Tom Wasinger’s copy of a July 21 article in The Hays Free Press of 1917 tells a part of the rare story of his family’s century-old business.
At an Ellis County Commission meeting on June 8, the Board of County Commissioners granted a bond to his grandfather, Frank S. Wasinger, to start Ellis County Abstract and Loan Co.
More than 100 years later, Wasinger said as the third-generation owner that “it’s a fairly remarkable milestone” that the business, now Ellis County Abstract & Title L.L.C., survived so long.
“To my knowledge, we’re the only family-owned business around for 100 years in Hays,” said Wasinger on Wednesday afternoon from his office at 110 E. 12th.
For any old-timer, other signature businesses that used to inhabit Main Street come easily to mind, the Wiesner’s Department Store or Schwaller Lumber Co. or Philip’s Hardware Store. But those companies are long gone. Even a competitor, Field Abstract & Title L.L.C., 1201 Fort, dates to 1911, but is not still owned by the founding family.
“Historically it’s kind of a significant event,” said Wasinger, noting he’ll make remarks at a private celebration for his customers — mostly realtors, lenders and attorneys — on Friday evening at the Smoky Hill Country Club.
From what he’s been able to discern, Wasinger’s grandfather started out in the upper floor of what’s called the Basgall Building at 11th and Main, now home to The Paisley Pear. The patriarch went on to build a two-story red brick office building on east 12th Street in the early 1940s, designated a bomb shelter in the 1950s thanks to its four-inch concrete walls, and that’s where the company has been housed since.
Just as the business moved to a new location, ownership passed down from grandfather to son, and the nature of the business evolved.
“It was a company that did abstracts, but they also made loans to home buyers,” Wasinger said. “That dropped off in the mid- to late-1940s, when savings and loans began popping up after the war.”
Frank S. Wasinger, a farmer and rancher, and at one time even Register of Deeds, had 11 children that he eventually raised in a house on the hill on Marshall Road.
One of the 11, Francis A. Wasinger, returned from World War II in 1946, where he’d served in Okinawa, and began working with his father, eventually buying the business. The younger Wasinger, known as “Whitey” by all, was, along with his friends Bob Glassman and Mike Billinger, a stalwart of the local Democratic Party. With numerous stints as City Commissioner and Mayor, Whitey Wasinger saw the family business evolve to selling insurance for additional revenue.
At its founding the business was largely abstracts, essentially checking real estate deeds at the courthouse and shortening the lengthy legal document to a brief “abstract” describing the buyer, seller and legal description. Later, title insurance to protect the title if it’s ever challenged became a part of the equation when the federal government began requiring it of lenders making loans with federal money.
“Back in the day it was all relationship based, and it still is,” Wasinger said. “My dad knew everybody, and he developed it from that. He said ‘give the customer good service,’ which is what I’ve always tried to do.”
One of three kids, Tom Wasinger graduated from St. Joseph’s Military Academy in 1969, and then with a law degree from Notre Dame, going to work in Washington D.C. to pursue his dream of politics. Ironically, the first to offer him jobs were Republicans, and Wasinger’s political persuasion naturally evolved, he said.
After working on a number of political campaigns, he and his wife, Barbara, decided in 1985 to leave Washington, but their plan to move to Kansas City or Chicago was sidetracked when Wasinger’s father invited him to take over Ellis County Abstract & Title, which was never part of his plan.
“I was the youngest of three and actually I didn’t think I ever wanted to do it,” he said. “Barb said she’d try it for a year,” Wasinger remembers, but he had to promise they had the option to leave “and that would have been the end of it.”
“It turned out it was a good place to raise a family. It was a whole different life from Washington,” he said. “I loved it, and my wife ended up loving it.” Barb Wasinger noted that frequently during her successful 2018 run for representative for the 110th District of the House of Representatives.
The 1980s nearly discouraged Wasinger, however. The Hays economy was rattled by national developments, from oil dropping to $8 a barrel, to local land foreclosures and takeover by the Federal Trade Commission due to the savings and loan crisis, and farm auctions.
With three kids to support, the family in 1986 bought their home at 1602 Elm St., ironically built in the 1930s by Ellis County Abstract’s competitor, Joseph M. Schaefer, the founder of Field Abstract & Title. Tom Wasinger says he told his dad around that same time that he’d have to throw in the towel if things didn’t look up.
“There were two to three years where it was basically just enough to pay our bills and feed our family,” he said. “But it turned around, it was God’s providence, I guess. Then business took off, in the early 1990s that’s when things turned around.”
Whitey Wasinger and his wife, Dorothy, worked at the business up until their deaths in 1989 and 1991. Tom Wasinger plans to do the same, expecting many more years of service to his customers.
And what happens to the business when he’s ready to retire?
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, this might be the end, unless my kid decides like I did and says ‘What the hell.’” Wasinger said. “It’s possible, I guess. I haven’t given up total hope, I was a surprise, so who knows.”