KanColl Books


Fort Griffin and the Flats

     For perhaps the longest time in their married life, Charles Rath stayed at home with his wife Carrie, after the building was done at Adobe Walls, after the goods was freighted back to the store in Dodge City. His brother Will, who had moved above the store when he came in from Fort Dodge the latter part of 1874, had gone east to Osage City to locate his family in the latter part of 1872. No other relative was nearer than there and Council Grove and Antelope, where his brother Chris lived, having a small store and postoffice on his farm which cornered with the small town and became a part of it. Because he stayed on in Dodge City for this long period of time, probably spells out his anxiety.

     The future of Adobe Wall prospects gone to ruin, quite likely Charles Rath was anxious about what the hunters could do around the Fort Griffin country. So far the business had been booming, the cash rolling in, with Frank Conrad on the job, taking care of the business. He was a genial, well liked man, a man any man could be proud to have as a partner, and the men from whom he drew the store trade got along well with him. For there, as in the Dodge City store, credit was extended freely, and hunters were outfitted, the cost later being paid with buffalo hides. As long as the hunters could hunt, all should go well with the store. But would the Indians let them?

     At this time Charles Rath was in the prime of life, with a fine physique and sat his horse well. He had a magnificent head of black hair and keen, grey-blue eyes. He was drinking some at this time as many a man did in those early days; enough though that Mrs. Rath complained bitterly to the newly arrived Mrs. Chalkley Beeson who when she learned her husband ran a saloon simply went up in the air and was on the verge to returning to Iowa, "It's better to have a man sell it than to drink it."

     It must have been one of the pleasant times for Mr. Rath to be at home for little Jesse who was better than a year old was such a winsome child that although he lived only three years, neither parent could get over talking about him, even after the other two children were born. But home was not a happy place for, strangely, Carrie Rath complained because her husband was away from home for long spells at a time, yet when he was at


home, She found many things to complain about. In fact, her husband called it nagging. [1]

     Hence he was much upon the street and often met his friend, Dr. T. L. McCarty. He had a neatly trimmed blonde mustache, clear Irish blue eyes, and a finely featured face. He was the only man in town to hold onto the habits of civilization, always a white collar, white tie, and a daily shave. In fact, Dr. McCarty never adopted the frontier way of living, its approved style of dress, but he liked the Western spirit of adventure, the genuineness and freedom from sham, the attitude taken when fortunes changed. He had high ideals and an inborn dignity which conditions of frontier life could not break down. He had an unfailing courage and performed professional achievements under difficult circumstances, with a tender regard for humanity. Even at this early day, every rough and ready man would have fought for him at the drop of a hat and they simply loved the sight of the massive gold watch chain which he always wore. Another friend was George M. Hoover, who had started a saloon, along with Jack McConnell, before Dodge City was even started, selling liquor to the laborers on the Santa Fe grade from a foot-wide board for a counter. He was a Canadian boy, with a shrewd gaze and azure grey eyes, and became the town's first mayor. It is said that once a man came into the Bank of Dodge City which Hoover later established, asking for a loan. when he saw the man was turned down, Mr. Hoover arose from his chair and followed the man outside, asking what security the man had to give. When the man answered, "Ten children," Hoover clapped him on the back, saying, "That's security enough for me," and forthwith, he had loaned him the money from his own funds. He never drove a hard bargain with anybody in need. He was fair and helpful to his competitors in business. But when he came a-courting and married Carrie Rath's "best hired girl I ever had," she never after considered Mr. Hoover as a friend.

     Then there was Chalkley Beeson, a really good mixer, an old stage driver who had come to Dodge City, lingered awhile and stayed. He had brownish-blue-grey eyes, a fine physique, and a pleasant manner. He was quite a raw fellow but very idealistic and men loved him. He organized the famous Cowboy Band.

     It was directed by Roy Drake, which carried Dodge City's peculiar individuality and atmosphere from one part of the country to another. At first it was called the Stockman's Band and was composed of musicians who had come from Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago, who had come West, and each was an artist on his particular instrument.

     Their expenses were paid by the big cattlemen to have their brands displayed on the hatbands of the musicians, at their con

1. Charles Rath in conversation with his son Robert in Los Angeles.


ventions. Later as the fame of the band grew, so did its new name, Cowboy Band. The musicians were invited to a great many celebrations, even to the inauguration of President Harrison. There, according to R. M. Wright, they "cut quite a swath" as they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.

