In its early years Osborne County consistently attracted many young enterprising businessmen who exhibited the necessary desire and hard work ethic needed in order to be successful. Foremost among these was Winfield Washington Watson. Watson’s rise as a prosperous and influential business leader began with his arrival in Kansas in 1880. Over the next fifty years his leadership earned him considerable state and national recognition, a distinction which has earned him a place in the Osborne County Hall of Fame.
Watson was born November 29, 1848, in West Creek, Kankakee County, Indiana. He was one of the ten children of John Watson and Sarah Jane Patterson. His early years were spent in West Creek and Wilmington, Illinois, where he worked on the farm of Milton Butts and drove a team of oxen, often working by candlelight. In due course he courted and won the heart of his employer’s daughter, Clara, whom he married on April 14, 1870, at Monence, Illinois. They had one daughter, Florence. In 1873 Watson moved his family to Monence, Illinois, to join his brother William in the grocery business.
In 1879 the Watsons moved to Osborne, where he erected a frame building and opened a general store. Six years later he organized the Exchange National Bank and served as its first president. A two-story stone structure was built on the northwest corner of Second and Main Streets for the bank that housed several other businesses also, and the town’s first library.
Watson also served on the board of directors for the proposed Omaha, Dodge City, and Southwestern Railroad. The route for this line ran northeast from Dodge City through Jetmore, Hays, Osborne, Downs, Cawker City, and Jewell in Kansas. As with most railroad schemes of the time, the plans fell through and the line was never built.
“Those were great days,” Watson recalled years later, “Days when men dared big things and either won or lost. If they won, good and well; if they lost, they promptly forgot it and turned their attention to something else. And so it was with our enterprise.”
In 1889 Watson moved his family to Salina, Kansas, where he became president of the American State Bank. He also served as president of the Acme Cement Company, who furnished most of the material needed to build the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. By 1900 he had returned to the grocery business and formed the Watson, Durand-Kasper Wholesale Grocery Company. Watson was also president of the Duncan Shingle and Lumber Company in Kansas City, Missouri, and served on the board of directors of the Denver, Colorado-based United States Airways (later known as United Airlines). In 1912 Watson organized and headed the Meridian Road Association, which led the way in U.S. Highway 81 becoming the first surfaced highway across the United States, a move that was instrumental in attracting industry to Salina. His last important commercial venture came in 1921 when he built the Watson Theatre, which was later sold and renamed the Fox. Currently it is known as the Stieffel – Watson Theatre.
Watson was a staunch Republican and was considered one of the “Big Four” delegates at the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, whose influence secured the presidential nomination for Warren G. Harding. In his later years he was universally respected for his leadership and generosity–a reputation enhanced by his donation of 4,200 U. S. flags with which schoolchildren welcomed the Civil War veterans attending the state Grand Army of the Republic Encampment at Salina in 1925. He was a member of the Methodist Church and the Masonic Lodge. And once a year he would make a special trip to Osborne to visit old friends and the town he still cherished from his younger days.
Mrs. Watson passed away in April 1925. The next June Watson married Mrs. Esther Williams, and for five years the couple lived in contentment. Winfield Watson died at his home December 4, 1931, shortly after his eighty-third birthday. He was buried in the family mausoleum at the Gypsum Hill Cemetery in Salina.