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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Tribute to a Pioneer Church on the Santa Fe Trail

Churches are the foundations of communities. When towns across the plains popped up and promoted settlement in the 19th century, one of the first buildings carved out was that of a church.

But we have to ask ourselves- what happened to these country churches in midst of the development of Kansas City- or any city for that matter?

1950s photo of the corner of State Line
and Santa Fe Trail
In the case of the Santa Fe Christian Church, a lovely country church on Santa Fe Trail just east of State Line, this question turned into a battlefield of emotions when a small fire coupled with a new congregation led to the demise of a quaint church that meant the world to so many.

To tell the whole story, we must go back to the very beginnings of the Santa Fe Christian Church.

In the earliest settlement of Washington Township in Jackson Co., Mo., small churches were pivotal to the pioneers carving out their land. New Santa Fe, stretching on State Line between the wilderness of Kansas Territory and the state of Missouri, was platted in 1851. By 1860, the town, strategically placed as the last stop in civilization on the Santa Fe Trail, had two general stores, a blacksmith shop, a post office and High Grove Presbyterian Church, established in 1856.

Oh, but the Border Wars were no match to a bustling town filled with mostly pro-slavery Southern families.  And the height of the Civil War did nothing but destroy the town and most of its contents. In 1861, Jayhawkers led by Col. Jennison set fire to the town. According to an article from 1867 in the Christian Advocate, the church in New Santa Fe was torn down during the late war and hadn’t been rebuilt.

Needless to state, money post-war was hard to come by.

The Presbyterian church in town was never reorganized. Many families would travel on Sundays to Bethlehem Church of Christ in Hickman Mills, the nearest church in the area- a journey that was six miles from the town and would have taken a half a day to reach.

Bethlehem Church of Christ in Hickman Mills was founded in 1845 and held membership of pioneers from miles and miles around it. In 1869, a group of families living on the western border between Missouri and Kansas opted to start their own church in the town of New Santa Fe. These families, many of whom came from the stock of some of the first white settlers in southern Jackson Co., were: William A. McKinney, John M. Wells, William Rippeto, Richard Kirby, Joel Lipscomb, Marcus Gill, “Widow” Manion (likely Elizabeth Sharp King Manion) and Ellen Watson.

But building a church takes time. . . and money. Country preachers passing through would have services in homes or in public meeting spaces in the town. A schoolhouse which faced east on the Santa Fe Trail where the New Santa Fe Cemetery is today first served as a gathering place for this new church congregation.

John Mercer Wells (1826-1893), charter member
original trustee
In February 1881, steps were finally made to “officially” organize this new group. John Mercer Wells (1826-1893) and his wife, Catherine Rippeto Wells, took three lots they owned in New Santa Fe, totaling just about 2/3 of an acre, and deeded it to the “Christian Church at New Santa Fe”.” A payment of $315 for these lots was made. Isaac Weeks (1833-1904), Jacob Sweaney (1824-1918) and Caleb D. Kerr (1842-1925) were listed as trustees of the church.

This may not seem important now, but it certainly comes into play later.

Before a church was built in New Santa Fe, members of the community started to sense the need for a community burial ground. As these pioneers reached their 50s and 60s, a permanent place of rest was determined to be of the utmost importance. Small burial grounds often were found on pioneers’ farms; however, as they sold off their lands- and later, when development of the area occurred, these burial grounds disappeared underneath roads, brush and the foundations of new structures.  

One of the charter members and trustees of the church was William Albertus McKinney (1826-1900), a Kentuckian transplant living just over the state line in Johnson Co., Ks.  When W.A. McKinney’s wife, Eliza Rippeto became terminally ill, he and John M. Wells took lots 31, 34 and 35 and formed what we would know today as New Santa Fe Cemetery. A lot adjacent to the deeded lots (Lot 30) was donated by John E. Watson and his wife, Lou Lipscomb Watson (daughter of charter member Joel Lipscomb). This spot- Lot 30- was where the church was to be built.

The first person buried at New Santa Fe Cemetery was Eliza Rippeto McKinney (b. 1839), who died December 29, 1885.

New Santa Fe Cemetery on the Santa Fe Trail is still looked after and preserved today.
Now for those of you who have visited the historic New Santa Fe Cemetery and saunter past the weathered headstones, you know very well that there are burials at that cemetery well before 1885.

