The Remarkable Life of Robert A. Long
By Aaron Barnhardt
With the recent reopening of Longview Farm, the country estate built in 1914 by timber baron Robert A. Long, it’s worth reviewing the remarkable life of this high-rolling yet humble, God-fearing entrepreneur. The founder and CEO of the Long-Bell Lumber Company used his millions to support a plethora of philanthropic and religious interests as well as surround himself and his family with the fineries available only to winners of the Gilded Age.
R.A. Long grew up in Shelby County, Kentucky, and moved to Columbus, Kansas, where his uncle was president of a bank. Ambitious from the get-go, Long and his partner Victor Bell first made a go of it in the hay business. Long met his wife Martha Ellen there, but otherwise Columbus was not panning out. He and his partners started selling off their inventory, including their barns — and that’s when R.A. Long realized there was a pent-up demand for timber in the area.
Unlike farming, Long and his partners had little grasp of the lumber business. But they knew enough to undercut their only competitor in town. That person sold his business to Long, who assumed the lead role in the company.
What timing! The late 1800s were the beginning of an unprecedented run for lumbermen, who built tremendous fortunes acquiring forested land, cutting and planing the timber and selling direct to the public. By owning every step of the process, Long-Bell became the largest privately held timber company in the world.
R.A. Long moved his family, including daughters Sallie and Loula, to Kansas City in 1891. His family meant the world to him, and starting in 1907 he began to plan the two incredible residences they would call home: The 70-room Corinthian Hall (now the Kansas City Museum), with its enormous stone carriage house; and Longview Farm, covering 1800 acres with more than 50 buildings including the palatial main residence, which underwent a long restoration this year.
Much of the lore surrounding Longview Farm is about R.A. Long’s colorful daughter Loula, who trained show horses there, integrated the boys’ club of show-horse tournaments and went on win world championships. But Loula’s interest in the fancy equestrian life would never have happened if her father, a native son of Kentucky, hadn’t invested colossal amounts of money to pass his love of horses on to her.
Just as the Kansas City Southern railroad made Martin City possible, you might say it also made Longview Farm possible. As Teresa Thornton Mitchell notes in her 2011 book Longview Farm: Biography of a Dream Come True, R.A. Long built his rural Shangri-la with wood that his company sawed and planed in Louisiana, then sent to Longview via the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Of course, there was a sawmill in Martin City that was perfectly capable of producing the timber for Longview Farm, as it had for many fine suburban houses. But the Long-Bell Lumber Company didn’t own the Martin City sawmill, and it was cheaper for Long to use one of his own mills. Shipping on the Kansas City Southern was no big deal, either, since Long-Bell owned a stake in that, too.
Like his fellow Progressive-age plutocrat John D. Rockefeller, Kansas City’s R.A. Long was a funny combination of abstemious and acquisitive. He was a loyal servant of God who nonetheless spent most of his time serving Mammon. And though Longview Farm was, to be sure, a playground for his family and their stable of blue-ribbon show horses, he always intended it to have a community purpose as well. For instance, as the R.A. Long Historical Society film “Ours to Give” points out, the Long family raised dairy cows on the farm so that the hospitalized children of Kansas City would be guaranteed a safe supply of milk.
R.A. Long knew he had been blessed to arrive at a moment when the American economy was going through its growth spurt. Suddenly it was possible for a man to get his hands on huge tracts of resource-rich land at low prices and create vast wealth. “No great body of timber has ever made or promises to make as good a percent of profit for its investors as has yellow pine,” he declared in 1902, when he was sitting on 130,000 acres of forest in southwest Louisiana.
At one point, thanks to Long-Bell Lumber and the railroad, Kansas City was the nation’s largest lumber wholesale market. Those were the days prior to conservation policy, when a lumber company simply picked an entire stand clean, making centuries of old growth vanish in weeks, leaving behind stubble that was prone to erosion. Conscience spoke to R.A. Long in a “still small voice,” but eventually he did listen to it. While the company didn’t move as aggressively as most reformers would have liked, Long led his fellow buccaneers in reforestation efforts, especially once Long-Bell shifted its operations to the Pacific Northwest.
Long’s influence was also evident in the company towns that sprang up on the Kansas City Southern line near his sawmills. Many sawmill towns were muddy, unattractive warrens of clapboard houses occupied by men who spent their free time pursuing as many vices as they could before reporting back to work.
But from the beginning Long-Bell spent money to make its sawmill towns safe, clean, livable places. Not only did the company build a general store, hotel, and church in their lumber towns, they contributed to the school system, furnished workers with in-home plumbing, and even “paved streets and sidewalks, a rarity in southern milltowns,” writes Lenore K. Bradley in her 1989 biography R.A. Long: A Lumberman of the Gilded Age.
(If Martin City had been a Long-Bell company town, you can be assured of two things — it would not have been named for a distiller of alcoholic spirits, and you wouldn’t have been able to find a tavern within the city limits.)
Bradley writes that “Long-Bell’s presence contributed much more than economic opportunity for the population; it added to the town’s fabric and much improved its appearance.” This was good for business too, of course, since a nice company town attracts family men who would bring their wives and children to live with them.
At the time he was building the 250-acre Longview Farm, Long had amassed a personal fortune in excess of $20 million, which though modest by today’s standards (he would be a half-billionaire now), it was enough to build both city and country estates, richly endow his beloved Disciples of Christ denomination, and buy himself a seat at any civic, political, or philanthropic table he desired.
A man of disciplined work habits who ran a top-down organization, Long once told his grandson R.A.L. Ellis that if he could be someone else in another life, he’d be a general in the United States Army. So it’s not surprising that Long was at the center of Kansas City’s effort to build the world’s finest war memorial honoring the millions who died in “the Great War,” as World War I was called 100 years ago.
For seven years he led the campaign that would result in the building of the Liberty Memorial. During a fundraising drive in which Long implored the city’s school children to save coins for the war memorial, some 83,000 individual gifts were made, meeting the campaign’s $2 million goal. Not everyone was impressed; Harry Truman harrumphed that the Liberty Memorial was “R.A. Long’s memorial to himself.” But unlike other backers who wanted to use the memorial to promote Kansas City, Long was primarily interested in honoring the tremendous loss of life in the great war. In a letter published just before the dedication, Long expressed his gratitude “to be privileged to join in the solemn rites which will make the ground sacred for all time to come.”
Soon after that, R.A. Long and his timber empire went into rapid decline, caused by a housing collapse and the Great Depression. He spent to the end, personally overseeing (with Martha Ellen Long, his wife of 50 years) the magnificent National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C.
It is fitting that the two places most associated with his name — the ones getting complete makeovers more than 80 years after his death — are the two places he called home, Corinthian Hall and Longview Farm. After all, R.A. Long would never have made his millions if people hadn’t wanted all that timber to build their own little castles across the expanding American Midwest.
Aaron Barnhart, the former Kansas City Star writer, speaks to nonprofit groups on history. The programs are supported by Missouri Humanities Council and Humanities Kansas. He can be reached at aaronbarn.com or (816) 200-2276.