President Obama: From Kansas to the Capital, Part 1-4

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Part I

Many of us know about President-elect Obama's ties to Butler County, but he also has extensive ties to Wichita in part I of a new series.
Obama's ancestors first appear in Wichita in the 1908 city directory. His great-great grandfather is listed as a travel agent in a building for the SVClark Coal Company.

Harry and Gabrielle Armour settled in west Wichita. In fact, Obama's great-grandmother Ruth Armour attended Wichita schools, including the old Wichita High School.

A Wichita Eagle article stated Ruth Armour dropped out when she was a junior to get married to Obama's great-grandfather.

"At that time, she had to leave school," said Michello Enke with the Wichita Public Library. "So, she left school a week before she got married."

Ralph and Ruth Dunham were married in a home on S. St. Francis. They then opened The Travelers' Cafe on William Street in downtown Wichita. The business was sandwiched right between the old firehouse and the old Wichita City Hall.

"The area around City Hall was the hub of Wichita," said Wichita State University historian Jay Price. "This was the place to get your business done. Douglas and Main was the main shopping area."

During that time, Ruth Dunham gave birth to the grandfather who raised Obama. Speculation exists that Stanley Dunham was either born at the old Wichita hospital or at a home in the 200 Blk. of N. Charles.

A few years later, tragedy struck. Obama wrote in his book that Stanley's mother committed suicide. But an obituary in the Wichita newspaper then said his great-grandmother died of ptomaine poisoning the day after Thanksgiving in 1926. Ruth Dunham was buried in an El Dorado cemetery.

Ruth Dunham's parents stayed. Gabrielle Armour and her old daughter were long-time members of Wichita's Westside Baptist Church.
Gabrielle Armour died in 1966. Obama's great-great grandparents were buried in Wichita Park Cemetery.

The death of Obama's other great-great grandparents are a mystery. They both died in Wichita on August 13, 1936. It was a hot dusty time on the plains, and the Dunhams were elderly then.

Obama's great-grandfather, the one who owned The Travelers Cafe, lived in Wichita until his death in 1970. He's buried at Resthaven Cemetery in west Wichita.

In Part II, we learn more about President Obama’s grandfather and mother, both of whom were born in Wichita.

Part II

After months of research, KAKE News found incredible historical ties between Barack Obama and Wichita, some of which Wichita historians were surprised to learn. In part two of President Obama: From Kansas to the Capitol, we learn that the grandfather and mother who raised our president were both born in Wichita.

When Jacob and Mary Ann Dunham arrived in Wichita, they immediately got into the pharmacy business. It first began out of their home on North Market. But in 1928, they finally opened their own drug store in the heart of Wichita’s Delano District.

It was called the Gem Pharmacy, a bustling drug store in a building on the 1200 block of West Douglas. The Dunhams lived behind the store in an attached home.

Bob Bayouth’s father owned the grocery store across the street.

“It was an exciting area because Douglas, at that time was Highway 54. We had a tremendous amount of traffic on Douglas then,” Bayouth says.

The old building that once held the drug store owned by Barack Obama’s great-great grandparents is now home to a glass art studio, owned by Joanne McGregor.

“I was really shocked and excited. You know it’s a piece of history that I didn’t know about and most people probably don’t here either,” McGregor said.

She says the Delano District is currently working on the history of each building and the Obama connection will now be at the top of the list.

Stanley Dunham, Barack Obama’s grandfather, was a wanderer. But before he and his wife left Wichita in the early fifties, according to one newspaper announcement we have unearthed, Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was born on November 29, 1942.

President Obama’s mother and grandparents lived in Riverside home at 917 Faulkner. This home is now rented by the Howell family, who were very excited to learn the history of where they live.

“Me and my daughter are both big into history and we are big fans of Obama, so finding out that we’re living in his mother’s house is very exciting to us,” Michelle Howell says.

Barack Obama’s grandparents and mother lived in Wichita off and on for several years. His grandfather worked as a salesman at Hellum’s Furnuture on South Main. This was the last job he had in Kansas.

The following year, he moved his family out of state to take another job as a furniture salesman. They only ever returned to Kansas for reunions and funerals.

In his book, Barack Obama says his grandfather was “always wanting to leave what he thought were the empty dust-ridden plains of Kansas.”

Many of us know about Barack Obama’s ties to Butler County, but many don’t know how extensive they go. In Part III, we will show you the places his grandparents lived, hung out and we’ll talk with a woman who went from kindergarten through high school with President Obama’s grandmother.

