Liberal, Missouri was founded on October 26, 1880 by George Walser. He bought land to develop a settlement for "freethinkers." Advertisements for this new town stated that there would be "no priest, preachers, saloon, God, or Hell."
George Walser was born in Dearbon County, Indiana on May 26, 1834. He became a lawyer in Illinois and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war he "went west" and settled in Barton County, Missouri. He practiced law in Lamar, was a superintendent of schools there, and also served in the Missouri state legislature from 1868 to 1872. He died at his home in Catalpa Park (in the Liberal area) on May 1, 1910 and was buried at the Lake Cemetery in Lamar.
The young town of Liberal began to be famous or notorious for its claim to be a settlement for "freethinkers." But one man H.H. Waggoner made an addition to the town for Christians. One night Walser and some friends made a barbed wire fence between the town and this new addition to "keep the Christians out." This brought national attention.
One of the earliest businesses in Liberal was the Kansas City-Ft. Scott-Memphis Railroad which was finished in 1881. It was later to become the Frisco Railroad. (The Frisco Depot has been preserved as a landmark and has been moved to the park.) The Missouri Pacific Railroad built a line through Liberal in 1885. (The Missouri Pacific Depot no longer exists.)
Coal mining was a large business during these early years and a large sandstone quarry was also in operation. The first business in the town was a hotel (location unknown at this time) and soon followed was the first bank, the Bank of Liberal, in 1888. The first car came to Liberal in 1912. The Brick and Tile Plant made bricks, the Ozark and Liberal Hotels boarded people riding from here to there on the trains, and the earliest newspaper was the Liberal Enterprise. It was in existence from 1892 to 1910 and then sold to become The Liberal News.
The year of 1897 brought a fire that destroyed part of Main Street in Liberal on the day of November 4. Nine businesses were destroyed on the west side of the street; but in just a few years all the businesses were rebuilt. In January of 1934 the east side of Main was destroyed by a fire. This time not all of the businesses burned out were rebuilt.
The general store in Liberal was owned and operated by J.H. Todd who also was an acquaintance of the founder George Walser and gave the address at Walser's funeral. Another noted individual in the early years of Liberal was Henry Dorman who lived to be 115 years old. He was born during the years that George Washington was still living. Captain J.G. Mayer was a Civil War veteran and there is still an addition to the town named after him. Bob Harmon was the adopted son of O.E. Harmon (who wrote "The Story of Liberal); he became a professional baseball player and played with the St. Louis Cardinals. (Richard Cooper has written a book about Bob Harmon's experiences.)
Even though George Walser developed Liberal for "freethinkers" it wasn't long before he became interested in the religion of spiritualism. Liberal and especially Catalpa Park became widely known as an encampment area for spiritualists. Seances were held along with public speaking by mediums and clairvoyants. Walser advertised all over the country to bring large groups into the area. Many times the groups would stay for weeks or even months in tents at Catalpa Park.
The Catalpa Park area included 13 acres located about ½ mile south of town. George Walser built it in 1890 and planted lots of catalpa tree seeds, hence the name "Catalpa Park." The home of George Walser was also built on this property. The whole park was destroyed around 1930 to dig for coal.
Five books have been written about Liberal including history from its beginnings to around 1920. Brian King is interested in collecting history from 1920 to the present and possibly writing it down in the future. If you have information about Liberal, Missouri its residents, its schools, its businesses contact Brian King or the Barton County Historical Society (417-682-4141).
Presented to the Barton County Historical Society by Brian King on July 12, 2009.