Alonzo F. Dexter.On Sunday, Feb. 11, 1912, the residents of Clay Center paid to the memory of the founder of their city a tribute which has seldom been equaled in the passing away of a citizen of Kansas. Practically the entire town met to say good-bye to all that remained of Alonzo F. Dexter. It was a striking example that riches and power are but transitory, while a good name and kindly deeds are imperishable, immortal. Here was a man, practically without means, without immediate family, whose activities in the life of the town in recent years were slight, yet in whose death all felt a deep personal loss. From 1862, when he filed upon the lands on which the town was built, and which he named Clay Center, until the early '80s, he was the most active force in her development. He was not only merchant, miller and town-site owner, but a benefactor to the settlers then struggling for a foothold, who, had it not been for the assistance which he so generously extended, would have suffered untold privation, while development in that section would have been greatly retarded.
Alonzo F. Dexter was a native of Vermont, born on his father's farm in Pomfert township, Windsor county, June 3, 1833. He was at his death on Feb. 9, 1912, the last survivor of a family of ten children, of whom he was the youngest. His parents both died the same year while he was a child. He was reared in the family of a relative in New Hampshire, and while yet in his teens became a factory hand in the textile mills at Lowell, Mass. In 1851 he came west as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he remained one year. He next visited a sister in Illinois and while there determined to seek his fortune in the gold fields of California, an ambition which he had long nourished. He was possessed of some means which he had inherited, but as he was still a minor and a ward of an elder brother, John, who had previously prospected throughout California with poor success, getting money for the trip was out of the question. He determined to earn his expenses in some manner and made his way by boat to New Orleans, where he secured a position as cabin boy on a packet sailing for the isthmus. In due time he arrived in the land of gold and remained there until 1862. He made his strike and cleaned up $35,000, a snug fortune for those days.
His mining success had made him optimistic and he now dreamed of greater success and wealth. His was a constructive mind and he purposed becoming a town builder and land owner. He came to Kansas, which was then attracting nation-wide notice for its opportunities, and chose the Republican valley as his field for operation. In imagination he saw the valley teeming with people and their activities and all of his dreams a reality. They have come true, though unfortunately others have reaped where he had sown. He was not yet thirty years old when he came to Clay county. Soldiers' land warrants could be bought cheaply and with these he entered 4,000 acres of bottom land between what is now Morganville and Clay Center, at an average cost to him of sixty-five cents per acre. This land today is worth $400,000. After considerable investigation he selected the site of the present city of Clay Center for his project, as being the most eligible for that purpose, and located as it is almost in the center of the county, he named the prospective town Clay Center. In May, 1862, he filed on the land and in June it was surveyed and platted for him by Capt. A. C. Pierce of Junction City. During the summer he was joined by his brother, John Dexter, who was placed in charge of the enterprise, and who for many years thereafter was associated with Alonzo in his various undertakings.
