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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Early Kansas City Was Influenced By Four McGee Brothers

Rambunctious. Self-driven. Passionate. Enterprising. Pro-slavery. These are just a selection of words that could be easily used to describe the temperaments of the McGee boys, sons of James H. McGee and his wife, Eleanor, that were present when the City of Kansas was yet established and were instrumental in various ways in the growth of a city.

In June, I wrote about the oldest son, Allen Burr Harrison (A.B.H.) McGee and his remarkable legacy (to read the story, click here!). While researching Allen, I was blown away by the amount of documents that mentioned more than just this man. He was the oldest of six boys and each of them led lives that undoubtedly tell the early history of this city – and of the nation.
Illustration published in the Kansas City Star in 1935 depicting
the Town Company meeting in One Eyed Ellis's cabin

It became clear then that I needed to devote more time to the McGees of Kansas City. Through thousands of pages of documents, there was a complicated yet fascinating historical drama unfolding in front of my very eyes.

Let’s examine the lives of these early Kansas Citians.

Fry P. McGee (1816-1861) – The Man With a 110-Mile Mission

Out of all of the McGee boys, no man’s character is more debated than that of Fry McGee. Labeled as vicious by some and kind by others, Fry functioned under two separate umbrellas, most likely due to his extreme political views and his willingness to sacrifice everything for them.

Bearing his mother’s surname as a first name, Fry McGee was born in Nelson Co., Ky. on May 27, 1816 and moved to Missouri with his family in 1827. In July 1838, at the age of 21, Fry was present at the first sale of what would be the future site of Kansas City (to read more about this early event, click here!).  When that sale fell through and new sale was “cried” on November 14th, 1838, Fry joined thirteen other historic figures of KC history to form the Town Company in order to purchase this valuable riverfront land and bank on its ability to hold a booming city.

George C. Bingham portrait of Fry P. McGee
At the cabin of One-Eyed Ellis, twenty to thirty men gathered under the cover of hand-hewn logs to witness an extraordinary event that was just another cold day to these early Jackson Co. pioneers. As John C. McCoy reported, “We retired for warmth to the log house of One-Eyed Ellis and gathered before a fireplace of blazing hickory logs and christened the yet unborn baby of a city that was to be there.”

I sure wish we could find more about this illusive One-Eyed Ellis, because he surely has a story worth writing.

After the purchase of the land was complete, Fry McGee passed a motion that lots yet to be platted would be sold on credit for six or twelve months- without requiring security of the purchasers. Setting the terms so loosely would likely help the lots sell quicker – especially considering there was a large bluff blocking the new town from the site of Westport Landing.

Lots were taken up quickly as the levee below along the Missouri River’s banks was established to encourage commerce and trade in the foundling settlement. And Fry P. McGee was a pivotal proponent of this early birth of a city.

Less than a year later, Fry married Martha E. Boothe and purchased 160 acres of land that included the area around 19th and Main. He burned brick on his own land, a trade learned from his father who had established the first brick house in the area, and erected a home in 1841.

James H. McGee's home, the first brick house in all
of Kansas City
In 1848, he established his homestead at what would become 513 E. 4th St. In 1844, a flood had wiped out buildings on the south bank of the Missouri River. This red brick house was one of the first to be built on land safely above any future flooding. The home was of sturdy construction; the interior and exterior walls were of brick, and originally, the home had a carefully carved staircase made of walnut.

More on this home in a second.

For several years, farming seemed to be the focus of Fry McGee. The draw of the western-bound wagon trains captivated him, so he packed up and headed out for greener pastures. Although his time in Oregon was short-lived and he did return to Jackson Co., Fry’s willingness to settle into the wilderness was something that was repeated.

Fry P. McGee's homestead at 513 E. 4th St. in
the Kansas City Star 
On a return trip from the west, Fry and his brother, Mobillion could see the opportunity that existed not too far from Jackson Co., Mo. In August 1854, just months after Kansas was opened up to white settlement, Fry and his brother purchased property at a crossing on the Santa Fe Trail. Known as 110-Mile Creek, their new land was named for its distance of 110 miles from Fort Osage, Mo.

Fry built a horse and mule barn with walls two feet thick. He then built a tavern, aptly known as McGee’s Tavern, on the site near current-day US 75 and US 76 highways in Osage Co., Ks. A four room home featured two large fireplaces on each side. The east room was supposedly used to house travelers looking for quick drink and a warm place to stay. Another room was used for Fry’s three daughters, America, Sophia and Anne. The room on the west side was reserved for Fry and his wife.

To be clear, Fry owned five slaves in 1850. When he came into Kansas Territory in 1854, he had three slaves helping with the daily activities.

When they chose this location, there were very few white settlers- just a few white men who had married Shawnee women. They were literally on the edge of the frontier and fashioned to, if Fry could have his way, form a new town called Washington on this land.

Building a bridge over 110-Mile Creek made sense for the enterprising McGees. Instead of risking losing a wagon wheel or flooding after the rains, travelers on the Santa Fe Trail could pay for access to “McGee’s Crossing.” According to records, Fry charged 25 cents at McGee’s Crossing toll bridge and would clear during high months around $30 per day.
Illustration of Fry McGee's homestead in Osage County, Ks. on 110 Mile Creek, commonly referred to as McGee's Tavern

Of course, Fry knew his tavern and toll bridge would also be benefitted from a general merchandise store to help these travelers with any goods they may need. He also was known to sell whiskey to thirsty Native Americans that remained nearby.

