Newton of the early 1880s was booming as newcomers arrived almost daily with the train. This influx of businessmen, laborers and their families led to a housing shortage. This mostly affected those who could not afford to buy or build a home right away. Blue collar workers and laborers often resorted to boarding in hotels or renting small houses or rooms. Wealthy businessman and investor James M. Ragsdale saw this as an opportunity and invested in the construction of the homes here to serve as rental housing for railroad workers. Today, many of the homes have been modified or are no longer standing. But the homes on West 2nd are among the few, if not the only, reminders of the Ragsdale brothers and their investments to Newton's early growth that remain today. According to "Rediscovering Newton, an Interpretive Architectural History, Graduate Thesis" by C. Davis, The Ragsdale brothers, James M. and Thaddeus P., were known for many contributions in early Newton. They began as butchers, then worked as grocers. As their wealth grew, they began put their money back into the growth and development of Newton. Early newspapers note on multiple occasions they were building new commercial buildings in the downtown area. James was a charter member of the Methodist Episcopal Church and served as the first board president when it was organized in 1872. The brothers purchased land from 12th Street to 18th Street along Main Street and established the Ragsdale addition to Newton. James built his home on the corner of 7th and Poplar, and it is reported that his brother intended to build his home on the lot beside it. However, their most significant contribution was the Ragsdale Opera House, once located at 701 N Main. It was among the largest and most elaborate structures on Main Street. The first floor housed several businesses including the United States Post Office and the Newton Kansan offices. The second and third floors consisted of the theater and seating. Atop of the structure stood a clock tower. The Newton Kansan reported on November 19, 1885, that the "new $500 Seth Thomas clock will soon help adorn the cupola of the new opera house, facing north, south, and east." The Newton Daily Republican described the interior on September 18, 1886, following completion of additional decoration of the interior, "The most prominent figure is that of Shakespeare, which occupies a position immediately above the proscenium opening. The figures of the great masters Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe and Mozart are artistically grouped on the ceiling. Beautiful panel pieces, representing the Goddess of Music and the Goddess of Terpsichore, adorn the sides of the proscenium opening. The work is done in the highest style of art. Nothing was overlooked and money was used without stint to make this bijou theater what it is - the finest in all Kansas." In all, the Ragsdale Opera House cost $80,000 to build and it was the pride of the Ragsdale brothers. At least until the late 1880s and early 1890s when the Newton Panic hit the region. The Ragsdale brothers were hit especially hard considering the amount of money they had invested. They sold their city addition and eventually sold the opera house. James left Newton in 1892, ending up in Columbus, Montana, where he would remain until his death on March 12, 1930. He was buried in Newton at Greenwood Cemetery beside his first wife, Sarah, who had died in 1889. As for Thaddeus, he may have taken the loss harder than his brother and was rumored to have gone insane. His obituary indicated he was suffering from a form of brain disease at the time of his death on December 24, 1892. He was living with his wife's parents, whose father was a doctor, in Burlingame, Kansas.
The Ragsdale brothers played a huge role in Newton's early growth and fostered its developed through their personal investments. They lost nearly everything, and some could argue that Thaddeus truly did, when real estate and banking crashed. Not much remains to evidence their contributions, but the homes on West 2nd Street, regardless of their altered states, can still offer a reminder of James and Thaddeus Ragsdale.