Humble Beginnings

The next time you leave Kirkwood and make the turn onto Wornall, take a moment to look up at The Circle and the rocky hilltop on which it stands. Now imagine that limestone bluff 200 years ago. It presented quite an obstacle to pioneers. The plat from 1877 shows the "bump" in the road travelers had to follow in order to pass this massive natural feature. To this day, Wornall takes a slight jog to the west to accommodate this historical landmark just south of the Country Club Plaza.

However, although the geography presented challenges to early settlers, there were some who saw tremendous potential and opportunity in what would become Kansas City. It is their vision that has shaped the history and development of the area, including the Kirkwood property.

Francois Chouteau and Peter Roi: The Early 1800s

Apart from the Native Americans who lived here, the first settlers were of French descent. In 1821, Francois Chouteau and his wife traveled to the area from St. Louis via the Missouri River. They established Chouteau Landing, a trading post located about three miles below the bend in the river and what is now the Northeast Industrial District. The low ground along the river proved a difficult place to settle, however. After being flooded out in 1826, Chouteau rebuilt on higher ground at the foot of what is now Troost Avenue. Several other French families later joined the couple, and together they formed what is considered the first settlement in Kansas City.

Choteau’s trading post near the Missouri River was important for the development of the area: goods and more settlers arrived via riverboat, and Native Americans, hunters, farmers and trappers traded their wares at the post. Commerce and the lure of new frontiers began to establish the area as an important crossroad to the West.

Although French-speaking explorers and traders had been exploring the Missouri River since 1715, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that ferry owner Peter Roi improved the road between Francois Chouteau’s trading post on the river and small settlements on the Marais des Cygne River to the south. That early route would become our present-day Wornall Road, passing beneath the towering limestone bluff where Kirkwood’s Circle condominiums sit today.

John McCoy and Daniel Yoacham: Westport and the "Town of Kansas"

In 1833, John Calvin McCoy, often called the "father of Kansas City," opened a trading post about three miles south of the Missouri River. McCoy filed a plat and named his new location "West Port." It was the last place west-traveling settlers could buy supplies before heading out on the California, Santa Fe and Oregon Trails.

McCoy had also discovered a rock ledge that formed a natural landing for riverboats on the south shore of the Missouri River. He named this spot Westport Landing, and it is where Main Street meets the river today. It was here that his supplies were delivered by boat, ultimately unseating Independence, Missouri as the principal supply station for thousands of pioneers traveling west.

In 1838, McCoy and 13 other men purchased 271 acres, including Westport Landing, from Gabriel Prudhomme. The men then formed the Town Company. Accoding to legend, the new owners met to discuss possible names for their new township. Names such as Port Fonda, Rabbitville and Possum Trot were rejected in favor of "Town of Kansas," after the Kansa Indians who lived in the area.

During this same period, Daniel Yoacham purchased 80 acres of land from the United States government, which included the property now known as Kirkwood. Yoacham’s real estate spanned Brush Creek to the north and south and included an enormous 300-year-old burr oak tree that stood at what is now Ward Parkway and Central. For the settlers trekking west along the Santa Fe Trail, Yoacham’s tree was a welcome spot to rest and fill water barrels in the creek. Yoahcom was also involved in the development of Westport as the first person to own a home and tavern there.

Yoacham’s more inland property changed hands many times in the coming decades. It was also involved in the biggest and most decisive Union-Confederate Civil War clash in Missouri: the Battle of Westport. In October 1864, approximately 20,000 Union troops and 12,000 Confederates fought from the Blue River west across the state line and from Westport in the north to modern-day Loose Park in the south. Residents of Westport are thought to have stood on top of the Harris House to try and glimpse the battle. There is no direct evidence to link the Kirkwood property to this historic battle, but with more than 30,000 troops in the area, it is likely the high limestone bluff at Kirkwood was used as a lookout. The Battle of Westport was where the Union forces broke the Confederates’ power in this area.

The Lindsay Family

In 1872, the original Yoacham land was sold to Malvina Lindsay. The Lindsay family sold off many parcels to other people, perhaps taking advantage of the large real estate boom during the summer of 1887. The Lindsay family retained the land on the limestone bluff and used it as a working farm. It is here where Kirkwood is today. In fact, the Lindsay home is where The Circle condominiums now stand, and the Lindsay orchard is where Kirkwood’s beautiful garden grounds, the Park, now grow.

In 1905, the children of the original Lindsay family sold the future Kirkwood land to E.D. Williams. After 28 years, Williams sold the land to Kansas City visionary J.C. Nichols and his partner, John Schrader.

J.C. Nichols, William Rockhill Nelson and Irwin Kirkwood

J.C. Nichols and his vision for the land development of Kansas City would change the area forever. Nichols’ plan was to develop entire neighborhoods and shopping centers. Designed with the automobile in mind, they would attract residents looking for a better place to live and work. However, his shopping-district masterpiece, The Country Club Plaza, was still 17 years away.

At this time in 1905, Nichols was fresh from his first successful venture into the real estate development business. He had bought land on the high ground of 13th Street and Lathrop just before the flood of 1903 forced early Kansas City residents out of the river bottoms. It was an instant success and a neighborhood was built overnight. Without this initial achievement, Nichols’ development dreams may never have been realized.

Nichols married in 1905 and built a home at 5030 Walnut in the Bismark Place subdivision, which is considered the first subdivision he took over. At that time there were no modern conveniences: it was a quarter-mile walk to the nearest spring for water and the roads were not paved. After the long first year, Bismark Place began to receive improvements, including gas, water, sewers and electricity. These were the first modern developments to the land that would become Kirkwood.

William Rockhill Nelson was another influential, visionary leader in Kansas City. Owner and editor of the Kansas City Star newspaper, Nelson was a proponent of coordinated city planning and residential development. It was a vision he shared with Nichols, and the two became fast friends. Nelson’s only daughter, Laura, also became friends with the Nichols family, and in 1910 she married Irwin Kirkwood. It is for Irwin that the Kirkwood Room in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is named.

Nichols’ land holdings eventually stretched from north of the Plaza, south to Gregory Boulevard, and east to west from Troost Avenue to Mission Road, with the weedy Brush Creek flowing below the future Kirkwood.

The 1920s were an important time of growth and progress for Kansas City. In 1922, Nichols proposed the 55-acre Country Club Plaza. He brought to the Plaza the ideas he had developed while traveling in Europe and the Southwest, as well as hand-picked pieces to adorn the Spanish-style courtyards and sidewalks.

During that same time, the Jacob Loose farm—what is now Loose Park—became the Kansas City Country Club. With the Plaza as its centerpiece, the area came to be known as the country club district, an area designed to attract the wealthy. At that same time, the Kirkwood area—specifically Bismark Place—grew into a neighborhood of one and two-story bungalow, entry-level homes. Nichols and others continued to develop around this neighborhood for years, although by the 20s the last of the Bismark lots had been sold and Nichols no longer owned any of the future Kirkwood site.