Odds And Ends Kansas City
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE quality in Kansas City which struck Baron d'Estournelles de Constant, the French states-man and peace advocate, was the enormous growth and vitality of the place. "Town Development" quotes the Baron as having called Kansas City a "cite champignon," but I am sure that in saying that he had in mind the growth of the mushroom rather than its fiber; for though Kansas City grew from nothing to a population of 250,000 within a space of fifty years, her fiber is exceptionally firm, and her prosperity, having been built upon the land, is sound.
That feeling of nearness to the soil that I met there was new to me. I felt it in many ways. Much of the casual conversation I heard dealt with cattle raising, farming, the weather, and the promise as to crops. Business men and well-to-do women in the shopping districts resemble people one may see in any other city, but away from the heart of town one encounters numerous farmers and their wives who have driven into town in their old buggies, farm wagons, or little motors to shop and trade, just as though Kansas City were some little county seat, instead of a city of the size of Edinburgh.
In earlier chapters I have referred to likenesses between cities and individuals. Cities not only have traits of character, like men, but certain regions have their costumes. Collars, for example, tend to become lower toward the Mississippi River, and black string ties appear. Missouri likes black suits-older men in the smaller towns seem to be in a perpetual state of mourning, like those Breton women whose men are so often drowned at sea that they never take the trouble to remove their black.
Western watch chains incline to massiveness, and are more likely than not to have dangling from them large golden emblems with mysterious devices. Likewise the western buttonhole is almost sure to bloom with the insignia of some secret order.
Many western men wear diamond rings—pieces of jewelry which the east allots to ladies or to gamblers and vulgarians. When I inquired about this I heard a piece of interesting lore. I was informed that the diamond ring was something more than an adornment to the western man ; that it was, in reality, the survival of a fashion which originated for the most practical reasons. A diamond is not only convenient to carry but it may readily be converted into cash. So, in the wilder western days, men got into the way of wearing diamond rings as a means of raising funds for gambling on short notice, or for making a quick getaway from the scene of some affray.
Whether they are entirely aware of it or not, the well dressed men of eastern cities are, in the matter of costume, dominated to a large extent by London. The English mode, however, does not reach far west. Clothing in the west is all American. Take, for ex-ample, coats. The prevailing style, at the moment, in London and in the eastern cities of this country happens to run to a snugness of fit amounting to actual tightness. Little does this disturb the western man. His coat is cut loose and is broad across the shoulders. And let me add that I believe his vision is "cut" broader, too. Westerners, far more than easterners, it seems to me, sense the United States—the size of it and what it really is. Time and again, talking with them, it has come to me that their eyes are focused for a longer range : that, looking off toward the horizon, they see a thousand miles of farms stretched out before them or a thousand miles of mountain peaks.
And even as coats and comprehension seem to widen in the west, so hats and hearts grow softer. The derby plays an unimportant part. In Chicago, to be sure, it makes a feeble effort for supremacy, but west of there it dies an ignominious death beneath an avalanche of soft felt hats. Felt hats around Chicago seem, however, to lack full-blown western opulence. Compared with hats in the real middle west, they are stingy little headpieces. When we were in Chicago that city seemed to be the center of a section in which a peculiar style of hat was prominent—a blue felt with a velvet band. But that, of course, was merely a passing fashion. Not so the hats a little farther west. The Mississippi River marks the beginning of the big black hat belt. The big black hat is passionately adored in Missouri and Kansas. It never changes; never goes out of fashion. And it may be further noted that many of these somber, monumental, soft black hats, with their high crowns and wide-spread brims, have been sent from these two western states to Washington, D. C.
At Kansas City there begins another hat belt. The Missouri hat remains, but its supremacy begins to be disputed by an even larger hat, of similar shape but different color. The big black, tan or putty-color hat be-gins to show at Kansas City. Also one sees, now and again, upon the streets a cowboy hat with a flat brim. When I mentioned that to a Kansas City man he did n't seem to like it. With passionate vehemence he declared that cowboy hats were never known to adorn the heads of Kansas City men—that they only came to Kansas City on the heads of itinerant cattlemen. Well, that is doubtless true. But I did not say the Mayor of Kansas City wore one. I only said I saw such hats upon the street. And—however they got there, and wherever they came from—those hats looked good to me!
