House a repository of local history
by Rachel Coleman
If houses could talk, this one would say, "There you are! I've been waiting."
It might whisper, "Don't be intimidated by my grand size. That just means there's enough room for everyone who wants to stop by."
For those who are listening, "I'm 105 years old, you know. Would you like to hear a story? I have so many to tell."
In a word: "Welcome."
For a long time, though, the house on the corner at 506 N. Sherman in Liberal didn't say much at all. From the outside, it looked a bit shabby, like a grand old auntie who still tries to keep up appearances but can't see the wrinkles in her clothing or the smudge in her lipstick. The soffiting that trimmed the three-story structure had cracked and gaped. The yard limped along. Shingles on the roof loosened and fell.
Although the exterior was not much to look at, current owners Rick and Chris Yearick found that inside, things were different. Freed from new-but-muffling carpet, the original wood floors gleamed darkly. Central heat and air moderated the temperature in the 5,500-square-foot structure, the ductwork on the ceilings disguised by a wood veneer that matched the home's architectural details. Smooth sheetrock had replaced crumbling plaster work, and fresh paint brightened the rooms — all 16 of them, if you count the vast open space on the third floor as one.
"[Previous owners] Mark and Apua Garbut went through the inside and this is all modern now," Rick said. "They did all new electrical, all new plumbing."
The interior improvements were a hidden bonus in many ways because even though "it didn't look that great on the outside, we loved this house," Chris said. "I've always admired it. I grew up going to First Baptist Church up the street … any house on Sherman Ave. would have been fine — and Rick gives me the best one."
Love and proper society
In that respect, it's easy to wonder if history repeats itself. Built in 1905 by newspaper founder and local entrepreneur Abe Kepner Stoufer, the house was a gift to his wife, Hattie Martin. A Garden City girl, Hattie was nonetheless "somewhat of a socialite," said local historian Lydia Hook-Gray. "Abe had a ranch, and she was really tired of the being so far away from town. So he decided to build that house for her."
The house was not just a gift from husband to wife; it was also the mark of a community on the rise. Gray says Liberal's founding in 1888 was "poorly timed, in some ways. There was a Depression in 1890, then everyone took off for the land rush, so in some ways the community stalled a bit." However, by the turn of the century, the local economy had turned, too.
"In six years, from 1906 to 1912, between 500 and 600 houses were built," Gray said. "The town had to keep up with population growth — it went from 820 people to 6,082 very quickly." One can't help but wonder if the gleaming white house on the corner of Fifth Street and Sherman Ave. inspired other up-and-coming ranchers and businessmen to erect their own grand homes.
The desire for civilized respectability reflected changes in the local culture, which was still marked by vicious conflicts over cattle rustling, property rights and political power. According to "A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans" published by William Connelly in 1923, Stoufer had weathered tumultuous events since he staked a claim in 1886.
"His purpose in coming to Kansas … was to conduct a newspaper and not to farm," Connelly wrote. "On April 22, 1886, he founded The Fargo Springs News. He was its owner and publisher until January, 1900, but in that time had twice moved his plant in order to keep up with the county seat."
During those years, violence was standard fare. For example, on March 14, 1889, Stoufer's second Seward County paper, The Arkalon News, reported that three notorious cattle rustlers "who plied their trade along the Cimarron … were lynched. The names were Kid York, Bill Kelly and George Hughes."
"With the final establishment of the county records at Liberal the paper was moved there and the name changed to the Liberal News," Connelly recorded.
"In the meantime Mr. Stoufer was investing all the funds he could command in Seward County land, and between 1896 and 1905 developed by purchase a ranch of 6,000 acres, stocking it with cattle. In 1905 the ranch was abandoned, was divided into small farm tracts and sold. On giving up ranching Mr. Stoufer engaged in the lumber and mercantile business at Liberal and soon built up a large and profitable enterprise. His lumber yard was sold in 1908, but he continued the store and made it one of the largest in the city until 1913. He was a stockholder in the organization of the Citizens State Bank of Liberal. Besides the newspaper experience already outlined he was owner and editor of the Liberal Independent for three years." Eventually, Stoufer was elected to serve as Seward County Clerk.