This is actually not the case. As family burial grounds were in danger of being destroyed, some of these families proactively moved their remains, headstones and all, to larger cemeteries. That’s why some of the older burials, including Dabney Lipscomb, founder of the town, are there today. They were moved there.

Uh, not all were moved, though. . .

William Albertus McKinney (1827- 1900), charter
member and trustee of Santa Fe Christian Church
An article in the Kansas City Times from 1970 mentions all these small burial grounds across the city. It states, “The Kerby cemetery would have been in the northeast corner of present-day Minor Park. . . What became of this 75 to 100 graves and markers no one knows.”

The Kerby (also spelled “Kirby”) family was instrumental in the early settlement of southern Jackson Co., and Richard Kirby was one of the charter members of the Christian Church at New Santa Fe. Yet his grave location is unknown. Only 10 of these family members of the Kirby’s were moved to the New Santa Fe Cemetery… and Richard wasn’t one of them. “Uncle Dick,” as he was known to families of the area, died in 1890 and is buried… somewhere.

By the early 1890s after the death of Uncle Dick, plans to build the church on Lot 30 were well underway. In 1891, timber hauled up the Missouri River was carted down by wagon from Westport to New Santa Fe. The Christian Church at New Santa Fe was a simple country church, painted white with one door for men and the other for women and children. It had a chimney in the middle and potbellied stoves on each side. Pews from Westport were placed inside the church and were unvarnished. The Santa Fe Christian Church was dedicated in 1892 on the land, its bright white exterior and simplicity a shimmer of hope in a town that had seen so much strife in its day.

1933 artist's sketch of the church published
in the Kansas City Star
The railroad to the south and the creation of a town called Martin City was the sealing fate of New Santa Fe’s business district. But farmers- these pioneer families- stayed put. To keep the church alive, women would sell eggs, make butter and haul their goods to Westport to be sold every Friday. The social activities of the church, even after the buildings around it were torn down, moved or withered away, were the cornerstone of this pioneer community. It gave people a reason to return to the Santa Fe Road.

And that church was their social activity for just shy of a century.

Think of all this little church and its members saw in its existence- it became one of the only structures surviving in the community even as JC Nichols snatched up land and started their planning.

In 1925, the church got a small makeover. Members pooled their money and the original chimney in the center of the room was moved to the outside, the potbellied stoves were upgraded, the room was re-plastered, the roof was replaced and a basement was added.

Kansas City Star article from 1929 mentions how the Santa Fe Christian Church hosted a church bazaar. People present could trace their family back to the southern states when settlement was sparse in southern Jackson Co. Sarah Jane McPherson Bartlett, one of the founding members of the church, stated, “Yes, I can recollect the trouble we had with the border raiders- it was the redlegs one day and Quantrill men the next, and we couldn’t do anything but just let ‘em rob us.”

A 1951 centennial celebration in New Santa Fe had the children of the area
gathered near the Santa Fe Christian Church
Burr McGee, descendant of charter member Marcus Gill who lived on a farm encompassing all of Verona Hills subdivision, fondly remembers the simpler days of the Santa Fe Christian Church. “It was all a very country small town. It was great. There were sometimes church socials outside in the area in front and on the west side of the church. I remember the cicadas buzzing, playing with other kids and eating fried chicken and cherry pie. There was Sunday School and a lot of reading from the Bible.”

Other small children that grew up in the area can still recall the importance of the church in their quaint neighborhood. Even if they didn’t attend church services, they would take up any opportunity to meet with friends for a country dinner or church event.

One of the reverends of the church, the only one that could claim the town of New Santa Fe as his birthplace, was Charles Stewart (b.1884), grandson of Archibald Stewart and Cinderella McKinney. In an article clipped from around 1939, Mr. Stewart recalled the Sunday School attendance in the 1890s when “200 youngsters and adults crowded into the building. . . The grounds were filled with buggies and wagons, the horses tied to trees while the crowd stayed for all-day services broken by a basket dinner at noon.”

Members gather at the church for a reunion in cir. 1937
Courtesy of Marilee Ciardullo
Troy Bartlett, son of Sarah McPherson Bartlett, reminisced in a 1959 article published in the Johnson County Herald, “The church has also been a big social center. The big Christmas Eve program was something anticipated from one year to the next. There were strawberry and ice cream socials, back in those days, when all the ice cream was homemade, and strawberries grew in abundance in the patches of the community.”

