The first of the legendary Downs “lumber barons” of yesteryear, George W. Howell proved to be the very model of resilience amid the highs and lows of an amazing business career. He made at least three fortunes and lost them. In his later years he was still ambitious to succeed and had it not been for his advanced years and the depressed business condition prior to the occasion of his death, there can be no doubt that he once again would have regained a prominent place in the business world.
George Howell was born November 19, 1857 in Chicago, Illinois. He came to Downs in the fall of the year 1879 to engage in the lumber business. At that time the country was new and the town had just been established that July, and his business grew with leaps and bounds through demands for lumber throughout the surrounding region. George soon established a string of lumber yards across Kansas and Nebraska, having in his possession at one time as high as 60 yards. He built the first hotel in the city, then known as the Howell House, which was operated by James and Lucy Lipton. Later it was renamed the Lipton Hotel.
George married Miss Lydia “Lida” Lipton, daughter of James and Lucy, on December 19, 1882. Their second residence that they built in Downs that was at that time one of the most beautiful and costly residences in Central Kansas. Two children were born to them there – a son, Moffatt, and a daughter, Maude.
The Howell Lumber Yard in Downs was located east of the hotel. During his business career in Downs George accumulated much property and owned at one time 60 quarter sections of land in Osborne County.
George left Downs about the year 1884, moving to Atchison where with his brothers he established the Howell-Jewett Lumber Company, a large wholesale concern, which he successfully operated for several years. He later acquired large lumber milling interests in the South and established offices in Kansas City, where he continued to prosper.
The Atchison Champion newspaper edition of January 1, 1888 reported that “the most extensive wholesale business in Atchison is the lumber trade. There are two mammoth yards located here – those of Howell, Jewett and Co. and Chicago L-C, the former largest yard in the world. In addition the Howell Brothers do an office business here. They supervise 116 yards in Kansas and Nebraska with Atchison as the distributing point.”
In 1887-1888 a new home was built for the Howells in Atchison. The plans were drawn by a local architect, W. F. Wood, and are said to have reflected the wishes of Mrs. Howell. The brick work was done by C. W. Benning and George W. Houghton served as general construction foreman. Since George Howell’s business was lumber, he was in a position to examine and collect choice pieces for several years ahead to be used in the construction of his home. Construction costs were estimated at $16,000 for the house and an additional $3,000 for the carriage house. Upon completion of the 14-room, three-story brick Victorian mansion the Atchison Daily Champion newspaper stated, “The new residence of George W. Howell, in this city, is probably the largest and finest residence in Kansas.”
Of special magnificence in the home is the ornately carved stairway. The newels on the staircase in the downstairs hall can be found the carved faces of four children, two parent-age adults, and two grandparent-age adults. Two of the carvings of children have angel wings at the children’s shoulders.
The Howell family only lived in their beautiful new home for a few years. According to the Atchison Globe of July 29, 1891, George suffered a business collapse and had thirteen suits filed against his company in the amount of some $225,000. He and his brother were indicted by the government for fraud and warrants for their arrest were issued in November 1891. By this time George was living fulltime in Kansas City. It was also around this time that Lydia filed for divorce from George. She later married William Owens on April 15, 1908. Lydia died in Creston, Iowa, in 1943 and buried in the Downs Cemetery.
By 1892 the ownership of the Howell house passed to Don Carlos Newcomb, an established dry goods dealer and long time Atchison resident. The house was then acquired in 1922 for $9,000 by Harry E. Muchnic, an extremely successful Atchison industrialist and founder of the Locomotive Finished Material Company, which later became a subsidiary of North American Rockwell. In 1970 the home was granted by the Muchnic Charitable Foundation of Atchison to the Atchison Art Association for use as an art gallery. On July 12, 1974 the home was added to both the National and Kansas Registers of Historic Places.
In late 1891 George had avoided arrest but lost everything. After a few years of living in Kansas City he relocated in St. Louis, Missouri, and became heavily interested in the Ozan Lumber Company. That business eventually failed, but before it went on the rocks George had amassed a fortune of over a million dollars.
For several years following the failure of the Ozan Lumber Company George operated a lumber mill in the South and was able to return to St. Louis and pay off every cent of his indebtedness. In that city he again made another fortune in the lumber business, but this he eventually lost. Following this period in his career, misfortune seemed to haunt George’s every move. During the years that followed he is known to have lost three lumber mills, which were destroyed by fire with heavy financial losses. His last misfortune was the loss of a lumber mill in Oregon, entailing a financial loss of $50,000, with no insurance. This occurred just a few years prior to his death. After that setback George represented Oregon interests as a traveling lumber salesman.
Around the first of March in 1934 George came to Downs in the capacity of lumber salesman and stayed for two weeks at the Lipton Hotel, the business he had started 55 years before. George registered at the hotel as being from Portland Oregon, and appeared to be in excellent health. He was found in the wash room of the Lipton Hotel at 10 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, March 13, 1934. Physicians were hurriedly called and they pronounced his death due to a brain hemorrhage. Just a few minutes before his death George had appeared at the local lumber office to conduct his business. It seems that fate dealt kindly with him in sending him back to the scenes of his early business career and death overtaking him in the hotel that he built.
Funeral services were conducted at the Domoney Mortuary by Reverend Archie Toothaker of the Congregational Church with interment in the Downs Cemetery. The pall bearers were all childhood friends of George’s son Moffatt. In 1951 Moffat himself passed away and was laid to rest alongside his father.