It started with a train ride to Topeka in 1881

When the State of Kansas was just 20 years old her capital city was going through a time of tremendous growth. Just three years earlier “Ho, for Kansas” advertisements had spread around the country encouraging people to make a new start out West and many bought into the idea. A mass exodus from the South brought freed men and women to the new free state to make their home. While The Capitol Building, which at the time was only the East and West wings, was given the boost it needed as legislature authorized the construction of a central building with a stunning dome. The last round was called and Kansas became the first state in the U.S. to adopt the Constitutional amendment prohibiting all alcoholic beverages and ushering in a time of prohibition.

Topeka was certainly the place to go if you wanted to be where things were happening. And this is the environment that greeted Bennett R. Wheeler as he stepped off the train in Topeka shortly after graduating from Boston University in 1881.

Ho, for Kansas” was a campaign orchestrated by Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a leader of the Exodus Movement and President of the Tennessee Real Estate and Homestead Association. This campaign was driven by posters, flyers and even had its own theme song. The sheet music for Ho, for Kansas can be found today in Kansas State Archives.

In response to the mass exodus from the South in 1879 and 1880, Kansas Governor and Quaker John St. John established the Kansas Freedman’s Relief Association (KFRA). The Association was created in 1879 to “aid destitute freedmen, refugees and immigrants” who were migrating to Kansas. These migrants were often referred to as Exodusters, the above engraving from Harper’s Weekly, 1879 is titled  “En Route to Kansas”.

Construction started on the Kansas State Capitol Building in 1866 and was officially completed in 1903. The West and East wings were finished in 1885. The construction on the South and North wings were started in 1883. Work was still underway when the Kansas House of Representatives first met in the hall in 1881. The above image is of a soldiers and sailors’ reunion at the State House September 15, 1881.

Wheeler established his law practice in Topeka and made an alliance in 1882 with the mortgage loan company of Eli Chandler, and grew by four lawyers, Eugene Hagan, W.H. Rossington, J.G. Slonecker and Joseph Waters. At this time the Bar Association of Topeka is formed with the help of Rossington and Slonecker. In a January 29, 1882, letter written by C.G. Spencer he wrote that not only are they forming the Bar Association in the city, they are working on the formation of a State Bar Association.

In 1892 Slonecker and Wheeler formed a partnership with John F. Switzer known as Slonecker, Wheeler & Switzer which held offices at 525 Kansas Avenue.

In 1902 J. G. Slonecker left the firm to become the Referee in Bankruptcy and the firm Wheeler & Switzer was established. In that same year, the firm moved to the Columbian Building (first known as the Knox Building, built by William C. Knox’s investment company. The name was changed in 1893 for the Columbian Title & Trust Company). The Columbian Building proved to be an ornate and entertaining home for the lawyers of Wheeler & Switzer with brass doorknobs, mosaic floors and endless details. One of those details noted by the late Mary Hafenstine, PLS, who was a legal secretary with the firm for 61 years, was the awnings on the windows facing 6th Avenue. In her account of the history of the firm she states that “the awnings had to be raised and lowered each day. It was the delight of some of the younger attorneys to lower the awnings after a rain, much to the surprise of the pedestrians underneath.”

1902 was a big year for the firm, new name, new building and the addition of Margaret McGurnahan to the team. McGurnahan worked 23 years at the firm before enrolling in Washburn School of Law and graduating in 1927 at 51 years of age. She later became a partner in the firm, practicing for 33 years before retiring at age 84. In addition to becoming the first female partner in a large law firm in Topeka, she became one of the first women admitted to practice law in Kansas and one of the first women to join the Kansas Bar Association. She later served as chairwoman of the first Title Standards Committee for the Kansas Bar Association and became an active member in the American Bar Association.

The firm was housed on the fourth floor of the Columbian Building from 1902 to 1987. The Columbian Building is still standing and is listed among Kansas Historic Landmarks.

Margaret McGurnahan joined the firm as a secretary in 1902 and retired as a partner of the firm in 1960. Washburn Law honored her with a posthumous Law Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

The original Topeka Public Library in 1889. Notice the unfinished capitol dome in the background. Courtesy of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library.

