WILLIAM J. WORKMAN, M. D., a retired physician of Ashland, one of the pioneers of Clark County, has a prominence in the history of Kansas and the West not due alone to his early settlement in this county or his valuable services in the profession.
Doctor Workman discovered and was the first to utilize and bring to public attention one of the most important building materials of the modern age. Many years ago he was ranging the prairies and valley lands of Western Kansas with a hunting party. On the Campbell Ranch he discovered a mineral in the bluffs, a silicate that under his treatment furnished gypsum plaster. Of an inquiring nature, though without training as a chemist and with only a limited knowledge of geology, Dr. Workman intuitively guessed that the shining particles against the hills along the Cimarron might contain the solution of the problem of cheap building material for this region, a problem which he had already viewed with much concern. So interested was he over the possibilities of a discovery, the results of which would bring to commerce and trade an inexhaustible supply of plaster for concrete, that he absented himself from his hunting companions and began a test of the "shines" on the spot where he found them. With a frying pan and a buffalo chip fire he began cooking the raw material and watched it simmer and boil and change under the influence of heat until it turned to stucco or plaster of paris. He knew then that he had unlocked one of nature's laboratories and revealed a product of great value to Kansas. To demonstrate to his neighbors that his discovery was of great value required little time and no expense. Local capital offered to finance an enterprise which would establish a pioneer industry in Ashland and place a new article of commerce upon the market for building material and eventually revolutionize the building trade of the country.
The company formed to begin the manufacture of plaster at Ashland, the Ashland Concrete and Plaster Company. The first one to be built in Kansas was capitalized at $5,000. That was ample to provide the machinery required to turn out a hundred barrels of the product daily. Factories of the East were then producing plaster with an equipment of very expensive machinery. This pioneer western effort could not hope to install such machinery, and Dr. Workman then took upon himself the matter of plant equipment, and consulting the engineer of the Fort Scott foundry and machine shop, the two planned and drew up specifications for a simple outfit promising an output sufficient for a good profit upon the investment involved. In a few weeks the plant was in operation, and the output of Doctor Workman's discovery was going to points east and into the building operations at Wichita and elsewhere. Only for the financial disturbance of 1890 to 1893, which suddenly stopped the building boom and caused the countermand of orders from material men for the Ashland plaster to such an extent as to render the operation of the factory further useless, a huge industry might now be employing skilled and unskilled labor on many silicated hills of Clark County.
With the collapse of business in building the little factory at Ashland closed its doors, never to reopen. But in the meantime Dr. Workman had made the first "poured" concrete building in the world and had demonstrated twenty years ahead of Edison the practicability of erecting buildings from foundation to rafters by pouring concrete into forms filled with rubble stone and removing the forms after the hardening of the walls. Such a building was erected on one of the prominent streets of Ashland and was Doctor Workman's residence at one time. The walls still stand without a crack. Another sample of his art in concrete "poured" building is the generous residence Dr. Workman built on his farm east of Ashland, a splendid nine room edifice which stands as a monument to his genius and pioneer efforts in concrete work. On his ranch near Ashland he completed in 1913 his third residence of concrete, a "poured" structure as permanent as the hills and pledging family comforts and safety until the end of time.
Doctor Workman was born in Johnson County, Missouri, in June, 1852. He spent his boyhood and early youth on the home farm and supplemented his country school education by attending the State University at Columbia, and finishing his professional education at Jefferson Medical College at Philadelphia, and in Washington University at St. Louis. He completed his course in medicine in 1873. He then practiced for a time at Knohnoster, Missouri, and was in that state save for occasional brief residences in Texas and Indian Territory until he came out to Kansas.
It was in February, 1885, that Doctor Workman came into Clark County. He arrived by wagon, as did other early settlers, and several of his companions also were from Johnson County, Missouri. He established himself in the medical profession, and also preempted public land six miles south of Ashland, proved it up and developed it, and was identified with agricultural pursuits during the period of his residence in the county. His first Kansas shelter was a modest frame house. His interest in farming and ranching caused him to acquire several thousand acres near Bear Creek Bottom, and there he became one of the pioneer alfalfa growers of the county. He also raised cattle, and developed a ranch that was one of the best in that locality.
As a member of the State Agricultural Society Dr. Workman entered enthusiastically into the spirit of experimentation with various seeds furnished him by the society. Upon his own initiative and upon his ranch some important discoveries in plant growing were made. He was not only a pioneer in the raising of kaffir and maize but also in alfalfa culture. He developed a fine meadow of alfalfa containing four hundred acres. In the financial depression of 1893, when his plaster business failed and when farm and ranch were also visited by the effects of the panic, he leased the entire ranch, including the alfalfa meadow, for $100 a year and left Kansas altogether.
