Ulysses Subtracting (Land) Grant?

Ulysses S. Grant was the Commanding General of the Union Army in the Civil War and, a few years after the war ended, served as the 18th President of the United States. To many, he was a hero — and it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are many places in the country named after him. That’s particularly true in the American Midwest, which came of age during the height of his fame. Twelve counties and parishes are named for the former President, including, for our immediate purposes, Grant County, Kansas. That particular political subdivision was founded on March 20, 1873, just two weeks after its namesake was sworn in for his second term in the nation’s highest office.

With a new county now on the map, residents in the rural but emerging area scrambled to form villages, towns, and cities — and some aspired to create the city that would later become the county seat (that is, the capital of the county). One group of new Kansans, numbering perhaps as many as 2,000, decided to drive that point home — when they incorporated their city in 1885, they named it “Ulysses.” And the city of Ulysses, Grant County, Kansas, still exists today.

But it’s not quite where it was back in 1885. In fact, it’s about three miles away from where it was. Because in 1909, the whole town packed up and moved — and took almost all of their buildings with them.

The effort to become the county seat of Grant was an extensive one — it took a lot more than simply naming your town after the same person that the county was named for. You had to win the honor at the ballot box. But frontier justice wasn’t like modern-day elections — they were lawless endeavors where virtually anything was acceptable. Kidnapping, threats of violence, and other crimes were not uncommon ways to get people to vote your way (or to not vote against you). And bribery was, perhaps, the norm. The people of Ulysses weren’t above any of that. As Legends of America explains, “Constable George Earp [cousin of Wyatt Earp] would later say that the Ulysses Town Company imported several noted gunmen “to protect the security of the ballot” at the elections. [ . . .] The men built a lumber barricade across the street from the polling place, stationing themselves behind it with their Winchesters and six-shooters in case of trouble or an attempt to steal the ballot box” Further, per the same site, “it was an “open secret” that votes were bought, and “professional voters” had been brought in and boarded for the requisite 30 days before the election and given $10 each when they had voted.” And Ulysses’s efforts were successful — the city became the county seat of Grant, an honor it still holds today.

But all of those efforts were expensive, and the money came at a price: Ulysess ended up with a large debt. While this type of chicanery was usually funded by private individuals looking to establish themselves as community leaders, Ulysses funded their efforts by issuing public bonds. According to an article from Colliers Magazine from July 1909, reproduced here, “the Ulysses Council issued $36,000 in bonds on the town, bonded the school district for $13,500, and raised $8,000 for a courthouse.” The debt — which was roughly the equivalent of $1 million in today’s dollars — was secured by the land underneath Ulysess itself. And unfortunately for the people who lived in Ulysses, the town didn’t have a way to repay the debts. At first, Ulysses’ population began to grow, but the income wasn’t coming in quickly enough to pay bondholders, so city raised taxes dramatically. That sent people packing for cheaper places to live, and, per Colliers Magazine, “then the bottom dropped out, the interest on the bonds was not paid, crops failed, and cattle depreciated. The population was reduced to 40.”

To make it so bondholders had no one to sue, the city dissolved itself and the remaining residents decided to create a new town about three miles west. But the townsfolk weren’t willing to start fully from scratch. Taking a page from a future Simpsons episode, they took the buildings with them. Wikipedia’s editors explain the process:

After the land was surveyed into a new town site, the town began the move. The move began the first of February 1909, and continued for approximately three months. Skids were used to move the larger buildings, and the smaller ones were loaded onto wagons. Horse power was used to move the loads. It was necessary to move these structures downhill, through a large draw, and uphill to the new locations. It took several days to move some of the buildings. The larger buildings were cut into sections and moved a section at a time. It took 60 horses to move just one section of the old hotel. 

The new town, despite the ridiculousness, maintained the former town’s honor as county seat — it required a new election, but the new Ulysses won that, somehow, too (and without any allegations of bribery or other mischief). The bondholders were left without recompense; as Colliers explained, “they [could] not sue New Ulysses for the debts of Old Ulysses, and, as for seizing the property in Old Ulysses in lieu of payment, that, as they say in Kanas, would be enough to make a coyote laugh.”

Images from the move — and the aftermath in old Ulysses — can be seen on the link to the Colliers article.

Bonus fact: Naming your city “Ulysses, Grant” is kind of ridiculous — but not as ridiculous as what the town of Ismay, Montana did in 1993. Ismay — a town of now only about 17 people not too far from the North Dakota border (here’s a map), doesn’t have much going for it: per Wikipedia, there’s a church and a post office there, but no other businesses. But apparently, the town has a collective sense of humor — and a nose for fundraising. In 1993, a radio station in Kansas City, Missouri, tried to find a Montana town to rename itself “Joe,” after the Hall of Fame football quarterback. Ismay agreed, temporarily (and unofficially, sadly) becoming “Joe, Montana.” As the Great Fall Tribune reported, “at the time, the town needed to fix its fire truck. The city clerk suggested printing up 500 Joe, Montana, T-shirts and selling them to raise the money for the repairs.” The t-shirts sold  out and then some; per the Tribune, “after eight years, the sale of T-shirts and other souvenirs and Joe, Montana, postmarks raised enough money for the little town to buy a new fire truck and build a fire hall and a community center, which is named after the Hall of Fame quarterback.” 

From the Archives: General Order Number Eleven: When General Grant ordered all of the Jews out of parts of Tennessee.