The Finney Bond Scandal of 1933

The State of Kansas was in a bad spot, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl had taken their toll. Spirits were low when the news broke of a bond scandal in Topeka and it sent the people of Kansas reeling. Ronald and Warren Finney, father and son, were both considered to be members of an elite class of citizen in Topeka. They were wealthy, belonged to the right societies and highly respected businessmen in the community. It was exposed that Ronald had been forging bonds and depositing them into the state treasury, brokerage houses and banks in order to finance high end living and business ventures. What upset the public even more so was the culpability of his father, Warren Finney, who was a close friend to both William Allen White and Governor Alfred Landon.

So serious were the allegations that the integrity of the state government was questioned as more details came to the public and they learned the serious repercussions on the state’s finances. Many high office holders in the state government abetted the Finney fraud unknowingly through negligence and complicity. Governor Landon vigorously persecuted the offenders, overlooking a long friendship and solidifying his reelection and the 1936 Republican presidential nomination.

The man responsible for exposing the Finney Bond Scandal and in turn stopping a massive hemorrhage of money from the state of Kansas was Sardius M. Brewster, a member of the firm. The Shawnee County Attorney at the time assisted Brewster in the case. That attorney was Lester M. Goodell. In 1938 Brewster passed away and Goodell joined the firm in his place.

Sardis M. Brewster
Alfred M. Landon
Lester M. Goodell

Brown v. Topeka Board of Education 1954

In December of 1952 the U.S. Supreme Court docket held cases from Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia, all of which challenged the constitutionality of racial segregation in public schools. The five cases were consolidated under one name, Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka. It was decided that it was better to have representative cases from all over the country so they landed on Brown because they did not want the issue to appear to be a solely Southern one. The resulting Supreme Court ruling stated that separate but equal access to education was unconstitutional. Lester Goodell would gain national attention as the lead trial attorney for the school board in the famous Brown V. Board of Education lawsuit.

Linda Brown, seen here at age ten, with her sister Terry Lynn, age six. Under segregation laws they were not allowed to attend the nearby New Summer School but had to walk six blocks through the dangerous Rock Island Switchyard in order to catch a bus to all-black Monroe School.

Sisters Linda and Terry Lynn Brown sit on a fence outside of their school, the racially segregated Monroe Elementary School, Topeka, Kansas, March 1953. The Monroe school building is now home to the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education National Historic Site.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and ended legal public-school segregation in the United States.

Urban Renewal 1962-1964

In the 1960’s the Federal Government issued an Urban Renewal program to rehabilitate aging and decaying inner cities by massive demolition, slum clearance or development. Between 1962 and 1964 multiple buildings were removed from central Topeka in an effort to revitalize it. Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds and Palmer represented the Urban Renewal Agency during this project and assisted in the acquisition of multiple neglected properties.

During this time period the firm also represented the City of Topeka in the negotiations and acquisition of the four-square block at 9th & Quincy for the purpose of constructing a new Santa Fe building.

Facts about Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds and Palmer

GSEP Name History
  • Bennett R. Wheeler
  • Slonecker, Wheeler & Switzer
  • Wheeler & Switzer
  • Wheeler, Switzer & Hunt
  • Wheeler, Bruster & Hunt
  • Wheeler, Brewster, Hunt & Goodell
  • Wheeler, Hunt & Goodell
  • Goodell, Casey, Briman & Sewell
  • Goodell, Casey, Briman, Rice & Cogswell
  • Goodell, Casey, Briman & Cogswell
  • Goodell, Cogswell, Stratton, Edmonds,           Palmer & Wright
  • Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds, Palmer & Wright
  • Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds & Palmer
Notable GSEP Attorneys
  • John L. Hunt, Assistant U.S. District Attorney
  • Marla Luckert, District Judge in Shawnee County, a Chief Judge of the 3rd Judicial District and second woman to be appointed ot the Kansas Supreme Court in 2002
  • Kansas Governor Sam Brownback worked with the firm for a few years in the early 1990’s
Working in 1930
  • Starting salary for a secretary at the firm in 1933 was $60 per month, with a top salary of $125 per month that could be reached within a few years.
  • A regular work day in the 1930’s was 9:00am to 5:00pm with an hour and a half lunch break.
  • Equipment used in the 1930’s were L.C. Smith manual typewriters equipped with brass rollers. The brass roller would be utilized when making carbon copies on tissue-fine paper for the court.
  • The firm was among the first organizations in Topeka to utilize an Executive IBM typewriter.