Building Nature: Foot Paths, Bridle Trails, and Picnic Fires in the Country Club District

(originally published 7/25/19)

Two posts ago, I wrote about the public art – statues, fountains, reflecting pools, etc. – that J.C. Nichols incorporated into the Country Club District’s residential and commercial development sites. Public art was one of the “community features” he thought important for the District to achieve the status of development he envisioned. The shopping districts, the schools and the churches were also features, and while some of the art is a bit worse for wear after 100+ years, it and most of the other features are still evident today.

The one feature that was abandoned, and would have inevitably been lost regardless, is the natural world – the pastoral and its hint of wilderness that Nichols wanted to weave into the fabric of the District. As long as it was serving other purposes, that is.

Like most developers, the Nichols Company bought property when it could – when it went up for sale and when financing was available. It didn’t matter if they were ready to actually build anything there. That could wait, and until they were ready, J.C. Nichols was adept at finding ways to make money on otherwise dormant property. The company built facilities that required little investment and could easily be relocated to other District property. That included maintenance facilities like plant nurseries, greenhouses, equipment sheds and, in the case of the Brookside Shops, a lumber planing mill. It also included a few resident amenities. For many years at least three versions of a simple nine-hole golf course moved around to different sites within the District, and for a brief time in the late 1920s a miniature golf course stood on the still fallow acres at the west end of today’s Country Club Plaza. And that wasn’t even the first temporary use of that property.

Mini golf course under construction on the Plaza, circa 1925. The Plaza’s iconic Balcony Building can be seen at the far right.

In 1915, the Nichols Company was in the earliest planning stages of what would become the Country Club Plaza, having only so far acquired a few swampy parcels. But at the west end, near today’s 47th & Jefferson Streets, the first building was the Parkview Riding Academy. In an announcement in the October 1915 American Breeder magazine, Roy L. Davis of Marshall, Missouri, is credited with establishing the Parkview Riding Academy and named as its operator. Commenting on those who would question whether a riding academy still had merit in the coming age of the automobile, the magazine added, “This may seem like a 20-years-ago-item to some, but it isn’t, and moreover, a good rider mounted on a good saddle will beat any safe speed in an auto for attracting attention—and that is what a lot of good money is spent for.”

While so far there is no documentation of any direct financial connection between the riding academy and Nichols or his company, I wouldn’t bet against it. At the least, there would have been a tenant/landlord relationship, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was a lease with favorable conditions for both parties. Nichols was always interested in promoting and then brokering mutually beneficial relationships. And in the case of the Parkview Riding Academy, Nichols’ benefited from the passive use of the land, and how those passive uses could buffer his property from land he didn’t control. He also saw the riding academy as an additional amenity for District residents, and its potential as a trailhead for a system of riding and hiking paths, winding around and through the most scenic sections of the early Country Club District.

Detail of the Nichols Company’s promotional map, “A Guide to the new Foot Trails and Bridle Paths,” circa 1922.

This system of trails was one of the Nichols Company’s most ambitious attempts to marry the natural setting to suburban development. In 1922, the company published a map: A Guide to the New Foot Trails and Bridle Paths in Mission Hills and Indian Hills. The riding trails were really just one trail with an optional shortcut. It assumed the rider came from and returned to the riding academy (not shown on the map) and traveled in either direction on the trail, but the loop covered the area southwest of the current State Line Road and Shawnee Mission Parkway intersection. It traveled west to include the Shawnee Indian Mission, south on today’s Mission (then Porter) Road to 67th Street, and then northeast generally following the course of Brush Creek.

Nichols made sure his map promised intriguing sites for both riders and hikers. On the map, each trail was labeled with two names: one was in the style of summer camp names, hyphenated syllables implying clichéd connections to the area’s Shawnee tribes of the past, and the second was simpler and in English, but was still artificially concocted with a sensibility toward marketing. Thus, the “Owa-Ko-Pe Trail” below Mission Drive by the golf course was also “Valley Trail.”

Besides the advantage of being pronounceable, the simpler names were also often the more charming: Firefly Gulch, Happy Bird Trail, Difficult Trail, Owl Pass, Close to the Campfire Trail, Sunset Trail and Beautiful Plain Trail, to name a few. The map also noted points of interest along the trails, some of which are possibly real, others which seem suspicious. For example, it’s possible that the “Wyoming and Utah Freighters Camp” site on the map was actually used by freighters on the Santa Fe or other trails, but I find it hard to believe that “Pirates Rendezvous” ever saw any real pirates this far inland.

It is both far-sighted and more than a little ironic that even as the Nichols Company reshaped the landscape to build houses, it went to great lengths to reconstruct natural elements that weren’t necessarily original to the site. They built a couple of lakes, and Willow Lake, or more commonly “Eisenhower” Lake, is still at 63rd Street and Ensley Lane in Mission Hills. A few blocks west, at 63rd and Indian Lane, sat Lake Hiwassee, with its man-made islands, rustic bridges and picnic ovens. The lake was there for more than twenty years, but in the end, Lake Hiwassee’s demise was the last of all the “community features” that claimed to connect the District to its more natural past. In the late 1940s the Company gave up on Lake Hiwassee and its continually leaking dam, and transformed it into today’s Hiwassee Park.

But it took only a few years for the company to abandon the riding trails. By the late twenties, the area was built up sufficiently that the riding trails were more nuisance than nicety. It could not have been an unforeseen event, for who wants to live in a beautiful new home only to find the detritus of strangers and their unmannerly animals along the borders of one’s yard?

One can almost imagine Nichols shrugging his shoulders at the complaints. No regrets, he probably thought. The idea had run its course. And besides, the construction of the Country Club Plaza was underway. It was no doubt time to abandon the trail system, dismantle the riding academy and start thinking about developing that block into a part of the Plaza design. And until then, a miniature golf course probably sounded like just the thing.

(Featured Photo: A postcard depiction of Lake Hiwassee)

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