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Lester M. Crawford of Topeka is one of the men of remarkable enterprise in a state which for years had been in the habit of contributing enterprise, ideas, principles for the vitalizing and regeneration of the world. He is perhaps best known as the owner and lessee of a chain of theaters in a dozen or more cities of Kansas and other states. He had done more than any other man to bring artistic talent to Topeka and other cities of the state. A theatrical man is not often a pioneer in agriculture, but the readers of that old agricultural journal, The Country Gentleman, will recall several interesting articles describing Mr. Crawford’s experiment in establishing a “fur farm” in Kansas, and his success in breeding and crossing Asiatic sheep with some of the native stock to produce the pelts which are so much esteemed when manufactured into the Persian lamb, Astrakhan and other grades of fur.
Mr. Crawford came to Kansas when a boy of thirteen. His parents Thomas and Charlotte (Hill) Crawford, were natives of Ohio, and his father was a carpenter and at times conducted a farm. Their home, where Mr. Crawford was born, was in the little town of Mount Pleasant in Southern Ohio, in what is called the Hanging Rock Iron Region. The family had also lived in other parts of the state. In coming to Kansas they spent sixteen days en route. A railroad took them to St. Louis, and from there they journeyed for twelve days on a boat up the Missouri River to Leavenworth, followed by a two days wagon journey to Topeka. At that time Topeka had less than a thousand inhabitants and was only a frontier village, without sidewalks, and with only two or three brick buildings. Here Thomas and Charlotte Crawford spent the rest of their lives. Of their eleven children three are now living.
Lester M. Crawford, seventh in age, had had his home in Kansas and is a typical Kansas man since he was thirteen years old. At the age of seventeen he started to learn the printer’s trade and vividly recalls working the old Washington hand press on the Kansas Tribune, published by J. F. Cummings and S. R. Shepherd. An item of his still earlier experience was hauling freight between Leavenworth and Topeka and Atchison. As a printing apprentice he also worked on the old Kansas Free Press at Atchison, published by the honored F. G. Adams. In 1864 a spirit of adventure led him to cross the plains to Fort Laramie, in the employ of a freighter named Moore. On this trip they encountered difficulties on account of Indian depredations. Later he resumed his work as a printer on the Topeka Leader published by J. F. Cummings. When Prouty, Davis & Crane started the Daily Commonwealth, the first daily paper in Topeka, he became circulation manager and advertising solicitor.
In connection with his early newspaper experience about 1868 Mr. Crawford started a bill posting service. It was that which gave him his first insight into the amusement business as a vocation For a number of years he made general advertising and bill posting his regular occupation.
As the owner and promoter of theatrical houses his activities have become widely spread. In 1880 he bought the old Costa Opera House on the site of the present Commerce Building at Topeka. This was remodeled into a theater, but a few months later was burned. It was rebuilt in 1881, and in 1906 was again destroyed by fire. When it was rebuilt it became known as the Commerce Building, furnishing a home and headquarters for the Topeka Commercial Club. As a theatrical manager Mr. Crawford brought to Topeka such noted artists as Clara Louise Kellogg, Joseph Jefferson, Sol Smith Russell, Robison & Crane, Booth and Barrett, Emma Eames Abbott, and in fact all the greatest actors and singers of the day. His success at Topeka led him to expand the scope of his action. He built an opera house in Atchison, the Crawford Theater at Leavenworth, the Crawford Theater at Wichita, Crawford Theater at El Paso, Texas, Crawford Theater at St. Joseph, Missouri, the Oliver Theater at Lincoln, Nebraska. The Gaiety Theater of St. Louis is also owned by Mr. Crawford, and he is lessee of Brandies Theater. Omaha, Nebraska, the Texas Grand Thcater, El Paso, Texas, and is also interested in a number of other places of amusement throughout the country.
