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Charles W. Parker is the world’s Napoleon in the manufacture of amusement devices. He lives in Kansas, had his immense plant, sometimes known as the “Wooden Horse Ranch,” at Leavenworth. He had been a resident of Kansas since he was an infant of five years. A philosopher may discover, if he can, any connection between the fact that he was brought to Kansas in one of the old fashioned movers or emigrant wagons, and the fact that his carnival outfits, shows, amusement machinery now circulate and travel to all parts of the habitable globe.
He was born April 26, 1864, at Griggsville, Illinois. His father, Edwin Parker, was born in Scotland, came to America with his parents at the age of seven years, spent his early childhood in Canada, and subsequently accompanied his father to the State of Illinois, where the latter was a school teacher. Edwin W. Parker married Elizabeth E. Thackeray, a niece of William M. Trackeray, who wrote some of the great books that will always remain standard and classic in English literature. To their marriage were born seven children, five of whom are still living.
In the spring of 1869 Edwin W. Parker brought his family to Kansas, traveling in a prairie schooner, and settling at the present town of Detroit in Dickinson County. That was far out on the western frontier, there were few settlers, and every hardship in the catalog of Kansas troubles had to be endured to some degree by the Parker family. Drought, grasshopper plagues and crop failures. Edwin Parker tried his hand at cattle raising, and after removing to Enterprise in 1873 set up in the lumber business and as a hotel proprietor. He and his wife spent their last years at Abilene.
Charles W. Parker is one of the men who knows the trials and vicissitudes of early Kansas existence not by word of mouth or by having read of them, but by personal experience. The pioneers of Western Kansas during the ’60s and ’70s had to work so hard for mere bread and butter existence that the establishment and maintenance of good schools became a secondary consideration. Thus Charles W. Parker had limited opportunities to gain a liberal education. A constructive mind, an alert intelligence, a quickness to see and make use of opportunity, and an impelling industry and ambition were the qualities which counted with him in his struggle for success.
At the age of seventeen he began the battle of life on his own responsibility. He was not afraid of work and, as a friend of his had said, he was willing to tackle any honest job without worrying as to its effect upon his complexion. In those early years he built stone fences, dug wells, and for a time was janitor of the courthouse at Abilene. Some of his old friends in Dickinson County say that the fences he built were good fences, the wells he dug were live wells, and his service as janitor of the courthouse left nothing to be desired in the way of efficiency and thoroughness.
His real destiny opened because he was able to recognize an authority when he saw it. In 1882 he bought a shooting gallery, which was one of the few public amusement devices which were then bidding for popular favor. The capital invested in this gallery Mr. Parker borrowed, his friends having confidence in his push and enterprise to make it a success. The next year he built a striking machine or “High Striker,” as it is commonly called today. He went about from one place to another with this equipment, in some towns had much success, and in others went broke. He soon set his mind on what he believed was the final goal of his ambition, the ownership of a merry-go-round. He and two friends and Geo. P. Westrup, his brother-in-law, bought one of the old style track machines in 1892. Its operation was fairly successful during the first year, and in 1893 Mr. Parker and Mr. Westrup became sole owner by purchasing the interests of his partners. He had been in the amusement business now for ten years or more. He might have gone on to a reasonable success had he been content to remain a mere operator. Charles W. Parker had an original and inventive genius, and he seldom operated a machine without making some decided improvement. His ideas finally took shape and form in a determination to begin manufacturing amusement devices on his own account. Out of that plan there was appointed a small plant in Abilene, and the first products were almost entirely shooting galleries. These galleries Mr. Parker had brought to a state of perfection heretofore unknown. He also rapidly eliminated the imperfections connected with the operation of the merry-go-round, and soon introduced radical changes in its construction. In 1898 he brought out the culmination of his original ideas and manufactured the first “Jumping Horse Carry-Us-All.” He gave it that name to distinguish it from the common type of the carouselle, though as a matter of fact it was so radically different from all previous riding devices that a name was needed which was in no way suggestive of existing machines. His Carry-Us-All was a success from the start, but each year Mr. Parker introduced new improvements, and today it is the best known and most popular riding device in America.
The next step he took in building up his immense business was the formation of a carnival company. This was launched in 1902 under the name of C. W. Parker Amusement Company, and it was the first company of the kind organized in Kansas. In 1905 he organized the C. W. Parker Shows and the Great Parker Shows, in 1908 the Greater Parker Shows, and in 1916 Parker’s Greatest Shows, probably the most elaborate and pretentious organization of its kind ever attempted, requiring a train of thirty-five all steel cars for its transportation. These shows include a list of attractions which have become familiar throughout the length and breadth of the land, and comprised not only a vast range of mechanical amusement facilities but also many individual and troupes of actor stars and entertainers.
At the present time Mr. Parker is the largest private owner of amusement cars in the United States. His factory at Leavenworth is the largest in the world devoted exclusively to the manufacture of amusement devices. The business was removed from Abilene to Leavenworth because of its enormous growth. A special feature of the plant at Leavenworth is the manufacture of Carry-Us-Alls and the thousands of wooden horses, mechanical organs, and other devices required in the show business. From Leavenworth the products are shipped to all parts of the world. The Parker Carry-Us-Alls go to the Philippine Islands, to the islands of the tropic seas, to Australia, South Africa, and thus the traveler to any part of the world might be able to identify a product as made by Parker at Leavenworth, Kansas.
C. W. Parker is a creative genius, and also a great business man, and had both the liberal mind and the simplicity of character which are so often associated with leaders in the business world. He possesses an unlimited capacity for hard work and is constantly planning something new and progressive. His most recent enterprise is the publication of a House Organ for his factory, which is published for the traveling showmen. This he had named “The Bedouin,” and it is one of the most complete and interesting house organs in the business world. The cover page is a handsome and striking work of art in three colors, with a lithograph of Mr. Parker, and the three-color scheme is carried out throughout the entire magazine, making it a very expensive proposition.
Mr. Parker is a republican in national politics, though independent on local issues, is a thirty-second degree Scottish Rite Mason, a Knight Templar, a Mystic Shriner, and a member of fourteen other fraternal organizations. He owned and occupies one of the finest homes in Kansas. On August 11, 1886, he married Miss Louisa Westrup, daughter of John F. and Elizabeth Westrup of Abilene. Of the six children born to their union the five now living are: Mrs. Gertrude Allen, Barney Ralph, Charles Earl, Paul Dewey and Lucille Louise.