The Grand Opera House, located at 819 Main Street in Winfield at the time of its completion in 1878 was the largest edifice at that time. E.C. Manning spent two years in building this edifice from locally produced bricks. The Courier reported "This hall is probably the largest and finest in the state. The whole room is 50 by 100 feet, with ceilings 20 feet high. The stage is 20 by 50 feet and has two dressing rooms beneath. The auditorium is 80 by 100 feet and will seat more than 800 auditors. It is finished in the best of style and is convenient of ingress and particularly of egress, for the wide doors open outward making it impossible to block up the outlet in case of a panic."
In conjunction with a hotly contested election in 1878 and the pending completion of Manning's building, the question was raised whether E.C. Manning stole the town site of Winfield from money he received for lots belonging to other in order to erect his magnificent building
D.A. Millington (Mayor of Winfield in 1875 and 1876.) rebutted the question by saying "The settlement of this county commenced in 1869, before the treaty for the removal of the Indians was made: before there was any survey of the lands or any steps taken to open these lands for settlement, by settlers coming in and making claims of 160 acres each and improving them, which claims were afterward secured to those settlers by law. Among these claimants were E.C. Manning and his employee, A.A. Jackson who made claims on what is now the north half of section 28. A. Menor and H.C. Loomis laid claim on the south half of the same section. C.M. Wood and W.W. Andrews claimed the half section next north of this section. Each of these claimants proceeded to occupy and improve this claim, and had as good a right to his claim as any man had on the reserve. Each had the undisputed right to prove up and enter his claim when the land should be ready to be offered.
"In 1870 these several parties and others formed the project of making a town site. The Winfield Town Company was formed and Manning was to give the town company a certain 40 acres of his claim when he had entered it, for which the company was to pay one-half of the expense of building the old log store for Mr. Manning. (This is the north-west corner of Ninth and Main now occupied by the State Bank building. It was a two story building with the upper floor to be used for public purposes and the lower floor by Manning.) Jackson, Wood, Andrews, Loomis and Menor were all to sell portions of their claims to the town company at about seven dollars per acre, so that in the aggregate the town site should be 160 acres.
"In August of 1870, J.C. Fuller and I came here. Jackson (no longer working for Manning) was then "off the track," denying having agreed to sell any part of his claim and stating that he never would sell any of it to the Winfield Town Company.
Mr. Manning said in his autobiography "In October of 1869 I took Mr. A.A. Jackson and a load of such goods as were in demand by the Indians and proceeded to "my claim" and erected a log cabin 14x16 feet in size and installed myself as a "frontier trader". I knew enough of human nature and frontier adventure to be conscious of the fact that I must move cautiously into a town site enterprise, at least until title to the land was obtained. At my instance A. A. Jackson, who was in my employ, located on the claim adjoining mine of the east. He had in the most suppliant manner begged me at Augusta to give him employment, saying in the most positive terms that he would be loyal and faithful to me and assuring me that his ambition was to accumulate one thousand dollars with which to obtain a start in life. Subsequent events proved that I made no mistake in not trusting my secrets even to him, although we occupied the same bed on the floor of the loft of the cabin for months."
" We bought Jackson's claim (August 20, 1870) for J.C. Fuller paying Jackson $1,000 in cash for it. It was found that neither of the other parties would sell any part of their claims to the town company, but Manning turned over his 40 acres as it had been agreed, and this was all the land that the town company could get out of the original arrangement. No one then doubted the right of E. C. Manning to the remaining 120 acres of his claim, or of J. C. Fuller to his 160 acre claim bought of Jackson.
"In the meantime, through the efforts of Manning exclusively, the county seat had been located at Winfield, at which time Manning was the only occupant, and deeming it necessary to move ahead in building up the town in order to retain the county seat and other advantages, as there was not land enough belonging to the town company, The Winfield Town Association was formed by Manning, Fuller and others, including myself, to handle another 40 acres of Manning's claim with the west 80 acres of Fuller's claim, which with the Town Company's 40 acres, made a town site of 160 acres in square form.
"This was surveyed and platted, (by D.A. Millington) and the two companies proceeded to give away lots to persons who would improve and occupy them, to other persons who would work for the benefit of the town in any way, and for other purposes to benefit the town. More than one-third, and nearly one-half of the lots in value, have been given to occupants, to stage companies to induce stage service to Winfield, for services in and outside of Winfield, for churches, schools, court house and jail and for other public purposes.
"The two companies with Manning, Fuller and myself, have paid out in the aggregate more than five thousand dollars in cash for the general benefit of the town site in various ways, aside from buildings for personal use. These expenses are too various for enumeration, and perhaps some of these expenditures were not judicious. One hundred dollars to procure early railroad surveys to this place, for instance, also ninety dollars for printing and circulating posters and papers to advertise the town, two hundred dollars to enter the town site, expenses in traveling to railroad directors meetings, making a ferry across the Walnut, running roads, surveying the town site, employing legal counsel, etc. Each of us have expended a great deal of time in various ways intended to benefit the town.
"The parties who were induced to occupy and improve lots on the town site before the survey and before the entry, did so under an express agreement, generally in writing, as to what their individual interests in the town site should be and what should be the interests of the town companies. The government survey took place in January, 1871, and on the 10th day of July, 1871, the land became subject to entry at the land office at Augusta.