For many years he had been making inveetments in farm and ranch lands, and now owned a 1,920 acre ranch in Chase County, Kansas, which is the scene of his extensive enterprise with cattle and Karakule sheep, and he also had another ranch of 2,381 acres near El Paso, Texas. While a great amount of publicity had been given in the magazines and the newspaper press to Mr. Crawford’s experiment in fur farming, the story of his efforts is undoubtedly best told in a fascinating little booklet which he issued under the title “Fur Farming with Sheep,” and detailing his experiences. As he saya he is a pioneer in what he believes is a new industry for sheep growers of the United States, and in his booklet he tells what he knows about raising fur by crossing Karakule sheep from Asia on native American breeds. These experiments were conducted on his ranch near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, where he made his first test in 1912. At the beginning it should be explained that the hides of the lambs of the Karakule sheep, on account of their special quality, have long held an exclusive place in the world’s fur markets. The industry until comparatively recently was confined to Southern Russia and Asia, and on account of the world’s demand for the Karakule fur its cost had been steadily rising during the past twenty years. There are three kinds of fur produced. If the curls are small and very tight, furriers call it Persian lamb fur. When the curls are larger and loose the pelt is known as Astrakban, and if the pelt shows shades of gray it is called Krimmer. The most valuable pelts are taken from the newborn lambs, usually before they are two weeks old.
It is possible to quote only a few paragraphs from Mr. Crawford’s booklet. “My decision to start a fur farm probably was born from a desire of long standing in me to grow fur. It appealed to me as fascinating work. More than that–for I conldn’t afford to do it for pleasure–it appealed to me as profitable. The opportunity came when a sheep breeder in Texas, who had imported a herd of Karakule sheep direct from Asia, and with whom I had been negotiating offered to sell out to me. It was perhaps the first herd of Karakules ever brought to this country. We closed the deal for thirty-four head–nineteen rams and fifteen ewes–and I removed them to my 1,900 acre sheep ranch near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. My total investment was about $35,000.
“It may seem that I was taking a pretty big chance to invest so much money in an enterprise before the practicability of it had been proved. But it wasn’t altogether a gamble. Scientists had proved that lambs resulting from Karakules crossed on native American breeds would bear pelts valuable for fur. These tests of course were only scientific; no one had actually attempted the production of the pelts for proflt. But the scientific fact seemed safe enough to me. I was willing to try it. There wasn’t any doubt about the Karakule sheep thriving in this country. They are a very hardy breed, the extreme hot and cold temperatures of their native land having hardened them to the hardships of weather.
“I now gave close attention to stocking and equipping the fur farm. And it was fascinating work I assure you. We repaired the old buildings and fences on the ranch and built a new barn large enough to accommodate 1,200 sheep. I needed some good blooded ewes. The better the grade of native sheep used in breeding for fur the better the pelt will be. So I bought 1,100 selected Lincoln ewes from the Gooding ranch in Idaho. The possibilities of fur farming as a new industry had attracted the attention of experts at the Kansas Agricultural College, partienlarly Dr. R. K. Nabours, an experimental breeder. At my invitation Doctor Nabours became an adviser in the work, and as such had rendered valuable aid to me by his wide knowledge of cross breeding.
“It was well into November, 1912, before we began crossing the Karakule rams on the Lincoln ewes.” Then Mr. Crawford explains that in earrying out his plan to keep a careful record of the breeding the matter was delayed with the greater number of ewes until the season was almost past. “Consequently our crop of half-bloods was small–only about three hundred came. A cold lambing season killed a number of the lambs, some were born dead, so that only two hundred survived. However, not one of the pelts from the one hundred dead lambs was damaged. Death or early birth does not affect their value in the least.”
In the next season, 1913, the breeding was begun earlier and he proflted by his previous experience, and the results were much more satisfactory. It should be noted that not only is the Karakule sheep valuable for its fur, but it also had exceptional qualities as a mutton stock, and it had proved that the quality of mutton produced from the crossing of the two stocks will be greatly improved.
In politics Mr. Crawford is a republican, and is a Knight Templar and Shriner Mason. On January 15, 1868, he married Miss Mary E. Wright of Topeka. To their union were born the following children: Orlin T.; Chester P.; Bertha, who died in her sixteenth year; Roy, who is associated with his father in business; and Edith, Mrs. Oscar Messing of St. Louis.