The Speculators: Waldo, Wornall, Ward and Armour

(originally published 5/9/19)

Four men and their descendants played significant roles in the development of the land south of Brush Creek, as well as contributed greatly to the larger story of Kansas City and its part in the American West. They were speculators. They came to make their fortunes, or came with fortunes to invest, and because of this, their names were appropriated to commemorate streets and parks, which in turn shared the names with neighborhoods and shopping districts. Before you know it, the stories behind the name are footnotes. So here, in a manner of speaking, are the footnotes for four of Kansas City’s most notable early families – and most prominent place names.

The Waldo Family

Dr. David Waldo came to Jackson County in 1841 from Gasconade County, Missouri, to start a freight business to serve the Santa Fe Trail. At the age of 39, he had already proven himself industrious and entrepreneurial. He earned a medical degree from Transylvania College in Kentucky, and in Gasconade County he both ran a lucrative lumber business and served in several official capacities – deputy sheriff, clerk of the circuit court, justice of the peace and postmaster among them.

Waldo was among the first to purchase land in the area when it was still newly annexed acreage in Jackson County. His property consisted of approximately 1,000 acres, mostly north and east of what would become 75th Street and Wornall Road. He employed his brothers to help him run the freighting business, with the land providing a place to house and graze stock, keep equipment and otherwise organize his regular caravans to Santa Fe.

He sold part of his property to Richard Wornall for their homestead, the donation of the land for the construction of Border Star School, and one length of the easement for a railroad that brought goods south out of Westport. While his land was critical to his business, David Waldo never lived on that property. Instead, he lived in Independence, Missouri until his death in 1878. His son, also David Waldo, was instrumental in the development of the Waldo area at the turn of the 20th century, the first significant commercial hub south of Westport.

The Wornall Family

Many know the name John Wornall for his home that is now a museum at 6115 Wornall Road, just north of the Brookside shops. Yet the original Wornall property extended significantly beyond the house, leaving Wornall’s widow and children to play out the family’s role in the development of the land.

The Wornall story begins when John’s father, Richard Wornall, moved to Missouri from Kentucky in 1843 with his wife and two grown sons, John and his brother George. That same year, he purchased give hundred acres from the founder of Westport, John Calvin McCoy, for $2,500. The land covered the area between modern-day 59th and 67th Streets, and Main Street and State Line Road. Richard Wornall returned to Kentucky around 1850, following the death of both his son George and his wife Julia. He left his property in the care of his remaining son, John.

John Wornall made a success of the property by turning it into a working farm. He built the house in 1858, witnessed the use of his home as a field hospital during the Battle of Westport, and in between, gained a city-wide reputation as a solid businessman and civic son. He was married three times (widowed twice), and from his last two marriages left behind four sons. Shortly after John Wornall died in 1892, the process of subdividing his property among his heirs began. In 1898, property abstracts indicate a redistribution of the property among Wornall’s five heirs – his sons Francis and Thomas from his second wife Eliza, his widow and third wife Roma, and the two sons he had with her, John Jr. and Charles.

In 1909, records show that the Wornall heirs, with son John acting as trustee, selling portions of the property to the J.C. Nichols Land Company, which served as the property acquisition arm of the larger Nichols Company. These transactions and agreements continue between Nichols and the Wornalls through 1914. In fact, Charles Wornall established the C.H.Wornall Realty Company sometime during this period and that company, not the Nichols Company, filed the initial plat for a subdivision just west of the Brookside shops that he called Wornall Manor. However, the Nichols Company purchased the property before the subdivision’s development was complete, and concluded the bulk of the housing construction in that area prior to 1920.

