Biography of Walter Fletcher McGinnis

Walter Fletcher McGinnis. Until recently Butler County had been known only as one of the great agricultural and livestock counties of Kansas. The development of oil and gas, with hundreds of producing wells and others being drilled every day, had added a new element to its industrial resources and had practically transformed the interests of its citizens. It now seems that Butler County will become one of the largest not only in area but in population in the state.

It is not historically correct to say that the development of the Butler County oil and gas fields had been sudden or accidental. This development is really the result of a long and persistent course of planning and judicious development. The man chiefly entitled to credit for development is Walter F. McGinnis. He had been well called the “original oil booster” of the district.

It was thirty years ago, to be exact in 1886, when Mr. McGinnis first became interested in the oil business. At that time with others he put down a drill far below the surface at Riverside. This had no results. However, he was not discouraged and by no means lost interest in oil prospecting. He believed then that Butler County had oil under its surface and every important development in other sections of Southern Kansas only increased his faith. In 1912 Mr. McGinnis began taking oil leases in the county. He also quietly entered upon a campaign for enlisting the services of outside capitalists in the field. Very little of what was going on in his own mind was known to the people of the county at large. The big result came with the completion of the test well on the Stapleton estate in the fall of 1915. That well revealed the presence of oil in profitable quantities at a depth of from 525 and 700 feet to 2,500 feet.

There naturally followed a wild scramble for leases, but a brief investigation revealed the fact that Mr. McGinnis had quietly anticipated the hundreds who were eager to share the new found prosperity. Many hundreds of acres had been put under lease by him before the test on the Stapleton farm was undertaken. His lease on the Linn farm alone, in which he was associated with three other men, had brought a number of profitable oil producing wells and had already made a fortune.

Mr. McGinnis is reputed to be the largest individual lease holder in Butler County. He also had extensive lease interests in Elk County, having over 20,000 acres of prospective oil and gas lands, and had other similar holdings in Oklahoma. Mr. McGinnis had been called an oil optimist. He is an optimist of the type who not only thinks the best but had the faith and courage to convert his ideas into the best results. He had a constructive imagination, but is not a day dreamer and few of the fortunate men in the oil and gas industry have better deserved the success which had come as the result of a long and well planned campaign.

Mr. McGinnis represents some hardy and fine oil pioneer stock of Kansas and his people have been fighters for generations, and it is not strange that he himself had been somewhat of a pioneer in his own time. Mr. McGinnis was born in Coffey County, Kansas, October 31, 1860, a son of Dr. James Allen and Sarah Ann (Benedict) McGinnis. The McGinnis ancestral line goes back through all the history of Ireland, and some of the earlier ancestors were prominent in that country when the four ancient kingdoms of Ireland were in the zenith of their glory. Out of Ireland there came in the early part of the eighteenth century John McGinnis. He came from County Antrim and settled in Pennsylvania. From him to Walter Fletcher McGinnis covers a period of seven consecutive generations in the family history. This lineage goes through the following heads of families: John McGinnis, the original immigrant, James, Edmond, Edmond, Jr., Dr. Ira Edmond, Dr. James Allen McGinnis and Walter Fletcher McGinnis. Including Mr. McGinnis’ son, Walter F., Jr., this gives eight generations of the McGinnis family in America. They have not only been in America about 200 years, but during that residence have distinguished themselves as men of unusual enterprise and the qualities which make soldiers and pioneers. Twenty-one members of the McGinnis family served in the Revolutionary war for independence. In every national war since that time some one of the family had fought for the Stars and Stripes. At least two of the family were on the United States fleet that landed at Vera Cruz, Mexico, during the struggle with the Huerta government. Ward Allen McGinnis, a nephew of Walter F., of El Dorado, is an officer and is now with the Oklahoma militia on the Mexican border.

Dr. James Allen McGinnis was born in Vermilion County, Indiana, June 5, 1836. He was married March 28, 1858, to Sarah Ann Benedict. She was born in Meigs County, Ohio, December 23, 1837.

