Tag Archives: Kansas City Local History

Did You Know?

While the information I will discuss in this post is probably common knowledge, I felt like it was fascinating enough that it deserved some more attention. Most of my posts have focused on interesting bits of information I have found or how my internship has changed my perception of Kansas City, but this post is simply about a site I did some research on and was truly surprised by the results…

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 5.05.02 PMIf you are a native of Kansas City or familiar with the local history, then the name Pendergast is probably familiar. He was the political mob boss who, under the dictation of the aptly named “Pendergast Machine,” controlled the politics and other aspects of Kansas City. One of his “associates,” Henry McElroy, served as the City Manager during the tumultuous years that Pendergast was in control. McElroy lived at 21 W 57th Street (to the right is a google map image of his house – blue) with his wife Marie and daughter, Mary. On May 27, 1933, four men drove up to the McElroy residence and kidnapped Mary, holding her hostage for 34 hours at a ransom total of $30, 000 – quite a sum for the 1930s.

photoWhen Mary (pictured left) was finally returned, the four kidnappers were captured and received their sentencing. What I found fascinating about this case is the fact that the ringleader of this criminals, Walter McGee was actually sentenced to death. In fact, a punishment so severe had never been given to a kidnapping offense in US history before! It is compelling that this specific punishment was passed considering Mary’s father had so much influence and was of course, infuriated by the crime. Not to mention, it is a significant judicial decision for KC and the U.S.

I think this might be one of the most interesting stories I have stumbled upon while working on this internship, partly because it was and is so sensational and also because it demonstrates the intriguing local history in Kansas City. Since I began this internship I have found it to be incredibly enlightening and informative on all things KC. I find myself eagerly spouting off new information to my friends and family who probably only feign interest in my newest story. Overall, I think this internship has not only improved my research abilities, but it has made me more aware of the rich history that we drive and walk past everyday.


You can read the full story of Mary McElroy’s Kidnapping at the KC Public Library website: http://www.kclibrary.org/blog/week-kansas-city-history/kidnapped

Shared Historical Consciousness

By Natalie Walker

Michael Frisch, author of A Shared Authority, writes that “public historians need to realize that their method can do much more than merely redistribute knowledge. It can, rather, promote a more democratized and widely shared historical consciousness.” In short, as public historians, it is our responsibility to not simply retell a story, but to add all of the competing ideas that have a part in this story – that “share” a part.

photoAs I have been writing the site histories for my internship, I find this to be one of the most difficult aspects of my research.  A lot of the information I use comes from files that contain site descriptions listed in the National Register for Historic Places. These documents depict the architectural importance of a place as well as its historical significance.  Where my work begins is when I have to combine these elements to tell a complete story.  While I may not be a real Public Historian yet, it is still my responsibility to do more than “redistribute knowledge.” One site in particular, The Santa Fe Neighborhood, I found to be particularly challenging. This area of Kansas City (see map) was in 1931 an all-White neighborhood with a covenant banning African Americans from living in the houses for a 30 year period.  However, by 1948, a prominent African American doctor moved into one of the homes leading to the overturning of this covenant by the Missouri Supreme Court.  Had I not told you this, there would still be plenty of history to write about in this area. The Disney Family, for example, lived in the neighborhood for sometime and so did the famous baseball player Satchel Page.  Not to mention the unique bungalow style homes that create a unique architectural neighborhood in Kansas City.

I think what Frisch is encouraging us to do, whether we are writing a site history, combing through archives, or writing a research paper is to remember that it is our job to tell a complete story.  More importantly, and I find that this relates specifically to my internship, is not to redistribute history with a newer, flashier title. Just because I am working to update a new guidebook to Kansas City’s historical buildings and neighborhoods does not mean I should regurgitate the same information. It is my responsibility to uncover anything that can be added to these site histories and to do so in a way that fosters a “shared historical consciousness.” Essentially, every part of the Santa Fe Neighborhood history is important. From its farm community and service as an outpost for supplies in the late 1880s to its significance as place where African Americans challenged unjust rules. If we all remember that our duty is to tell a complete story that portrays a “widely” understood and interpreted history, we are one step closer to being true historians for of and for the public.

History of the Everyday

By Natalie Walker

The word “history” conjures up ideas of grand battles, massive world wars, famous speeches, and prominent men and women of the past.  Less often do people associate history with the houses and buildings they rush past on their morning commute to work.  Unless someone is particularly interested in architectural history on the local level, those houses and buildings are not usually associated with the everyday citizens’ idea of “history.”  As an intern for the OHP I have begun to appreciate the local Kansas City history and to appreciate the history of places that often seem so “everyday.”

marriottWhile writing and researching these  site histories I find myself imagining the location of the building and when I see the actual picture, I am amazed that I have driven by it numerous times without realizing its significance.  Often times, the site is a mansion that I have seen and wondered about, but never took the time to research.  As I delve deeper into Kansas History I am able to make connections to the places with the modern day world.  For example, I once stayed at the Courtyard Hotel (Marriott) on the Country Club Plaza and after completing a site history for this hotel, learned that it was originally the historic Park Lane Apartments/Hotel built in the early 1900s as part of the J. C. Nichols vision for the Country Club District. Though it now serves Marriott hotel guests, it was once the location of grand parties associated with the Jazz and Prohibition Era.  Learning the history of this location made it that much more interesting and now it is not just a hotel that I stayed at once. In a way, I have begun the transformation from a passive consumer of history to an active consumer.

Although the word history seems to suggest incredibly important events, sometimes it as simple as a hotel that was built by a famous architect and real estate developer. What makes that kind of history important is not just the famous people associated with it or the noteworthy architecture, but the way in which it connects to the everyday citizen. So the next time you drive past a home or building that looks particularly interesting, try researching the place.  You might find some history that will connect you to your city, and to that site that has become part of your everyday commute.  In any case, you will become an active consumer of the everyday history, often the most rewarding kind.