     Their uniforms were regular cowboy fashion, boots and spurs, blue flannel shirts, a silk scarf instead of a necktie, a belt and brace of guns. The bands on their big white sombreros carried brands of many of the most famous cattle ranches in the great southwest. The director used a six-shooter to direct the band and also to start off the music, laughingly commenting it was used also to shoot the first musician to use a sour note.

     Perhaps Rath's very best friend in the growing town, Hamilton B. Bell, familiarly called "Ham" by everyone who knew him, was a new-comer, who had arrived on an evening train in September 1874. He had the bluest of blue eyes, brown hair, a determined chin, and a decided Roman or hooked nose. He had been born in Maryland, lost his parents when he was a mere boy, and was raised mostly among women relatives. He had come West to try his luck.

     He was a spare, broad-shouldered youth. He had stopped briefly at Lawrence, Abilene, Ellsworth, and Great Bend. He stayed there from July 1872, until he came on to Dodge City. Already he had experience as a law officer. When a tough in Great Bend had said, "You wouldn't kill anyone; you're just a kid," Ham Bell had answered, determination shining from his blue eyes, "A kid will kill quicker than anyone."

     However, after years proved that he had never found it necessary to kill a man during his long career as a law enforcing officer. He finally outfitted the largest livery barn perhaps in the state. It became widely known as Elephant Barn, a place where any wayfarer could bed down for the night on a bed of hay.

     In from his trips, Charles Rath formed the habit of dropping in to visit his friend, often times again before he left town. It was something Ham Bell expected and looked forward to as he heard the news from far-off places. There was one exception to this custom though, Ham Bell said, the day Charles Rath rode into town and rode right out again. [2]

     During all this time the Charles Rath & Company store was running a full column advertisement in the Dodge City Messenger, as dealers in all kinds of outfitting goods, ammunition, groceries, liquors, clothing, and furnishing goods at the lowest prices and the highest prices for all kinds of hides. Robert Wright looked after the business and it was a thriving one.

     It was no uncommon thing for them to have from sixty to

2. "Ham" Bell in conversation with the author. The day Charles Rath left home, never to return.


eighty thousand hides in the hide yard and its warehouse. They advanced hunting outfits with guns, ammunition, and supplies on an ordinary credit arrangement. And they loaned out money or stashed it away in their big safe for a hunter until he came in to ask for it, doing a regular banking business. When a Jew across the tracks built swell hitchracks around his store, where the cowboys hitched, went in and stayed, the firm of Charles Rath & Company promptly enticed Judge Beverly into the store as an employee and straightway advertised the fact that he would take care of the Texas trade, sell anything from the jingling spur, the carved ivory-handled Colt, to the suit of velveteen, as well as the many, many other Texas necessities found in the store by the gross or cord. [3] Later, Wright bought him out.

     They employed from five to seven men in the store and more than a dozen outside men. They checked off the wagons that were loading and the loads of hides that came in. Receipts aver aged a thousand dollars a day, Sundays not excepted, making a yearly income of three hundred fifty thousand dollars, an immense income. The firm declared there was no article one could mention that they did not handle.

     The firm banked its money in Leavenworth and sent as high as $50,000 at a time for its credit. The Santa Fe agent turned over his greenbacks and took the firm's check for the amount. Endorsed, certified checks were left with the firm to close some deal for them, maybe a cattle deal, or pay off cowhands in with the herds. To take care of this banking business, the firm often had shipments of from two thousand to five thousand dollars in currency every few days.

     While Charles Rath often went east on buying trips for the store here, he did not work in the store excepting occasionally, for he had many other interests. From the Dodge City store, went the supplies by freight for all the other stores in which Rath was interested, presently the one at Fort Griffin, Conrad and Rath, which was also doing an immense business, outfitting hunters and buying their hides. At this time, Fort Griffin was a clearing house for practically all the buffalo hides that did not go south. It is reasonable to assume that some of the freight supplies would be left where the firm of Conrad and Rath had a hide yard below Fort Elliott where a number of hunters were camped, later the nucleus of a trading post.

     If Rath was in the store when he made up his mind to go to Fort Griffin, he probably went out the back way, going along grim old Tin Pan Alley (tin cans flattened out by oxen's hooves), where they threw the drunks who had not been put in the city cooler, a pit fifteen feet deep, for sobering up, where they could harm no one and clamber out when the binge was over. Quite

3. Wright, Cowboy Capital, page 158.


likely he left town, after a so-long to his wife Carrie and little Jesse, on his horse, planning to catch up with a wagon train in short order.

