Auld Lang Syne

(KC 1900 Series: #16)

What with the string of events that had just transpired, the Democratic Convention had become the finish line for Kansas City. Keeping focus on the do-or-die task at hand made the successful completion of the 1900 Democratic Convention the big “ta-da” moment the city needed to pinch themselves into recognizing that they’d made it. They’d built a hall a second time, at an impressive pace, and they’d played host to some of the country’s most influential men of politics and the press.

The story of the Kansas City’s first convention hall, what it took to get it, and do it all over again, and the triumph of the Democratic convention was over. But of course, the life of the hall was just beginning, and beginning right in time for a most auspicious occasion.

In the ninety days available to rebuild the Convention Hall before the Democratic Party descended on Kansas City, it quickly became apparent that the hall might be serviceable for the convention by July 4, but it would be far from complete. That probably suited Kansas Citians just fine. When the first building had been completed, the opening day celebrations were left wanting. The general public was awed by this impressive building in which Kansas Citians felt invested. But with three frantic months of rebuilding the hall and preparing for the convention, there had been no time for Kansas City to congratulate itself on its monumental achievement. But now the convention was over, and an opportunity was on the near horizon which brought a reason to celebrate anew the Convention Hall, literally a once in a century opportunity.

The future looked bright for Kansas City at the start of the 20th century, at least from the point of view of the publisher of the Kansas City Times.

As those of us who experienced the beginning of the 21st century learned or were reminded, a decade, any decade, begins with the year ending in one, not zero. While the zero seems to make some sense aesthetically, since there is no year 0 the first year is always 1. So it was that the night 1999 ended and 2000 began, we were actually celebrating the beginning of the last year of the 20th century. But folks in the century before us must have been smarter than folks from 2000. They understood that the really important date of celebration for the shift from the 19th to the 20th century would be December 31, 1900, and that January 1, 1901 was the first year of the 20th century. And so to welcome in the century and to finally and properly welcome their new Convention Hall into the life of Kansas City, the Century Ball was planned for New Year’s Eve, 1900, to be held in the Convention Hall, of course.

The idea for the ball was presented and approved by the board on October 11, a mere eighty days before the event. Admittedly, for a town that had just built an entire building and planned a convention in 90 days, 80 days should be more than sufficient to plan a big party. The proceeds of the ball would go into the hall’s operating fund, although the Committee thought it best to focus the reason for the celebration on the important moment in history and that a specific – yet to be determined – ceremony would provide a nice theatrical touch to the celebration.

But first, there were some items on the to-do list. At the top, by the calendar at least, was the matter of post-fire subscriptions that had been pledged but never paid. The organizational structure of the convention hall was expanding – it now had its own Finance Committee, but still within the purview of the Commercial Club. The finance committee met the week after the Democratic Convention, on July 11, to discuss ways to collect those subscriptions. The pledges, particularly the larger ones, were needed immediately as the Convention Hall had only about $1,000 in its coffers, and needed to add $10,000 to the pot to finish off the work that couldn’t be completed in time for the Convention. That $10,000 was over and above the amount of past due subscriptions, about $14,500.

The July 11th minutes recount that the Secretary E.M. Clendening submitted a list of unpaid subscriptions, and that a special committee of four members of that committee were selected to meet personally with one of the slackers, none other than W.R. Nelson himself, who had made a showing of his largesse by committing to that pledge publicly in his newspaper the day of the fire. His pledge was for $5,000, almost one third of the total unpaid subscriptions. In a meeting of the committee a week later, a motion was approved to provide a list of the outstanding debts to the newspaper for publication, to be accompanied by a short description of why the money was so urgently needed.

For reasons not detailed in the record of the Convention Hall directors the following week, this resolution was proposed and adopted:

Dancers on the floor of the arena, as depicted in the Kansas City Times

WHEREAS; woman, in all crises affecting the home, the community and the nation, can always be relied on for material assistance and moral inspiration, and

WHEREAS, in the great task of rebuilding Convention Hall the Directory has been sustained and encouraged by the loyal support substantial, financial assistance and patriotic endeavor of the women of Kansas City,

THEREFORE: be it resolved by the Board of Directors of Convention Hall, that we extend to the Megaphone Belles, the Women’s Auxiliary, the Harmony Musical Club, and all the noble women who have assisted in forwarding the great enterprise of rebuilding Convention Hall, our sincere and grateful thanks for the magnificent services they have rendered in this crisis in the history of our City.

