Landmark Lost: The Gill-McGee Farmstead

 

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The Gill-McGee farmstead at current-day Verona Hills cir. 1955. Migliazzo Park’s pond can be seen in the top right hand corner. Courtesy of the McGee family.

Landmark Lost: The Gill-McGee Farmstead

By Diane Euston

   In the early 1850s, when the Santa Fe Trail’s wagon trains winded through the terrain, a small town called New Santa Fe along the state line encouraged settlement of the region. People were coming and going during this pre-Civil War time.  

In March, 1854, Marcus Gill  left the comfort of his home in Bath Co, Ky., to buy land near New Santa Fe, Mo. His property is now known as the Verona Hills subdivision.

 The farm butted up to New Santa Fe (Santa Fe Trail) to the south, 114th St. to the north, Kansas to the west, and Wornall Rd.to the east. He inhabited the log home built by the previous owner, Dabney Lipscomb.

 The home sat near what is currently 119th and Summit. Several farm buildings dotted his land, including  two small cabins for his 20 slaves. To accommodate his growing family, Gill added onto the small cabin structure.

 By the winter of 1860, Gill was introduced by a fellow church member at Bethlehem Church of Christ in Hickman’s Mill to a confident, charismatic school teacher named William Clarke Quantrill.  Quantrill stayed at the Gill farm in the winter of 1860, where he became “a great favorite of the family.”

 Gill developed a trusting relationship before Quantrill became the infamous character that caused so much havoc in history. This was well before he sacked Lawrence, murdered countless abolitionists and formed the Quantrill Raiders, one of the most feared guerrilla bands in the nation.

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Col. Marcus Gill (1815-1886)

 When the war was imminent and the Border Wars had destroyed much of the land surrounding New Santa Fe, Gill packed up his family, his slaves and all of his valuables and traveled south to Texas in the fall of 1861.

 Gill  had little left after the demise of the Confederacy: he had invested heavily in Confederate bonds. He didn’t return until the Civil War ended in 1865, only to find his large home vandalized, the fences destroyed and pastures left untended.

Surprisingly, his farmhouse was left standing even though Jennison’s Jayhawkers had been known to “fire” most of the buildings in the area.

 When Gill was 70 years old in 1884, he decided to divide his vast landholdings between his children and opted to retire to Plattsburg, Mo. His son Turner, who grew up on the farm, was mayor of Kansas City in 1875-76.

 Daughter Susan Bruton Gill (1848-1901), second oldest daughter of Marcus Gill and his wife, was granted the homestead and the 90 acres surrounding it. She and her husband, A.B.H. McGee (1815-1903), part of one of the founding families of Kansas City, settled on the land.

 Ownership of the impressive Marcus Gill house then passed down the McGee line. A.B.H. McGee, Jr. (1875-1934) was the next owner of the farmstead, and after his death, it went to his son, aptly named A.B.H. McGee III, more commonly called Allen. Allen, born in 1913, held onto his family land and chose to raise his own children there.

 The house was greatly enlarged and further improved in the early to mid 1900s, making it one of most impressive homesteads in Washington Township. The house became known as the Gill-McGee house.

 The 20-room home was occupied by the McGee family until 1959. At this point, development had driven sales in the south Kansas City area. The McGee family made the tough decision to sell to J.C. Nichols.

 After the McGees moved away, J.C. Nichols rented out the home and started to rezone the area for residential development. The chances of the house being saved were plummeting. By the 1960s, streets for this new subdivision, built in several stages, were being paved.

 The house had become somewhat unkempt by the 1970s; regular maintenance by J.C. Nichols was not a priority. As Verona Hills subdivision blossomed on the nearby land, time was running out to preserve the property.

 Even the newly formed Historical Society of New Santa Fe was trying to find the funds to see if the house could be moved. J.C. Nichols showed no interest in the project. Tenants who rented the house in the 1970s knew it had history; there were square-peg wooden floors, old stone fireplaces, and a documented history that included Quantrill’s stay. These young renters tried to save the property, but J.C. Nichols wanted $20,000 for it. For all the improvements that needed to be made, they couldn’t afford the large project.

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A photo from the Kansas City Star shows how the bulldozing stopped when the cabin was revealed.

 In 1978 the lease for these renters wasn’t renewed and bulldozers began the demolition of the historic home. But demo stopped just as quickly as it started when the layers of this showcase farmstead began to be revealed.

 Exposed was a three-room log cabin with hand hewn walnut timbers.

 Construction stopped for months in order to decipher what to do with this property. The decision was made to donate the oldest portions of the house to Missouri Town at Lake Jacomo. But the records stop there. It’s a mystery as to what really happened to the rest of the home.

 We can’t erase the past even with bulldozers. But we certainly can be mindful of what is going on around us so that we don’t make these same mistakes. An antebellum Kansas City home which stood through the Border Wars, hosted Quantrill, miraculously survived the Civil War unscathed, housed a future mayor, and became millionaire A.B.H. McGee’s pride and joy was cast away into the endless sea of trashed landmarks.

 Today, the children of A.B.H. McGee III who grew up on the farm recall fond memories of a simpler life. They occasionally visit Migliazzo Park where a portion of their land has stayed somewhat intact. Their old swimming pond is now a public space. Today, a marker identifies some of the incredible history of Col. Marcus Gill and his farm.

 We must work to protect, learn and treasure the homes that can be saved. Too quick to tear things down from the past, Kansas Citians need to work to preserve the past to teach future generations of its importance.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.

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