and gave him 24 hours to leave the county. He didn’t stick around for a second notice.

In 1870, Butler County, especially around the Douglass area, was notorious for harboring horse thieves. In late May of that year, thieves killed two young men on the trail from El Dorado to Wichita for their team of horses. To cover their tracks, they hung the two men’s bodies with notes pinned to them accusing the victims of being horse thieves. Soon the ruse was discovered. The lack of law enforcement in the county finally forced settlers to take the law into their own hands.

On November 8th, a band of mounted men visited the settlement of Douglass. Discovering where Lewis Booth and James Smith resided, they ambushed their houses. The day the band of vigilantes visited Douglas, Smith had just returned from Wichita, where he and Jack Corbin had picked up a stolen army horse. Smith attempted to flee the party and was shot midstream crossing the Little Walnut.

Jack Corbin wasn't so lucky. The vigilantes made to lynch Corbin. They lifted him by the neck several times to persuade him to give up the names of the rest of the gang. Apparently, he did so before he was lifted off the ground one last time and left hanging in the tree as an ornament to discourage other thieves during the holiday season. In all, four thieves were killed. Corbin’s confession led the vigilantes to put the town under martial law for the rest of November. It also led to the discovery of four other horse thieves.

On December 1, 1870, four men implicated by Jack Corbin were taken into custody by the vigilantes. The prisoners were taken to a place about a mile south of Douglass and hanged. This action seemed to satisfy the vigilantes and Douglass began to return to normal. John “Pony” Donovan also took this as his cue and left Butler County. He was believed to be the ringleader of the thieves and with his departure things settled down.

One thing is clear, the people of Butler County take their horses seriously. Over time the vigilante groups organized into more law abiding associations known as Kansas Anti-Horse Thief Societies. What seems like a radical response today was in fact a desperate effort to protect the very existence of the people of Butler County.

While I cannot advocate hangings and vigilante groups, there is a lesson to be learned from this era of Butler County history for organizations and non-profits. Volunteers provide the horsepower that makes these organizations work. We must do a better job protecting and caring for those who add so much value and enable our very existence. We need to do a better job holding our horses!

I want to invite you to join us for “Hold Your Horses” at 6:00 pm on December 21, 2016. A meal will be provided, seating is limited and tickets are available at the museum. This event will include a special presentation by John Burchill on the “Kansas Anti-Horse Thief Societies”. It will also be a special time of honoring the volunteers of the Kansas Oil Museum. They truly make all the difference in the world.

We hope you will join us for this presentation. Contact the museum for more details. During this holiday season, don’t forget to thank those who provide the horsepower to accomplish the causes for which you care so much. Volunteers are truly worth our honor and respect.

© 2015 Warren Martin. All Rights Reserved.