Due to Fry’s pro-slavery ways, no abolitionist dare settle near 110-Mile Creek and suffer the wrath. C.R. Green, historian in Osage Osage Co., wrote of Fry after his death but when his wife was still alive. “A rough exterior, a slave owner, and quite partisan in politics, the early settlers found him to be kind-hearted, honest, and never known to shed blood.”
Remnants of a barn at 110 Mile Creek, built
cir. 1860. Courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

Others weren’t so kind to Fry. James W. Winchell wrote “Experiences in Kansas Territory, 1854-1855” and described the McGees as “Intemperate, quarrelsome, and abusive. Fry McGee was the most drunken, profane and honest of the lot, having come to Kansas to live and liberally cursing and feeding all Yankees who were unfortunate enough to enter his presence.”

Apparently after he cursed you out for your beliefs, Fry would simmer down a bit. Winchell wrote, “He would give you the best his house afforded, for a moderate price, and ask you to drink with him in the bargain. . . he was scrupulously honest in all of his dealings.”

Many went out of their way to avoid the boisterous Fry McGee; however, some men were forced to knock on his door and risk it all.

Fry P. McGee and his wife, Martha taken cir. 1860
One infamous account comes from Capt. James R. McClure. He was appointed by Gov. Reeder to take the census of all those residing in Kansas Territory in 1855.

Unfortunately for him, this included Fry P. McGee.

History tells us that the elections in 1854 were full of fraudulent activity with pro-slavery neighbors storming the territory to vote illegally. Another election set for March 1855 needed to establish what eligible voters there were in each precinct.

McClure stopped at McGee’s Tavern knowing he was the leader of the pro-slavery movement in this area of the territory. McClure wrote, “I determined to make myself as agreeable as possible and to avoid any trouble with these men and especially with McGee, who had presented to me as a very desperate and quarrelsome man.”

Nonchalantly as possible, most likely with a tremble in his step, Capt. McClure entered McGee’s Tavern to witness a group of ten to twelve grumbling men. To keep the peace, McClure quickly ordered a round of drinks to whet the appetites of these speculators.

“What’s your name and business?” Fry pushed on the stranger as he leaned against the bar.

Quickly rattling off that he was a Democrat, McClure was definitely still not safe.
Gov. Andrew Reeder

“What’s your business?” Fry pressed on.

“I’m taking the census on behalf of Gov. Reeder,” McClure uttered as he took a drink.

Immediately, Fry accused this wayward traveler of being an abolitionist and a spy. Perhaps to save the government-appointed census taker some time – but more likely to get him the hell out of Osage Co. – Fry offered to give him a list of voters in the area so he “would not have to bother visiting all the people.” McClure bravely asserted he would have time to visit with everyone.

Amidst smoke and whiskey, Fry screamed, “No damn Yankee will snoop around this place!”

So, that was the end of the census at 110-Mile Creek.

Forced to stay the night due to the time, McClure spent the remainder of his visit “in dread of our lives.” Even though the weather was cold and snow was falling, McClure made the decision he’d rather “face the bad weather than to spend the night at McGees.”

That election March 30, 1855 was not much better than the election of 1854- even though the census had been taken. The day of the election, there was one family (the McGees) living at 110 Mile Creek and about ten living around Switzer’s Creek. There was really no one else living in the entire county.

Voter fraud in Kansas Territory
The list of “voters” who stormed to 110-Mile Creek and camped the night before at McGee’s Tavern includes multiple men with Jackson Co. ties. They drank whiskey the night before, stayed up late and stormed the polling place with Fry McGee. Some of the pro-slavery voters of note that stood next to Fry were Ezra Hickman, Upton Hays and John C. McCoy.

One old man from Jackson Co. stated to a number of men while at 110-Mile Creek that he had no claim in the territory. He had been paid $1 per day for going there, and he went along with it because “it was better than staying home and doing nothing.”

When free-state voters showed up to the election, Fry was standing nearby. He gave these voters a different colored ballot so that everyone knew how they were voting as he “yelled and cursed at them.” The crowd of pro-slavery men picked up where Fry left off, badgering these men to the point that they fled without casting their votes.

Fry died September 17th, 1861 at his home on 110-Mile Creek and was buried at the family cemetery until reinterred in 1881 at Elmwood. The cause of his death is unknown. Some said that his old tavern was haunted, but most of it today doesn’t exist. The remnants of the thick walls remain on a private farm, only leaving us to the imagination of what this small parcel of Kansas history still holds under the earth.

Fry’s homestead in Kansas City at 512 E. 4th St., built in 1848, stood for decades. Its sturdy construction stood for 107 years until it was in danger of being destroyed to make way for an entryway to the ASB Bridge.

The last known photo of Fry McGee's home in the
 Native Sons archives, State Historical Society of Missouri
The Native Sons stepped in along with councilman Robert J. Benson to try to save this property from the bulldozers. He recognized the city was busy destroying old landmarks with no consideration of preservation. He wanted to move these landmarks to a central location where they could be maintained as an early museum of Kansas City history.

Wouldn’t that have been nice.

