Monday, August 26, 2019

Rex Stout

A while back we did a story on Kansas authors and where they lived.  Among the authors featured was Topekan, Rex Stout, the creator of the fictional detective Nero Wolfe, the epicurean, orchid collecting, armchair detective and his sidekick the witty and flirtatious, Archie Goodwin.  Stout wrote 33 novels which were the basis that for a 1970s television program and several were adapted for the stage.   However, a problem arose when it came to Stout, neither the historical society or Washburn had an address for him, there was no concrete building or landmark that we could go to and photograph.  KSHS and WU both knew that Stout was born in Noblesville, Indiana, that he moved to Topeka when he was very young and that he grew up on a farm somewhere in the vicinity of Wakarusa but beyond that there was nothing, no house or address to tie him to, so the mystery lingered.  Being a bit of an armchair detectives, we set out on the hunt for the mysterious address of Rex Stout.
                We began with the Topeka Room of the public library.   In the vertical files there we found a thick file of local newspaper clippings about Stout that had been collected over the years.  During the height of Stout’s fame, the library sponsored a number of ‘who-dune-it mystery dinners’ based on Stouts’s work, the details of which were all there.  We learned that Stout was in the news early, at age 13 he won the state spelling bee. He went on to attend Topeka High School and then briefly the University of Kansas, he then left Kansas to join the Navy. There is an article from one of his return visits that brags about his assignment working on Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential yacht doing the books.  In the mid-teens, he and his brother created a baking system that they sold to hundreds of schools across the country used for tracking money that children saved in their accounts which provided Stout with royalties and in 1916 he returned to Topeka to marry Fay Kennedy, whom he divorced in 1932.  (He later remarries).
 Stout began writing and getting published in the teens but he did not meet with real commercial success until the 1903 with the creation of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  And there are a number of pieces on Stout’s books.  During the height of Stout’s fame, the library sponsored a number of ‘who-dune-it mystery dinners’ based on Stouts’s work, the details of which were all there. So, lots of great information but no address and no real reference to where Stout grew up, except somewhere on a farm outside Wakarusa.
                  We talked to local historian, Doug Wallace. He thought that the family home was somewhere in the vicinity of the Shawnee County jail on East-side, but where?  We were intrigued, so in the tradition of Nero Wolfe, we hit the books looking for clues.  In a thick tomb of a biography by John McLeer that we found through the interlibrary loan system in the Topeka Public Schools high libraries, we picked up the trail. We gleaned that Stout lived in Bellville—a suburb of Topeka—3 miles from the center of Topeka.  This area is between Highland Park and Dornwood. Then he moved to a farm in Wakarusa, then back to Belleville and then to somewhere in Topeka.  Rex attended school at district 40, Wakarusa that was said to be 1 ½ miles from his house to the school.   In 1895 five Stout’s were in attendance and May (the oldest) was the teacher. Stout was said to have hobbies including horseshoes and croquet, he was quite a marble player and got in trouble for swindling others on the schoolyard. (p 65)
                Stout’s cousin was David Overmyer.   John Stout, Rex’s father followed David from Indiana to Ohio for law school and then onto Kansas in 1887.  Overmyers and Stouts would live near each other and be extended family throughout Stout’s time in Kansas, from early years the children played together, produced theatricals “practiced scenes” –Rex liked to be the villain, and wrote. Stout remained in touch with the Overmyers throughout his life, but once he moved to New York but they did not play a dominant role in each other’s adulthoods. (David Hicks Overmyer, Stout’s childhood playmate will become a WPA muralist and he painted murals throughout the state, he is best known for the 8 murals on the ground floor of the Capitol’s rotunda and for Topeka High staff and alums the apple tree mural in the teachers’ breakroom)
                David Overmyer was a well-known attorney and a stalwart of the Democratic Party.  David Overmyer have brought populist, presidential candidate and free silver promoter William Jennings Bryan to visit the Stouts at Wakarusa and to have dinner, the Stouts. (P84) Stout’s older sister, May joined the Home Defenders, a temperance group formed by Topeka’s Dr.  Eva Harding to support Carrie Nation’s aims.  Carrie Nation was a frequent dinner guest of the Stout’s when she is in town.   May and Ruth joined her on several of her raids and were disappointed when Nation was arrested but they weren’t. 
                But, getting back to our mystery, the best description of where the Wakrusa farm in McLeer’s biography says that it was “two and a half miles from Wakarusa along the Sac and Fox road”. The Sac and Fox road was one of the main trails that “wond over the hills to the Wakarusa Valley, and across that river at the ford where the great stone bridge now stands, due south of Berryton; and from there it wound around the hill through the woods and again over the plains. Afterwards a public road was laid out upon this trail, called, in the Shawnee County records, the "Sac and Fox Road," but usually spoken of as the "Ottawa State Road." ( Then, we got something concrete, a name and a date,  in June of 1896—Wakarusa farm is sold to John Stephens (p. 74) , brother Bob opens a fee store on East 8th and sister May is teaching at Rice School.
                Onto the Shawnee County Court House Register of Deeds and back to the grantee/grantor books where all the real estate transactions dating back to the founding of the city are. Records dating back this far are no longer kept in books but are digitized and on cd and the ladies at the courthouse were both amazing and fast at helping me find the exact address, the Stout farm was at the Northwest quarter of the Southwest quarter of Section 18, Township 13, Range 16. 

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