     He rode across the toll bridge which he had helped to build, the landmark cottonwood tree-"A lonely sentinel of the Kansas Plains, which marked the ford for wagon-trains." [4] Perhaps he had caught up with a train before he reached Crooked Creek, the scene of the recent Indian massacre of the surveyors, went with the train through Indian Territory. From there he had crossed the Red River, the Brazos, and on to Fort Griffin.

     As usual, here Frank Conrad, who had teamed up with Charles Rath, looked after the store. The building stood on the hill, thick adobe brick walls and a flat sloping roof, its front having double glass doors in the middle, with two windows at either side, all deeply recessed and having transoms rounded at the top side above them. Ruins of this building may be seen yet today. It was a truly impressive building in that day in that part of the country.

     Within its four walls was a huge stock of merchandise. The firm policy was somewhat the same as at the Charles Rath & Company store at Dodge City, outfitting hunters and buying their buffalo hides and meat; doing a big credit business and also banking of funds. The hide yard covered a five acre tract. Many of the big time hunters had moved south, after the fight at Adobe Walls, to be near the protection of the soldiers at Fort Griffin. It was said that at times there were forty and fifty wagons waiting to be loaded with supplies after the firm of Conrad and Rath had bought their flint hides and meat. Rath's freight wagons plied their way to and from the fort to Dodge City, bringing supplies, taking back buffalo hides and meat. Later, merchandise also came from Fort Worth. If anything could be, Fort Griffin was "woollier" than wicked Dodge, and it had its fair share or better of shady characters and kept ladies, and real "skinflints." [5]

     Freighting on the frontier was a serious business when the storms of winter came, especially if the freighters were not seasoned ones. Many a man came from the eastern part of the frontier, hoping to make big money in the freighting business. One man gives his experience being caught in a blizzard between Dodge City and Camp Supply, J. C. Brooks of Newton, Kansas, in February 1875. [6] His men were rescued eventually and brought to Fort Dodge.

     "After getting us to the fort," Mr. Brooks wrote, "the officers and soldiers treated us with great kindness and I can say for

4. Excerpt from poem by Lester Schoof on marker on Cottonwood Tree.
5. Charles Tasker, who owed Conrad & Rath as well as others. large sums of money. 6. Vol. 20, 1952-1953, KSHS collections. page 452-454, Freighting on the Frontier.


one that I shall never forget them for it; also Messrs. Rath and Wright, and in fact all at the fort. Nearly all of our men were frozen some, but the chill and Smoke hurt us more than the freezing. I don't think any of us will lose our limbs from freezing. All from this county are now at home but three. Mr. Munger is still at the hospital but was able to sit up when I last saw him, which was on the 17th of the month. Messrs. Cook and Cuthbert loaded again for Supply. We laid at the fort nine days, being doctored up so we thought we were able to start home, arriving on the 26th ult., poorer than when we left."

     One of the duties of the soldiers at the frontier forts was to protect and aid the men who plied their trade on the prairies. In every instance reported, there was only praise for their kind ness. Once, at least, Charles Rath had been given succor, at Fort Larned when he had been shot by a robber, until he could be taken to his home in Osage City. No doubt, Fort Griffin had its share of wounded and ill men to care for before towns sprang up with doctors in their midst.

     Conrad and Rath's business for a time had practically hinged on the immense profits from the buffalo trade. Their hide yard was a big tract of ground back of the store. The outside help sorted the hides-bull hides, cow hides, robe hides, and the kip pile for the younger buffalo hides. Then the hides were stacked into ricks which shed water like a well-stacked rick of hay. The ricks were in the open where the wind could play around the already flint-dry hides. Then wagon after wagon was pulled up in the hide yard to be loaded, to be hauled out, each in its turn, and hitched to another into a train that was pulled mostly by six and eight yoke of oxen. The freighter was on his way then with the train. Much has been said about the mighty hunter who looked for a stand from which he could shoot a large number of buffalo from that vast herd of dew-claw-rattling, soft-treaded buffalo, as they moved slowly along, lazily grazing along much as domestic cattle, as they wended their way northward in the spring, southward in the fall. Hunters did the killing mostly in the morning, up until noon, giving the skinners a chance to clean up the day's kill. Skinners and cutters were an important contingent of any hunting party.

