Robert D. Blaine, who has had his home in Topeka for a number of years and also maintains a business office there, has been one of the builders of Kansas, his part in the development of the state being particularly reflected in the magnificent prosperity which during the past quarter of a century has come to the southwestern corner of Kansas. Pratt County in the Arkansas Valley will always have particular reason to remember Mr. Blaine’s early activities and influence he directed to the proper development of the resources of that section. For what he has done and for what he has caused others to do Robert D. Blaine must be accounted one of the foremost men of the Sunflower State.
He was born in Bellefontaine, Logan County, Ohio, a son of William and Agnes (Wallace) Blaine, both natives of Scotland. His father was born in Kirkcudbrichtshire and his wife in the city of Dumfries, both coming when quite young to Logan County, Ohio.
Doubtless it was the inheritance of the Scotch characteristics of patience, determination and energy that have taken Robert D. Blaine with success through all the variations of his experience. He grew up on his father’s farm in Logan County, acquiring a common school education, and later took some special courses to better qualify him for commercial affairs.
At the age of twenty, accepting Horace Greeley’s advice, he followed the western trail by railway and stage as far as Pawnee City, Nebraska. There he was employed as foreman on an extensive stock ranch. This experience gave him the capital which in 1882 enabled him to start out independently. That year he made his first purchase of land in Kansas, in Nemaha County, and from its subsequent rise in value it proved a profitable investment.
The first tide of immigration into Southwestern Kansas began to flow about the year 1885. Mr. Blaine did not allow this movement to escape his notice. His attention was attracted to Pratt County, which though without railroads, had a vast tract of rich agricultural land. Kingman was then the terminus of the railroad, and it was forty miles to Pratt up the beautiful valley of the Ninnescah. Pratt had few houses and there were no improvements in the entire county beyond a sod house here and there. The manner of transportation was the mountain stage coach operated by the late Colonel or Cannon Ball Green.
Arriving by this old time vehicle, Robert D. Blaine spent a few days looking about the new village, and then buying a claybank pony, saddle and bridle, he started out for the purpose of investigating conditions with a view to establishing an agricultural and machinery business. The months of fall and winter were given over to a personal observation of the entire country within a radius of sixty miles. He then came to the conclusion that it would be a very opportune time and place to engage in the business of furnishing machinery to the settlers of that district.
In the spring of 1886, associating with him his brother the late D. W. Blaine, he established warehouse and yards covering almost a block in the City of Pratt, and had transported by wagon over a distance of forty miles twenty-six carloads of machinery. The quantity of machinery brought in is in itself the best evidence not only of his courage and resolution, but also of his foresight and good judgment based upon the extensive observations he had made. How well justified he was in this investment is found in the fact that the entire lot of machinery was sold the first season. The firm of Blaine Brothers soon established branch stores at different points in the surrounding territory, and the operations of the firm soon placed them among the foremost merchants of Southwestern Kansas.
They operated not only as dealers in machinery but also invested much of their surplus capital in nearby land. Land at that time was considered rather high in price from $1.25 to $10 per acre, but the same land now commands $40 to $75 per acre. Those familiar with the history of Western Kansas during the past thirty years are well aware that the period of ten years from the time Blaine Brothers entered business was one of great uncertainty in crops, of numerous failures in individual cases, and of general financial depression all over the United States. If there were any solid financial rock in that district of Kansas in those years it was the firm of Blaine Brothers. They took their full share of responsibility and hardship in connection with bad crop years, but they stood with their farmers and neighbors through every vicissitude. On two or three occasions they furnished seed to the farmers who had no money with which to buy. In 1889 they distributed a carload of corn for seed to the farmers, and in 1890 brought in sufficient seed wheat to plant about 4,000 acres. Some good crops followed, and the farmers who had received assistance, with few exceptions, paid the cost prices of the seed. It should not be forgotten that the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway, through the instrumentality of its able adviser Mr. M. A. Low of Topeka, was equally generous in upholding the hands of the farmers in these hard times, and also contributed liberally of seed and in other ways to the deserving settlers. Again and again Blaine Brothers had to extend the time of payment on their notes, and were always ready to assist the settlers beset by circumstances and the misfortunes which were not of their creation.
