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Robert E. Lawrence was one of the pioneers and one of the important upbuilders of the City of Wichita. The land he pre-empted from the Government and used for farming and stock raising purposes many years is now included within the city limits, and much of it is built over with residences, business houses and institutions. By strenuous effort and much self denial in early days, he acquired a liberal prosperity, but dispensed it liberally and left his impress on much of the city’s progress.
He was of New England birth and ancestry, and was born at Canaan, Connecticut, December 17, 1847. He died at Wichita January 28, 1911, after a long and useful career. He grew up on a farm, graduated from a boarding school in Southwestern Massachusetts, and at the age of twenty-two, in 1869, started for the West. He left Massachusetts with only $2.50 in money.
He possessed some of the Yankee ingenuity and commercial faculties which enabled him to get along in all conditions and among all sorts of people and carn a respectable livelihood. He paid his way as far as Neponset, Illinois, by selling stencils. During the winter spent at Neponset he taught school, and saved enough of his earnings to buy a pair of horses. These horses he drove through to Wichita and arrived in that frontier village in May, 1870. He at once preempted 160 acres and made that the scene of his first undertaking as a Kansas farmer. That 160 acres now surrounds the Kansas State Masonic Home, and the home and grounds occupy a portion of his original quarter section. The team of horses he drove through was stolen in the early fall of his arrival and in the fall of 1870 he returned to Illinois and taught school, but came back to Kansas in 1871 and began breaking the prairie soil with a yoke of wild Texas steers. By hard work and good judgment and foresight he kept adding to his holdings until at one time he owned nearly a section of land, all of which is now included within the city limits of Wichita. In the early days he was also in business as a freighter from Wichita to Emporia, until the railroad reached Wichita in 1872.
He was largely successful as a cattle breeder and dealer, and he imported a number of Polled Angus cattle from Scotland, and for many years made a specialty of that breed. His interests also extended into Oklahoma Territory, and from 1894 for about ten years he operated a farm in Kay County, where he continued his operations as a cattle breeder and raiser.
In Wichita, as that city developed, he erected and owned a number of buildings, both for business and residence, and for several years conducted a real estate office. He built the main part of the Masonic Home for a residence, and later sold the property to the Masons. He was also active in securing the Garfield University at Wichita, and donated the land on which its buildings stand. Garfield University is now Friends University.
It was due to his prominence in business affairs that political honors came to him as a matter of course. At one time he represented his district in the State Legislature, and for years was a member of the school board and also held other county and city offices. He was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church from the time it was organized until his death. On September 2, 1873, Robert E. Lawrence married Laura Smith of Sandisfield, Massachusetts. Mrs. Lawrence now occupies the old home at 1011 North Topeka Street. Six children were born to them, and the four now living are Charles S., Harry A., Harriet A. and Ruth L.