Allen B.H. McGee- A Pioneer Who Watched Kansas City Grow and Change
By Diane Euston
Photos courtesy McGee family
The start of one of the most prestigious families in Kansas City history began when one
man, James Hyatt McGee, uprooted his family and moved from Kentucky 1828. He and his wife, Eleanor Fry’s, oldest son, Allen Burr Harrison McGee, was just 13 years old when his parents left the Liberty, Mo. area and moved just south of a French settlement on the banks of the Missouri River.
When the McGees moved to Jackson Co., there were very few settlers, and Kansas City was decades from being founded. Allen (b. 1815) was able to watch a town grow upon the frontier as he took part in enterprises that furthered the growth of the Town of Kansas.
An Apprentice to His Father
Allen’s first devotion was to his father, James and his business dealings in the area. As his father acquired close to 1000 acres of land in the heart of what would be Kansas City, Allen learned how to manage a large estate and multiple business ventures.
When his father opted to replace their log cabin with a brick structure, Allen and his brothers assisted in the task of building their new home in 1834. They used bricks fired on their own property to build a two-room brick house with a large hallway running down the center. The house stood just north of Southwest Blvd. between Baltimore and Wyandotte.
Early in his teen years, Allen learned how to operate a sawmill built on the branches of OK Creek, a body of water that traveled through the McGee land. The creek today has been buried underground in sewers in front of Union Station.
The distillery business was the next undertaking by both father and son. Allen claimed in an 1898 article in the Kansas City Journal, “I’ve made whisky there the best you ever drank. They don’t make it no more nowadays like it.”
A Marriage and the Indian Trade
In 1837, 21-year-old Allen traveled back to Kentucky and married Malinda Fry, his double cousin. They returned to Jackson Co
Allen surveyed Indian lands with John C. McCoy, founder of Westport and one of the 14 original founders of Kansas City. A group of Osage Indians captured Allen and held him hostage until the government agreed to their demands. With the help of an Indian agent, Allen was released without harm.
In 1840, Allen’s father, James, passed away. Allen was able to showcase his own talents in business when in 1846, he built a Sac and Fox Indian Agency in Westport. He traded for close to three years until he sold his interest and focused on anotger emerging business opportunity.
Outfitting the Western Expansion
After seeing Westport Landing grow from the bluffs of the Missouri River and the town of Westport emerge as a source of trade on the trails leading west, Allen turned his interest to the outfitting business.
The future of Westport’s business resided in trade, and McCoy and Allen were a large part of it. Allen was wholly devoted to this business until the outbreak of the Civil War. By 45 years of age, he was retired and living off his “investments.” He was referred to by the honorary title “Colonel,” showcasing his importance amongst the blossoming City of Kansas.
McGee’s Land and House
In 1839, Allen was gifted part of his father’s land as a wedding present. He and Malinda moved to 160 acres of land just north of Westport. His farm would border current-day Armour Blvd. to the north, 38th St. to the south, Holly St. to the west and Broadway to the east.
He built a large frame house at the corner of 37th and Broadway and a large stone barn near current-day Uptown Theater. The barn was somewhat of a landmark as Kansas City started to move south. Allen had built the 80 foot long, 40 foot wide barn with walls two feet thick. The door was studded with spikes.
During the Border Wars and Civil War, Allen sided with the South, as he had a least five slaves. Silverware and valuables were buried inside the barn to try to protect them from looters. Although the stone barn, torn down in 1898, was never used as a fort, Allen used to joke it was useful in “keeping out the Jayhawkers.”
Allen lost his first wife, Malinda, and married her sister, Christiana, by 1848. He lost his second wife in 1867 and married Susan Bruton Gill, daughter of Marcus Gill in 1869. Gill’s farm encompassed all of Verona Hills subdivision. Susan was 19 years old and Allen was two months’ shy of his 54th birthday. Two children, Nellie and Allen B.H. McGee II, were born to the couple.
In 1886, Allen replaced his frame house with a fine, three-story brick mansion complete with a turret and large, stained glass windows at 37th and Broadway. This home would be where Allen entertained guests, told stories to families and lived out the rest of his life. His third wife died in 1901, and Allen started to sell off part of the land around his home that would become the Roanoke and Valentine neighborhoods of Kansas City.
His home at 37th and Broadway after his death became the Rochambeau Hotel, a 75-room establishment well-known in Kansas City. In 1932, the house fell on hard times and while under another remodel, it mysteriously caught fire. Arson was suspected and the owners were charged with the crime. The land then became a leased parking lot used by the Uptown Theater.
Death and Legacy
Allen was struck with heart failure. In his final hours, he talked of the pioneer days and the friends he had met along the way. He was proud, it was reported, of his record as a pioneer and he never tired of telling of the early times before they city had sprouted around him.
On October 8th, 1903, Allen Burr Harrison McGee passed away, ending his 75 years as the truest pioneer of Kansas City. He is buried in the family vault he erected at Union Cemetery.
Today, his legacy is still going strong. Many of his descendants still live in the area, and McGee St. lends a small nod to this extremely important pioneer family and their contribution to the history of Kansas City.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more about the McGee family, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.