Merritt Beeson

My great-grandfather, Merritt, was the second child born to Chalk and Ida Beeson. His older sister, Stella, only lived a couple weeks. Merritt’s middle name was Lewis (after Chalk’s younger brother) but he never liked it for some reason and only used his middle initial.

This facial expression must be hereditary. If you know, you know.

Always an entrepreneur, Merritt’s first business endeavor was a short-lived lemonade stand in front of the family home. This was before his parents traded for the farm southwest of Dodge City and P. G. Reynolds bought a glass for five cents. That was his only sale all day and he closed up shop for good. Fortunately, he was less easily discouraged later in life.

Merritt’s health was poor until he began spending summers at the COD Ranch near Englewood, Kansas. According to his daughter (and my grandmother), Irene, “that type of life agreed with him.” Playing music also agreed with him. He picked up the cornet at a very young age and began playing in Chalk’s orchestra as soon as he was able.

Beeson’s Orchestra

Merritt joined his friends Claude McCarty and Paul Evans at St. John’s Military School in Salina in January of 1894, right after his 15th birthday. There were several boys from Dodge who willingly attended St. John’s long before things went sideways and the school became a place where troubled kids learned the true definition of trouble.

In 1896, Merritt attended Spalding’s Commercial College (President Truman’s alma mater) in Kansas City where he found time to play in local orchestras and pursue his passion for cycling. My mom and I always talk about Merritt like he was the serious and responsible one and although that is true, he wasn’t boring. He was a member of the League of American Wheelmen and he earned a 30-day suspension for unsanctioned races in August of the same year.

The Kansas City Star, August 13, 1896

The weirdness that was the Spanish-American War occurred from April to August of 1898. According to The Globe, Merritt was the first Ford County resident to enlist when he joined the famed Third Regiment Band in Kansas City. Merritt and his bandmates had lunch at the White House when they were invited to play for President McKinley.

My grandmother told me he lied about his age in order to enlist but I’m not totally sure about that. The minimum age had been 21 but it was lowered when the war began. On May 4, 1898, the date of Merritt’s enlistment, he was still 19 years old so it’s possible he signed up before the change was made.

Merritt Beeson down in front – near Port Arthur, Texas

Either way, he had a lot of support back home.

Ford County Leader, May 13, 1898

I think people tend to forget that Merritt was a professional musician in Kansas City. He played at the Willis Wood Theater, Electric Park, and numerous hotels. Merritt married his first wife, Mary Marie Douthitt in Dodge City on December 24, 1902. I don’t know why the local newspaper reported they would be living with Chalk and Ida because Merritt was supplementing his salary as a musician by working at the gas company in Kansas City at that time. Their daughter, Ida Elizabeth (Betty), was born in May of 1907 and the family moved to the Beeson farm southwest of Dodge by 1910.

Mary (Douthitt) Beeson

That marriage was…suboptimal. In 1911 or early 1912, Mary moved to Los Angeles and left Betty with Merritt. Their divorce decree was issued in September of 1912 and Merritt was granted full custody of Betty. Mary worked as a millinery clerk at a Los Angeles department store until her death by suicide in August of 1918.

I went into a lot of painful detail about the home Merritt built here. He met my great-grandmother, Elizabeth (Beth) Schaetzel, while he was working on construction of the new courthouse and she was walking to her job as a telephone operator. There was a six-month waiting period for Merritt’s divorce to be finalized so he and Beth were married in March of 1913.

By this time, Merritt had given up bicycling and moved on to motorcycles. He was First Lieutenant of the newly formed Dodge City Motorcycle Club, which was affiliated with the Federation of American Motorcyclists, in 1913. I know he owned an Excelsior but he likely had others as well.

The Dodge City Kansas Journal, May 23, 1913

He and his baby brother, Otero, actively promoted the famous races in Dodge. In fact, the planned location for the track was on the Beeson Farm.

The Dodge City Globe, June 12, 1913

Ultimately, I think the location south of the tracks was probably too inconvenient relative to the depot and local highways. The spot northeast of town where the races were held made more sense.

Although Merritt was a fun guy, he grew up in an era when growing up was expected. But his brother never did. This photo illustrates the stark contrast better than any other. Uncle Ote’s in the (right-hand) driver’s seat, holding his trombone and living his best life while Merritt looks on in his Shriner’s hat. For you car people, Ote’s pride and joy was a 1915 Stutz Bulldog Special.

Shriners Parade

1915 was also the year Merritt and Ote (mostly Merritt) built the Chalk Beeson Theater. I think it’s well-known that Merritt operated a creamery but he also raised turkeys and Plymouth Rock chickens. I hope he secured a refund from whomever did the lettering below.

Beth gave birth to a stillborn son in June of 1918 and then Irene was born on March 11, 1921.

Lawns and decorative plantings hadn’t really caught on in rural Kansas but Merritt planted a ton of evergreen trees (many of which remain on the property) and he was very much into different grasses and creating various habitats for his birds.

Merritt was also a deputy game warden in 19 counties across southwestern Kansas from 1925 to 1929. Irene recalled she and Beth traveling with her dad on his patrols and the car being infested with grasshoppers. I believe he replaced Fred Tiereny, who had been murdered in Morton County. When the market crashed in 1929, Merritt and Beth supplemented their income by renting rooms in the Big House.

Speaking of the Big House, it was full of family during the summers. Beth’s relatives traveled from Wisconsin and Nebraska regularly and the nieces and nephews would stay until it was time to return for school. I’m not sure what Merritt was concocting here but Beth’s niece, Alice Bloedel, appeared amused and Betty just looked disgusted.

Merritt was a level-headed conservationist and he was 100 percent correct about the tree versus grass issue. Have you seen prairie grass roots? They’re incredible.

Mennonite Weekly Review, September 12, 1934

Hard times and dust storms. I often wonder now how we made it. My folks must have been very thrifty, for we had everything we needed. I only recall one time when we came close to not having something to eat. We had pancakes for supper and they were delicious one Sunday eve.

Irene Beeson, recalling the dust bowl

I won’t reinvent the wheel by telling the story of the Beeson Museum, which officially started in the 1930s. Much of the collection can still be enjoyed at the Boot Hill Museum. Merritt spent the rest of his life enjoying the company of his friends and family while preserving the history of the Old West.

By all accounts, he was beloved by his family and his community. Here’s Merritt with Betty’s son, Mike Miller, in 1943:

And with Betty’s daughter, Vee Ann Miller, in 1950:

Merritt died of a heart attack in January of 1956 at the age of 77. My grandmother described his death as a terrible loss to her. She told me time and again how she wished I could have met him because he was such a kind and wonderful man.

Merritt and Beth were inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2017 for their contributions as cowboy historians.

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