Like so many great American stories, this one begins on another continent when the family of the Castle’s builder, General John N. Roberts, emigrated from the Highlands of Scotland to the American Colonies in the 1600s to start a new life. General Roberts’ ancestor, Major Roberts, was an officer in the British Army.
The Roberts family lineage had a long tradition of military service. General Roberts’s grandfather, William Roberts, fought in the Revolutionary War. In his memoir General Roberts stated, “With their blood, our fathers laid the foundation of the greatest nation the world has ever known…My grandfather Roberts was a soldier in the war for independence. He was a member of a body of cavalry known as the Scotch Dragoons, and I treasure his memory with pride and gratitude.”
John Roberts’ parents, John and Emmaline (Hotchkiss), were natives of Hartford, Connecticut, but moved to Ohio before his birth. He was born in the Western Reserve, at Mecca, Trumbull County, on July 3, 1838. Growing up in Ohio he learned the trade of machinist from his father who manufactured engines and machinery.
In April of 1861, Roberts answered the first call of President Lincoln for troops in the defense of the Union, enlisting as a private in the Nineteenth Ohio infantry, for a term of ninety days. He served under the command of General George McClellan, in his successful campaign in western Virginia, participating in the battles of Rich Mountain and Beverly Ford.
When his 90 day enlistment expired, Roberts assisted in the organization of the Sixth Ohio cavalry, which was mustered into service, in October, 1861, for a term of three years. He served first as a first lieutenant of Company G and was severely wounded at the battle of Upperville, Virginia, July 21, 1863. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to captain of Company D. Roberts remained with the army until Nov. 12, 1864, when he was honorably discharged at the end of his term of enlistment. At the time he was serving in the capacity of major in the regiment. He was always very proud of his service in the Civil War and would later publish an account of his military service, Reminiscences of the Civil War, in 1927. He would also become the first post commander of Washington Post No. 12 of the Grand Army of the Republic in Lawrence, Kansas.
In October, 1867, John Roberts married Emily S. Sutliff, in Warren, Ohio. She was a daughter of a lawyer in Warren, a Mr. C. W. Tyler, and in the summer of 1869 the Roberts family came to Kansas and established their residence in Lawrence. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts had one daughter, Isabel, who was born in July of 1870.
Roberts’ first job in Lawrence was as an insurance salesman, but by 1876 General Roberts built a woodenware factory in Lawrence on the levee at the south end of the dam now known as the Bowersock Dam. His factory was equipped with a turning lathe, splitting machines and a large circular saw. He also obtained patents on a butter container and a machine to weave wooden baskets. His three story Lawrence factory, formerly the Pacific Mills building, manufactured berry baskets, butter platters, cheese boxes, and broom handles. Additionally the factory produced packing boxes which were shipped in a “knocked-down” version to be assembled at their destination. By 1879 his business was thriving. The number of berry baskets produced reached 2 million annually. In November of 1881 the enterprise was incorporated as the Kansas Basket Manufacturing Company, showing capital of $50,000. By 1883, the Kansas Basket Manufacturing Works had grown to 50 employees. Unfortunately for Lawrence, this company was moved to Kansas City, Kansas in 1884, largely due to the lack of adequate power supply in Lawrence.
As a leading businessman in Lawrence, General Roberts achieved financial success and was numbered among the capable business men of the state. His professional and social life was frequently reported in the Lawrence Daily World. He was listed as a “well known gentleman” and member of the board of directors of the Merchants’ Loan and Savings Bank in 1892 as well as a vice-president of the Lawrence Gas, Fuel and Electric Company in 1905. From 1909—1911 he was vice president of the Vitrified Brick and Tile Company at 216 Mississippi Street. Mr. Roberts was also cited in city council minutes and the social columns of the Lawrence Daily World.
In politics General Roberts was an ardent Republican. In 1885 he was appointed by the governor as an interim legislator serving in the Kansas Legislature as a State Representative, for the16th District. Additionally, he served in a special session of the Kansas Legislature in 1886. On April 1, 1889, he was appointed state Adjutant General of the Kansas National Guard for a four year term. Roberts stepped down as adjutant-general of Kansas on January 1, 1893.
Lawrence directories of the period indicate Roberts lived at the corner of Massachusetts Street and Lee Street (now 13th Street) and at 1307 Massachusetts Street. The Roberts planned and began building their “Castle” at 1307 Massachusetts Street during the “business panic” of 1893. The wood frame home which occupied the lot where the Castle now stands was moved to a lot on Vermont Street owned by Mrs. Roberts. They continued living in this home until their new home was completed in the fall of 1894. It is known Mr. Roberts was particular in procuring the best artisans available to work on his new home, leading newspapers of the day to describe the house as “modern throughout,” as well as a “model of architecture [and] one of the largest and most beautiful homes of the city.” We can only guess Mrs. Roberts may have been just as particular, because the domestic details in the home were considered so modern.
Tragedy struck the Roberts family when their only daughter became a widow, when her second husband, died as a result of the wartime influenza epidemic of 1918. In 1919 the Roberts decided to sell their home and move to California with Isabelle to start a new life. After selling the Castle to a local business man, Mr. J. J. Simmonds, Roberts moved San Diego where he would reside until his death in 1927. He is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas.
General Roberts Family
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