The Ward Family

Seth Ward had already enjoyed a long colorful career as a frontiersman, a merchant to the military, and a rancher when he settled down in Kansas City in 1871. He came with Mary, his wife of 10 years and the daughter of Westport notable Col. John Harris (of Harris House fame). For their home, Ward purchased a 450-acre farm from the widow of his old friend, William Bent, himself a famous western trader and trapper (and friend of David Waldo). The property that was the farm is today bounded by 51st Street on the north, 55th Street on the south, Wornall Road on the east and State Line Road on the west. It included a small brick home that Ward would later expand. Today, that 14-room mansion sits on the house’s original site at 1032 W. 55th Street. The property passed to one of Ward’s sons, Hugh, after Seth Ward’s death in 1903.

Prior to his father’s death, however, Hugh Ward made a decision that would one day have a profound effect on the Nichols Company development, indeed on the city as a whole. He was a founding member of the Kansas City Country Club, whose original golf course ran through what is now Gilham Park near 39th Street and Gilham Road. In 1896, when development started encroaching on the course’s pastoral appeal, Ward offered the use of some of his acreage for a new course. The Kansas City Country Club relocated to the 75-acres of land that would one day be Loose Park.

When J.C. Nichols began development work in 1905, he started just a few blocks east of the Kansas City Country Club location. The proximity suggested to Nichols the name he ultimately gave to his entire development – The Country Club District. By 1908, Ward had a contract with Nichols for the development of “high-end” residential housing around the golf course, in a neighborhood they named Sunset Hill. Nichols was in charge of development only; the property and any subsequent sales remained the assets of Hugh Ward.

Hugh Ward was still a young man when he died in 1909, and the Sunset Hill project was not yet complete. The property passed to his widow, Vassie Ward. Despite Nichols’ attempts to convince her of the contrary, she remained opposed to moving the country club and developing more housing. When, finally, she was ready to make that move, it was too late. By the late 1920s, the housing boom had started to bust, and Nichols had to inform her that there was no current market for high-end housing. Instead, he brokered a deal with the widow of another famous Kansas City businessman, Jacob Loose. Ella Loose provided the money to buy the property from Hugh Ward’s estate, and then turned it over to the City of Kansas City to create Loose Park.

The Armour Family

Kirkland Armour was a member of the second generation of the Armour family, a family which came to national fame and fortune in the last half of the 19th century as magnates of the meat packing industry. At the time, Kansas City ranked second only to Chicago as a meat-packing center, so it was natural that the Armour family would migrate here. Kirkland’s uncle, Simeon B. Armour, established the Kansas City packing house operation in 1870, and was soon joined by his nephew. Simeon was also a member of the city’s first Parks board which oversaw the famous Kessler park plan, and was one of the original owners of the city’s first public streetcar system, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company. Kirkland took over the management of the local Armour operations when his uncle passed away in 1899.

Kirkland’s particular professional passion was in developing Hereford breeder stock, and the seriousness with which he pursued that passion earned him an international reputation as a cattle breeder. In 1891 when he came into possession of a sizeable herd, he decided to establish a stock farm. The original farm was in Excelsior Springs, but Armour decided to move the operation closer to Kansas City. He found an eight hundred acre spread south of Brush Creek and just beyond the city limits, which he named Meadow Park Farms. The boundaries of the property extended from present-day Oak Street on the east and across into Kansas on the west, and from approximately 65th Street to Gregory Boulevard.

With Kirkland’s passing in 1901, his brother Charles continued to operate Meadow Park Stock Farm. In 1908, J.C. Nichols made his first purchase of a part of the farm property, about two hundred acres, for $75,000. The first purchases were on the Kansas side of the property, much of which would become today’s Mission Hills. By the early 1920s, the Nichols Company purchased the last of the property to develop as the Armour Hills and Armour Fields neighborhoods. The accounts of some of neighborhood’s earliest residents include memories of watching the cattle grazing in the fields to the south and west. The original Armour Farm house still remains as a residence in the 6700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, just behind Southwest High School.

(Photos: (top) The only known picture of Dr. David Waldo, circa 1870s; (bottom, l to 4) John B. Wornall; Seth Ward; Kirkland Armour)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: