With all of the publicity about our completing the processing of the Linn Peterson Collection, people sometimes ask me, “So what did you see in those files?” Any answer to that question defies brevity, but over the course of seven years, I saw the history of McPherson and McPherson County unfold before my eyes.
The files tell the story of how McPherson became the city it is today. Starting with a few crude wooden buildings on the treeless plains, an unbeatable combination of location, leadership, and luck propelled McPherson to the forefront time and time again.
But along the way, there was the cast of characters who wove the historical fabric of our city: They were the wagon drivers, doctors, tinkerers, boosters, teachers, robbers, entrepreneurs, prostitutes, musicians, politicians, vigilantes, barnstormers, con-artists, schemers, socialites, bootleggers, oil field roustabouts, and many, many more. It is those people from the files who I remember the most.
In addition to the multitude of people who have resided in our fair city, we’ve also played host to some notable visitors. Jesse James spent the night in a hotel. Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan gave speeches. Legendary attorney Clarence Darrow rented an office here and spent four hours in town before deciding to move to Denver. Band leader Duke Ellington visited local band leader August San Romani, and they ate fried chicken.
What else did I discover?
— The State Capital – We wanted it.
— The U.S. Air Force Academy – We wanted that too.
— A Sister City – We didn’t want one.
— Candy Factories – We had several.
— Meter Maids – We had several of those as well.
— Smallpox – We had an epidemic in 1888.
— Garbage – We were known for it (for a while).
— Tree Sitters – We had them (for a while).
— Nazi Spies – We had a couple of those (or maybe not).
Linn Peterson did not limit the scope of his interest to the City of McPherson – he included all of the county as well. He was always on the lookout for unique aspects of both the city and county that could be promoted. Indeed, if ever there was anyone who was worthy of the honorific of “Mister McPherson” it would have been Linn.
When I was in elementary school, I read a book that became one of my favorites and holds a special place in my heart today: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. It’s a story about two children who spend the night in the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the trail of a mystery about a particular sculpture -- and end up with the opportunity of searching for the answer in the extensive but disorganized files of the wealthy benefactor who donated the piece.
Working with the Peterson Collection has been my own adventure. So many mysteries. So many clues. Childhood dreams sometimes come true.