Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Levi Overholser's Guide to Business Negotiation

I used to wonder if the Overholser brothers faced much danger in those chaotic first days of Oklahoma City, when law enforcement was spotty and property disputes could turn ugly very fast. But it looks like Levi Overholser, at least, could hold his own--and wasn't afraid to draw a six-shooter if necessary.

I mentioned below that a railroad historian had found references to Levi's involvement in the building of a narrow-gauge railroad in Illinois before he moved to Kansas and Oklahoma. That historian has very kindly sent me those references, mostly from Illinois and Indiana newspapers between 1878 and 1882. It sems that Levi was one of several businessmen that built a section of this railroad from Switz City, Indiana, to Effingham, Illinois.

The project was financially troubled, and some of the builders went bankrupt. Levi and some others filed a suit against the main construction company in 1878. A volume called "History of Greene and Sullivan Counties" explains that "This proved to be the most fruitful cause for litigation ever in the [county?] and for some time gave almost constant employment to the entire Sullivan bar as well as a number of attorneys from other places, especially Chicago." So in addition to hiring hundreds of men to build the railroad, our Levi was doing his part to create jobs for lawyers, too.

The newspaper clips mainly discuss the progress of the railroad, with frequent mentions of Levi or Lee Overholser and the firm of Overholser and Schafer. At about the time it was finished in 1880, this item appeared in the Argus, a newspaper in Robinson, Illinois, a town along the railroad line and near Palestine, where Levi and his family are known to have lived:

"Monday morning at Palestine some pretty warm words passed between E. Pratt Buell, General Manager of the narrow gauge railroad, and Levi Overholser, late contractor on the road, relative to a sum of money borrowed from Overholser by Buell, which the latter claimed he had repaid. Overholser drew his revolver, and was only prevented from shooting by the prompt interference of bystanders."

As far as the larger financial dispute over the railroad is concerned, Levi appears to have settled not for blood but for 65 cents on the dollar--the amount one of the financiers paid to the main construction company's creditors when he took it over.

Levi bought four shares of the completed railroad in 1882, at which time he is listed as a resident of Newton, Illinois, one county west of Palestine. The family must have moved there after the 1880 census. An item in the "Local Correspondence from Palestine" column in the Robinson Argus from July 12, 1882, supports this: "Mrs. Mary Overholser and Hattie returned to their home in Newton Wednesday."

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