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John W. Ripley Papers, 1917-1990

Ms. Collection No. 753



John Wilbur Ripley was born on February 8, 1895, in Potwin Place, Shawnee County, Kansas, when the temperature was recorded at a record low of 14 degrees below zero, Farenheit. Potwin Place was later to become incorporated in the city of Topeka (1899), where it remains as subdivision. His father was John Webster Ripley, owner / operator of the Topeka Laundry (note: because both he and his father were John W. Ripley, the younger Ripley was often given the suffix of “Junior,” apparently in error). His mother was Mary McKinnon Ripley, originally from Nova Scotia, and later Massachusetts, and apparently the first school - trained nurse in Shawnee County when she arrived at her posting in Topeka directly from school, circa 1880. His parents were married in 1884. The younger John was the fourth of five children. His older sisters, Barbara and Maidie, as well as his older brother, Rob Roy, were born in Silver City, New Mexico. His younger brother and sister, Stuart and Margaret, were born in Potwin Place (Topeka).

John W. Ripley’s grandfather Ambrose Ripley came to the Topeka area from New Hampshire in 1876 and attempted farming. In 1881, he purchased the Topeka Laundry, and it remained in the family until 1969 when it was sold to the owners of Scotch Cleaners. In 1893, John Webster Ripley returned to Topeka from New Mexico, where he had lived with his family for about ten years, to assume control of the laundry when his uncle, Frank Ripley, who was running the operation, passed away. The younger John’s childhood is described in fair detail in the pamphlet I Remember It Well. Because of the status of his family in business and the community, he had ample opportunity to enjoy some of the modern features of his time (the family was among the first to purchase an automobile, for example) and yet, he worked at a variety of jobs in labor, sales and clerical duties during his teen years and into his twenties, as was common practice among his childhood friends.

John W. Ripley was enrolled in the Colorado State Preparatory School in Boulder for most of his secondary years. He had attended Potwin School prior to that. In 1914 - 15 school year, he was “convinced” by the headmaster at the prep school to disenroll and complete his senior year elsewhere or suffer repeating the last year due do “unacceptable” grades. Consequently, he returned to Topeka and graduated from Topeka High School in the class of 1915. He attended the University of Colorado until World War I interceded. At that time he entered military service in 1917 with the Washburn Ambulance Company, later to become the first sergeant for the Malaria Control Unit. He attended Army training at Camp Pike, Arkansas, and was a student at the Army’s Machine Gun Officer’s Course in Augusta, Georgia, when the Armistice was signed. After the war, he again became a college student, this time at Washburn College (now University) (Topeka, Kansas), until the untimely death of his father in 1919, at which time he was forced to disenroll once again, this time to run the family business.

Because of his studies in the area of journalism, Ripley has had an affinity for that profession and pursued this interest by serving as a contributor and editor to Business Week magazine. In 1942, he went to New York to “fill in” for vacant editor position, which was only to last a short few weeks, and did not return to Topeka for nearly a year. His account of living in the “Big Apple” during the years of World War II is worth noting. This propensity toward journalism and an obvious interest in historical research combined to make Ripley one of Kansas’ most prolific writers of historical articles, both local and national. There are over 50 articles of a historical nature, published in a variety of periodicals, which he authored and can be found on file at the Kansas State Historical Society’s Library (see John W. Ripley, Jr., in the Kansas card catalog).

John W. Ripley married Dorothy Wahle of Topeka in 1920, whom he met while she was a fellow student at Washburn College. They were married by the Reverend Charles Sheldon. In 1936, they built one of the first homes on Crestview Avenue, overlooking the Capital and downtown Topeka. They had one daughter, Mrs. Jean Ripley Hall, and one son, Jack Ripley, who died in infancy.

Ripley was noted for his civic participation in a number of associations and organizations. In 1941 - 1942 he was President of the Chamber of Commerce when the highly secretive decision to build Topeka Army Air Field (later Forbes Air Force Base, now Forbes Field) was made by the Army Air Corps; a fact which, because of the confidential nature of the decision, caused him to be the brunt of some undue criticism from Topeka interests that felt not enough was being done to lure the War Department to build a facility in Topeka. In addition to being president of the Chamber of Commerce and president of the Kansas State Historical Society (1963 /1964), Ripley was also a key member of the Saturday Night Literary Club. In 1989, he was bestowed an honorary degree, doctor of letters, from Washburn University. In 1990, he was inducted into the Topeka High School Hall of Fame. Notably, he was the magazine editor for the Shawnee County Historical Society from 1967 until he was 94 years old in 1989. He died in Topeka on December 1, 1996, at the age of 101.