     The skinners stripped the hides from the animals, spread them out, and pegged them down to the prairie to dry, turned every day or two until they were dry enough to pile one above another into a stack eight feet high. To keep them from being blown away, strips of pliant green hides were needled through peg holes at the corners, stretched tightly, and knotted. The great packs were never molested by predatory animals for there was plenty of other game to satisfy their hunger. The various piles were now


ready to load when the teamster returned for his trip to the hide yard.

     The cutter followed the skinner, cutting from the slaughtered buffalos only such portions as could be marketed, hams, tongues, hearts, and the humps which resembled tenderloin and were considered a great delicacy. The meat was dried, or cured, and in some instances smoked and pickled in brine. Often the hams were salted, a sprinkle of saltpetre added, then left to "take" for several days to a week. After that, the hams were hung from poles in the prairie man's smoke-house, hides rigged together to form walls and a roof, while a slow fire on the ground gave the hams the "smoke-cured" treatment. To be cured in brine, the hams were placed in the center of a green buffalo hide, the brine added, while the whole was covered with another green hide and the openings laced together with strips of hide.

     Nor were the men who killed the buffalo, the skinners and cutters, and the teamster, the whole organization. The cook traveled with the outfit to the camp, generally in a light wagon, with two teams sometimes hooked to it. He was the chef proper and, what he lacked in culinary know-how, was often overlooked because of the whet of an outdoor man's appetite. However early day men, telling about the chuck around the campfire, where they ate from tin plates and drank scalding black coffee from tin cups, have fairly drooled over the sour dough biscuits that came from the famed Dutch oven, the delicious buffalo ham and hump, and oftentimes a rare treat for dessert. Sometimes a cook stewed fruit picked from bushes on the prairie or bought dried at a trading post. One such incident went the rounds in a town where a number of buffalo hunters took up land after their hunting days were over. [7]

     George Bellfield, one of the hunters who had banded together because of the Indian scare, with the outfits of Joe Hoard, Joe Rutledge, and Frank Lewis, found it was his turn to be the camp cook. He made no pretentions whatever about what he could cook but he did plan to have plenty of food for the boys. On hand was a supply of dried apples which had been purchased at Charlie Rath's store. He lifted by its bail the large iron kettle and hoisted it above the coals of the campfire, dashed in some water from the keg, hefted the bag of dried apples for several moments, then dumped the whole lot into the now bubbling water and turned to other camp duties. Later a glance in that direction caused him to rush to the kettle and begin scraping apples into the mess pan. From that moment on, it seemed, that all he could get done was scoop apples. He filled the frying pan and the Dutch

7. Burrton, Kansas, where among others Charlie and George Bellfield, and "Old Bill Gillespie" recited the tales of the buffalo hunt and the prairie camps. Also reported in Cook's The Border and the Buffalo.


oven and still the apples rounded in the kettle, getting ready to heave overboard. with frantic haste, Bellfield rushed to the wagon and dragged the wagon sheet from beneath his bed and spread it on the ground beside the kettle. He began windrowing them on the canvas as fast as they rose to the top of the kettle, until finally the right amount left, he finished cooking the remainder for dessert. Not willing to do away with the partly swollen apples, he left them lie, explaining to the men as they tramped in, "By shing! Der vas a pig bargain in dem drite apples."

     Yes, Conrad and Rath's did a lucrative business, first with Mackenzie's troops; with the buffalo hunters, literally hundreds of them bringing in hides by wagon trains. The liquor these cus tomers carried out to take along was no small item. Conrad and Rath kept a supply as well as other merchants, knowing their clientele felt they must whet their appetites with liquor. When the buffalo trade began to wane, the immense business of the trail herd became a reality.

     The Western Trail which was sometimes called the Fort Griffin and Dodge City Trail because it headed for both places, came into being the latter part of 1875 and was used continuously for the next five years. It started at Brownville, Texas, and headed due north through San Antonio, Kerrville, Pegleg, and reached Fort GriffIn, went on to Vernon, Doane's Crossing, Altus, Camp Supply and Dodge City, and from there farther north to Ogalalla, Nebraska. What a business it brought to Conrad and Rath's store.

     Lucky indeed they were to have this cattle trade which was even increasing with every passing herd of longhorns in 1876. For at that time, the buffalo hide trade was not what it had been and merchants were beginning to complain that no hides were coming in. Hunters had to go farther to make their kills, had longer freight hauls, and were hampered in their hunting by the Indian depredations.

