(originally published 1/16/20)
A few years ago I discovered this wonderful book on the history of Prairie Village. “Wait,” you say. “Prairie Village has a history? Isn’t it just a shopping center surrounded by tract housing?” No, not at all. In fact, a lot of the communities that today blend together as one big swath of suburban development started out as separate settlements that became cities in their own right, with their own origin stories. And because most of what I personally knew about Prairie Village came from its role as part of the Nichols Company housing developments, when I found the book, “Prairie Village: Our Story,” I was eager to learn more. And now, with this forum, I have the chance to share some of what I’ve learned with you. PV’s story is another example of how much history is hidden beneath and behind the landscape we see.
When Thomas Porter came to Kansas City in 1858, Kansas not yet a state. It was a territory, just opened up to white settlement four years before. Of course, there had been settlement along the border between Missouri and what had long-since been declared Indian Territory by the government. But in nothing much of an organized fashion. Besides, it was dangerous. Anyone living either side of that border for 50 miles could almost any time find themselves smack dab in the middle of a skirmish between raiders and ruffians on either side of the “slavery question.”
Thomas C. Porter, Sr. had come from Virginia, bringing with him a family that would one day include five children. He purchased 160 acres, which today would be bounded by 69th Street to the north, 71st Street to the south, and primarily include the land now occupied by the Indian Hills Country Club and the Prairie Village Shopping Center. It crossed a road that led north toward the Shawnee Indian Mission, and if it had a name when Porter arrived, I have not found it. But it soon became known as Porter Road, and would for at least another fifty years, when it was officially named Mission Road. Porter’s sister Betty and her husband Thompson Lewis came as well, and bought property adjacent to Porter’s to the north, 69th to 67th Streets. These two homesteads – the Porter’s and the Lewis’s – would eventually be subdivided among their children, but most of it would remain in the hands of one of those original families well into the 1900s.
Soon, there were enough families, enough homesteads to warrant a school, and so, in 1866 they built the one-room school house that became Prairie School, originally at 63rd Street and Mission Road. Over the years, the school would be moved further south to about 67thand Mission Road, and rebuilt on that site twice more. Starting with small, wood-frame structures, by 1936 the latest school was built of brick as a WPA project. Prairie served the community for another 54 years, but in 1990, the building was almost completely destroyed by fire following a lightning strike. Building codes adopted after 1936 called for the construction of a more modern building, but the new school’s plans incorporated the east entrance to the school, which today creates an archway entrance to the campus, and a small gateway back in time.
Within the first decade of the 1900s, many factors contributed to the proliferation of housing development all across the country. The economy and jobs were shifting, making home ownership possible for more people. The car was becoming a part of the culture, and with it the ability to drive farther between home and work. Families were looking as far out as today’s Prairie Village and building small homes on their own. And at least one developer was methodically buying up property as it became available. The Porters, the Lewises and the generations that had come before made the land just on the other side of State Line particularly appealing to J.C. Nichols.
Its appeal resided in its opportunity, for the raw land Nichols found was hardly development-ready. This was farm land, with the usual messiness associated with livestock and crops. There were places that served as communal dumps. There was a formidable creek that had to be incorporated into the scheme. There were long-time property owners who were reluctant to sell, or holding out hoping for a better deal. But these were all problems Nichols had been managing since his start in the early 1900s.
While the Nichols Company had purchased some of the property prior to and even during the Depression, he began acquiring land aggressively in 1941, at the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II. The market for these houses would probably not come until after the war. But that delay gave the Company time to make a plan for the area he would call Prairie Village, named for the old school house. But by this time, the plans were not J.C.’s, who’d stepped away from much of the company’s management in the late 1930s, turning it over to others. When his son, Miller, returned from service, Nichols put him in charge of the company. While the planning for Prairie Village – the street layout, the subdivisions, the shopping center – was a part of J.C.’s vision, it would be Miller who would see it to completion.
J.C. Nichols died in February of 1950, and with him went the approach to development that had earned him so much success and fame. Miller’s approach responded to the different housing need in post-war America. Smaller, more reasonably priced starter homes for the GIs coming home and starting new lives. Smaller lots than in the older Country Club District, too, and the layout of the houses and their architectural style were more uniform and less ornamental. By one account the Nichols Company was producing a completed house each day over a five year period.
Aerial view of the Prairie village Shopping Center and the adjacent neighborhoods, late 1940s. Photo courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri.
With the neighborhoods came the institutions that had always defined the Country Club District neighborhoods. The first phases of the Prairie Village Shopping Center started in 1948. Village Presbyterian held its first service in 1949. And in 1951, Prairie Village the development officially became Prairie Village, the city.
“Prairie Village: Our Story” was the initiative of the City of Prairie Village 50th Anniversary Committee. The book was published just after the centenary, in 2002, by the City of Prairie Village, which still has – to the best of my knowledge – copies of the book for sale at City Hall (see link below.) It’s a quality publication, a landscape-oriented paperback printed on beautiful glossy paper, which brings out the quality of the stunning black & white images throughout. For those who appreciate oral histories, every chapter has recollections by former or current residents about the events, people and places that defined Prairie Village for them. Oral histories are not necessarily the best way of learning the “facts” of history, for memories can be faulty. But for capturing the spirit of the story, or in this case the place, nothing beats them.
(Photos: Top Banner – An early photo of the Porter Homestead, now the location of the Prairie Village Shopping Center (date unknown) – photo courtesy of the City of Prairie Village.)