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Ballot Box

Stafford County ballot box damaged by tornadoThe tornado that struck Stafford in 1882 demolished buildings, and it may have destroyed the town's chance to become a county seat when it carried off this ballot box full of votes.

County Seat Wars

Winning a county seat designation could be the difference between a town's thriving or disappearing altogether. Residents from across the county had to visit the seat's offices to record deeds, pay taxes, and transact other legal matters. Professionals and business owners found the money these visitors brought to town very appealing, and county seats usually had a better chance of attracting railroad lines that would deliver more new people and businesses.

It's no surprise, then, that Kansas saw nearly 30 heavily contested battles over county seat locations between 1885 and 1892. While many of these "wars" were fought primarily in the newspapers, some contests did become violent. Ten men were killed and many more wounded.

Stafford County's struggle was rather mild in comparison. The major competitors were Stafford, Bedford, and St. John; the latter had been named temporary county seat in 1879. A second election to determine a permanent location was held on April 5, 1882. Everything ran smoothly until about 4 p.m. when a tornado struck Stafford. Many businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed, including the township's polling place. Fortunately no one in town was killed, although several were injured.

Election Results Up in the Air

This fragment is all that remains of the ballot box, which was picked up and carried for about a half-mile by the storm. Election results for Stafford Township were up in the air, both literally and figuratively.  The St. John Advance described the event shortly afterwards:  "The boys at Stafford say that during the [tornado] Ezra Crane made one of the most desperate efforts to preserve the ballot box . . . but the elements would have none of it, and he was compelled to let it go, which it did with such violence as to completely destroy the [box], and scattered the ballots to the four winds."

Ballot box label

A special election on April 14 gave residents the chance to vote again. When those ballots were counted, St. John was still in the lead but did not have the necessary majority to settle the question. Unfortunately for Stafford, St. John triumphed in the final election four days later.

Many Stafford residents believed the tornado adversely affected the outcome for their town. An April 20 newspaper editorial proclaimed, "There are many things we might say that would show that it was the tornado and not the west side of the county that defeated us."

Still, residents of both communities chose not to contest the results. The morning after the election, the Stafford County Herald editor traveled to St. John to pay off a bet involving a wheelbarrow. He admitted, "We acknowledge [we were] beat last Wednesday morning and paid our wager to Brother Hoole [editor of the rival paper] as we agreed by wheeling him around the square. We tried to dump him in a well but his feet were too big."

Stafford's defeat didn't lead to the town's disappearance, however, its growth was outstripped by St. John which had over 200 more residents by 1890. This ballot box, a reminder of the success Stafford might have seen were it not for a tornado, is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Ballot Box

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2007

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.