Kansas City's Fairmount Park

by John M. Olinskey and Leigh Ann Little

Chapter 20:  1913
Kansas City's Fairmount Park ~ Kansas City History, Sugar Creek History, Independence, Missouri History, and more
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It is the last year of peace for a large part of the world.  There was a second Balkan war, but it was also the year that brought us the concept of the forward pass.  Ragtime music was in along with dances like the Bunny Hop.  Woodrow Wilson is elected president with less than 50% of the vote because of a split in the Republican party.  Congress and the president signed on to the income tax... 1% for anyone making over $3,000.  In their wisdom, they exempted themselves from paying.

In Sugar Creek, things were looking bleak, the problem was Elliot W. Major, 28th governor of Missouri (1864-1949), a Democrat from St. Louis.  In March the Missouri State Senate and House of Representatives passed bill no. 516, also known as the Casey bill, written by State Senator M. E. Casey and Representative John F. Thice of Independence, whose district the refinery and 600 citizens resided.  Governor Major, at last years' Democratic party nominating process, pitted a local man who would have made a much better candidate, William Cowherd.  Cowherd was very popular locally, but the votes were in the bigger St. Louis area.  Jackson County and the Pendergast machine did vote for the jerk.  Even the Independence Examiner got into the act of massaging the Governor's arse.  In an editorial, "Here's to Governor Major", on March 20, the newspaper eulogized on what a wonderful and honest man he was.  They lied.  In defending the Standard Oil plant in Sugar Creek, they in effect said that just because Standard Oil is a bunch of crooks, that was no reason to destroy the town.

And what a neat little town it was.  Located in a hilly valley bordered on the north side by the Missouri River and the refinery, about a mile or so south was one of the best and most successful amusement parks in the nation.  Running from the refinery entrance several blocks north a dozen business prospered.  And it was all threatened by Governor Major.  Over half the 600 residents worked at the refinery.  The town existed only to serve the employees and their kin.  Everyone owned their own home or were paying for it.  The only hotel, "The Standard", catered to single employees, most of whom wanted to own a piece of the American dream, your own home to raise "The Greatest Generation", as they were now being born.

P. M. McAvey, owner of the Standard Hotel/restaurant, located three blocks south of the main gate.  His business depended entirely on the number of men employed at the oil plant.  There were also six general stores, three saloons, a pool hall/barbershop/eatery, another barber shop, a drug store, three coal-and-feed stores, a lumber yard, a union church with two more churches on the way, and a new $25,000 school house.  There was also a physician.

"I have been in business here for years," said J. F. McMains of the Sugar Creek Mercantile Company.  "I built the building and my total investment is about $15,000."  He was also going to lose $1,000 a month in sales if the refinery went belly-up.  Mrs. L. W. Bollinger, wife of the Postmaster, located in the drug store.  She was also the owner of the business, said, "We have a prosperous little village here.  Most of us own our own home or are paying for them.  To take the oil industry away from us will be to drive us away from surroundings that are dear to us.  Yet we will have to go if the refinery is closed.  

W. G. Dye, who runs a grocery and general store said, "I came to Sugar Creek busted.  Now I am pretty well fixed and would like to stay that way.  Of course I would have to move with the rest.  Sugar Creek would turn into a frog pond.  The Journal reporter called it a "lively little town".   

Socially, Sugar Creek was a breath of fresh air from a bunch of silly laws like you can't drink beer and play pool at the same time.  To prevent this from happening on March 26 a delegation from Kansas City, Sugar Creek, Independence, went to Jefferson City to talk to Governor Crook. Among the VIPs were Judge Allen Pruitt, Bernard Zick, Jr., Olney Burrus, Judge G. L. Chrisman, and Judge R. D. Mize.  They all left by train from Kansas City and all were Democrats.  

The judges made their argument from a legal standpoint, mainly that the elimination of the Standard Oil Company in the state would leave Missouri in the hands of another monopoly.  Others argued that the destruction would cost the state a lot of tax money.  Finally the people of Sugar Creek's representatives were allowed to speak.  William Pavey, employee of the Standard at Sugar Creek, resident and taxpayer: "It spells ruin for us.  There are seventy of us who have bought homes and what little we have is invested in them.  Shut down the company and we will have to begin life over again."  He continued, "We have just completed an addition to our school house, thereby issuing $12,000 in bonds.  Send the Standard out by the state and there would be one room of the 8 in that schoolhouse needed,  and those left in the school district could never take care of the bonds."  

Edward Lynn, John Walker, George Hackett, and James McMain, all from Sugar Creek, told the same kind of story.  McMain is a merchant and it would wipe him out, he told "his highness", "If this bill does not become law, my stock of goods I could move elsewhere.  But my real estate and my buildings would be worthless.  Mr. Hackett said that he had been working at the refinery since he came here.  "The savings of a lifetime are invested in a $3,000 home in Sugar Creek.  It would be a hard line to start over again with my family of seven children."  His pleas only gained him a street named after him.  B. F. Larkin, who is a farmer and sells his veggies to the town, said, "There is no doubt in my mind the removal of the refinery would mean the wiping out of Sugar Creek."  The governor had made his mind up a long time ago.  As he was Attorney General before and had helped to initiate the suit against Standard in 1908. 

