Butler County’s oil boom in the early 1900s and an Augusta man’s gift of gratitude made it possible for Wichita’s Wesley Hospital to build a new facility in 1918.
Ira Tilton Foster, born on Feb. 12, 1847 in Stark Corners, Ohio, came to Kansas in 1880. He first settled near Larned, where he met his future wife, Caroline Carpenter. The couple and their son, Ira Martin Foster, moved to the Augusta area in 1912, where Foster would work hard at farming and ranching. He owned land in Logan Township, just southeast of Augusta.
In the spring of 1916, the 69-year-old Foster became very ill and needed medical treatment. His doctor recommended that he be admitted to Wesley Hospital, a Methodist hospital in Wichita that was founded only four years before. The hospital was in an old Victorian house at 1102 N. St. Francis, a residential area of town.
A huge reserve of oil had been discovered in Butler County in 1915 and everyone was confident that much more would be found. Oil rigs and oil towns were springing up in all of the Butler County townships. Foster had been hoping to find oil on his land, as well.
Foster’s prayers for recovery were answered. His health improved and his treatment at Wesley made it possible for him to return home. He was so appreciative that he said upon leaving the hospital, “If I should strike oil, I will make Wesley a gift for a new building.”
He was able to make good on on the promise soon afterward. Oil was indeed found on his land and Foster was a rich man. He met with the trustees of Wesley Hospital and pledged $50,000 to build a new and modern hospital. The Foster donation, equivalent of just over $1 million by current standards, was the largest donation that the hospital had seen. Reports are that it was the turning point for the struggling hospital and the future looked bright.
Ira and Caroline Foster moved to Wichita soon after discovering oil and becoming wealthy. In a January, 1917 edition of The Hutchinson News, Foster was called “Big Oil Man and Tycoon.”
On Jan. 9, 1917 a tract of five acres known as the Wilson addition, was purchased from George S. Wilson, for $16,000, as the site of the proposed new Wesley Hospital, at Hillside and Elm Streets.
Fundraising began in earnest as the Fosters’ generous gift of $50,000 was contingent upon raising $75,000 more.
Construction began in March of 1918, before all the money had been raised. Ira Foster was one of the guest speakers at the cornerstone ceremony on June 9, 1918.
Problems arose in reaching the financial goal. World War 1 created a sharp spike in the cost of materials and community funds had been diverted the Wichita’s temporary Red Cross Influenza Hospital, which treated thousands of patients.
Page 2 of 2 - The construction of Wesley Hospital was halted more than once, but hardworking supporters persevered and raised more than $60,000.
The 125-bed modern facility was finally open and dedicated on Sept. 16, 1920. The building was praised by government officials, physicians, citizens, and media.
Ira Foster died on March 23, 1938 in the hospital which he helped make possible and was interred in the Old Mission Mausoleum in Wichita. Caroline died in 1940 and was buried beside him.
Wesley Medical Center has been providing high-quality medical services for over 100 years. It is an acute-care center licensed for 760 beds and 102 bassinets. The medical staff of 700 physicians and 3,000 employees provide a full range of diagnostic and treatment services for patients. Every year, more than 25,000 adults and children are inpatients and more than 6,000 babies are born at Wesley.
Ira T. Foster was Augusta’s thread of history and connection to a century-old Wichita success story.
Sources: Wesley Medical Center: 1912-2012, 100 Years of Expert Care, by Sherry L. Buettgenbach
Ancestry.com: 1910 U.S. Federal Census, 1920 U.S. Federal Census
Kansas Geneaolgy Trails Butler County, Kansas