By the 1960s, many of the descendants of pioneer families had moved out of the area, yet several still made the Sunday pilgrimage to Santa Fe Christian Church. As the area morphed from a farming community with dirt roads to paved and platted subdivisions, the small church on a hill with its cemetery welcomed new members of newly-settled suburban families.

And five of these people, for whatever the reason, marched down to the Jackson Co. Courthouse in 1965 and incorporated the “Santa Fe Christian Church,” most likely not discussing it with members. If you recall, the church was legally named “The Christian Church at New Santa Fe,” but over the years the name had been simply shortened by locals to the “Santa Fe Christian Church.” These pioneers saw no need of any type of a new incorporation when their organization owned the land and its sacred building for shy of 100 years.

Photo of the church, courtesy of City Planning Department, Historic Preservation
(formerly City Landmark Commission)
Clues can be unearthed through these court records; this incorporation uses a Grandview, Mo. home for their legal address, and one of the men listed uses the Santa Fe Christian Church on the Santa Fe Trail as his legal address. I consider myself pretty good at researching, and the Board of Directors listed on this document don’t seem to have any attachment to the founding families – or to the area, for that matter.

The destruction of the church, in my opinion, didn’t begin when a fire took part of the building. It began with this incorporation of “The Santa Fe Christian Church” in 1965.

I’m not going to name names.

This story isn’t about them.

It’s about that little white church on top of a hill on the Santa Fe Trail that meant the world to so many.

On November 14th, 1969 at around 7:00pm, flames and smoke could be spotted swirling on the north end of the Santa Fe Christian Church. Firefighters arrived at the location, unraveling hoses and hopping into action. In the Kansas City Times article published the next day, battalion fire chief Joseph Connor said the fire started “in a defective heater system near the altar.”

Connor stated the “structure was not severely affected, and most damage was confined to the church interior and the area around the altar.”

One can only imagine the agony that this news would have caused to the families forever entwined with this church.

Many of these pioneer families weren’t about to give up on it. They knew in their hearts and minds that it was worth saving.

As the embers were extinguished, it became exceptionally clear that the blossoming tensions were about the engulf the members, new and old, of the Santa Fe Christian Church. At first, it seemed as if things would be okay; however, the question of ownership of this organization was about to get dicey.

So many hands were about to be played.

That “new” organization, aptly named the “Santa Fe Christian Church,” incorporated in 1965, wouldn’t be located at someone’s home in Grandview for much longer.

After the frost of winter lifted and the land thawed out in the spring of 1970, the congregation gathered, allegedly not notifying all members of the church, to raze the old building bruised by the fire. People went into the church and stripped it of its pews and decorations.

These actions made many members scratch their heads and then spring into action. Hugh R. Keltner and his wife, Esther (who was the granddaughter of W.A. McKinney, charter member), opted to organize a Restoration Committee. They figured if they could raise the money to restore the church, there would be no reason to destroy it.

Bill McKinney, member of the
Restoration Committee established to
fight for the church
Boy, they were sadly mistaken.

Regardless, Hugh began an aggressive campaign and recruited many of the older members to stand up and fight. Bill McKinney, John Kernodle and Homer Klapmeyer gladly stepped on board. Between the four of them, they began to contact their friends and fellow members to generate support of restoration.

“It’s not our aim to take anything from anybody,” Hugh Keltner explained to the Kansas City Star, “We just feel we’ve got a right to have our old church restored and this cemetery undisturbed.”

In September, Hugh and Bill recruited Martin City resident and friend, Gus Broockerd, to give an estimate to fix up the Santa Fe Christian Church.

Gus, the former owner of Broockerd Construction, vividly remembers what he saw when he examined the church just over 47 years ago. “It wouldn’t have been much to repair it,” Gus recalled.

In fact, documents show that Gus Broockerd estimated the damages at $3,000 to $3,500.

And tensions in the area were growing by the minute. Gus’s neighbor was a member of the church and was completely against restoring it. “I told her, ‘You know, that church can be saved. It’s kind of historic.’”

The Restoration Committee met with the trustees of the church to try to reason with them on renovation. One balked the idea and concluded that it would always smell like smoke. Another Board Member stated the church wasn’t historic and allegedly said, “That’s the past. I’m for the future.”

In July 1970, it became clear what the future would hold. The Santa Fe Christian Church took out a permit on the land next door to begin construction of a new building.