Scope and Content

The collection consists of manuscripts of notes, lists, correspondence and miscellaneous material John W. Ripley used in preparing articles for a variety of periodicals and for presentations regarding the history of song slides during the first two decades of the 20th century. Additionally, the collection contains a significant amount of material on the Reverend Charles Sheldon of Topeka, author of the best - selling novel In His Steps, specifically focusing on Rev. Sheldon’s week - long editorship of the Topeka Daily Capital beginning March 13, 1900, an edition that was an experiment in journalism. The main articles on song slides that these notes were used for (and which the Kansas State Historical Society holds copies) are:

  • “All Join in the Chorus,” American Heritage, v. 10, no. 4, June 1959, pp. 50 - 59; Kansas State Historical Society (KSHS) library call number: GL 906 Am3a v.10 no.4 p.50.
  • “Romance and Joy; Tears and Heartache, and All for Just a Nickel,” Smithsonian, v. 12, no. 12, March 1982, pp. 76 - 83; KSHS library call number: GL 506 Un3s v.12 no.12 p.76.

Included in the history of song slides portion of the collection are lists of Mr. Ripley’s extensive lantern slide collection, which was probably the largest of its kind prior to his divestiture of them late in the 1980s, as well as several related to personalities depicted in the slides who later came to fame in the silent and talking motion picture industries. In this portion of the collection are found two threads that were included in the donation and which obvioulsy evolved from correspondence related to letters Ripley received after his article in Smithsonian, but which warrant separate subseries status because of the nature of their content: (1) the folder on Ripley’s connection with Business Week and (2) the folder dealing with the Whitcomb family of Topeka.

The plethora of material in the second series on the Reverend Dr. Charles Sheldon was accumulated in preparation of Mr. Ripley’s speech to the KSHS, delivered in October of 1964 and entitled “Another Look at Reverend Sheldon’s Edition of the Topeka Daily Capital.” This presentation was published as an article in the Kansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 1965, v. 31, no. 1, pp. 1 - 40, available in the reference room of the KSHS Library.

The single folder on public transportation in the Topeka and Shawnee County area is a collation of comprehensive notes he used in preparing several articles on the subject for the 1969 Shawnee County Historical Society Bulletin.

Third, there is a copy of an unpublished pamphlet submitted by Mr. Ripley to the KSHS in 1990 entitled “I Remember it Well,” which is a series of anecdotes about growing up and working in Topeka and Boulder, Colorado, areas during the early decades of the century and continuing through World War II. This pamphlet also provides descriptions of working conditions in Wyoming, Arkansas during World War I, and New York in the 1940s when Mr. Ripley worked on the editorial staff of Business Week magazine.

Finally, augmenting most of the previous subjects, the last donation was generally distributed in associated segments of the arrangement, based on subject and date. Of particular note, the photo album of the Washburn Ambulance Company, along with related written material in the pamphlet “I Remember It Well,” perhaps provides one of the more comprehensive sources on that military unit during World War I; the photo album was transfered to the photographic archives.

Contents List

Box 1  
Series 1 The History of Song Slides/Lantern Slides
Subseries 1 Scott & Van Altena Production Co.
  2 Letters from Edward Van Altena
  3 Letters from John (Jack) Scott
  4 Notes on American Heritage article of 1959
  5 Assorted Lists of Slide Collections
  6 Models and Film Personalities in Song Slides
  7 Notes on Smithsonian article of 1982
  8 Letters from Nancy Bergh
  9 Letters from readers of the Smithsonian article
  10 Purchases, trades, and other transactions related to song slide collection
  11 Letters from Max Morath
  12 Various scripts and other information on shows and productions (television, stage, etc)
  13 “In His Steps” material
  14 Whitcomb Family of Topeka
  15 Business Week connections
  16 Miscellaneous correspondence
  17 Miscellaneous song slide papers, sheet music, etc.
  18 Look In Your Own Backyard -- how the songslide collection began
  19 “Miss Jerry”, Photography in Fiction
Box 2  
Series 2 More on the Reverend Sheldon’s Christian edition of the Topeka Daily Capital newspaper, March 1900
Subseries 1 Advertising
  2 Babize, Auguste C.
  3 Bibliography, Biography
  4 Circulation
  5 Controversy
  6 Correspondence
  7 Critics
  8 Agnostic, Spiritualistic, Atchison Champion, Howe’s Lay Sermons
  9 Houston, Herbert S.
  10 London (England) Edition of the Sheldon paper
  11 Christian Endeavor Convention, July 1899
  12 Political
  13 Popenoe, Frederick O.
  14 Pre-Publications
  15 Profit and Photos
  16 Promotional Advertisements
  17 Trade Press, Promotion
  18 Temperance and Religious Journals
  19 Sheldon, Biographies and News Articles
  20 Aftermath, chronology, News Contents, Errata, Strategy, Observations
  21 Nino Lo Bello article on Sheldon
  22 70th Anniversary Commemorative Edition of In His Step
Series 3 History of Public Transportation in Topeka and Shawnee County
Series 4 I Remember It Well Manuscript
Series 5 The Washburn Ambulance Company
Box 3 In His Steps scrapbook material

