"Hops Bitter King," Asa T. Soule started a legacy which has stood for 130 years, in one form or another.
Soule, from Rochester, New York, got rich by selling Hops Bitters, a patent medicine consisting of bitters, hops and alcohol. When two Spearville brothers, who were originally from Soule’s hometown, asked him to invest in an irrigation canal in Ford and Gray Counties, he gladly agreed. Unfortunately, due to either too much or too little water the Soule, or Eureka, Canal was unsuccessful.
Soule also invested in local railroads, Dodge City Waterworks and a sugar mill.
Furthermore, he established the First National Bank in Dodge City and founded the town of Ingalls in Gray County.
His greatest gift to southwest Kansas is his donation of land north of Dodge City to the Presbyterian Church for Soule College which opened in 1887. However, money problems plagued this institution. The Presbyterians sold the school to the Methodist Episcopal Association in 1894. The Methodists had no better luck.
In 1912, John Hennessy, Bishop of Wichita, visited the defunct campus and saw it would make a good Catholic school for girls. The Diocese purchased the land and buildings for $8,500.
In 1913, Hennessy brought the Sisters of St. Joseph from Wichita to operate a day and boarding school for female grade and high school students. He choose the name Saint Mary of the Plains Academy which opened in September. The school accepted day students through 1917.
Though operating a boarding school in sparsely populated western Kansas was not easy, the school endured the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then disaster struck on Sunday, May 10, 1942.
That evening the Sisters and students participated in a world-wide observance of the Virgin Mary by performing a living rosary at her statue outside the buildings and by crowning the Virgin Mary in the Chapel. Shortly after the conclusion of these rites, a tornado hit the campus destroying the buildings. Miraculously, nobody lost their lives in the disaster, but due to World War II, it was impossible to build a new campus.
This did not deter the Sisters of St. Joseph who immediately embarked on a fund-raising campaign to construct an institution of higher education. In September 1950, they broke ground for a new campus which opened its doors for the 1952-53 school year.
St. Mary of the Plains operated as a coeducational high school and two-year college. They named its main building after school founder, Bishop Hennessy. By 1954, the college became a four-year college which the Higher Learning Commission accredited in 1963. In 1968, SMOP joined the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference and it closed the high school.
The next year, SMOP added sports fields, dormitories and the Sheridan Activities Center which is named for Mother Bernard Sheridan first General Superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
During the 1970s and 1980s, western Kansas saw a decline in population. Financial problems forced St. Mary of the Plains College to permanently close its doors following the 1992-91 school year.
The City of Dodge City purchased the buildings. Hennessy Hall, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, is used by Newman University and other entities.
Dodge City Parks and Recreation used the Sheridan Activities Center until the Dodge City Family YMCA moved into it in January 2013.
These two structures, the 825 high school graduates and 6,000 college alumni carry on the legacy started by Asa. T. Soule in 1887.
Kathie Bell is the curator of collections and education at Boot Hill Museum.