Damage to the church from the fire
Courtesy of Martha Walton
… On land they didn’t even legally own yet.

The Restoration Committee spoke to Ray Klapmeyer, a well-known businessman that grew up in the area. He was eager to help with the finances to restore the church but said he wouldn’t help build a new one.

But a “Specialty Warranty Deed” changed everything on October 26, 1970. Three trustees of the Christian Church at New Santa Fe, the legal name of the organization given in 1881, signed pen to paper. It is alleged that some may have been misled on what they were actually signing and told it was a “release of trusteeship.” But in reality, these three men transferred ownership of the Christian Church at New Santa Fe to the “Santa Fe Christian Church.”

Yes, transferred ownership to the organization started out of a house in Grandview.

Digest that for a second.

Desperate to spawn support outside of the southern Jackson Co. area, the Keltner’s contacted the Jackson County Historical Society. Their president, Col. Slaughter wished to help but was knee-deep in restoring the Wornall House. An article was published in their Summer 1970 newsletter to generate support of restoration of the Santa Fe Christian Church.

Mel Solomon, Chairman,
City Landmark Commission
Mel Solomon (1928-2017), architect and chairman of the City Landmark Commission, answered the cry for help. He drove out to the little church and examined it. He wrote up a detailed report stating that not only was the building worthy of restoration, but it should be considered as a state landmark.

Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney got a little wind in their sail from this news.

No one would tear down a historic landmark on the Santa Fe Trail, right?!

That Warranty Deed in October 1970 had flipped the tables quite a bit, and when the insurance money for the fire rolled in, totaling around $22,000, the money was used to purchase the land they already had a permit out on next door to the weathering Santa Fe Christian Church. In November 1970, $7,000 paid to JC Nichols set the future into motion.

The Restoration Committee could sense it was time to lawyer-up, and so they did.

I told you things got a wee bit complicated…

The Restoration Committee wasn’t willing to give up; they generated a petition in the area. Some newly transplanted Verona Hills residents signed it, stating that the church and the history of the Santa Fe Trail were “selling points” to buying their homes. 290 signatures were obtained.

Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney met with state representatives, Nick Penna and Harold Esser at the church. They explained their case and how Mel Solomon, City Landmark Commission, believed the building should be a state landmark. The reps were excited about a landmark in the area being considered by the legislature.

The swift movement of the Restoration Committee to save their little church came to a screeching halt on December 6, 1970. A letter from the City of Kansas City was sent to the church and read aloud to the “new” organization. They had five days to tear the church down, as it was considered “dangerous.”

Hearing of this alarming news, Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney met with their lawyer and called Mel Solomon. Both helped file the paperwork to get a 60-day extension.

For now, the church was safe from the bulldozers.

The cold temperatures outside matched the reception of the Restoration Committee as they made one last-ditch effort to plead their case to the “new” Santa Fe Christian Church on February 7th, 1971.

William and J.K. McKinney, Eliza Holmes, Mabel Lawson, Hubert and Louise Briggs, Mary, Hazel and Robert Sharp, Hugh and Esther Keltner marched into the Martin City Elementary School where the church congregation was meeting while their brand-new building was being erected. They explained- pleaded- that private funds would be used to restore their little church and they wouldn’t interrupt any of their current plans with their new brick building.

The gates on the western edge of the cemetery
are close to where the outhouse for the church
once stood.
The matter came to a vote- again. The members of the Restoration Committee were not allowed to vote, because according to the by-laws, they had been “inactive” for 90 days. It was said that substantial gifts throughout the years had been given and older members unable to travel weren’t allowed to vote.

They wouldn’t hear it and the vote was cast. 17 in favor of demolition; 3 against.

Left with no choice, Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney met with their lawyer on February 12th to file a restraining order against the Santa Fe Christian Church to stop demolition.

The very next day, Hugh, possibly sensing the severity of the situation, drove up Santa Fe Road to the top of the hill at 8:00am and took a look at the little white church.

Judge Richard Sprinkle sauntered into his office that same morning and began to sign off on papers filed. At 10:36am, he signed the injunction laying on his desk to stop any destruction of the Santa Fe Christian Church.

If only that paper had made it to the top of his pile. . .

At approximately 9:30am, the equipment arrived in front of the quaint, historic church and demolition began.

