The Kansas House
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Kansas House

In Columbus Township, on a dirt road leading from Columbus to Lottsville, there stands today a large, square, two-story frame building, whose numerous small paned windows are boarded up. A glance would convince anyone that it had once been a public house of some sort and that the place had been deserted for many years. If you lift the old-fashioned iron latch and step in at the door you'll find yourself in a large room extending the depth, and half the length of the building. Names with dates that go back as far as seventy years are scribbled here and there on the plastered walls, which show evidence of many changes having been made in the fittings and arrangements of the room.

Up stairs there is another large room with a smooth board floor, quite evidently used for dancing. As you walk across this floor you notice it gives a little; if you jump on it you'll find it springy. For this is a "spring floor" dance hall, one of the very few remaining in Warren County today, and the old building is the famous Kansas House, built by Sam Wilber, whom all the region called "Uncle Sam", in 1856, run by his sons Seth and Delos Wilber and known all over Western Pennsylvania in the hey day of its piping prosperity.

The big, square building with a red brick chimney at either end of its shingled roof, it's grey sides weather beaten by the storms of seventy-four winters, presents an appearance altogether different from that of its early days. It had for years a double porch, with fancy railings upstairs and down. There was a sort of ell at the back, and a brave, big sign with the name "Kansas House" and the date, "1856" extended along the front of the building. 'Twas a famout hostelry in its day, the Kansas House. The road it stands on was traveled a great deal by herdsmen with sheep and cattle and these men rested their animals in paddocks provided close to the old tavern, while they found refreshment at the bar in one end of the big downstairs room, and comfortable beds above stairs in one of the numerous small bedrooms.

Every Warren County tavern had a bar, the law required them to "provide comfortable and satisfactory accommodation for man and beast." And few men, especially of the sort who traveled much on the roads, would have considered accommodation "satisfactory" without the familiar red-oak whiskey barrel with its moist wooden spigot, standing up on a table behind the bar, where all might see for themselves that it was really "drawn from the wood."

The bar in the Kansas House was at "the Lottsville end" of the big room, according to one nonagenarian who has had more than one glass of Westfield whiskey over it. It was the typical bar of its time with a moderate sized, square looking glass around the edges of which were stuck colored cards. Above the mirror was a pair of steer horns with an enormous spread. A few built-in shelves held brightly labeled bottles of gin, brandy and Jamaica Rum, and several brown bottles of Log Cabin Bitters, a popular flavoring for spirituous drinks before the Civil War.

The bar at the Kansas House lasted only long enough to provide hospitality for the men who came straggling home from the war. It was discontinued, but the Kansas House itself flourished more than ever without it, proving, what many people then refused to believe, that a public house could be successful without taking John Barleycorn into partnership. Be it said, however, Seth and Delos Wilber conducted their bar in a model manner ; there is no record of any serious trouble occurring at the Kansas House, and this in a day when brutal, dangerous fighting was the commonest occurrence.

When the excitement and subsequent depression of the Civil War had faded, the Kansas House came into its most flourishing days. Land owners of the region were getting better prices for their timber, farms were improving. the people had money to spend. The town of Columbus, three miles west, was a thriving village, having been chartered as a borough in 1853 and now having a number of stores and taverns. Blair Bros'. store, the store of D. A. Dewey, George Cady's well known tavern and several other live places of business were located in the little town on the headwaters of Brokenstraw Creek. Pine Valley was booming, the folks on Coffee Creek were prosperous. The young folks, and some of the older ones too, wanted a place to dance and they found it, on the famous "spring floor" in that big upstairs room at the Kansas House.

From 1868 till 1905 the Kansas House was a famous dance place. For nearly forty years the flying feet of dancers who came from far and near sprung the smooth maple boards of the spring floor. The first lights in the ball room were tallow candles, held in iron sconces against the walls. Soon after Drake's well set the drills going, which suddenly supplied the world with petroleum, oil lamps, an exciting novelty, were added to the Kansas House ball room. One lady now ninety years old, tells how her mother refused to allow her to attend dances at the Kansas House all the first winter they had the lamps, for fear of an explosion. And perhaps the cautious mother's fears were not so foolish, lamps did explode frequently in the earlier days, but none ever caused a catastrophe at the Kansas House. About the year 1890, red oil was used in the glass bowls of the ball room lamps, an innovation considered both beautiful and frisky. The era of red oil swept Warren County off its feet at the same time the prismed and pendanted chandeliers became prevalent, the sort that hung mostly in hallways of very fine homes and had rings so that the oil reservoir of the lamp could be pulled down for filling while the hand-painted shade and upper rigging shot ceilingward on a devise consisting of small chains and pulleys.

Spring floors in dance halls were common enough in the times when mirth and music filled the Kansas House. The boards were laid down on slightly bowed stringers, allowing the floor to spring up and down as much as two inches. These springy dance floors were supposed to put life and mettle in the heels of the dancers and there is no doubt they were an aid to gallant beaux who wished to cut a captivating pigeon wing around a pretty partner. Jack Sutton, a doughty young Beau Brummel of the lumber camps, who danced often at the Kansas House, would occasionally leap up and click his boot heels four times before touching the floor. That spring floor must have been an aid in accomplishing the feat.

Eighteen sets could dance in that upstairs ball room. The orchestra sat on a raised platform. Dances began late, the crowd never got there before ten o'clock; the regular hours for dances were nine till three, but they nearly always went on till four and often enough till five o'clock in the morning. In summer the rising sun would pale the oil lamps and the dancers often drove home in their high-wheeled buggies in broad daylight.

Dutton's Band

Few musical organizations in all Western Pennsylvania were so well known, or played for so many dances as the famous Dutton's Band, whose name is indelibly intermingled with the memories of Kansas House nights in the recollections of many a man and woman whose dancing days are past. "Dutton's Band !" the very name recalls crowded dance floors, familiar faces that have altered or disappeared, lively music, irresistible dance music that set every foot a-tapping. "They put electricity in your feet," said Mrs. Rose Evans, eighty-four years old and now living at Bear Lake. She has danced after the music of Dutton's Band many a night at the Kansas House.

The famous Dutton's Band, which had its origin in a mother who was interested in music and taught her sons various instruments, was organized in 1869. John Dutton, then twenty years of age, played the clarinet. Elmer Dutton, a brother, played the cornet and Ellis Dutton played first violin. "Ab" Fox was a master of the bass viol, ' he played "double bass". Later in the history of Dutton's Band, Frank Howard was second violinist, and called.

With clarinet, cornet, first and second violin and bass viol, Dutton's Band made dance music which won it fame far and wide. At the close of the Civil War, John Dutton bought a fine French clarinet, he paid forty dollars for it. He still has the instrument at his home in Columbus, playing on it all these years. John Dutton, now eighty-one years old, is the only one of the "Dutton boys" living. He and Frank Howard, considerably younger, are the only remaining members of this famous orchestra.

For fifty years Dutton's Band played in towns throughout the region. John Dutton, who says they began by playing "kitchen dances" around at the farms recalls a full half century, and more, of dances.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 261-266: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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