Box of
/Song Slides

  • All Alone
  • Any Old Time
  • Bird in a Gilded Cage
  • The Broken Heart
  • Brown Eyes
  • By the Light of the Silvery Moon
  • Broadway and City Singles
  • Canoeing
  • Dancing (Models)
  • Down By the Old Mill Stream
  • Everybody's Doing It Now
  • Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?
  • Here Comes the Whip-poor-will
  • He's a College Boy
  • I Ain't Afraid of the Policeman
  • I Got You Steve
  • I Love the Girl My Father Loved
  • I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now
  • I'm Awfully Strong for You
  • In His Steps
  • In the Baggage Coach Ahead
  • In the Heart of the City
  • Jessee Lee
  • Jingle Bells
  • Keep Your Foot on the Soft Pedal
  • Little Lost Child
  • The Man With the Ladder
  • Message of a Dying Engineer
  • My Dixieland
  • My Lovin' Picture Man
  • My Sunday Girl
  • Men Models
  • Nickelodeon
  • Oh, What I Know About You
  • Only a Message
  • Pots and Pans
  • Smarty
  • Somebody Wants You
  • Sing-along Slides
  • Take Me Out to the Ballgame
  • Take Me Out for a Joyride
  • Take Your Girlie to a Movie
  • Ten Nights Bar Room
  • Then We All Go Home
  • Topeka in Postcards, 1905-1912
  • Two Little Baby Shoes
  • The Volunteer Organist
  • Wait Til the Sun Shines Nellie
  • When Your Hair Was in a Curl
  • Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight
  • Whisper Your Mother's Name
  • Why Doesn't Santa Go Next Door
  • You're a Bad, Bad Boy

Additional Information for Researchers


0.6 ft. (3 boxes) + oversize: two 5 inch boxes, one 2.5 inch box, and oversized misc.


This collection represents five separate donations, The first (in chronology of donation) being Ripley’s notes for a presentation he gave in October 1964 at the Kansas State Historical Society (KSHS) annual meeting, when he was president of the Society, on the Sheldon Edition of the Topeka Daily Capital newspaper. Although there is no specific date associated with this donation, it appears he turned these notes over to KSHS shortly after the presentation. The second donation, made in 1969, is one folder of notes from Ripley’s research on the history of public transportation in Topeka and Shawnee County. The third donation, made in 1989, is the largest and consists of extensive notes he used in authoring the history of song slides in a variety of periodicals from 1959 (American Heritage) to 1982 (Smithsonian). Fourth, in 1990, John W. Ripley provided a copy of an unpublished work of his entitled “I Remember It Well,” which includes a series of anecdotes about growing up in Topeka and Colorado in the early decades of the twentieth century, and carries the reader up to his years during World War II, in both Topeka and New York, N.Y. The final donation came to the Society in July 1996, brought to the above named processor while this collection was being arranged. This last group of manuscripts consists of material on Ripley’s work related to the Reverend Charles Sheldon and In His Steps, an extensive photo album of members of the Washburn Ambulance Company during training (1917 - 18) at Camp Pike, Arkansas, and several biographical sketches of John Wilbur Ripley and members of his family.


Citations referring to this collection should include the John W. Ripley Papers, 1917 - 1990, series and subseries, Kansas State Historical Society, Library and Archives Division.

Processed by

Bob Richardson, intern.

Date of processing: 1996