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Ad Astra: Larabee family poured money into Stafford

  • The Wichita
  • Published Monday, March 26, 2012, at 12 a.m.

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Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

They were a family strangely out of place among dirt-poor farmers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Larabee family of Stafford had climbed the rungs of the social elite, becoming one of the wealthiest milling families in the nation.

Joseph Larabee had established a modestly successful career in New York as a cheese buyer when he moved his family to Stafford in 1886 and began building a family fortune.

Over the next three decades, the Larabees built a bank and a library in the small town and brought in the region’s first telephone and electrical systems. They built up the Larabee Flour Milling Co., which has headquarters in Stafford, and operated more than 20 mills across the Midwest.

They owned land — thousands of acres in western Kansas.

The Larabees were involved in lead mining near Galena in southeast Kansas, had an iron foundry in Stafford and manufactured iron seats for corn sleds. They also operated a charcoal plant in the Ozarks, and at one time financed an irrigation system channeled by the Rattlesnake Creek. The irrigation project went bust; there was too much salt in the creek to make the venture worthwhile.

But there was more than enough money to keep the Larabee fortune rolling. They financed the Stafford car dealership that sold Franklin automobiles, and a carburetor company.

“They had several banks and grain elevators, oil and gas refineries in Kansas and Oklahoma and a cement factory in Mexico,” said Stafford Library director Dixie Osborn, who has researched the family.

With the Larabees, Osborn said, “there was no unemployment in Stafford. The Larabees created jobs so men could provide for their families.”

The Larabee men — Joseph and his two sons, Franklin and Frederick — all served on the Stafford City Council; Joseph and Frank even served as mayor. While on the City Council, the Larabees helped bring water and a sewage plant for the city.

The Larabee women were involved in the arts, bringing art and music teachers to the community and providing lessons for any interested youths in Stafford, Osborn said.

And therein lies the rub.

Small-town politics can sometimes rear its head and that may have been the case in the town of Stafford, Osborn said.

In 1904, Nora Larabee — the youngest daughter of Angeline and Joseph — died of tuberculosis. By 1907, the Larabees built an elaborate library with gargoyle rainspouts and stained-glass windows in memory of Nora, furnishing it completely and offering to give it as a gift to Stafford.

But the then-city council, led in part by the editor of the Stafford Courier, Nate Reece, rejected the idea.

That made townsfolk mad. They held a recall election and a newly elected City Council voted to accept the library.

The Nora E. Larabee Memorial Library still stands in Stafford, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

And, it is listed on the library’s deed that neither Nate Reece (who died decades ago) nor any of his heirs can ever serve on the library board.

Joseph Larabee, the patriarch, died in 1913. His wife, Angeline, died in 1915; son Frank Larabee, in 1920; and son Frederick, in 1921. The Larabee mausoleum is located in the Stafford Cemetery.

But the Larabee legacy is carried on far from Kansas. Frederick’s son Charles and his wife, Ruth Robertson Baird Larabee, both heirs to family fortunes, moved to San Diego and founded the San Diego Botanic Garden. She was a schoolteacher; he was a photographer and gardener.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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