The Native Sons needed $10,000 to move the home and wanted to make it into an information center. They claimed at the time (1955) that it was the oldest standing structure in Kansas City. The highway commission looked at the building and decided “the mortar and brick work was so expert it could be moved without hazard.”

At the time, the home had been altered and made into a duplex. Besides some settlement causing sinking spots in the wood floors and the front door being difficult to open, the house was in sturdy shape. The walnut staircase had been removed prior when the home had been converted.

But efforts were short lived. Even though the windows had been boarded up, vandals had shimmied their way in, taking pieces of the building as personal relics for themselves. Windows, door frames, doors and woodwork had been stripped from her home forever. Two fires set by vandals damaged the walls and left what was the prominent home of Fry McGee a shell of its former glory.

The final nail in the coffin was when demolition of an adjoining building by construction crews endangered what was once deemed sound.

The damage was irreversible. The Native Sons returned the $6,000 they were able to raise in order to save Fry McGee’s home and walked away with their heads hung low.

To think that those bricks- those mantels, door knobs, doors and windows disappeared into the hands of trespassers unable to decipher the true meaning of preservation makes me sick. And today, we still have landmarks being torn down to make room for what is labeled “progress.”

Mobillion W. McGee (1817- 1873) – From Bogus Legislature to California Retirement

Mobillion, a name oftentimes spelled Mabillion, had an education that matches his lack of consistency with name spellings. Just like his brothers, he came to the area as a child and married Mary E. Ward in April 1844.

After inheriting some land from his father’s estate in 1840, Mobillion followed in the likeness of younger brother Milt and joined the Seminole wars in Florida in 1847. He was most likely drawn to this because of his knowledge of the Native American languages.

The history of Mobillion is tied directly to the history of his older brother, Fry. Lucky for me, this means I will keep his section brief. J

Mobillion McGee, taken cir. 1865
After settling down with his wife, he bought 60 acres that would eventually become the subdivision, platted by the subject, known as McGee’s Summit in 1871. Located near Westport and including Broadway, McGee’s Summit would later become the heart of Midtown.

Continuing the same pro-slavery sentiments, Mobillion joined brother Fry at 110-Mile Creek and invested in its interests In 1854. On March 30th, 1855, while the area was under the pressure of the Border Wars and later the Civil War, Mobillion rounded up his friends and hiked the miles to Osage Co. to storm Kansas Territory, drink some booze and vote illegally.

They voted illegally to get Mobillion into the Kansas Territorial Legislature.

There once was a McGee County in Kansas Territory named for Mobillion - this member of the Bogus Legislature who was elected by his Missouri-resident friends. In 1860, the Free State Legislature voted to change the name to Cherokee County. This county on this southeastern edge of Kansas still holds this name.

Mobillion was a part of an interesting proposition that today boggles the mind. With help from his friend Robert T. Van Horn, owner of the Enterprise, they attempted to establish the new Town of Kansas into Kansas.

We’ve all been there as Kansas Citians…. We announce while out of town that we are from Kansas City and these uniformed people assume we live in Kansas.
Let the fight begin!

Van Horn and Mobillion fought to move the eastern border of Missouri to the Blue River, meaning that all property to the west, including Westport and the future site of Kansas City would be part of Kansas Territory.

Why, you ask?

Well, this area was heavily saturated with pro-slavery sentiments. When the elections deciding  by popular sovereignty were held, this would mean that this “new” boundary of Kansas Territory would include hundreds, if not thousands of pro-slavery men.

Needless to state, Mobillion’s efforts were not successful.

Mobillion had lived in Osage Co., Ks. for a majority of time but relocated to Kansas City during the Civil War. In 1883, he traveled to Los Angeles Co., Ca. and purchased an orange grove. He then took part of this new land and platted what would be known later as Pasadena.

Mobillion McGee's home in Pasadena, Ca.
He had kept part of this land and built an impressive home that entertained the Kansas City elite looking for palm trees, sun and a needed vacation.

A member of the Knights Templar in Pasadena, Mobillion died June 11, 1888 and was loaded onto a railroad car back to the east to Kansas City. One week later, Mobillion was buried at Elmwood Cemetery next to his reinterred family members.

Although it appears he never had his own children, he did have an adoptive daughter named Josephine Angelo Brown. A small leather-bound photo album belonging to Mobillion passed to her and then to her family where it remained virtually undiscovered until an interested family member brought this album back into the light.

Today, this album of early Kansas City pioneers is a treasure, full of photos of some of the most prominent families of the era.

Elijah Milton “Milt” McGee (1819-1873)- A Private Zoo For One of Kansas City’s First Mayors

“Colorful” isn’t even a word that even begins to identify this incredible yet complicated man of early Kansas City. The fourth born son of James and Eleanor McGee, Milt came with his family from Shelby Co., Ky. and evidently received a very limited education. Reading his personal manuscript tells a story of a man of… high opinion of himself, despite his multiple errors and erroneous writing style.

In his own autobiography written in third person called “Our Hero Was,” Milt described that in 1834 (at the age of 15, although often reported that he left at 12), he took an active part in the Mormon wars and “soon kicked up a fus with his father whoo was of the same temperature [and so Milt] blacked the old gentlemens eye and left.”

He punched his father, James in the eye? Wow.

He quickly left to be a part of the Seminole wars in Florida, and, according to himself, “Much could be said here to his prase.” After the Seminoles were at peace, “the young hero” returned to New Orleans where he learned of the war of Texas.

