Paved With Good Intentions: The Jackson County Plan of 1932

(originally published 4/18/19)

In my long professional life, I’ve created all sorts of plans for all sorts of groups. Plans are great – done well, they’re a roadmap. What I haven’t done often– or even seen often – is a report on what happened once the plan was done. The reason is simple – plans are seldom executed. Jackson County’s 1932 Results of County Planning is a plan that not only was executed, but boldly celebrated its accomplishments. During a period coincident with the Great Depression, Jackson County planned and built a new system of roads and highways – streets that today make up a large part of the metro’s transit framework. It also laid the foundation for Jackson County’s extensive park and recreation system. In a beautiful photo array, Results of County Planning documented what the plan’s outcomes were to be, while providing a snapshot of county geography at an important point in time. From history’s perspecitve eight decades later, it also hints at the limitations of the effort, or any plan.


In 1927, growth seemed limitless. Had the movers and shakers of Kansas City and Jackson County foreseen the economic crisis a few years ahead, they might not have made grand plans. But plan they did. As local developers built new homes at fever pitch, and the chamber of commerce instituted a five-year plan for industrial expansion, downtown Kansas City, Missouri attracted more than $50 million in investment, and Jackson County, under the direction of Presiding Judge Harry Truman, started planning for the county’s future highway needs, in order to “open up Jackson County to its fullest possibilities.”

By 1932, the first phase of Jackson County’s work was done, prompting the publication of Results of County Planning – part pitch-book, part travelogue, and part pictorial love letter to the County’s most prominent citizens and beloved institutions. Each page presents beautiful black and white photos of landmark points throughout Jackson County, arranged in a one-lap ambling tour that begins in downtown Kansas City, then heads east to Independence and roughly follows a clockwise path that concludes at the old Watts Mill site at 103rd and State Line.

“Sound reasoning gave basis to a two-fold plan which (1) pledged a system of highways that would make every section of the county accessible to the public, and (2) the eventual development of rivers, parks and other recreational places for public benefit.”

This quote from the book’s front pages assure the reader that all this work was based on “sound reasoning,” while a few pages later, the book declares the plan to be “based on practical needs; it was carried out along practical lines; its effect will be for the practical benefit of every citizen!” No restatement of findings here, although there is a fold-out map in the back showing which roads were improved, and a slim account of the lengths of pavement completed (more than 200 miles), all as a result of this plan. As a side note, N.T. Veatch, Jr. (Black & Veatch founding partner) was the project engineer, so the plan was likely technically well done. Still, in terms of evidence that effort matched need, the reader must take a leap of faith. Instead, the book lets the pictures tell the story – at least 200 of them, artistically laid across 110 of the book’s 122 pages. Nearly every nook and cranny in Jackson County is represented, highlighting some of the county’s best vistas, most impressive farms, and most venerable institutions.

The geography shown in these photos is almost unrecognizable. They show the large swaths of open land between Kansas City and all the (then) little outlying cities. There are no clues which of these towns would grow into their own. Grandview looks like Greenwood, Lee’s Summit seems no bigger than Levasy. Pictures of Blue Springs and Buckner could be interchangeable. The county’s industry seems lively and productive, but today the Sugar Creek refinery is closed, aptly named Cement City sits overgrown by the train tracks, and the only thing left of the brickyard near Knobtown is a road that bears its name.

“Leaving behind the hum and bustle of industrial Kansas City, every Jackson County highway leads through peaceful hills. Within a few moments by motor car, the city resident can find restful surroundings. County Planning has enabled every citizen to enjoy the county’s advantages to the utmost!” (and later…) “It is such rich farm territory as this that Jackson County’s new plan of highways has opened up to the traveler and for the farmer.”

The report simply stated what motivated the need for a plan. “The court had inherited a road fund deficit…largely the result of an antiquated highway system whose upkeep was exhorbitant [sic] and a drain on the treasury.” Here is revealed the publication’s primary purpose. All that investment in gravel, asphalt and concrete was made to increase the county’s tax base by attracting new visitors, residents, businesses and farms.

The connection was logical. Many of the images in Results of County Planning show the large rural estates of Kansas City’s business leaders. E.F. Swinney, then head of 1st National Bank, had a large Hereford breeding farm near Lee’s Summit Road and Highway 40. Building a fortune through lumber yards, Herman Dierks had a “farm-place” with “modern improvements” in the Little Blue Valley. Even William Rockhill Nelson had an “experimental farm,” near Grain Valley, for the sole support of experiments in the breeding of better livestock.

“Jackson County, keenly responsible to a great metropolitan population, has always given first thought to its wards and dependents – particularly to the youth which asked only the chance it deserved.”

By now, most of these large tracts of farmland have been plowed under for development. The Drumm farm is one of the few that remain, though it was a different sort of farm. Andrew Drumm made his wealth buying and selling cattle. The fortune he left established a working farm home for “orphaned and impoverished boys,” to nurture their character and provide them with skills. Although the mission has changed slightly, the farm remains today, albeit surrounded by Independence neighborhoods. Other charitable organizations are well represented in the book. Given that many of them were owned and operated by Jackson County, they are logical inclusions. But today it’s rare to see such institutions displayed as points of pride. Consider the following institutions as they are mentioned in the book:

The Parental Home (Noland Road) – “in a fine suburban atmosphere of peace and quiet, delinquent and dependent girls, wards of the county are given the opportunity they so urgently need.”

The McCune Home for Boys (Highway 24) – “where corrective measures are used to reclaim boyish waywardness. Dependent children, as well, are given new opportunities.”

The County Hospital and its Home for the Aged (near Raytown) – “institutions of kindliness which seek to care for the aged and the sick as befits their needs.”

The three separate Jackson County homes for “aged negroes, negro boys and negro girls” – “all in pleasant surroundings.”

“[Results of County Planning] is only the first step in an all embracing plan of giving Jackson County its deserved opportunity to live up to its possibilities. Coming days will see advantageous development of the Big Blue River, the Little Blue and Sni-a-Bar Creek. Likewise, the development of parks and recreation grounds at points easily available to all of the county population – the healthful places of diversion that every large and growing population needs for its own pleasure and for the sake of coming generations.”

The County had already developed some parks, beginning in 1922 with Hayes Park.  In 1927, the county had approximately 32 acres in parks. Today it has more than 21,000, making Jackson County’s parks system the third largest in the nation. But it would be more than twenty years before the county lake phase of the plan was implemented, starting with Lake Jacomo in 1959. Another decade passed before the county completed a major park system study, and another two decades before the plan that study prompted was implemented in 1986.

Thumbing through the pages, it’s hard to miss the irony. If the plan was successful, all those visitors, residents and businesses the book was courting would obliterate all those beautiful vistas. Even though it’s been 80+ years, it’s still surprising to see how much has changed, and to recognize some of the wonderful features that have been lost. But the truth is, with or without a plan, time would have erased much of what Results of County Planning has preserved. That Jackson County had the foresight to do such planning in 1927, and to actually implement that, has probably preserved some of it and venerated some of what it changed.

(Photo: Results of County Planning, Jackson County, Missouri. Kansas City, Mo., Produced by Holland Engraving Co., 1933.)

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