The Commercial Club

(KC 1900 Series: Post: # 4)

As the 19th century moved toward its close, Kansas City had become the type of city of which its founders could have only dreamed. An increasingly important part of the national economic network, and the new gateway to the vast resources of the west. A city resilient in its response to hardships, and a modern city in terms of culture, industry, and expertise. And a solid location for investment from the commercial capitals of coastal New England and the river towns of the new industrial Midwest. But those dreams were fulfilled, and belong to prior generations. This generation of Kansas City leadership had its own dreams.

Consider that the Hannibal Bridge was completed in 1869, and that the City of Kansas City was incorporated only nineteen years earlier. Would a town with only two decades of experience have the financial or even the administrative capacity to broker and implement such a monumental deal? With all due respect to the city’s leadership of the day, it seems a stretch. And, in fact, the story of the Hannibal Bridge demonstrates that while there’s always an important public component to such projects, it was the needs of business that prompted the campaign, and it was individual private interests that sealed the deal.

For the first thirty six years of Kansas City’s existence, the private interests played a role in every major project, working together through a network of social and business connections that were organic and informal. But the pace of progress had changed dramatically with the completion of the Hannibal Bridge. What had been a city of 32,000 in 1870 would be one hundred thousand more by 1890. The city government had grown as well, but the involvement of the business sector had exploded to the point that had left the long-timers awash in a sea of new faces.

Presidents of the Commercial Club, and its latter form, the Chamber of Commerce, 1887 to 1925. MVR, KCPLibrary

Kansas City was coming to grips with the need for order, like other cities of its age. Kansas City’s eastern influences brought with them a model for that order. The Commercial Club, the forerunner of today’s Chambers of Commerce, dated back to 1830s Boston.  The Commercial Club of Kansas City was formally organized in August 1886, with an initial membership of fifty-seven, although within a decade its membership exceeded one hundred, and by the turn of the century, two hundred. For many years its membership was limited in a couple of ways. First, only officers or executives of a company could represent that company as the certified member. At the time of the Convention Hall project, the total membership was limited to 250. The other limitation was affordability. The certificates cost $100 and then the annual dues were another $50. In modern terms, that equates to about $3,000 for the membership certificate, and $750 for the annual dues.

The Club’s objective, as their adopted slogan put it, was to “Make Kansas City a Good Place to Live.” The strategy to achieve that was initially very simple – encourage good business relationships within the community, and widen Kansas City’s trade territory. One tactic for the latter was the junket – short trips, usually by rail, to other parts of the region. The club’s archive at the State Historical Society contains itineraries for two junkets in 1890 – one through southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri, another through northern Texas and the Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma). These trips included upwards of 100 members traveling in special Pullman cars and lasting anywhere from two to ten days. While there were many stops along the way, most were whistle stops. There were typically only one or two cities where the group stayed longer than a few hours. But even the briefest stop featured a local band to herald the arrival of the train, and a brief but flattering speech by a local dignitary expressing gratitude for the visit, describing the city’s best assets and overall prosperity, and their sincere desire to have a trade relationship with Kansas City. Sometimes there were tours, and in select cities, formal banquets and entertainments. The direct benefit of these junkets is hard to calculate, but the fact that they were only conducted during the club’s first few years suggests the benefits did not exceed the expense. The junkets did geographically broadened the Commercial Club’s reputation, but it was through its local work that its true influence was raised.

Though the Club had strict guidelines forbidding the direct endorsement of specific candidates or taking formal positions on strictly political questions, from its earliest days the club played a passive role in most of the community-related issues of the day. As time went on, The Commercial Club took on a civic leadership role in implementing plans that were – or could be – solely the concern of the city’s private sector. At the first mention of a new cause to champion, the Commercial Club would assign the subject to one of its numerous committees. Or create a new one, if the matter was deemed sufficiently important.  Committee members were selected on their position within the community and/or within their industry, but also for the special talents they might have – a savvy investor, a level-headed negotiator, an attorney experienced in contracts. Notable individual members and familiar names included Arthur Stillwell, August Meyer, U.S. Epperson, Gardiner Lathrop, Kirkland Armour, Kersey Coates, George Fuller, F.A. Faxon, Hugh McGowan, Walter Dickey, and J.V.C. Karnes, while corporate members included company names still known, like the Kansas City Star, the Midland Hotel, the John Deere Plow Co., the Armourdale Foundry and Berkowitz & Co.

During the early days of the Commercial Club it was critical to have these “marquee” names associated with it, but the long-term success of the Commercial Club required the inclusion of businessmen and businesses more familiar with Kansas City at the “main street” level. Representatives from smaller manufacturers, retailers, insurance agents, utility operators, bank branch managers, sales representatives and the like kept the more elite elements of the Commercial Club connected to and in the service of Kansas City’s broader interests in maintaining a healthy local economy for everyone and a quality place for business to locate.

E.M. Clendening

The light that shines bright on the names that live through history leave other names in their shadow. The minutes and correspondence of the Commercial Club highlight the real and considerable contributions of these notables, and other names less familiar are present, but their contributions are less clear. Then there is E.M. Clendening, a man who’s contributions to the Commercial Club and the Convention Hall project arguably exceed that of every other member of the club.

E.M. Clendening, later in his career. MVR, KCPLibrary

Edwin McKaig Clendening was one of few early members well connected on both sides of the Club’s status line. Clendening had arrived in Kansas City in 1882 as owner of a shoe manufacturer and wholesale distribution company. “E.M. Clendening & Co. Fine Boots and Shoes,” sat at 8th and Main Street, as close to the center of Kansas City commerce as one could get. Clendening and his business would have been well known from the moment the doors were opened. He came from West Virginia (at the time, part of Virginia), with his family. His in-laws’ had wealth and position back east, and some of Clendening’s shirt-tail relatives were the wives of men who had also come to Kansas City to represent that wealth, and who wound up in the higher ranks of Kansas City elite. Clendening was well-regarded, but not as favored, and his life would not always be as comfortable. In 1892, his business failed, and for a while, his financial position was shaky. But the same year that his business closed, the Commercial Club offered him the recently vacated position of Secretary, a position comparable to the modern Executive Director. Clendening held the position for the next 32 years, and became the driving force behind many of The Commercial Club initiatives.

During his tenure, The Commercial Club would take on a number of important projects beyond their immediate interests, including formation of the city’s public library system and its manual training school, active involvement in the creation of the Kessler Parks and Boulevard Plan, the expansion of the city’s Priests of Pallas celebration, and public relief and improvements following the 1903 flood. Clendening was crucial to the Commercial Club’s success in each of these endeavors, and most of all in the Convention Hall Project. For if there is one entity that was responsible for Kansas City’s Convention Hall story, it was The Commercial Club, and if there were only one person responsible for overcoming the remarkable obstacles between the first brick laid and the opening of the Democratic Convention, it is E.M. Clendening.

Clendening’s name appears frequently because he was the thankless administrator who handled it all for the city’s influential men. He’d already being doing that for five years when the Convention Hall idea became a real undertaking. This became a project of enormous complexity, and for a period of about five years, Clendening added to his load the management of all the various Committees and Boards associated with the club and the Convention Hall, and was the on-site manager of the Century Ball.

Clendening’s name appears in virtually every document in the Convention Hall archives, and so his name will also appear in future posts regarding the actual events involved in building the fire and all that follows from that. While there is not much personal correspondence, Clendening appears to have been well regarded by the Club’s Board of Directors, of which he was one, well recognized in his position by the public in general, and with an affable personality he employed in service to the Club. Clendening embodied the philosophy that the Commercial Club promoted, a philosophy he summed up years later in a 1904 edition of Harper’s Weekly:

The lesson to us of Kansas City is to take advantage of our opportunities to redouble our energies, to encourage higher manhood and better citizenship, to place in office men of ability, and to do whatever is right, not only to make this place great commercially, but also to make it a city worthy of emulation.

Top Photo: Members of the Commercial Club board a streetcar during the 1900 Democratic Convention. MVR, KCPLibrary

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