That’d be the Texas Revolution in 1836.

Milt proclaimed he arrived in Matagorda Bay and joined the ranks of Gen. Sam Houston. “He fought manfully at the battle of San Juanta and other scrmages.”

I think he meant San Jacinto and other skirmishes.

By 1838, he had wooed and married Sarah De Moss in Matagorda Co., Tx. and farmed there until 1841.  His only child, Gertrude, was born in 1840.

Hearing of the great valleys and beautiful scenery of California, “he made up his mind at once to make an adventure west” with two others. It is suggested he later went to California to find gold. . . and he did.

With money burning a hole in his pocket and a sense of pride covering his face, Milt returned to the Kansas City area, buying 240 acres of prime land south of 12th St. bounded by Main to the west and Holmes to the east.

This land would later be known as the business center of Kansas City.

As he began his plans for cashing in on the growth of a city, he also began a notorious conquest as a border ruffian. One event in May 1855 made national papers. Charged with whiskey and a great hatred of the flood of eastern immigrants into Kansas Territory, Milt (with “two of his creatures”) stormed the American Hotel in Kansas City. This hotel was owned by the Emigrant Aid Society, a group that helped pay up to 25% of the costs for these easterners to relocate into newly-opened Kansas Territory.

They were largely abolitionists, and they were a threat to Milt’s plans to ensure Kansas was a slave state.

After bouncing back and forth between two locations, Milt threatened that if the “damned abolitionists” who entered Kansas and came from “North of the Mason-Dixon line or belonged to the North” must leave the area at once or be thrown into the Missouri River.

They swore to level the place and departed before going through with their threat. So was the life and of the early days of Kansas City during the Border Wars.

For the record, Milt was Justice of the Peace at the time.

McGee's Addition as shown in the 1869 "Bird's Eye View of Kansas City"
Milt predicted that the fledgling settlement of the Town of Kansas would flower into one of the most enterprising settlements of the Midwest. In 1857, he platted a subdivision south of the city known today as “McGee’s Addition” to encourage people to travel south to his newly-built hotel at 16th and Grand Ave. This hotel, commonly referred to as Planter’s, Farmer’s Exchange, and most commonly McGee’s Hotel, became a landmark during the Border Wars and the headquarters of many pro-slavery men who commonly stormed into Kansas Territory.

To be clear, this was way south at the time. Wagons had to drudge through practically impassable rocky roads perched on the bluffs to get to this new little settlement of the city.
Metropolitan Block, McGee's Addition from 1858

As he carefully carved out roads and lots in the middle of a corn field, people laughed at his ambitions “way out in the country.” P.G. Brock, pioneer engineer, stated in 1887, “We all thought that Milt McGee a speculative idiot for hitching on his addition to the town.”

Milt managed to encourage people to buy lots in his new Addition by selling them cheap and only requiring them to promise to build. When he started his escapade, the only building that existed was his own home at 16th and Baltimore.

Not only did Milt build in the wilderness, but he also fashioned an incredibly wide street in the middle of it. He called it “Grand Avenue” and made sure that its width was as impressive as large boulevards and avenues in large eastern cities.

Grand Ave. became the widest street in town, and to solidify its prominence, Milt built a row of two story brick buildings on the east side of Grand at current-day 13th St.- right in the center of a corn field. This was the first brick block in all of the city.

1868 advertisement for McGee's Edition published in the newspaper
In the middle of McGee’s Addition, he built a park (aptly called McGee’s Park) and named the some of the streets after his family: Eleanor (Main St.), James (Walnut), Laurel (Oak) and Hackberry (Cherry) ran through the area, and later streets Mobillion, Milton, Gertrude, Catherine and Amelia were added.

In 1857, the population of the city was 700; only 21 people claimed to live in McGee’s Addition and eight buildings had been built.

Milt was a Southerner and infamous wheeler and dealer. He would meet riverboats filled with droves of people and their earthly possessions at Westport Landing. Accompanied by a full brass band serenading their arrival and huge banners announcing his affordable prices for land, Milt would expound of the greatness of Kansas City and push for the new arrivals buy lots. He was able to convince some to abandon their westward migration to Kansas Territory and move a little bit south to McGee’s Addition.

It worked.

Pioneer settler Joseph M. Chick said in 1908, “No one except Milt McGee would have a lot south of 5th and Main St. 50 years ago, $30 was a good price for big lot south at that point.”

Milt McGee's home at 16th and Baltimore taken before 1868
Note the brass band and the unicyclist relaxing on the lawn
By 1860, just three years after platting the “preposterous” McGee’s Addition, the area boasted a population of 2,319 and had 469 buildings.

He had always dabbled in politics, assisting his brothers in electing pro-slavery candidates to the Kansas Bogus Legislature. He would offer free rides to the polls in Kansas City – but only if you voted for his friends.

A staunch Democrat, he was elected as State Representative in 1862 and as State Senator in 1865. Pro-slavery before the war but a supporter of the Union at the outbreak, Milt’s home and hotel were oftentimes a stopover to many who fought as border ruffians. It was said that after the war broke out, Milt freed one of his slaves so he could be of use to the Union as a scout.
Milt McGee with a group of Native Americans. Date unknown but likely
in the late 1860s. Photo courtesy of the McGee family

This is what saved Milt from being thrown out of Kansas City during the war.