Alonzo returned to California in September and there married Miss Emma Dunbar, a woman who possessed many graces of character, a true helpmeet, generous, kind hearted and ever ready to sympathize with the unfortunate and to minister to their needs. To them was born a son who died in infancy. Mrs. Dexter died in California in 1883. Her loss was the great sorrow of Mr. Dexter's life and she was sincerely mourned by those who had so often in their days of need and sorrow drawn upon her broad charity and sympathy. During the years from 1863 to 1866 Mr. Dexter and his wife spent the greater part of their time in California and New England. In those years the settlers began to arrive and the need for a sawmill, flour mill and supply store became imperative. In 1886 an engine and boiler, purchased by Mr. Dexter the previous year in Boston, arrived and a sawmill was erected on the site of the present Williamson mill, its equipment also including a burr for grinding corn. Lumber was sawed for a store building and the firm of A. F. Dexter & Brother established. A stock of general merchandise totaling $40,000 was purchased in Leavenworth and hauled by wagon to the new town. At this store many needy settlers got the necessaries of life, literally without money and price. They had no means of subsistence nor opportunity to earn money except as Mr. Dexter could give them employment, which he always did when he had work to be done. He often hired men when they were in desperate straits to do odd jobs which were of no benefit whatever to him. Many of them, like Mr. Dexter, were hopeful, even optimistic as to the future, believing that eventually "their ship would come in," but hopes and promises to pay, when the shelves began to grow bare, were valueless to fill them again. So Mr. Dexter mortgaged his landsthe most of his ready cash having been invested in his various enterprisesto get money for more goods. The settlers' credit still remained good at the store, however, and the mortgagee finally got the lands. More than $18,000 was trusted out, not twenty per cent. of which was ever paid. In 1867 Mr. Dexter built the first steam flour mill on the Republican river and in 1875 he constructed the first dam. July 4, 1876, saw the first flour manufactured by water power and the event was duly celebrated by the citizens. In 1878 the dam was carried away by the floods of that year and the mill lay idle. Right here most men would have stopped. Most men would have advised and many did advise that the water power be abandoned. They had failed, however, to gauge correctly Mr. Dexter's "stick-to-it-iveness." He remarked to a friend who observed his poking in the river with a stick, "I find that the bottom is still here" and "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Three times did he build a dam, only to have it swept away by the floods, and at last the mill was destroyed by fire, which ended the career of Alonzo F. Dexter as a miller. But his work was not lost, and today Clay Center is reaping the benefit of his indomitable pluck, courage and energy. He stuck to it until more than fifteen years had elapsed, and the right to the flood lands, the use of the banks to maintain a dam across the river and to use the creek as a mill race was forever gained, and upon this franchise, gained by the perseverance of Alonzo F. Dexter, rests the right of the Williamsons to maintain their dam for furnishing power for their magnificent milling plant. Dexter lost, but in losing he had won for the town.
In 1886 he built the first electric light plant in this section of Kansas and operated it until the destruction of his mill, when it passed into the hands of Williamson, Wickstrum & Company. This loss swept away the last of Mr. Dexter's resources. Still he did not complain, but reached forward as it were into the future and began again the battle of life. He had friends and relatives who would gladly have cared for him, but this he did not want. He wanted to be independent. He loved to work. He believed in the dignity of labor. Cheerfully, gladly, and of his own choosing he turned to such work as he could do to earn his living, rather than be dependent upon others. He taught the lesson of industry. He was considerate of the feelings of the poor, and in early days he put men to work in his log and wood yard, piling slabs, bark and chips, and paid them wages for it, so that they might believe they were supporting themselves rather than living on the charity of others. He put men to work on his farms when all hope of a crop was gone in order to preserve the pride and dignity of men. He was always thinking of others. He was a good man and he loved Clay Center. The Garfield school grounds, courthouse square and Dexter Park, all gifts of his to city and county, are enduring monuments of the generous man who loved so well the town which he created. His last years were spent in comfort, free from financial worry and in contemplation of work well done, surrounded by friends who loved him for his humanity, his broad charity and cheerfulness.
When the new courthouse was completed the county commissioners and the people generally were anxious to express their recognition of Mr. Dexter's worth and services to Clay county and he was appointed (nominally) superintendent of the courthouse building and grounds, with apartments in the building and a salary, that he might in his declining years be comfortable and independent. He received this from the people in the spirit it was givenas a just recompense for a debt which the community felt it owed. His death occurred on Feb. 9, 1912, at the residence of his niece, Mrs. Eric H. Swenson, where he had been taken at the commencement of his fatal illness. Here, surrounded by the love of kinfolk and all that wealth could procure to ease his last hours, he passed to his final sleep. His work, his good deeds, his great example of patience, industry and charity will live forever. His death marks the passing of another of those men who were given opportunity to develop a wilderness; men who possessed energy, pluck, courage, a willingness to endure hardship, to risk their all that others might find homes and prosperity. His work is finished. It was well done.Pages 1348-1351 from volume III, part 2 of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed December 2002 by Carolyn Ward. This volume is identified at the Kansas State Historical Society as microfilm LM195. It is a two-part volume 3.
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