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Newspaperman Bliss Isely led the way for Kansas historians

  • Published Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, at 10:06 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, at 10:06 p.m.

Ad Astra

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

In the days when Kansas was young, Bliss Isely recorded and marked the way for future Kansas historians.

A newspaperman, lumberjack, publicist and historian, Isely passionately wrote about the “Early Days in Kansas.” His book would become one of the first textbooks on Kansas history and one in which thousands of schoolchildren would study.

“Unless history is remembered it is not worth reading,” Isely would write in the foreword of the book. “And, it will not be remembered unless it is interesting.”

Kansas, Isely wrote was not like any other state in the Union.

“Here Christianity was preached 80 years before the landing of the Pilgrims,” he wrote. “Here, in the heart of the continent, died the first missionary to be martyred in what is now the United Sates. Here was the land of Coronado … and of Buffalo Bill.”

The Isely name in Wichita stretches back more than a century ago.

Isely Traditional Magnet Elementary was named after William Henry Isely, first dean of Wichita State University.

Fairmount United Church of Christ, built in 1910 on the southwest corner of Fairmount and 16th Street, also honors the Isely name with a stained glass window.

Bliss Isely was born Feb. 10, 1881. He graduated from Wichita’s Fairmount College in 1906 and that year became a high school principal at Hamlin. In 1908, he moved to a Washington logging camp, where he was lumberjack.

Not satisfied with his salary, Isely returned to Wichita and started work at The Wichita Beacon. In 1911, he started working for the Kansas City Star. He worked there for a short time before moving on to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Post-Dispatch.

But in 1918, Isely contracted tuberculosis and, in an effort to restore his health, moved back to the Wichita area. Isely handled publicity for the federal Food Administration during World War I.

Years afterward, Isely would still struggle with health issues including a diagnosis of Parkinson’s.

Nevertheless, his writing was descriptive and strong.

By today’s standards some of it would be politically incorrect.

“The luckiest baby born in Kansas was Napoleon Boon. His birthday was Aug. 22, 1828, and that is why he was so lucky,” Isely wrote in “Early Days,” published in 1927.

“He was the first white child born in Kansas.”

His stories, which were originally published in the Wichita Beacon, were often accounts of life on the prairie.

Subjects often included wild horses, prairie fires, gold hunters, Native Americans, life in sod houses, teepees and adventures on the Chisholm Trail.

Isely would tell readers it was never his attempt to write the complete history of Kansas but rather, he liked to select the most dramatic events and build stories around characters.

By doing so, he would write, he could “create a picture of Kansas in its successive stages from the Stone Age to the barbed wire fence.”

During his career, Bliss Isely would write other books, which included “Blazing the Way West,” “Four Centuries in Kansas,” “The Story of Kansas,” “Kansas Civil Government,” “Our Careers as Citizens,” “Sunbonnet Days” and “Our Presidents, Men of Faith.”

His last book, “The Horsemen of Shenandoah,” was published in November 1963.

When he retired at age 74, he was writing a history series for Kansas Teacher, a section for Junior Encyclopedia, and for Scribner’s Dictionary of American History and newspaper magazines. In 1958, the University of Wichita honored him for his contributions to American history.

He died March 17, 1963, at age 82.

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