Just 66 minutes too late to change history.
Bulldozers leveled the Santa Fe Christian Church before an injunction could be served. The new church, still under
construction, can be seen in the background. Courtesy of the Kansas City Star

To think of how these families must have felt seeing that pile of rubble next to the gravestones of some of those pioneers who fought, planned and saved for the building of the church. It’s heartbreaking.

The next day, Mel Solomon, chairman of the City Landmark Commission, made his feelings perfectly clear in the Kansas City Star. “I was shocked and dismayed to hear of the needless destruction of the Santa Fe Christian Church, which is on the Old Santa Fe Trail.”

Sometimes, it seems, progressiveness gets in the way of saving pieces of our history. “This is another example of the failure of individuals to see the importance and potential of rehabilitating a significant remnant of our historic heritage,” Solomon explained, “It is tragedy not only for the valiant people who worked so hard to save this church, but to the entire community and nation.”

My, how accurate this statement is even today.

After the dust from the bulldozers settled along the drastically-altared landscape surrounding the little burial ground in New Santa Fe, Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney filed suit as “The Christian Church at New Santa Fe” against the Santa Fe Christian Church in April 1972. They sought monetary damages as well as control of the cemetery that stood in the shadow of their beloved church.

In May, 30 members of the original church stood Memorial Day weekend at the little cemetery, heads bowed in prayer. Just two months later in July, Hugh Keltner passed away leaving this organized fight a man down. And one month after that, Paul Kernodle died in a car accident and was buried in the New Santa Fe Cemetery.

To add insult to injury, Bill McKinney passed in December of that same year.

But the fight miraculously continued, many of these original members wishing for some type of resolution. And in 1975, it was finally granted.

Pioneer families formed the New Santa Fe Cemetery Association and the “new” Santa Fe Christian Church deeded part of the original lots 31, 34 and 35 to them for $1, protecting the burial ground of their family and friends forever.

Today, the outline of the baptismal font and part of the chimney of the original Santa Fe Christian Church can be seen inside the cemetery’s gates. Asphalt of the parking lot of the newer brick church covers the remains of most of the church today, although a deep sinking spot shows where the little white church once stood.

As the subdivisions moved in and the members of the church passed away, the memory of the church could have been lost in time.

But the church will live on forever.

Three years ago, a chance encounter at a store between my mother and the president of the Historical Society of New Santa Fe brought new light to the memory of the Santa Fe Christian Church. A project through the Little Blue River Chapter, NSDAR was in the works to, fingers crossed, erect a marker for the church.

“You should talk to my daughter,” my mom boasted, “She’s really good at researching things.”

Thus, I was “volunteered” to research and write a grant for this unfamiliar church.

What can I say? The rest is history.

This research not only led me to this church, but it opened the doors to incredible stories of perseverance, pioneer lives and back to that little cemetery I loved so much as a little girl. This gave birth to this very blog and inspired me to pursue my unusual passion for the history of Kansas City.

In March 2017, the final fight for the Santa Fe Christian Church was officially recognized by the NSDAR. The grant was approved and a permanent marker will be placed where the church once stood.

Along the way, one of the most rewarding aspects of this project was meeting, talking to and resurrecting some priceless friendships with these families so deeply impacted by this. I am humbled, honored and so lucky to have met them.

Rev. Charles Stewart recounted in the late 30s how the Santa Fe Christian Church was still strong even then. “The church of tomorrow will continue its work for good,” he predicted, “because its congregation is not the type to let its interest lapse.”

The foundation of the Santa Fe Christian Church and
part of the chimney are visible today
On October 7th at 1:00pm, we will congregate one final time at the spot of the Santa Fe Christian Church and honor the founding, the fire and the fight to save this beautiful church. Many people from out of town related to these pioneers will be traveling to Kansas City for this dedication.

It’s a moment of celebration of these brave pioneers, and I hope that the community will now not forget the little pieces of it that have remained unnoticed for just shy of 50 years.

It’s my privilege to be a part of this.

Please join the NSDAR, the Historical Society of New Santa Fe, and representatives of the families of these pioneers as we have a formal Marker Dedication on October 7th at 1:00pm. The dedication will start inside St. Gregorio’s Orthodox Church next door (940 W. Santa Fe Trail) and will proceed outside to the unveiling of the marker. Afterward, all are invited to share memories, look at artifacts from the town of New Santa Fe, and stroll the beautiful grounds of the New Santa Fe Cemetery.

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