The 1900 Convention: Kansas City in the Spotlight

(KC 1900 Series: # 15)

And so the story finally reaches the day on which Kansas Citians had for so long pinned their hopes and dreams. Many had been convinced of its importance because they were assured that word would be sent far and wide about their wonderful city, how miraculous its resurrection had been, and how Kansas City was on the brink of a bright and unparalleled future.

Kansas City had already received a great deal of positive press and a genuine outpouring of support and sympathy across the nation for its recuperation from disaster. As to the other imaginings – how wonderful the city was, and the brightness of the city’s future, the wire stories that came out of the convention give a peak at the impression Kansas City was making on those in attendance – or at least the press in attendance.

On July 4, 1900, Kansas City played host to the Democratic National Convention. The city had long struggled to shake off a rough and tumble reputation glommed together from images of wagon trains, outlaw gangs and border wars. Indeed, even as it grew, connecting to rail lines, building the stockyards and linking the most disparate and distant places in the country, it remained a place on the way to somewhere, but with seemingly nothing to offer the country’s more sophisticated citizens.

This illustration published in the Kansas City Star during the three days of the Convention depicts shows the Convention Hall’s arena floor literally packed to the rafters with enthusiastic delegates and spectators.

Of course, that wasn’t true. By 1900, Kansas City was on its second generation of Eastern investors who had sent their sons and sons-in-law, their seconds-in-command and their hired advisors to come to Kansas City and figure out how best to invest in, and profit from, the growing markets Kansas City provided. And when these relative newcomers established themselves as community leaders side-by-side with those who had been here since “pioneer” days, the whines and moans of a collective inferiority complex were transformed into a community-wide determination for changing that image.

Securing the bid for the Democratic convention was the cherry on top of the sundae that was the city’s new Convention Hall. Originally, the hall had been planned for more commonplace – though important – conventions of trade and professional groups. But the City’s links with the eastern establishment gave it an opportunity to claim the Democrat’s big event with relative ease. They were officially notified only about a year prior to the convention, so the city went into overdrive to make the convention happen, at the same time remembering that this was their chance to emerge from the shadows and walk into the spotlight.

So how did Kansas City fare? It almost didn’t matter what Kansas City did or didn’t do to fashion the particular image of the city they wanted the world to see. As it has ever been and will be, it was the press that fashioned the image. And in the process, they give us a glimpse into what Kansas City was like that wouldn’t necessarily have been mentioned in the local press. What follows are some selected passages from field reports by correspondents from three major New York papers of the day – the New York Times, the New York Tribune, and the New York Sun that follow several themes. The newspaper accounts below have been condensed and conflated around these themes, and are taken from editions of each paper during the first week of July, 1900.

Advertising cards were a great way for local saloons, hotels and entertainments to entice the out-of-towners to the places in Kansas City that had given the town its well-deserved “rough and rowdy” reputation.

“Wide Open Town”

Kansas City is a wide open town, whatever else you can say about it. Conventions don’t interfere a little bit with the regular order of things on Sunday out here. {If} there is any stranger within Kansas City’s gates tonight who doesn’t have a good time it is because he doesn’t want it. 

Kansas City seems to be the paradise of the nickel-in-the-slot machines and similar automatic gambling devices. Besides the cigar stores and saloons, the drug stores, newsstands, restaurants, theatres and every other place where the public may be expected to gather is fully equipped with machines of one kind or another. In the barrooms there are machines for winning drinks and cigars on either end of the bars and away from the bars there are other machines where you can gamble for the nickel that your less fortunate brothers have dropped in and failed to get back. These machines would not be tolerated a minute in New York. No one wins by playing them.

How is it that we have not heard of this before? New York has a reputation for extreme wickedness, and we are painfully aware that we are none too good. But New York does refrain, nominally, and, to some extent, really, from many forms of Sunday amusement that Kansas City permits, and yet Kansas City does not get its name into the magazines. In some respects it is a great advantage to be little, unimportant, and inconspicuous.

The City Beautiful

The bar room fad of Kansas City just at present is cut glass displays. In many of the most popular and prosperous of these places there is a most elaborate selection of beautiful cut glass, consisting of punch bowls, vases, flower dishes, etc., piled up in the middle of the shelf behind the bar, in one of the places where an exhibit of cut glass is made it is placed upon a revolving shelf and is a very attractive sight, as it shines and sparkles in the rays of the electric light and is duplicated in the many mirrors of all sides of the room. In the smaller places the glass exhibit is stationary and not so expensive, but the general idea seems to prevail all over the town.

A modern colorization of the original Pergola on The Paseo Boulevard at 11th Street. Though the quote (right) references “Grand Boulevard,” by its description the writer was describing The Paseo, one of the earliest developments in the Parks & Boulevard Department’s “Kessler Plan,” begun in 1893.

Kansas City is not all made up of hotels, theatres, barrooms and places of that kind. It has some beautiful spots where quiet, modest people live who know nothing of politics and care as little. These pleasant breathing spots are scattered here and there, mostly on the bluffs that line all sides of the city, and there is one place that is unique. There is the Grand Boulevard that is ten squares long and contains green grass and fountains and attractive walks and drives all around and about it. There are pillars and arcades, too, of Grecian architecture, and during this hot Sunday the benches that line the walks were filled with men, women and children in their best clothes, looking as if they were all having a good time in spite of the trouble down at the political centres.