Some of the bronzed cattlemen one sees in Kansas City, though they yield to civilization to the extent of wearing shirts, have not yet sunk to the slavery of collars. They do not wear "chaps" and revolvers, it is true, but they are clearly plainsmen, and some of them sport colored handkerchiefs about their necks, knotted in the back, and hanging in loose folds in front. Once or twice, upon my walks, I saw an Indian as well, though not a really first-class moving-picture Indian. That is too much to expect. Such Indians as one may meet in Kansas City are civilized and citified to a sad degree. Nor are the Mexicans, many of whom are employed as laborers, up to specifications as to picturesqueness.
I feel it particularly necessary to state these truths, disillusioning though they may be to certain youthful readers who may treasure fond hopes of finding, in Kansas City, something of that wild and woolly fascination which the cinematograph so often pictures. True, a large gray wolf was killed by a Kansas City policeman last winter, after it had run down Linwood Boulevard, biting people, but that does not happen every day, and it is recorded that the youth who recently appeared on the Kansas City streets, dressed in "chaps" and carrying a revolver with which he shot at the feet of pedestrians, to make them dance, declared himself, when taken up by the police, to have recently arrived from Philadelphia, where he had obtained his ideas of western manners from the "movies."
I mention this incident because, after having labeled Kansas City "Western," I wish to leave no loopholes for misunderstanding. The West of Bret Harte and Jesse James is gone. All that is left of it is legend. When I speak of a western city I think of a city young, not altogether formed, but full of dauntless energy. And when I speak of western people I think of people who possess, in larger measure than any other people I have met, the solid traits of character which make human beings admirable.
Kansas City is said to be more American than any other city of its size in the United States. Eighty per cent. of. its people are American born, of either native or foreign parents. Its inhabitants are either pioneers, descendants of pioneers, or young people who have moved there for the sake of opportunity. This makes for sturdy stock as inevitably as close association with the soil makes for sturdy simplicity of character. The western man, as I try to visualize him as a type, is genuine, generous, direct, whole-hearted, sympathetic, en-. ergetic, strong, and—I say it not without some hesitation—sometimes a little crude, with a kind of crudeness which has about it something very lovable. I fear that Kansas City may not like the word "crude," even as I have qualified it, but, however she may feel, I hope she will not charge the use of it to eastern snobbishness in me, for that is a quality that I detest as much as any-body does—a quality compared with which crudeness be-comes a primary virtue. No; when I say "crude" I say it respectfully, and I am ready to admit in the same breath that I dislike the word myself, because it seems to imply more than I really wish to say, just as such a word as "unseasoned" seems to imply less.
You see, Kansas City is a very young and very great center of business. It is still engrossed in making money, but, being so exceptionally sturdy, it has found time, outside of business hours, as it were, to create its parks and boulevards—much as some young business man comes home after a hard day's work and cuts the grass in his front yard, and waters it, and even plants a little garden for his wife and children and himself. He attends to the requirements of his business, his family, his lawn and garden, and to his duties as a citizen. And that is about all that he has time to do. He has the Christian virtues, but none of the un-Christian sophistications. Art, to him, probably signifies a "fancy head" by Harrison Fisher; literature, a book by Harold Bell Wright or Gene Stratton Porter; music, a sentimental ballad or a ragtime tune played on the Victor ; architecture—well, I think that means his own house.
And what is his own house like? If he be a young and fairly successful Kansas City business man, it is, first of all, probably a solid, well-built house.. Very likely it is built of brick and is "detached"—just barely detached—and faces a parked boulevard or a homelike residence street which is lined with other solid little houses, like his own. Now, while the homes of this class are, I think, better built and more attractive than homes of corresponding cost in some older cities—Cleveland, for example—and while the streets are pleasanter, there is a sort of standardized look about these houses which is, I think, unfortunate. The thing they lack is individuality. Whole rows of them suggest that they were all designed by the same altogether honest, but somewhat inartistic, architect, who, having hit on one or two good plans, kept repeating them, ad infinitum, with only minor changes, such as the use of vari-colored brick, for "character." True, they are monuments to the esthetic, compared with the old brownstone blocks of New York City, or the Queen Anne blocks of cities such as Cleveland, but it must be remembered that New York's brownstone period, and the wooden Queen Anne period, date back a good many years, whereas these Kansas City houses are new. And it is in our new houses that we Americans have had a chance to show (and are showing) the improvement in our national taste. I do not complain that the domestic architecture of Kansas City represents no improvement; I complain only that the improvement shown is not so great as it should be—that Kansas City residences, of all classes, inexpensive and expensive, in town and in the suburban developments, are generally characterized by solidity, rather than architectural merit. The less expensive houses lack distinction in about the same way that rows of good ready-made overcoats may be said to lack it, when compared with overcoats made to order by expensive tailors. The more costly houses are for the most part ordinary—and some of them are worse than that.