At the center of the town's up-and-coming society circles, the Stoufers put their spacious home to good use. They hosted formal dinners, parties and other gatherings. In the 1980s, Gray said, she sometimes met Liberal locals who recalled some of those events.
"I remember Mrs. Black telling me once that she remembered going to the Stoufer house for these wonderful parties when she was a little girl," Gray said. "In the summer, they'd throw all the windows open and dance, and everyone would be laughing and dancing the night away."
Everyone would be soaked in sweat, Gray was told, but not Hattie Stouffer.
"Mrs. Black said, 'she did not allow herself to sweat.' Doesn't that give you such a great idea of what she was like?"
Both Stoufers were charming and warm, Gray said, recounting a story told to her by Bob Davies' father.
"He said Mr. Stoufer was such a nice gentleman, always well-dressed. I've seen a picture of him standing on the corner, dressed perfectly with a suit and tie and hat. He'd give the kids candy," she said. "He was very kind."
Heritage of hospitality
By the 1940s, ownership of the house passed to the Hunt family, which operated the Ford dealership and maintained a ranch on the Cimarron River — presumably purged of coldhearted cattle rustlers. Daughter Laura (Hunt) Hart recalls the days when she was known as Lorene "Shug" and called 506 N. Sherman home.
"We spent many happy, fun and memorable years there," she wrote in a letter to the Yearicks, noting that her parents continued the Stoufer tradition of hospitality.
"The home was always open to all the kids in town and during the war when the airbase was located in Liberal my Dad saw to it that lots of young, homesick service men were always welcome to share my Mom's home cooking." Hart still suspects the soldiers were there in part to court the family's two older sisters who, she recalls "were gorgeous. Being the youngest it was my duty to spy on them to make sure they were always gentlemen. I finally lost count of the money I was paid to 'go away,' but since real spies never really go away, I was always able to give an accurate accounting of everyone's behavior."
The house's nooks and crannies provide many settings for such drama. A double staircase greets visitors when they come in the front door. To the left, tall windows allow south light to stream across the sitting area and former dining room — a cavernous space that once hosted formal dinners at a table so long, Hart jokes "the minister and the town whore could sit at the same table without problems."
Chris Yearick, an English teacher by trade and interior designer at heart, converted the spacious room into a library, organizing her husband's military books by time and location. A print of a portrait of Napoleon watches from one wall, while a statuette of Gen. Robert E. Lee stands across the room. Atop one bookcase, the military flag used in the funeral of Rick's veteran father, holds a place of honor.
Many Sunday mornings, the room becomes the setting for a nondenominational Bible study class of 15 to 20 people.
"We wanted to share the home with others," Rick said. "I don't know if it's a way of giving back, but it just feels right. I know it sounds crazy, but I really love the character of this house. It's really warm and open, and when people come in, they just relax and enjoy themselves."
"If I had to describe the feeling in the house, it would be lively," Chris said, "and loving."
In previous years, the Yearicks signed up to welcome the community during Liberal's Holiday Home Tour, setting up 13 Christmas trees and ushering hundreds of guests through the home's three stories. The fourth level — the basement — "is still a work in progress," Chris said. "But that's kind of how the whole house is. But I enjoy the process. When it's finished, I might just start over and do it again. It's a blessing to have this home. There were a lot of people wanting it, but God gave us the desires of our hearts. Living here, it's always on my mind to show God that I love him and thank him."
The sense of gratitude spills over when passers-by stop in to chat as Chris works in the yard or relaxes on the porch.
"When we were moving in, so many people stopped by as we were unloading and working, and I'd say, 'You want to come in?'" Chris said. "This house is nothing but joy to me, and I think it's wonderful to share it."
The man who built the house would likely approve.