In 1868, he upgraded his home and, according to his obituary in the Kansas City Times, the 13 acre grounds had an entrance gate made from the lower jawbones of a whale and included a private zoo complete with a brown bear, a dozen deer, two bald eagles and other wildlife roaming in a five acre enclosure.

His political reputation during the Civil War and being a proponent of railroad expansion to Kansas City led him to run for mayor in 1870. On election day, it was reported that Milt supplied kegs of beer on street corners and voters could get a nip of whiskey from one of the barrels at his home.

He won.

After serving a year, Milt retired back to his home and continued to be active in city development. On February 11th, 1873, just days after returning from a trip from New Orleans, Milt went to lay down and never woke up from his rest.  He was 54 years old.

A current view of where the Metropolitan Block of Kansas City was
Evidence of Milt McGee’s contribution to our beloved Kansas City can be seen in remnants today. One street that he named does remain as the city slowly swallowed his family’s namesakes into the street names we know today. McGee St., of course, does remain.

His hotel was swallowed up by the city and was torn down in 1889 to make way for a brick business block on Grand Ave. between 16th and 17th St. By the 1930s, only one building remained as real estate drove prices up and the buildings of McGee’s Addition into the ground. Today, none stand.

McGee’s Addition today includes Kansas City’s newest landmarks such as Sprint Center and Power and Light.

Menard and James Hyatt McGee, Jr- When Guns Go Blazing

The last of the McGee boys born to James H. and Eleanor Fry were Francis Manor (Menard) McGee (1831-1864) and James Hyatt McGee, Jr. (1837-1895). Although not as well-known as their other brothers, Menard and James still are a good portrait of early Kansas City history.

(L-R) James, Milt, Mobillion and Allen B.H. McGee, cir 1871
taken in front of the McGee homestead.
Both these boys were quite young when their father died in 1840, but that didn’t stop them from their duties as a McGee. Both seemed to spend some time in Osage Co. with Fry and Mobillion, and in 1854-55, they spent time in Arkansas on a hunting excursion.

It is said that Menard and James killed 34 buffalo in just shy of two days.

Their love of hunting drew them together, but their paths varied quite a bit due to inevitable events of the time.

Menard was the only one of his brothers to join organized service. At the outbreak of the war, he served as a private in Co. D, 3rd Missouri Volunteer Infantry. His swiftness with a gun was vital in battles at Pea Ridge, Corinth, Vicksburg and Atlanta.

However, time was running out quickly for Menard.

In a desperate charge led by Gen. Cockrell in Franklin, Tn. where 600 Missouri men were apparently killed, Menard lost his life on November 30th, 1864. Union losses at Franklin were 189; the Confederates lost 1,750 men. He was 33 years old and unwed.
Battle of Franklin illustration (1890), courtesy of Library of Congress

He was brought back to Jackson Co. and his family erected a beautiful monument to him at their family cemetery. He, with others, was moved to Elmwood Cemetery.

James H. McGee, Jr. used his power of the firearm in a different way. After marrying Ruth Thompson in Clay Co. in 1859, James was involved in a few skirmishes around the area but never served in formal military service.

In 1858, he platted J.H. McGee’s Addition, an area that bordered his mother’s home on the south side and McGee’s Addition, platted one year earlier by Milt on the east side. Today, this is land that includes 15th to 17th St. between Broadway and Main St.

In addition to early dabbling in real estate, James also was involved in livestock trade; however, his love of sports guided him in future endeavors.

The father of four children, James became most known for his involvement in hunting and fishing. He was considered to be a “splendid shot” and a nationally recognized sharp shooter. His love of the sport led him to be a charter member of the Kansas City Gun Club and one of the earliest promoters of the Missouri State Fish and Game Protective Association, now part of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Illustration of James H. McGee, Jr.
published in the Kansas City Star (1895)
By the 1880 census, James was working as a gun dealer. Perhaps his love of the hunt got in the way of more practical ways of making money. It was written that “he was at one time a wealthy man but of late years had reverses.”

So, the youngest of the McGee boys didn’t inherit the ability to manage his financial wealth that he once had.

On August 21st, 1895, 55-year-old James was found by his daughter in a very concerning state. His breathing was heavy and the damage had been done. The Kansas City Star reported that James “had been for a long time troubled with insomnia and had been compelled to resort to artificial means to produce sleep.”

James H. McGee, Jr. was  a user of morphine. This use killed him.

At the time of his death, all of his 13 siblings had passed away except for A.B.H. McGee. His oldest sister, Amelia, had died less than a month earlier at the age of 82.

Today, J.H. McGee’s Addition includes the Kauffman Center of the Performing Arts and Webster House.

So Many McGees, So Many Stories

Believe it or not, I have only scratched the surface of how much the McGees influenced the early history of the area. Today, our city wouldn’t look the same without the gusto of brave man and woman who plucked their family from Kentucky bluegrass and successfully established them just past the bluffs along the Missouri River in what would be the heart of our cherished city.

Other articles of interest: 

The Founding of Kansas City - "The Land Dispute That Led to the Town of Kansas"-  click here

Allen Burr Harrison McGee- "The McGees of Kansas City: A Pioneer Legacy" - click here

Election Frauds in 1855- "A Bit of Bull at Bull Creek: The Kansas Frauds of 1855" - click here

*Please consider searching "The Santa Fe Trailer" on Facebook and liking my page so you don't miss any of my writing! 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Meet Me in Electric Park!