I am well aware of the fact that the foregoing statements are altogether likely to surprise and annoy Kansas City, for if there is one thing, beyond her parks and boulevards, upon which she congratulates herself peculiarly, it is her homes. I could detect that, both in the pride with which the homes were shown to me and in the sad silences with which my very mildly critical comments on some houses, were received. Nevertheless, it is quite true that Kansas City very evidently needs a good domestic architect or two ; and if she does not pardon me just now for saying so, I must console myself with the thought that, ten or fifteen years hence, she will admit that what I said was true.
Kansas City ought to be a good place for architects. There is a lot of money there, and, as I have already said, a great amount of building is in progress. One of the most interesting real estate developments I have ever seen is taking place in what is called the Country Club District, where a tract of 1,200 acres, which, only five or six years ago, was farm land, has been attractively laid out and very largely built up on ingenious, restricted lines. In the portion of this district known as Sunset Hill, no house costing less than $25,000 may be erected. As a matter of fact, a number of houses on Sunset Hill show an investment, in building alone, of from $50,000 to $100,000. In other portions of the tract restrictions are lower, and still lower, until finally one comes to a suburban section closely built up with homes, some of which cost as little as $3,000-which is the lowest restriction in the entire district.
I visited the new Union Station, which will be in operation this winter. It is as fine as the old station is atrocious. I was informed that it cost between six and seven millions, and that it is exceeded in size only by the Grand Central and Pennsylvania terminals in New York. The waiting room will, however, be the largest in the world. - The gentleman who showed me the station gave me the curious information that Kansas City does the largest Pullman business of any American city, and that it also handles the most baggage. He attributed these facts to the great distances to be traveled in that part of the country and also to the prosperity of the farmers.
"You see," he said, "Kansas City has the largest undisputed tributary trade territory of any city in the country. We are not, in reality, a Missouri city so much as a Kansas one. Indeed Kansas City was originally intended to be in Kansas and was really diverted into Missouri when the government survey established the line between the two states. We reach out into Missouri for some business, but Kansas is our real territory, as well as Oklahoma and Arkansas. We get a good share of business from Nebraska and Iowa, too. These facts, plus the fact that we are in the very center of the great American feed lot, account for our big bank clearings. In bank clearings we come sixth, St.. Louis being fifth, Pittsburgh seventh, and Detroit eighth. And we are not to be compared in population with any of those cities.
"Almost all our greatest activities have to do with farms and produce. We are first as a market place for hay and yellow pine; second as a packing center and a mule market; third in lumber, flour, poultry, and eggs, in the volume of our telegraph business, and in auto-mobile sales. And, of course, you probably know that we lead in the sale of agricultural implements and in stockers and feeders."
At that my companion, who, because he resided for a long time in Albany, N. Y., prides himself upon his knowledge of farming, broke in.
"I suppose," said he, "that instead of drawing stockers and feeders with horses, they use gasoline motors nowadays ?"
"Oh, no," said the Kansas City man, "they walk."
" Walk?" exclaimed my companion. "They have made an advance in agricultural implements since my day if they have succeeded in making them walk!"
"I'm not speaking of agricultural implements," said our informant. "I'm speaking of stockers and feeders."
"What are stockers and feeders?" I asked.
"Cattle," he said. "There are three kinds of cattle marketed here; first, fat cattle, for slaughter; second, stockers, which are young cows used for stocking farms and ranches; third, feeders, or grassfed steers, which are sold to be fattened on grain, for killing. In stockers and feeders we lead the world; in fat cattle we are second only to Chicago."