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

Based on the minutes and other corporate documents, the planning for the ball took up much of October, November and December, and the man hours of a remarkable number of committee members. So many, in fact, that the minutes reported that the committee would be wise to contact the newspapers to request that the names of committee members not be listed. This many people out in the community asking for advice, sometimes for favors, negotiating terms with vendors, could not help but spread the word about the Century Ball quickly, which would naturally result in requests for tickets in exchange for goods or services, or special requests for this accommodation or that many tickets, and so on. It was probably too late to stop the side deals, but keeping the wraps on the committee members’ names might stop the spread.

Ultimately, the committee took a similar approach to the arena floor tickets. The arena floor was the premium spot for the occasion, where everyone would be in their finest ballroom attire, where the band would play for the dancers, and where the finest of everything would be on offer to those who could afford the high price of that admission. The committee chose to extend invitations for the arena floor, presumably based on lists of names of the city’s wealthiest, most influential, and most generous citizens. When requests for those tickets came in, the policy was to inform interested parties that those tickets were by invitation only, and that the invitations were in the process of going out. Beyond that, there was nothing to be done. No amount of pleading, no side deal offers could materialize an invitation.

As the committee agreed, the ceremonial focus around the evening was this important date on the calendar, when not just a year or decade but an entire century was closing, and the promise of a new century lay just ahead. Arbitrary, it’s true, but the human instinct to mark the passage of time in significant increments makes it feel like the work is making itself anew. The impulse to bridge past, present and future is undeniable, and calls for ceremony. It’s recorded that the Decorations Committee for the Century Ball had been tasked with orchestrating the moment on stage that celebrates the moment in history, but no committee minutes or similar documents appeared to detail the discussion. Their choice was a fine one – tried and true and still in use today. The time capsule.

The time capsule was officially known as “the Century Box.” The box was built of heavy copper plates joined at the edges by ornamental brass trim, and measured 19 inches long,  15 inches wide, and a foot deep, sufficient to hold artifacts and messages. Another metal plate was affixed to the top, inscribed, “To the Mayor of Kansas City, Kindly Open the Enclosed” along with the date.   

Based on lists provided from various sources both at the time and later, the following pieces were part of the collection ceremonially placed in the Century Box in front of the crowd gathered at the Convention Hall the night of December 31, 1900:

The dinner menu for those who paid for the arena floor seating, the most expensive ticket for the night of the Century Ball.
  • Photographs of the forty-three men who were officers and directors of the Commercial Club during 1897 and 1898
  • A list of all the Century Ball committees and their members
  • Century Ball ephemera – badges, programs, tickets, menus and the like
  • Messages to future Kansas Citians, written out on small cards provided to the Century Ball attendees who had paid for the premium seating on the floor and in the boxes
  • A letter from Judge Charles E. Moss who proposed the Century Box as the ceremonial piece of the celebration. Judge Moss’ letter was purely tongue-in-cheek – it was addressed to the future President of the United States under the fanciful presumption that in 100 years, Kansas City would surely be the nation’s capital.
  • Letters from James A. Reed, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, and Robert L. Marshman, the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, both letters addressed to their future counterparts.
  • Similarly, letters from Fire Department Chief George Hale, Police Department Chief John Hayes, and other city officials, each letter addressed to their future counterparts as well.
  • City information, including the annual Fire Department report, the Police Blue Book (a sort of department directory) along with the department’s rules, the City’s Blue book, a State of Missouri handbook, and the annual Police Department reports.
  • The current city directory, assuring a great number of Kansas Citians that their names were included in the box.
  • The society blue book, featuring all the names, club affiliations, business affiliations and events of interest to those who followed Kansas City high society.
  • Various Kansas City newspapers
  • A poster from the 1899 American Royal. Note: The American Royal’s own history dates their origins to 1899, but at that time it was still known as the National Hereford Show.
  • Materials related to the Livestock Exchange
  • A program from the sausage makers’ ball
  • Examples of lacework and embroidery
  • Samples of local businesses’ advertising materials
  • The Masonic by-laws
  • An 1898 issue of Century magazine with a Maxfield Parrish cover illustration, as well as other magazines including Harper’s
  • A John Deere equipment catalog

The box was enclosed in the western most of the pillars that marked the main entrance at the south. It was covered by a plate, not be opened until the dawn of the 21st century. In the accounts of the fire and the second rebuilding, however, I found no mention of the Century Box. Some thirty years later, when the Municipal Auditorium was built adjacent to the Convention Hall site, the box was moved there, waiting patiently for the midnight toast to the new 21st Century. It would have to wait almost seventy years.

Kansas City Star’s front page depiction of the Century Ball’s costume dance, wherein many wore the fashions of the 18th century, in celebration of the 19th century’s departure and the 20th century’s arrival.

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