Michael Heim, with his large belly and hopeful eyes, walked up to the site that was once the Kansas City Driving Club’s headquarters and quickly threw out $46,000 for land at 46th and The Paseo. This would be the new location of Kansas City’s Coney Island – the pleasure palace that had pumped the Heim beer directly to their thirsty patrons from their East Bottom’s brewery.

Heim Brewery in the East Bottoms with Electric Park in the background
The future of the city was slowly shifting to the south, and investors were buying up land near parkways and boulevards that had access to the streetcar system. At the end of the summer season in 1906, Michael Heim and his brothers J.J. and Ferd felt the need to uproot their successful Electric Park and push it south, too.

As described last month, the first Electric Park electrified the East Bottoms and brought it to life starting in June 1900 (read the story about the FIRST Electric park by clicking HERE!).

The old Electric Park had covered just shy of ten acres, and by moving to the southern edge of the city, the park tripled in size. Their last season in the East Bottoms attracted 900,000 visitors, so moving was certainly a risk.
Ad for the second Electric Park
from the Kansas City Star, 1907

Before opening for the 1907 summer season, Michael Heim, working as foreman, had 325 carpenters, 75 laborers and 30 painters working long days to reassemble the park at its new location while also adding to their attraction list.

The “Scenic Railway” would be new and span one mile long from 60 feet in the air. Its width of 185 feet caused the new ride to require additional rides to be within the center of the track. The “hair raising drops” from high in the sky had Kansas Citians ready to see the new Electric Park firsthand.

Gardens designed by George Kessler beautified the grounds;
the covered promenade can be seen to the left
The new band pavilion would seat 10,000 people, said to be more seating than was even offered at the Convention Hall. The German Village was to have seating for 4,000 and the new lake freshly dug was 3 and a half acres big.

Set to open May 19th, 1907, the new Electric Park included a half mile covered and paved promenade that led patrons to concessions from the entrance. The promenade was said to have been modeled after the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. This was innovative for the time, and Melville Stoltz, considered an authority on amusement parks across the nation commented, “I wonder if Kansas City knows that this is an amusement resort ten years ahead of [its time].” 

Patriotism was evident at Electric Park
This new promenade ended at two white towers covered with 10,000 electric lights each at the edge of their new pool. Resting in the center was the famous electric fountain with live acts in the center.

Flower beds 200 ft. x 150 ft. were designed by George Kessler and included 62,000 plants and flowers. In addition to the “Scenic Railway,” new additions included rowboats in the lagoon, a skating rink, a giant swing, a shooting gallery, billiard room, penny amusement parlor, Hooligan castle, an arcade, photograph gallery, dancing pavilion, and the “Norton Slide” that had a series of long inclines 1,280 feet long.

The park was so large that three entrances were fashioned: the main streetcar entrance at 47th and Lydia, a carriage, automobile and pedestrian entrance at 46th and Lydia, and the Vine Streetcar entrance at 45th and Woodland. Surrounding the entire park, painted white, were 324 American flags varying in size from two to twelve feet waving in the wind amidst 100,000 electric lights.

Frankly, the only “old” thing about the new park was the 10 cent entrance fee. Opening day was an incredible success with 53,000 visitors crowding the park- equal to how many people visit Disney World in one day today.

A young Walt Disney
If you’ve ever waited in line at Disney World, you know that’s a lot of people. And to no surprise, Electric Park was host to Walt Disney when he was a child living in Kansas City. It is said that the park influenced the young man so much that he modeled his world-renowned amusement parks after what he witnessed firsthand at Electric Park.

There was one thing missing on opening day that didn’t go over well for the Heims.

The park was dry of Heim Beer.

When Electric Park moved, they expected that their liquor license would move with them to their new location… even though they knew the 12th Ward where the park was newly located was vehemently opposed to granting anyone a saloon license. The police board of three made it vividly clear they weren’t about to grant them a transfer of license.  The Kansas City Star seemed to hold their own opinion when they wrote May 2nd, “Those who desire [liquor] are the ones who should not have it.”


Many of these pre-prohibition party poopers protested in Jefferson City against granting Heim’s Electric Park a license to sell their booze. Heim responded by launching a petition and hiring lawyers to fight the stall of their license transfer. By June, it was declared that the subject of liquor at the park was a source of “political agitation.” In response, they published a letter in the Kansas City Star. They declared that, at the old park where beer and wine was sold, “There was never an arrest for drunkenness.” They asked, “Should we be denied the privilege which others enjoy under the law?”

Unfortunately for thirsty patrons and for Heim’s pocketbook, the letter and petitions did nothing to sway the police board. They took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court after appealing to the Jackson Co. Circuit Court. They denied Electric Park’s applications to advance their license on their docket. The court predicted it would be two years before they’d get to their case.

Even though the park would inevitably stay “dry,” the Heims were raking in the dollars. In the off season, Michael would travel all over the country to search for the newest and greatest amusement park finds. Numerous headlines reading “No Beer at Electric Park!” were replaced with exciting updates on what would be state-of-the-art for the coming season.

New in 1908 was “The Tickler,” an eight-person ride featuring a circular washtub-shaped car. It was designed to release parkgoers at the top and pivot them against padded poles as it descended to the bottom in a zig-zig pattern. For four minutes, passengers would be whiplashed all the way to the bottom.