"In nearly all the other town sites of the state made before entry, the original claimants entered the land and then deeded to the occupants, town companies and others, according to previous agreement, and that was originally the intention with regard to this town site. The commissioner of the general land office had made a ruling in the case of this reserve, that the claimant must, before entering, subscribe an oath, that he had not sold or agreed to sell or otherwise dispose of, any part of the claim he proposed to enter, and though this ruling was clearly outside of law and the oath if taken would not be an oath at all in fact, as afterwards decided by the courts, yet Manning and Fuller did not like to conform to it as others were doing.
"They, therefore, procured the probate judge of the county (Thomas B. Ross) to enter the town site under the town site laws, and then each entered the other 80 acres of his claim in his own name. About this time became manifest a disposition of some of the occupants to claim more of the town site than the lots they had improved and quite an excitement sprang up. In order to avoid litigation and maintain equitable settlement, Manning called a public meeting in which he offered for the two companies to submit all the matters of difference to arbitration, the companies naming one arbitrator, the dissatisfied occupants the second, and the two thus appointed to select the third, who should hear the evidence of all parties and determine their interests and rights in the town site and their decision should be final, which proposition was voted down and rejected by the dissatisfied occupants.
"The probate judge, under the law, appointed three commissioners to set off the lots to the several occupants according to their respective interests, and they made their award in accordance with the previous agreement between the occupants and companies as to what those interests should be as above stated and the probate judge executed the deeds accordingly. The larger number of the occupants expressed themselves satisfied, and to quiet the titles made quit claim deeds to the companies of their interests in the unimproved lots.
"A few would not be satisfied but commenced an action to set aside the deeds made by the probate judge. This action was in the courts some time and was finally beaten in the Supreme Court on demurrer. Another action was commenced having the same final object in view, which was finally beaten in the Supreme Court.
"The companies in order to try to get the people to work in harmony for the general benefit of the city, made a great many concessions to pacify these litigants. During the pendency of the first action a settlement was made with A.A. Jackson, a leading disturber, and plaintiff in that action, by which, in addition to the $1,000 and two valuable lots that had already been given him, the companies gave him two other valuable lots for any remaining of supposed interest he had in the balance of the town site and the nominal sum of $25, and he withdrew from the suit. Others were compromised with in various ways, and made quit claims, quiet was restored and all seemed united to promote the general prosperity. These litigations had been very expensive and damaging to the prosperity of the town and had stirred up much bad blood, making Manning many bitter opposers, but in the few years since, the bitterness has mostly died away.
"A. A. Jackson concluded to grab another valuable lot and Hill and Christie brought suit for possession. Jackson defended on the ground that the deed of the probate judge to the Winfield Town Company, on which Hill and Christie's title was founded, was illegal and void. Jackson employed A. J. Pyburn and two other attorneys to defend, but was beaten in the trial. Two attorneys whom Jackson employed were newcomers and had not gained a practice in the courts. They attempted to start a practice and make a reputation by stirring up a grand litigation on this old town site matter, assured parties that they could bust up the whole thing, get the deeds of the probate judge set aside and a new deal of the town lots. They offered to take the job for one-third of the spoils and urged upon the city council to commence litigation at the public expense. They finally got A. A. Jackson to go in as plaintiff and a suit was commenced against the Winfield Town Company, Manning and Fuller, with a great flourish of trumpets about their ponderous papers and pleading's, but no notice was taken of their summons until court time and they demanded judgment for default, when they learned that they did not know how to get a case into court. They seemed to conclude that the reason they got beat each time was the fault of the law, and set themselves to manipulate politics so as to get a law passed that would help them beat in these cases and in another case in which they have succeeded in getting an elderly woman, who had a lot given her, and a slab shanty on it at the time of the entry, to start another suit for a rip up of titles and a new deal.
"Pyburn, one of Jackson's attorneys, is a member of the State Senate and it is thought he can be depended upon to get the new law through the Senate, and, if they can get Troup (who ran on the Greenback ticket) elected to the House, they feel confident they can pass a law that will beat Hill and Christy, Winfield Town Company, et al., in their pending suits and everybody else that holds title under either of the town companies. (E.C. Manning was a last minute candidate for the house of Representatives position on the Republican ticket, and was elected.)
"This is the real attempt to steal the town site, but not by Manning. We have no apprehension that any law they can get passed, or any litigation under it, or, under the present law, will ever void the titles to the town site, but we do apprehend that it might promote and cause a vast amount of expensive litigation which would be a great detriment to the city by throwing doubt upon titles; make much room for the vicious lawyers to practice barratry and trumpery, and stir up more bad blood without the least benefit to any one except the lawyers employed in the matter.
"By the way, the lots which Manning has been selling to help build his brick block are in the part of his original claim which he entered himself, and not in that part which was entered by the probate judge, if that makes any difference. Manning probably never got much, if anything, more for lots in the town site than he has expended for the general benefit of the town.
"This way of commencing a suit in the courts and then getting a law passed by the legislature to rule and decide the case is a new invention in litigation which no Yankee lawyer would have ever thought of. Such are the facts about stealing the town site."