While the land was very rich, the chief problems with which the early settlers in Pratt County had to contend with was the lack of rain fall and after several years had been spent more or less unprofitably in endeavoring to make the soil produce according to the standard methods long prevailing in the eastern and better watered territories, the people gradually began adapting their methods to soil and climate. A careful study was made of the soil, tests being carried out in different sections, and it was soon learned by experience and observation that the general character of the soil was an intermixture of sandy loam and gypsum. It is well known that gypsum is a natural fertilizer. In later years improved machinery, including tractors and gang plows, have cultivated this soil with great profit, and there has apparently been no depreciation after twenty years of constant croppings in the fertility and productiveness of the land. One fact that was proved during the drought period from 1892 to 1896 was that ordinary clover and timothy could not be depended upon in that locality. Then alfalfa was introduced, and for a number of years Pratt County and that vicinity has been contributing a large share of the Kansas alfalfa crop. Other experiments were carried on for the purpose of discovering some nature of plant which would furnish roughness for the cattle and other livestock. Out of these experiments was introduced kaffir corn, and this led to the trial of other crops of Asiatic origin. Since then kaffir corn has been regularly grown on nearly every farm in Southwestern Kansas.
Mention should also be made in this connection of the various methods of utilizing the grain or seed of the kaffir corn. As Pratt County was one of the chief centers of origin for the kaffir corn crop of Kansas, and as Mr. Blaine himself had a considerable share in introducing this crop, it will not be out of place to notice some things that are perhaps not familiar to the people of the state at large. The grain of the kaffir is now widely used for feeding livestock, but a number of years ago experiments were made for the purpose of testing its qualities as a bread stuff. Several grist mills were adjusted to the experiment, one of these being located on the banks of Elm Creek in Barber County, Kansas. This mill was operated by an aged Frenchman named Koffman. Samples of his flour were sent East and exhibited in public places. The flour was used in various forms and experts gave their testimony that the batter-cakes made from it were equal if not superior to those made of Ohio and Pennsylvania buckwheat flour.
It was thirty years ago when Mr. Blaine identified himself with Southwestern Kansas, and many other developments since then might be noted. Pratt County is now one of the greatest wheat producing counties in the state. The City of Pratt, the county seat, has a population of 4,500 people and some of the finest homes in Western Kansas. The city has a fine sewer and water system, owns its own electric light plant with which it furnishes power to the ordinary industries and lighting to the homes of the city. There are three railway lines in the county seat and five through the county. Some of the best natural roads in Kansas are to be found in Pratt County. In road building an excellent use has been discovered for the gypsum deposit. When used in its pure natural state for surface dressing it becomes very hard on exposure to the weather, and the material is constantly growing in favor among the roadmakers of that county.
Other wonderful discoveries have from time to time been made in the Arkansas Valley. At a depth of about 2,000 feet below the surface is a vast sea of salt. Above that a great strata of gravel and sand, and at a depth of from 40 to 125 feet is a lake of soft water which has been calculated as flowing to the southeast at a rate of about two miles an hour. This volume of water is so far above the salt that is not impregnated and is therefore a great source of water supply. Anyone who has lived in Southwest Kansas knows that a well sunk to this subterranean stream gives not only water in abundance but water of most excellent quality. Throughout Pratt County are now seen on every hand fine modern houses and barns, and some of the largest ranches have private elevators with a capacity of from 5,000 to 20,000 bushels, built for the express purpose of handling the crops of that individual farm. The county is also dotted with silos and herds of fine dairy cattle.
It is only natural that Mr. Blaine should regard with special gratification these various improvements that have taken place since he moved out to Pratt County thirty years ago. Incidentally it should be stated that what is true of Pratt County is true in similar degree of other sections of Central and Western Kansas.