     The editor of the Dodge City Times noted the Indian unrest in the spring of 1877. "The Indians around Camp Supply are trading for all the ponies they can and are getting more or less impudent in their conduct toward the whites. As soon as the grass is green and their ponies get fat, it would be a good thing perhaps, to have some soldiers handy."

     He also noted that the machinery and engine belonging to Rath & Company's old tannery had been sold to parties who were preparing to put it into operation again. Then he reported, April 21, 1877, "Mr. Charles Rath arrived home last Monday from an extended business expedition through Indian Territory and Texas, looking after the branch stores of the firm of Charles Rath & Company."

     In the paper was a copied item from the Wichita Beacon, "Charley Rath one of the live merchants of Dodge City was in Wichita a few days since. He thinks Dodge City will have a brisk cattle trade."

     Although he had not explained, Charles Rath could speak with authority on this subject for already the store owners in Dodge City and he and his partner in Fort Griffin, Frank Conrad, had plans afoot to get their employees on the trail bringing in herds from southern Texas, which would assure both firms of their share of the Texas trade and make the Dodge City, Fort Griffin Trail, the Western Trail, more popular with other trail drivers. Two records verify this assertion, the first from the Dodge City Times, the other from the Fort Griffin Echo. [8]

Mr. W. H. West, who has been with Conrad and Rath at Fort Griffin for a long time, is now on his way from that point to Dodge with a herd of cattle. He will arrive in June." The other, "W. F. Kelley of San Antone has been here several days working the cattle trail in the interest of Conrad and Rath of this place and Wright, Beverly & Co., of Dodge City. Mr. Kelley had charge of two or three large herds of cattle belonging to Shiner Bros. of San Antone. Later left for Dodge City and would keep paper posted."

     By the late seventies, the Texas cow punchers were driving tens of thousands of longhorns over this Western Trail. Along with the herd came a crew of cowboys, a cook and a horse wrangler, who cared for the saddle horses and cut out the ones to be used for the day. The longhorns meandered along, grazing far out on the prairies, while the cowboys kept them headed straight for Dodge, the cowboy capital. But at every stopping place, especially a wild and woolly one like Fort Griffin, Dodge City, the whole crew at one time or another spent his money freely as he also gave way to pent up feeling in shooting up the town. Merchants stood for this, in a way riding along with them, for their trade was the life-blood of any business which catered to their needs. This influx of cattle continued until Kansas slapped on the quarantine that ended the Texas drives through Kansas. April 15, 1876, Charles Rath was called back to his home in Dodge City for little Jesse, named for his very dear friend, Jesse Crane, had died. They buried him in Markley Cemetery by the Little Stone Church, on Five Mile Creek, near the Markley home on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. His grandfather, Henry Markley had helped to build the church. Charles and Carrie Rath, after a brief visit, journeyed back to Kansas, their home in Dodge City.

     Mrs. Rath often talked of the beautiful, winsome child through

8. Dodge City Times. April 27, 1879. Fort Griffin Echo, May 24. 1879.


out the whole meal-time, even after the two children, Robert and Bertha, born later, were old enough to remember. Charles Rath tried to drown his grief in drink and, when he became drunk, threaten to kill the young doctor friend whom he blamed for his little son's death. And he blamed his wife, when he was drunk enough to push her around, he would say, "Any woman should have known better than to put a child coming down with the measles into a tub of cold water." Perhaps it was just as well that he went again to Fort Griffin, where his wife Carry said later, "He could cool his heels."

     As time softened grief, the rift healed, and the husband was back in town. when he went south, his wife often accompanied him, staying for days and sometimes weeks, probably putting up at Uncle Charlie Sebastian's Bison Hotel, located down in "The Flats," at the bottom of the hill on which Fort Griffin stood, and where Conrad and Rath's store was at this time.

     Early in April, 1876, Comanche Jim, reporter of Fort Griffin news for the Dallas Daily Herald, announced that the Vigilance Committee was surprising officers by the off-hand way they did business. This notice may have meant a greater measure of safety in the town where her husband elected to spend much of his time, for Carrie Rath also accompanied him there in the spring and summer of 1877. Saying nothing, perhaps, but conscience stricken, Charles Rath was probably quite anxious to have his wife near him for she was now well along in her second pregnancy.

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