Each year created additional challenges to stay current and the best amusement park option in the city. Fairmount Park and Forest Park tried to rival Electric Park with free admission and gimmicks such as balloon launches.

No balloon launch was going to beat the crowds and attractions at Electric Park.

Rides such as the “Spiral Coaster” were added in 1910 along with an ostrich farm and a miniature railroad. The following year, the park abandoned the boat rentals on their lake and focused on building a bathing beach that would allow for 5,000 swimmers at once.

In fact, Michael Heim is credited for being the man who “made swimming a fashionable and almost universal sport” in Kansas City.

"The Bowls of Joy" drawing depicts the coaster that never got off the ground
“The Ben Hur Racing Coaster” was added in 1913 and gave park visitors yet another reason to cough up the money to ride on one of the largest and fastest coasters in the nation. Another addition that year included “Bowls of Joy,” a ride invented and financed by a Kansas City post office worker. $15,000 was wasted on the ride and created six months of mechanical problems for the park. “Bowls of Joy” became known as “Bowls of Deferred Hope” due to its failure.

Most of Electric Park’s additions were a success. By 1915, the freshwater pool was extended to be 53x133 feet and ranged from three to eight feet deep. It took 430,000 gallons of water to fill it, and the four and a half acre lake took six million gallons of water. For each season, Electric Park ordered over one and a half tons of swimsuits.

My own great-grandmother, Jean Fetter (1900-1984)
mentions Electric Park and riding the "Ben Hur" and
 "Millers Dream" in her diary entry from Aug. 27, 1917!
“Alligator Joe,” a large attraction at the first Electric Park, continued his alligator antics for several seasons at the new location. In May 1915, five alligators two to three feet long escaped into Brush Creek. Three were recovered within a few days, but two were still missing.

In late August, the two other alligators were found in the Missouri River…

…in Jefferson City.

Constant updates to the park’s innovations made Electric Park a draw for people all over the Midwest. The Heims heavily invested in new attractions in order to stay relevant – they had new competition that included silent movies and the ability to be mobile. The affordability of the automobile had Kansas Citians taking “driving tours” in lieu of taking the streetcar to their park.

In 1917, Electric Park featured the “Greyhound Ride” that Michael Heim declared “is the highest and longest thriller in America.” Water rides including “The Whirlpool” and “Millers Dream” kept them in competition.

Minus nine injuries on the “Ben Hur” caused when a car at the end of the ride wouldn’t stop and an incident on the “Greyhound” where a man dropped a lit cigar on the ride and caused the shavings under the rollercoaster to catch fire, the park was miraculously free of major injuries.

Electric Park at night
The biggest crowd ever documented at Electric Park happened in midst of World War I when former President Theodore Roosevelt came to speak there on Sept. 24, 1917. 55,000 people piled into the park for one dollar, and all the proceeds for admission were given to the Red Cross.

The influence of the World War could be seen and experienced at Electric Park after its end. In 1919, “Hales Aerial Travels” and “Race Through the Clouds” were additions, the latter supposedly the longest ride in the world. The significance of the War also influenced ticket prices when the war tax was issued. Electric Park finally raised their prices to 15 cents- 13 cents for admission and two cents for the war tax.

"Alligator Boy" Henry Coppenger, Jr. taken in Florida in front of
hundreds of people
In addition to the 100,000 electric lights illuminating the park, firework displays were another regular draw to the evening festivities. At one point, they even added TNT to make extra noise.

Perhaps because “Alligator Joe” had retired south to Florida, Michael Heim grabbed “Alligator Boy” in 1919 to be another feature at Electric Park. “Alligator Boy,” whose given name was Henry Coppenger, Jr., was billed “the most interesting youth in America.” He swam in tanks of water with 34 alligators more than six feet in length.

One day, Michael Heim walked past Alligator Boy’s massive display. He pointed to Alligator Boy, and without any warning, an alligator attacked Heim and nicked his finger in the process. Although the injury wasn’t serious, Heim was spotted the next day “wearing a bulky bandage” as he retold his harrowing fight.

Electric Park's 643 year-old alligator
Courtesy of John Dawson
Even Alligator Boy wasn’t safe from harm. By July 1919, he was home with an arm torn, hand crushed, and the fingers of his left hand broken.

Prohibition in 1920 put a dent in the Heim brother’s profits as their main income was the Heim Brewery. When the tap ran dry across the nation, they focused on their real estate holdings and their beloved Electric Park.

The “Big Dipper” was added in 1922; passengers plunged straight down 80 feet sixteen times in a row for over a mile. A new beach with a “sea breeze” drew more patrons in 1923. They must have not noticed the fans tucked into the two towers in order to create the gusts of wind on the artificial coast.

Michael Heim, the brainchild of Electric Park from the beginning, was tired. It’s as if a higher power was listening when on May 26th, 1925, a fire engulfed much of the park in flames.

Ironically, Electric Park was almost completely annihilated because of its initial draw: electricity. The fire chief said a wire from a transformer in front of “The Bug House” became overheated. When the wire broke, it fell on an extremely flammable building. Damages were estimated at over $100,000.

The fire damage from May 26, 1925- published in the Kansas City Star
“One of these years, a May will come when Electric Park will not open,” Michael Heim commented the next day. “Ultimately – possibly in a year or so- it is planned to replace the amusement park with an apartment development and a large shopping center.”