Mr. Blaine was very active in making Pratt County a good place to live. He was elected and served on the city council, and took an active part in ridding that town of objectionable characters, who in the early days flourished in Southwestern Kansas. Such characters, including bootleggers and gamblers, soon found that they were not welcome, and the town was soon cleared of its joints. About twenty years ago the first campaign was undertaken for the building of sidewalks. It is now believed that no city of its size in Western Kansas has more or better first class cement walks. Mr. Blaine was a diligent worker and liberal with his time and money in securing the location of the division point of the Rock Island Railway System at Pratt. Night and day with others he worked in order to secure the bonds for that purpose, and these bonds have proved a splendid investment for the entire community. The relationship between Pratt and the railway have always been mutually agreeable and profitable, and it is a case where advantage to one side has proved equally an advantage to the other. Pratt is now one of the important freight and passenger stations on the Rock Island El Paso line.
Naturally Mr. Blaine was led into politics in Pratt County. For several years early in the present century he served as republican central committeeman. Prior to that time Pratt County had not fared very well in the legislature in the matter of patronage. A fusion representative had been sent from the county for several years, and this representative gave more attention to national affairs than to home talent. It was therefore decided to send a level headed quiet sensible man who would see that the county was properly represented and given its appropriate share of legislative attention. Dr. R. C. Hutchinson, who then resided at Coats, but is now connected with the Kansas Dental College at Kansas City, Missouri, was nominated and elected representative of Pratt County. He was familiar with the network of fresh water streams and lakes which formed the Ninnescah River in Pratt County. That suggested a splendid place for a fish hatchery. A bill was introduced in the Legislature, and after a great deal of mirth on the part of others who did not know the conditions, it was passed with a small appropriation. This was the beginning of one of the largest fish hatcheries in the world. The Ninnescah has never been found wanting. When other streams in Kansas were dry the Ninnescah had a great volume of water between its banks, and more than sufficient to maintain the fish hatchery pond. The hatchery has always been considered one of the leading institutions of Pratt County. Mr. Blaine was an active supporter of Doctor Hutchins in this project, and he lent his active support to the doctor in his candidacy for a second term.
For himself Mr. Blaine has always been too busy to accept the numerous honors of politics and public affairs which have been offered him and has been content to see that such honors were well bestowed upon others. After nearly twenty years of active connection with Pratt Mr. Blaine determined to make his home in the capital city of Kansas. However, he thought too much of his Pratt County holdings and his old friends there to sell out all his interests. His home on Ninnescah Street, which he occupied for many years and which was one of the fine places of its kind, still remains in his ownership. On coming to Topeka Mr. Blaine bought a fine building site at 1125 Taylor Street, and erected there the modern home in which he and his family reside. He has also made investments in local real estate, and owns a number of properties outright.
The secret of his success is doubtless his ever close relationship with the farming element, and the manner in which he cooperated with the farming settlers around Pratt has been duplicated many times in later years. He has given financial aid to farmers and has assisted many persons around Topeka to engage in the dairy business. His public spirit is above question. He has been an active member of the Commercial Club since coming to Topeka, for almost ten years served as chairman of its immigration committee, and through that committee has exercised an important influence on the welfare of the city. In municipal politics he has worked for the purpose of getting good men elected to office. Mr. Blaine has also been a liberal contributor to colleges and schools and every movement that affects the vital life and welfare of his home city or state. Several occasions at his own expense he has published important bulletins of information concerning Kansas, Topeka and Shawnee County.
For twenty-five years Mr. Blaine has been a member of the Masonic Order, is a past master of his lodge and is affiliated with the Scottish Rite Consistory No. 1 of Topeka, and takes an active part in its reunion. He attends the Presbyterian Church and is a member of the Brotherhood Bible Club of the Sunday School.
He has an interesting family, consisting of his wife Mrs. Lela L. Blaine, his son William J., who is associated with Frank B. Brown in the publication of the Kansas Trade Unionist, and Robert A. Jr., who is now attending the Polk School. Though fifty-seven years of age Mr. Blaine shows no weight of years, spends practically every working day in his office, and has that spirit which enables a man to grow old gracefully and with little evidence of the passing years. He owns a motor car and another means of keeping himself young is to participate actively in the recreations and sports of the younger generation. In the summer season it is not uncommon to find him with his son Robert, twelve years of age, and several of the latter’s young companions, swimming in Gage’s Park. An annual vacation has also been one of his rules, and a great lover of travel, he has visited almost all the important points in the United States. Topeka is now considered his permanent home, and there is no more loyal citizen of the capital or of the state than Robert D. Blaine.