Part III

Many of us know about the president’s roots in Butler County, but we didn’t know how extensive these roots are planted. KAKE News sat down with people who knew the grandparents who raised our new President and learned about their Butler County courtship and how quickly it turned into a Wichita love affair.

It was the 1920s and the oil boom was in full swing in Butler County. Barack Obama’s ancestors traveled across Kansas to take advantage of it.

Madelyn Payne, President Obama’s grandmother, grew up with her parents in a home on State Street in Augusta. Stanley Dunham, President Obama’s grandfather, grew up in a home on Washington in El Dorado.

“Both on Madelyn’s side and Stanley’s side were very involved in the petroleum industry,” said Lisa Cooley, Butler Co. Historical Center.

By most accounts, Stanley was a bit wild. He was actually suspended from El Dorado High School after punching his principal. He did graduate in 1936. According to our president, he was a charmer to the ladies in his day.

Francis Lawrence attended school with Madelyn Payne from kindergarten until their graduation from Augusta High School in 1940.

When asked about ever ditching school with Madelyn Payne, Francis Lawrence replied, “Yes, we did. We went down to the drug store and smoked.”

That drug store was on the corner of Main Street in Augusta. They’d also hang out at Pete’s Drugs and at the Augusta Theater.

Francis says Madelyn was an honor roll student until her final semester when she met Stanley Dunham, after which she says Madelyn didn’t want to do anything with anyone except Stanley.

Madelyn Payne skipped what was considered prom night at Augusta High and instead eloped with Stanley in Wichita, most likely exchanging vows at the old Sedgwick County Courthouse.

After they were married, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham lived in El Dorado before moving to Wichita where their daughter, President Obama’s mother, was born. They eventually moved out of state.
In the final piece, Part IV, KAKE News goes to Cowley County where Winfield residents were surprised to learn that President Obama’s great grandparents chose their town in which to retire.

(Special thanks to the Butler County Historical Center and to Francis Lawrence for their help in this project.)

Part IV

We have learned that Barack Obama’s mother and grandfather were both born in Wichita and that his relatives used to own a café downtown and a drugstore in Delano.

Barack Obama’s great-great grandmother was essentially a Chautauqua County farmwife. Her great-great grandson may be proud to learn that she was a volunteer as a long-time member of the Peru Ladies Aid Society.

Her husband, according to family lore, once shook hands with Abraham Lincoln, undoubtedly never dreaming that his great-great grandson would one day take the Oath of Office on President Lincoln’s bible.

Thomas and Margaret McCurry died in the mid-1930s. They are buried in a cemetery in Peru.

One of their children was Barack Obama’s great grandmother. She and her husband, Rolla Payne, are the couple who moved to Augusta for the oil boom in the mid-20s. There, they raised their daughter, Marilyn Payne, Barack Obama’s grandmother. In 1957 they retired to Winfield.

In his book, Barack Obama describes his great grandparents as straight-backed Methodists who kept a clean home. What he didn’t know is that one of those homes was in Winfield, Kansas.

Captain Darrell Long now lives in that home.

“I had no idea,” Long said.

Barack Obama’s great grandparents’ long-time neighbor, Almedia Greever, knew Rolla and Leona Payne well. She just didn’t know they’d be noteworthy one day.

“They were very friendly. We did lots of visiting over the backyard fence,” Greever said.

For over a decade, they visited and helped each other often. Almedia even spent time with Madelyn when she came from Hawaii to attend her parents’ funerals.

“She was very nice and wrote me a letter after she got back thanking me for what I had done for the Paynes,” Greever said.

Both funerals took place in the same Winfield church. Dr. Forrest Robinson was the pastor then and he remembers President Obama’s great-grandparents well.

“To my memory they were her almost every Sunday and they always sat in the same area,” Pastor Robinson said.

Pastor Robinson says the Paynes were members of the First Methodist Church until their deaths in 1968.

“They were good people and the church seemed to mean a lot to them,” Pastor Robinson said.

Rolla and Leona Payne are laid to rest in Winfield’s Highland Cemetery, which has received a bit of attention lately.

“It was very humbling to come out this morning and stand at the gravesite and think, oh my goodness the President of the United State’s great grandparents,” said Joe Chrisman of the Highland Cemetery.

Virtually all of Barack Obama’s great grandparents and great-great grandparents were south central Kansans. Some were born here, nearly all of them died here. But the grandparents who raised him could hardly wait to leave Kansas, which they soon did after their Wichita wedding.

(Special thanks to the Winfield Public Library, Butler County Historical Society and the Wichita Public Library for their help with this research. If you are interested in researching your own genealogy, click here.)


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