Mounting taxes complicated things; plus, a new park called Fairyland had opened a few years’ earlier. They admitted that the success of the 1925 season would make their final decision.

The Electric Fountain with "living acts" in the center
was moved to China after the park closed
They could have thrown in the towel after the fire, but it wasn’t in the character of Michael Heim or his brothers to end their amusement park reign on a negative note. The decision was to continue their plans that season, and it was said on their opening day the damage was “scarcely noticeable.”

Profits were lower than anticipated, and the decision to close Electric Park was reached. It was time to end of 25 years of entertainment.

August 1925 was the final month for the Electric Park era. A Mardi Gras celebration and a corn carnival were the final festivities that closed a chapter for so many Kansas Citians. The park had been the site of countless memories, laughs and thrills.

The famous electric fountain was shipped off to Guangzhou, China. Its fate is not known.

The pool and dancing hall were all that remained of the park until a fire in 1934 destroyed the final pieces of the pleasure palace.

The same month and year that the second Electric Park closed, another chapter opened for the Heim family’s legacy. A dedication ceremony at the original site of Electric Park in the East Bottoms was conducted to introduce the city to a new public playground. Heim Park opened in 1925 as another park closed for good.

Heim Park in the East Bottoms, the original location
of Electric Park. Courtesy of KC Parks
The original Electric Park went dark in 1906, the only piece of it remaining being Heim Park resting in an area that has seen better days.

But there is hope soon yet for revitalization of the electrifying days that once stood next to Heim Brewery.

On August 28th, 2018, in the shadows of where Electric Park once stood, Andy Rieger, co-founder of J. Rieger & Co., addressed a crowd that included most of the city council and Mayor Sly James. This announcement will change the landscape of the East Bottoms and is being spearheaded by J. Rieger & Co., a revitalized pre-prohibition distillery that uses the Heim Brewery bottling plant as their headquarters today.
A view of the future of Electric Park and J. Rieger & Co., housed in the historic Heim bottling plant
Courtesy of J. Rieger & Co.

Heim Brewery bottling plant was built in 1901 and is one of two surviving structures of Heim Brewery in Kansas City. With the addition of the bottling plant, Heim was able to produce 125,000 bottles per day and at one point was the largest pre-prohibition brewery west of St. Louis, Mo.

Andy is extremely thoughtful when it comes to preserving the historical significance of J. Rieger & Co.’s headquarters. “I love how we are going to keep the building looking as historic as possible.  Historic buildings that are renovated to remain historic, but updated in a cool way with a cool use are about as good as it gets in my eyes,” Rieger commented.

Andy Rieger, co-owner of J. Rieger & Co.
is working hard to preserve history
and revitalize Electric Park.
Photo courtesy of J. Rieger & Co.
J. Rieger & Co. itself has a history that began in the West Bottoms in 1887 and ended with Prohibition, until the founder’s great-great-great grandson resurrected the distillery in 2014 with partner Ryan Maybee.

Even though Electric Park went dark in the East Bottoms in 1906, it has been Andy Rieger’s goal to bring life back to the neighborhood and rebrand it. Their current space of 15,000 square feet will expand to 60,000 square feet between two buildings. This expansion includes renovating their distillery space and the historic Heim Brewery bottling house and adding daily tours, a bar, lounge and cocktail spaces, event spaces for small and large-scale events, a gift shop and a free interactive historic exhibit on the main floor that will include the history of Heim Brewery, Electric Park and J. Rieger & Co.

“All these things are the big focus of being able to revitalize the name ‘Electric Park’ and what it once was,” Andy stated.

New sidewalks, streets, landscaping and a parking lot will help transform the outside grounds. Rieger’s hope is to rebrand the ‘East Bottoms’ name back to Electric Park. “We are really proud to be the ones bringing back the entire nature of Electric Park,” Rieger commented. “We want to bring that motto back to the neighborhood.”

The investment in what will be coined Electric Park includes the city recognizing the past contributions of innovators such as Heim Brewery and current contributions by J. Rieger & Co. Mayor Sly James stated, “This investment is equivalent of the pioneer investments that were made in the West Bottoms and in the Crossroads.”
A view from the new entrance to J. Rieger & Co. facing southeast
Courtesy of J. Rieger & Co.

Taking a risk on a multi-million dollar investment in the area isn’t something that just anyone would do. But just like the Heim brothers in 1900, J. Rieger & Co. is willing to roll the dice and draw people down to Electric Park to see what progress and advancement looks like firsthand.

Kansas City needs more businesses like J. Rieger & Co. and more people like Andy Rieger. He is completely devoted to the city he loves, and this love is apparent when you meet him.

“All these projects started with somebody being willing to make an investment in an area that people weren’t investing in,” Mayor Sly James said.

By 2019, what was once referred to as the East Bottoms will have a completely new face with the help of the history of Electric Park. J. Rieger & Co. is proud to tell the story of the past and incorporate it into their ideas for their own company’s future.

 “History is our brand,” Andy Rieger stated. “We are so lucky to be given this nearly limitless basket of an authentic past.”

I hope you will #meetmeinelectricpark!

Check out their cool video below. :) 

* To read more about J. Rieger & Co.'s interesting history, check out the article I wrote on them HERE!

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