Waters/Pierce was a St. Louis based distribution company without a refinery.  Missouri had been divided down the middle.  Standard didn't go into St. Louis, and W. P. didn't dare try to compete with Standard.  The Governor and the W. P. Oil Company wanted to buy the Sugar Creek refinery, but Standard said no, and purchased land in Wyandotte County, Kansas, and prepared to dismantle the Sugar Creek plant and move the operation across the state line, leaving Missouri with only one oil company, but no way to make gasoline which, in 1913 replaced kerosene as the most manufactured component of crude oil.  

This was not the kind of outcome expected by the federal anti-trust laws.  Standard's attorneys petitioned the State Supreme Court for a rehearing.  The company also promised to enlarge the capacity of the refinery if permitted to stay. 

The town did get a break when a fire broke out in a combination pool hall and lunch room, owned by Sherry Simpson.  At 8:30 in the morning of April 4th, a fire started in the flue pipe of the kitchen area.  It was feared that the whole business district would be destroyed, as there was not a brick in town.  To the rescue came the Standard Oil fire department, saving the day.  Besides destroying the pool hall, and adjacent building was damaged.  The properties were owned by the Standard Warehouse Company, no connection to the big refinery.  Loss was estimated at $2,000 but was covered by insurance.

Amongst all the turmoil Fairmount Park opened officially on May 4th.  Admission was 10 cents.  But as last year, fishing was allowed as soon as the ice thawed.  Balloon races were again going up, a contest between balloons from St. Louis and St. Joseph was billed as "The Race of the Saints."  A cabaret was built and the boats got a new coat of paint, picnic tables were added to the picnic area.  The vaudevillians were now working in an outdoor theater, and the German cafe was still being called the German cafe.  That would soon change.

Electric Park had made many improvements, too.  A new ride called the "Ben Hur Roller Coaster."  Two cars full of patrons ran along parallel tracks racing each other, powered by gravity and the weight and movement of the passengers.

On Sunday, May 4, Kansas City's newest amusement park opened to the water lovers.  DREAMLAND, located along the tracks that took people to Fairmount Park along the Blue River.  500 boats and canoes were rentable.  A 6,000 square ft. dance floor was constructed.  McGain's 12-piece orchestra  played.  Concessions were to be added later.  There must have been a lot more water flowing to the Missouri River via the Blue than there is today.  Because of a drought in the summer, the enterprise was a flop.

This spring started out wet east of the Mississippi.  Hundreds drowned.  Opening day at Fairmount Park was practically washed away.  It poured all day.  New rock on the packed walkways were washed away.  It was a good day for the fish in the lake, as there were no fishermen.  

After a few weeks of intense rain, the 18-acre lake was again in danger of breaking the dam and flooding downtown Sugar Creek, fires, floods, and political pestilence threatened a piece of the American dream.  

In between the cloudbursts, balloons took to the air.  But it could be dangerous.  On May 11, an aeronaut named Henry Sparks jumped prematurely from 200 feet.  It was not high enough for his parachute to fully deploy, and his demised was saved by electrical wires that broke the fall, finally hitting the ground with a thump in front of the refreshment stand, missing all six thousand spectators.  Later that day Teddy Clark, 12 years old, jumped from moving trolley and received possible internal injuries.  He just lived a few blocks east of the park, he must have been heading to Kansas City.

In early May the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri foiled the Governor's plans by agreeing to a rehearing of the Standard Oil's ouster.  The Standard didn't really comply with some of the provisions, while Price/Waters did.  They were just screwing with the state or were just showing complete incompetence on the part of the company.  

The high school graduating class of 1913 was Charlie Mallinson, Jr., and Mary Spicer.  As a soldier in WWI, Charlie would get gassed and died of his injuries in 1923.  Thursday the middle-school kids put on skits.  Friday night was the time to receive the degrees, which was as impressive as a college degree is now, as most kids just didn't finish high school.  Getting a job as soon as possible was more practical. 

The school board had just adopted a new rule that all teachers had to live in the town of Sugar Creek.  Mr.Hinkle of KC, the principle, didn't want to move, so he didn't renew his contract, and was immediately hired by the Independence School District to be principal of Ott School.  H. J. Liggett was then hired to fill the vacancy.  The grade school had four teachers.  Miss Green was a new addition as the town was assured of survival. The other grade school teachers were Miss Edna Marsh, Miss Mamie Farrell, and Mrs. Edith Pritchett, who, in the 1960s, taught Sugar Creek kids how to play the piano.  The high school had one teacher. 