A perpetual source of delight to convention visitors is the attention which is paid by the average Kansas City householder of modest means to the cultivation of flowers. They are seen in window boxes in little area plots abutting on the pavement, in more ample beds on the lawns and along the walls and fences, on hundreds of trellises may be seen the beautiful purpose clematis, which is now in season, while the crimson rambler, with its clusters of diminutive roses, is just closing a brilliant and successful engagement. The hollyhocks are in bloom and are seen in pleasant profusion and in great variety of colors.

How Kansas City Runs Her Railroads

There are a lot of mighty sore people in town today who don’t like the way Kansas City runs her railroads. It is the custom in this town to start the last car from each terminus at 12 o’clock midnight. That this was the custom was not generally known, and when, at half past 11 o’clock last night, when it was still hotter than mustard, and growing hotter, the people who did not have anything else to do but search for ways to keep cool, took to the street cars. They intended that they should go to the end of the line and come back. They went to the end of the lines all right and those who are kicking today discovered when they go there that the last car had gone. The ends of the Kansas City street car lines are most of them miles away from the city itself and these unfortunates were held up with no means of getting to town but to walk. The Hon. C.A. Walsh, secretary of the Democratic National Committee, was one of the victims. Mr. Walsh got out on the end of one line that ends somewhere near Independence, Mo. The conductors said when he got there, “We turn in here.”

“Thunder,” said Mr. Walsh. “How am I going to get back to town?”

“Don’t know, and care less,” said the conductor, cheerfully.

Walsh got off and snapped back at the conductor, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know where you wanted to go,” said the conductor, and Mr. Walsh started trundling the miles back to the city. He was in luck, for he had not gone far when he found a telephone and he got a hack to come out for him. It was 2 o’clock before he got to his hotel. In many cases people were not able to find telephones and they had to walk it clear in.

A portly office holder from Greater New York, after enjoying a two hours’ session in a cool lager beer resort, started for his hotel about midnight. When about to cross the street an open car bowled along, and the New Yorker soliloquized: “Guess I’ll take a ride.” He did. The car took him to the Kansas line, and alighting, he waited expectantly for another to convey him back to the Midland (Hotel). After waiting fifteen minutes he made inquiry of a policeman and learned that no cars would go out until morning. Then he trudged along and heartily cussed the railroad company.

“Kansas City is All Right.”

This spirit of hospitality exists everywhere in this town, and the verdict on all sides is “Kansas City is all right.” The men are just as kindly as the women. Here if a stranger’s face wears an inquiring look…the citizen will ask him if there is anything that he can do. If the stranger wants to go anywhere, the man tells him how many hills away it is, or very likely he will accompany him there and that, too.

In the era of the “big hat,” it shouldn’t be surprising that someone designed this wearable marvel in celebration of the opening of the Democratic Convention, Note, too, that she wears one of the subscription buttons like a broach on her collar.

They are very swift people out here in Kansas City. You can get almost anything while you wait. Right opposite [from] the Baltimore Hotel, there is a tailor shop where you go in and get measured for a suit of clothes and get it before dark the same day. At the hotel if you want to get your clothes cleaned and pressed, they will do it for you in fifteen minutes. Of course, every Eastern man who comes here has had to have his clothes cleaned and pressed. The tailor shops in the hotels have this sign: “We fix you up while you eat or sleep.” The laundries in the hotel get clothes in the morning and return them before noon. On Walnut Street there is a sign in front of a doctor’s office: “We diagnose your case without asking questions.”

Kansas City expects a lot of women at this convention. Many delegates and leaders have sent word that they intend to bring their wives and the Kansas City women have made up their minds to give them a good time. The Athenaeum of Kansas City will throw open its house at Ninth and Locust streets, and it has invited all the women’s clubs of the city to help entertain the ladies who come here to attend the convention. All the women are going to wear lavender badges with a ribbon of red, white and blue. Like the badges the Kansas City men wear here, the badges of the Athenaeum women will contain the words: “Ask me anything you would like to know.”

The hospitality is genuine. It is kindly and not obtrusive. And visitors will go away from Kansas City with a warm spot in their hearts for the people here.

**************************

This political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly from the week of the Kansas City Convention is a master-class in squeezing as much political symbolism into a single panel as possible.

As to the politics involved at the 1900 Convention, I leave to others to dissect, to the real historians who have devoted their time and talents to the stories of William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, “the Cross of Gold,” the McKinley/Bryan rivalry and the short-lived Roosevelt/Bryan rivalry following President McKinley’s assassination shortly after his second term inauguration in 1901, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt’s sudden start on what would become one of the most interesting and influential presidencies in American history. See what I mean? A lot of history there, and Kansas City was just a small early part of that.

Also, none of that has anything has anything to do with Kansas City’s history.

But another story does, if it is in fact true. The local democrats were not only contractually saddled with underwriting much of the hospitality costs involved, they were challenged to provide the convention with a large number of volunteers for various roles. The best assignments of course went to the party’s most faithful and most generous supporters. Something as small as serving as a page on the convention floor, a grunt assigned to be available to help delegates with anything they needed whenever they needed it?

Well, that was an assignment for a youngster, maybe one whose interest in politics was just beginning, and would relish this chance to play a small part in history in the making. Perhaps even one without ambition, one who’d never imagined himself as playing a large part in history. Certainly not as President of the United States.

Such, as the story goes, was President Harry S Truman’s first entry into the world of politics. But note that even though this story is (or has been) made available through the Truman Library’s website, a conversation with staff there revealed that they themselves could not identify the source of that information. If that story isn’t true, it should be.

Young Harry Truman, probably a few years before he served as a page at the 1900 Democratic Convention in Kansas City

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