Dodge City Then and Now: Part III

As we prepare for our return to the desert, I am rushing to make sure I gather all the local information I need while I can still ask for it in person. There are photos I swear I took that are MIA, probably forever. Some of them belong in this post.

At the end of Part II, I promised the next one would be a heartbreaker. I still don’t 100% understand all the myriad ways things went sideways but I loved this house and was so psyched about spending my teen years in the same bedroom my grandmother once occupied.

Merritt Beeson House (The Big House)

My great-grandfather, Merritt Beeson, began construction of his home south of Dodge City in 1910 and it was quite an ambitious project. The blocks used to build the house came from a sand pit on the Beeson Farm. To say Merritt overengineered the house would be an understatement. It was a big beast and it was built to last.

Each of the three bedrooms had a lavatory and a walk-in closet. Those were features that mattered to me as a teenager and I’m still impressed by Merritt’s foresight. I’m also still impressed by the walk-in cedar closet inside the door going up to the attic.

The Dodge City Kansas Journal, September 30, 1910

The house was finished in 1911 and Merritt lived there with his daughter, Betty, until he married my great-grandmother, Beth, in 1913. They hosted a state gun club shooting tournament at the house in 1914 and expected 100 shooters and their families to visit. Four sets of automatic traps were set up on the east side of the house for maximum visibility from the upstairs windows and rear balcony.

In 1917, Merritt volunteered to host area WWI troops needing a place to camp temporarily while they waited for supplies and vaccinations before proceeding to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Betty would have been 10 years old at that time and I can only imagine how exciting she would have found having actual soldiers staying with them. They called the site Camp Beeson.

Dodge City Daily Globe, August 24, 1917

My grandmother, Irene, was born in 1921 and she was a big fan of the house as a child. There was a playroom right next door to her bedroom and she had all sorts of critters to keep her company.

Irene Beeson in the backyard, facing west

Merritt and Beth were very active in the community and received visitors constantly, even before turning the house into an official museum.

Irene with Kathleen Gleason (center) and Ida Beeson (right) and the dining room Dutch window in the background

As the Beeson Museum collection grew, Irene’s enthusiasm waned. She described to me the tedium of cleaning the exhibits, especially when the Dust Bowl was in full force.

The Beeson Museum collection inevitably outgrew the house so it moved to another location on South Second Avenue in 1950 along with Merritt, Beth, and Irene. Betty moved into The Big House with her husband, Red Miller, and their children, Mike and VeeAnn.

Merritt and VeeAnn next to the small shed, Summer of 1950

Betty went to work right away transforming the former museum back into a proper family home.

After Betty’s death in 1956, Red moved the kids to a house near the sand pit and The Big House went to the Good Samaritan Society to be used as a nursing home. A ramp was added to the back porch. A commercial kitchen was added in the basement as well as a dumb waiter. Solid oak doors at the nurses’ stations were cut in half. A hallway was cut between the two south bedrooms and the French doors in each bedroom were eliminated in favor of a single door in the center leading to what was originally an open balcony. It wasn’t long before they ran out of room and attached a long, skinny brick wing to the west side of the house. The front porch was bricked in using the same material as the new addition.

As laws and building codes evolved, the house became severely outdated and was only used for storage. Additional buildings were added to the west end of the site and the house deteriorated. Beginning in 1980, I walked past The Big House twice a day on my way to and from school for five years. I spent a ton of time with Irene during those years and I asked a million questions about that house. She shared tons of photos (many included here) and told me so many wonderful stories about living there. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to live there.

The bricked-in front porch assaulted the senses.

The Big House served as a haunted house for several Halloweens and what a trip THAT was. I really hate haunted houses but it was hard to pass up an opportunity to go inside Merritt’s home and just be near recent family history.

My parents apparently shared my fascination because we actually began trying to save it in the late 1980s. The Dodge City Good Samaritan Center agreed to portion off the area of the house and its crazy appendage while we figured out what the hell to do next. Omg the pigeons! And the bedpans! And wheelchairs! And sugar dispensers! We spent so much time dragging discarded equipment out of the house and the addition. We had yard sales. We had a huge dumpster. It was so much freaking work.

The house had a fragillion windows and the majority had been boarded up and left to rot.

The boiler in the basement was an issue. Trying to figure out how to demo that addition without damaging the house was an issue. Asbestos was an issue. That freaking roof! A guy had died working on the original tile roof not long after it was built. It was super high and super steep and he slid right the hell off the damn thing.

But the walk-in cedar closet still smelled like cedar and the house was still super solid. The layout was incredibly functional. It had the right amount of space and the right amount of separation. It was cold inside even when it was hot outside. The Big House may have been a hot mess but it was still wonderful and we loved it.

Unfortunately, it had been allowed to sit for too long. Vandalism and weather created problems that were just too expensive to fix. In today’s climate, it might be possible to obtain grant funding for such a historic property but it was a different time and Dodge City is a small town for such an expensive project.

By 1992, the site was subdivided to include an L-shaped City Park named the Beeson Arboretum that ran along the east and south sides of the property. The money in the escrow account from the yard sales and such went toward developing the park. And The Big House just sat there taking more and more abuse.

Ultimately, demolition was the only solution but the old girl didn’t go down without a fight. My dad sat and watched this horrible end to such a wonderful and well-loved home. He said the crew had trouble with all that damn rebar mentioned in the 1910 newspaper article and I was proud that Merritt didn’t make it easy for them a century later.

Demolition photos courtesy of Norman Holladay

The only visible reminders of Merritt’s home are the garage and some of his beloved evergreen trees.

If you ever find yourself driving down Beeson Road with a few moments to spare, stop at the Beeson Arboretum (southwest corner of Beeson and Sunnyside) and enjoy the view.

While you’re here, check out Part I and Part II of my book research detour. I’ll get back to Otero’s Odyssey (not the title) post haste.

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