Doctor McGinnis came to Kansas in 1854. He was eighteen years of age at the time. Locating in Coffey County, he took a claim adjoining what is now the Town of Hartford. Because he was under age and supposedly a tenderfoot, a professional claim jumper undertook to jump his claim. The boy showed a clear abstract of title in the form of a rifle and the bad man moved on in search of milder opposition. Doctor McGinnis took an active part in the early day development of Coffey County. He represented the county in the Legislature in 1868-69. In 1869 he came to Butler County with his two motherless boys, locating twenty-five miles southeast of El Dorado in Hickory Township. That was a new and practically unsettled region. On locating there Doctor McGinnis put up a substantial residence, which was perhaps the best in the county at the time. It was destroyed by the same storm that wrecked El Dorado June 16, 1871. In those days the nearest school or church was at El Dorado, and in November, 1873, Doctor McGinnis moved to the county seat. He served six years as a county commissioner and in 1883 was elected registrar of deeds, an office he filled four years. He also served as mayor and councilman at El Dorado. In 1894 he removed from Butler County to Dewey County, Oklahoma, where he lived until his death on April 5, 1912. His wife had died in Coffey County March 13, 1867. They were the parents of three children: Walter F., S. Arthur and Flora. The daughter died in infancy. S. Arthur, born November 10, 1866, is a prominent attorney at Guthrie, Oklahoma, and was captain of Troop I of Roosevelt’s Regiment of Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war. As a lawyer he was attorney for the Dawes Commission which settled up the affairs of the five civilized tribes in Oklahoma.

Among the real pioneers of Kansas Dr. James Allen McGinnis will always deserve a high place. While living in Kansas he was one of the first to enlist in response to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers to defend the Union. He saw active service four years. President Lincoln appointed him to a first lieutenancy in the regular army, and he was assigned to the volunteer service. He was a member of Company D, Ninth Kansas Cavalry. In early times he was also in the federal secret service along the border. It became his duty to deal with the bad men of the plains, including cattle rustlers and desperadoes and others who made life and property insecure on the frontier. He had many encounters with men of that type and usually got his man when he went after him, and he was sent on numerous missions of this kind. He was one of the leaders in organizing a vigilance committee who meted out summary justice to some of the outlaws in the early history of Butler County. After the work of that committee had been thoroughly done, property and life were secure for many years in the county. His many services as a pioneer settler should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that he practiced medicine for half a century, twenty-one years, in Butler County. He was devoted to his profession, and while working always for the ideals of free state government and a better community he rendered personal service to hundreds of people who called him their physician as well as friend.

In his own career Walter F. McGinnis had always been conscious of the fine attainments of his ancestors and had done much to justify his ownership of the family name. As a boy he attended his first school in Coffey County. It was held in an old log house. Later he attended schools and kept in better buildings and with more extended curriculum, his early school experience reflecting largely the normal progress and development of the surrounding country. Besides the common school education he thus obtained he attended a business college at Topeka, and for two years was a student of medicine. While he would have felt proud to follow in the footsteps of his father in professional life, he realized that his inclinations and talents were not in that direction and instead he took up the real estate and loan business at El Dorado. He began his business career at El Dorado in 1884. He had been the old and reliable man in those lines ever since. He had also been engaged in a general insurance business. On January 1, 1913, the Home Insurance Company presented him with a silver medal in recognition of his twenty-five years of continuous and useful work for that company.

On June 23, 1885, Mr. McGinnis married Miss Ida May Surdam, of Towanda, Kansas. Her father, Tunis Surdam, was a well known early settler in Butler County, where he located in the early ’70s. Mr. and Mrs. McGinnis are the parents of four daughters and one son. Jennie Faith, the oldest, is the wife of Howard Bennett, an El Dorado attorney; Hazel Hope married Judd P. Hall, of El Dorado; Adah Althea graduated from the El Dorado high school with the class of 1916; Walter Fletcher, Jr., the only son, is a member of the high school class of 1917; Pauline Lillian, the youngest, is still a student in the grades. The McGinnis family had been prominent socially as well as by reason of long residence and the leadership Mr. McGinnis had taken in the progressive business life of the community.



Butler County KS,

Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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