While a member of the State Board of Agriculture Dr. Workman was furnished samples of seed of the two sorghum crops, kaffir and maize, by Secretary Coburn to "try them out." He selected the red kaffir and a type of maize from the several samples, and made such favorable showing that the grains popularized themselves as food for beasts and since then for man. From small patches planted with seed distributed by him among old soldiers who journeyed to Ashland to consult the pension board, it was said by Secretary Coburn that forty-seven million bushels of this seed had been grown in one season in the second or third year of its history.
On leaving Kansas Dr. Workman after 7,000 miles of wagon travel for the health of his family and himself journeyed about in the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and in 1902 established himself at Denver and practiced medicine there until he began to feel the weight of the heavy burden of his profession and abandoned medicine altogether. From Colorado he was a frequenter of the Rocky Mountain National Park and during summer visits he attended those who needed professional service, became a property owner, and built Fern Lodge, one of the unique hotels of the Rockies. He operated it until his physical condition forced him to leave active business.
In the early days Dr. Workman was identified with business as well as professional affairs at Ashland. He was president of the Board of Trade, and was chosen county surveyor the year he left Kansas. As a public man he acquired his official experience in the Missouri Legislature in the thirty-first general assembly during the Crittenden administration. He was elected as a republican, and belonged to the minority party. With the aid of friendly colleagues he got through some legislation for the improvement of the normal school at Warrensburg. He was a member of the visiting committee to all the eleemosynary institutions of the state. He had grown up in a republican home and cast his first vote for Rutherford B. Hayes and has never missed a presidential election since then. He was chairman of the county republican convention of Clark County for several years, and attended the state convention of 1896. On the issue of free silver he left his party that year, later supported Mr. Roosevelt, but otherwise has given up his original party allegiance.
Dr. Workman's grandfather was a soldier in the war of 1812 and was killed during his service. He had two sons and a daughter. One son, David, became a sailor, and the knowledge of his career was lost to the family in early life. The daughter was Mrs. Wilts, who died in Washington, D. C.
Samuel Workman, father of Dr. Workman, was born in the military-historic locality of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was married there, and then moved out to Johnson County, Missouri, He was a farmer and for thirty years was a justice of the peace in Johnson County. While he volunteered for service in the war, he was rejected on account of age, and belonged to the Home Guards. He barely missed capture at Lexington. He had a liberal education, was a prominent republican in Missouri and a consistent Methodist.
Samuel Workman married Sarah Walters, a descendant of Adam Walters, who headed a colony of settlers from Holland, joining the William Penn Colony in Pennsylvania, and was a factor in the upbuilding of the communities of Gettysburg and Hanover. The parents of Sarah Walters migrated to Indiana along with the Workman family and established themselves at Americus, near Lafayette, where both of them died within a year. Samuel Workman came on to Johnson County, Missouri, from Indiana, and died in 1888, at the age of seventy-seven, while his widow survived him six years. Their children were: Eliza, who married Thomas A. Cooksey and spent her life in Sumner County, Kansas; Jane, who married A. E. Weidman and lives at Knobnoster, Missouri; Mary, wife of A. D. Wilson, who died at Portland, Oregon; Walter A., who died at Terre Haute, Indiana; Samuel I. a real estate man in Kansas City; Dr. Workman; and James, who is a Santa Fe surgeon at Woodward, Oklahoma,
In his native county Doctor Workman married for his first wife Miss Catherine Elbert. She left him two children: Jennie, wife of Harvey Van Ausdell, of Willard, Oklahoma; and James E., a proof reader for the Memphis Appeal, who married Lena Fox. Doctor Workman married for his second wife Emma Wells, of Johnson County, who died in Ashland, Kansas, leaving three children: Milo, a traveling salesman from Denver, who married Fay Jones; Dessa, wife of Samuel Emanuels, Brazilian Consul at Vancouver, British Columbia; and Alberta Grace, who married Herbert Hansen, of Chicago. The third wife of Doctor Workman was Lula Ripley Oliphant. They married in Kansas City, and she died childless. Doctor Workman married at Yuma, Arizona, Miss Florence J. Mount. Her mother was a Mitchell, and her parents came West from Saline County, Missouri, where Mrs. Workman was born. She is a graduate of the School of Practical Nurses of Denver, of which Doctor Workman was president, and at one time she was his head nurse. Doctor and Mrs. Workman have one daughter, Wilma.
Transcribed from A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, written and compiled by William E. Connelley, Secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka. [Revised ed.] Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1919, c1918. 5 v. (xlviii, 2530 p.,  leaves of plates): ill., maps (some fold.), ports.; 27 cm.
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