Thanks to the copious amount of liquid sunshine, Fairmount Park's lush grass and beautiful flowers had never looked better.  Because of the acreage, lots of new activities could be included, like tennis and handball courts.  The tennis courts were clay, but the handball courts floors were made from cement, the first in Kansas City.  It was called "Western Style".  Swimming lessons were given free in the mornings by Professor H. C. Wilson, former instructor at the New York City's swimming club in Manhattan.  10,000 baby fish were hauled from the government fish hatchery in Nevada, Missouri, via railroad tank car, and dumped in the lake from the railroad tressel that crossed over the eastern part of the lake.

On July the Fourth, the people of Sugar Creek celebrated their salvation from the clutches of Governor Major, whose main goal in life was to become the Vice President of the United States.  In an article titled, "Sugar Creek Was Glad," the Examiner sent a reporter to cover the celebration in Sugar Creek, and filed the following:

Sugar Creek's celebration Saturday night of the Standard Oil decision of the supreme court was sane enough to satisfy the most exacting apostic of "sanity" in celebrations.  There was an almost entire absence of noise.  But none the less the people felt profoundly grateful for their deliverance from the disaster which threatened their homes, especially when they remembered how delicately their fate was poised in the balance for several months.

The three saloons of Sugar Creek voluntarily closed Saturday night, and the proprietors went up to the school house and helped to serve barbecued meat and soft drinks, such as lemonade, to the crowd.  This was on the south side of the school house. 

On the north side there was a "feast of reason and flow of soul."  The crowd numbered about one thousand.  A stand had been constructed on which the Third Regiment band from this city played several airs.

John F. Thice, of this city, representative of the legislature from this district, was made chairman of this meeting.  Mr. Thice worked hard in the legislature to save Sugar Creek.  Before he became an attorney he was for several years an employee of the Standard Oil refinery.  In a brief introductory talk he drew a picture of the Sugar Creek of the near future, with a fourth-class city government, its own mayor and other city officers, and streetcar service extending from the Fairmount Park line.

J. G. Paxton was introduced.  He said, "I wept with you in your sorrows, and now I am glad to rejoice with you in your good fortune."  He reviewed some of the work that was done to save the refinery and the town from destruction. 

State senator Michael E. Casey, of Kansas City, told how the bill which bears his name was carried through the senate and finally lacked only the Governor's signature to become a law, but was vetoed by the governor, thus leaving the only hope for the company and for Sugar Creek in a modification by the supreme court of its decision, which modification finally came.

E. C. Hamilton said that, "Now that the heavy cloud had drifted away from over the town, the time had come for the people to devote more of their attention to educational and social development.  He said they had already made a good start in their fine $30,000 school building.

And then after three cheers had been suggested by the chairman and been given by the crowd by the supreme court, the  exercise closed with a display of fireworks.  The grounds were decorated with bunting and pennants and lighted with electricity.  Many people from Independence attended.

Also in attendance were my three-year-old mother and my 12-year old father.  The town would live and so would I.

Many picnickers were again held at Fairmount Park, like the one for the Montgomery Ward company's family and friends, all 5000 of them.  Being held at a different location every year, July 20 was Fairmount's turn, this being the seventh year.  Many of the concession stands were leased by the picnic committee a "competent orchestra" played.  A 55-person minstrel show was attended by 3,000.  The dance pavilion was taken over for three hours.  Baseball on the athletic field between the "Fats and Leans".  The umpire, A. J. Giron, manager of the clothing department, called the game in the fifth inning in favor of the Fats, 9, Leans, 0, in the middle of the game when one of the "Leans" vigorously argued a call.  At the time the Leans were ahead 11-5.  The Lean causing the altercation was last seen being chased by a pissed off bunch of skinny guys.

There were twenty-two athletic events with $600 in cash prizes.  All this on a very hot day.  A hospital tent with nurse was never needed. The picnic put $3,000 in the park's bank account.

This was a record year for large, corporate-type picnics at the home of picnics.  Like the Grocers' Association picnic, that drew 20,000, Railway Passenger Agents, Irish-American Athletic Association, the Railroad Club, and many, many more.

10,000 attended Labor Day at Fairmount Park because of the 100 air temperature, many went straight from the cars to the bath house to the water.  By 4 pm it was standing room only.  For the first time automobiles were allowed inside the park.  There were so many that some had to park in the picnic area.  Because of the heat the bathing beach and some concessions stayed open an extra week.  

This was a time when husbands divorced their wives for sneaking a cigarette.  You could travel practically anywhere in the world without a passport, and a person could take money from one country to another without any problems.  That was about to change.  The people of Sugar Creek won their battle, but because of years of working with carcinogens like benzene many, like my father who worked there for 36 years, would die of brain cancer and other health problems.  The Price/Waters Oil Company was promised competition by Standard, today try to find one of their stations.

Copyright 2007 John M. Olinskey

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