An impromptu street corner debate in his hometown of Emporia provoked newspaper editor William Allen White to write the editorial “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The 1896 essay blasted the state’s Populist movement for what White believed were anti-business policies that caused the economy and the state’s population to stagnate. Reprinted across the country, the editorial caught the attention of the national Republican Party, which printed hundreds of thousands of copies of the editorial to be used in the tightly contested 1896 presidential race between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. That reprinting also thrust White—who had been primarily focused on local politics and sometimes gossip—onto the national stage.
“Suddenly, I—the Editor of the Emporia Gazette, a country paper with little more than 500 circulation—was a somebody. The dimensions of my world were enlarged,” wrote White.
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Capitalizing on his new prominence, White became a national political pundit and informal adviser to five U.S. presidents, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt. His commentary, however, continued to carry the accent and perspective of his daily life in Emporia. White saw Emporia as a metaphor for Middle-American values and the ideal of small-town life. For those reasons, White felt he could best be a part of the national debate by remaining rooted to Emporia, and particularly to “Red Rocks,” the Queen Anne house that he and his wife bought and renovated, and which now stands as a State Historic Site.
“Red Rocks and Emporia were important to William Allen White because they were his home,” says Ken Wilk, administrator of Red Rocks State Historic Site. “He was very much a homebody and family man. Those two things were what kept him rooted in his beliefs and convictions. Even when he traveled, he always loved to come home.”
One of White’s favorite places at Red Rocks was the porch, where there is almost always a breeze. During the summer, White could often be found lounging in one of his porch hammocks with stacks of books beside him. Here he would review books for the Book of the Month Club, write his editorials, talk on the phone or hold court with visitors. White was known for calling out to passersby and inviting them up to the porch for discussions.
White and his wife, Sallie, would frequently host large dinner parties. “Food and guests are our only major vices. We love company,” said Sallie. When the Whites renovated the home, they created a great room with a large fireplace and bookshelves that lined the walls. Here, White would entertain guests with his “3-finger” piano playing or their phonograph player.
Better Homes and Gardens reported that the Whites were gracious hosts who loved to fill the house with guests “so thick that you have to fit them in with a knife” and that the couple’s monthly grocery bill was $100 (at a time when a loaf of bread was 5 cents). During the meals, William Allen would sit at the head of the table with his chair pushed up against the buffet while a red fountain pen that he used to edit editorials would secure a napkin to his vest. Sallie would preside at the other end of the table, and the room’s French doors would be open to provide guests with a view of the garden.
The Whites lived in the home until William’s death in 1944 and Sallie’s death in 1950. Though it would be opened for occasional fundraisers, events and family visits, the house remained mostly shuttered until the state took control and began opening it for the public in 2001. Because of this series of events, Red Rocks is fairly unique among historical sites in that almost all artifacts are original to the home.
“As you walk through the house and see how William Allen White lived and his possessions, you get a feel for who he really was,” says Wilk.
The few furnishings that are not authentic to the home allow visitors a chance to experience the atmosphere of Red Rocks. Visitors can sit on reproduction furniture in William Allen White’s study and look at the editor’s traveling typewriter, photos of White and his son during a trip when they witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and newspaper cartoons related to White’s battle to drive the Ku Klux Klan out of Kansas. Sitting in the thickly upholstered furniture by the glow of the fire and surrounded by books, a guest can imagine the after-dinner conversations that went long into the night and often carried into the national politics that William Allen White would shape with his perspective from the small Kansas town of Emporia.
The Whites purchased their home on Exchange Street in 1899 and substantially remodeled it after an attic chimney fire in the 1920s. Following the fashion at the time for palatial homes to be given names, the Whites named their house for the roughhewn red sandstone brought in from the Garden of the Gods area in Colorado and used for the home’s reconstruction. The Whites had begun consulting with Frank Lloyd Wright before the fire, and even though they went with the Kansas City firm Wight and Wight, Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence can be felt throughout.