From Teacher to Preacher to Real Estate Dealer: Rev. Nathan Scarritt
By Diane Euston
To leave a lasting legacy in a metropolis the size of Kansas City isn’t as simple as a donation of land or having your name mentioned in the musty-smelling pages of a history book. As time goes on, landmarks like a well-placed home or even a street named in honor of a pioneer have disappeared. And, to be honest, Kansas City hasn’t done the best job of preserving its captivating past.
Brick structures have been replaced by parking lots and high-rise buildings. Some of Kansas City’s oldest neighborhoods such as Quality Hill are a skeleton of their prior glory.
Some lucky landmarks of our history have escaped the bulldozers over the years, and some surnames are familiar to us because of preservation of the past. The name “Scarritt” may be recognizable due to a subdivision, school, a building, and a street all bearing the name.
Scarritt is synonymous with our city’s history, and it all started with a preacher, teacher, and missionary to the Native Americans named Nathan Scarritt (1821-1890) who over the course of the early city’s history morphed into a real estate developer, banker and early millionaire.
Early Life in Illinois
Nathan Scarritt was born in 1821 in Illinois near St. Louis, Mo. His parents, Nathan and Latty, were from New Hampshire and left a year prior in a wagon bound for the wilderness. It took them 12 weeks to reach Edwardsville, Ill. Their son, Nathan, was the seventh of 12 children.
The family later moved near Alton, Ill. where young Nathan helped with farming until he was 16 years old. At that time, he dreamed of better opportunities and knew that education could open doors to possibilities. Nathan wrote in his memoir, “At that time, my school advantages had been so meagre, I had but scarcely learned to read and write.” Despite this, Nathan enrolled at McKendree College, a Methodist-run school 30 miles away from his family in Lebanon, Ill.
Because he came from a large family, Nathan had to support himself in order to afford the tuition and board. In his first year, he earned his keep by clearing brush and timber from the campus. By his second year, he and three others lived in a small log cabin on campus where they planted a garden to feed themselves. Because the garden was mostly potatoes, Nathan ate roasted potatoes with a little salt and glass of cold water in order to keep his expenses at a minimum.
During his junior year, his father became sick and Nathan returned home. Uncertain of his return, the school offered to help pay board and expenses in order to lure him back to his studies. In 1842, Nathan graduated and was valedictorian of his class.
In order to pay off the remainder of his tuition from school, he taught briefly at Waterloo, Ill. before he made his next big move.
Into the Wild West: Kansas Territory
With only ten dollars in his pocket, Nathan followed his brother-in-law to Fayette, Mo. in 1845. With his brother-in-law, William T. Lucky, Nathan worked as a teacher for three years and helped establish a school which later became Central Male College and Howard Female College.
While in Fayette, the University of Missouri was so impressed with his efforts with education that they awarded Scarritt an honorary master of arts degree. It was one of the earliest advanced degrees given by the school. He also answered his calling and became a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
Rev. Scarritt’s experience as an educator and his newfound career of minister opened the doors to the next important call to the frontier.
In the 1820s and 1830s, the Shawnee Indians were removed to present-day Kansas. In an effort to try to educate Native Americans and later Christianizing them, missionaries followed tribes to their new lands. Rev. Thomas Johnson (1802-1865), a Methodist missionary, founded the Shawnee Indian Mission in 1830. In 1838, he moved his Mission south to present-day 53rd St. in Fairway, Ks. and decided to open a manual labor school that would teach those enrolled various skills and trades.
In 1848, Rev. Johnson was looking for a teacher so he could enlarge his school for upper education that would include teaching “the Latin and Greek languages.” Rev. Nathan Scarritt fit the bill perfectly, and Johnson proclaimed that Scarritt “has few equals, and no superior in the state [of Missouri.]”
While working at Shawnee Indian Mission, Scarritt met Martha Matilda Chick (1831-1873), daughter of William Miles Chick. She and her family had left Virginia for the town of Westport in 1837 where her father operated a general store. A veteran of the War of 1812, Chick was also one of the 14 original founders of Kansas City and the first postmaster. In 1850, the couple was married by Rev. Johnson and started their lives together at the Shawnee Indian Mission three miles west of Westport.
A Methodist Minister
Around 1852, Scarritt left the Shawnee Indian Mission for Westport where he was assigned to two congregations- the Westport Methodist Church and the 5th Street Church in what would be Kansas City. The Westport group wanted to add education, thus Scarritt helped establish the first public high school in Westport where he served as principal and teacher.
Scarritt bought a piece of land in Westport from Joseph Boggs who had platted the subdivision. The lot contained a simple two-story home for $2150. This home was likely built a few years’ prior to Scarritt’s arrival and became his family’s primary residence until 1862. This home, known as the “Reverend Nathan Scarritt Home” at 4038 Central still stands today and is considered the oldest residence left standing in Westport.
In 1855, the bishop appointed Scarritt as elder of the Kickapoo Indian District. He also ministered to the Delaware, Shawnee and Wyandott tribes. By this time, Kansas Territory was open to white settlement, so Scarritt spent his days traveling throughout the sparsely settled lands and preaching to white settlers as well as Native American tribes. He later wrote, “The welcome hospitalities I received in the cabins of the frontier settler and even in the Indian’s wigwam, however rude and meagre may have been the accommodations, were always enjoyed by me.”
Even though the conditions for a traveling minister were less than ideal, Rev. Scarritt considered this period of his life quite fulfilling. However, the burning tensions along the border had Scarritt choosing a safer place for his family.
The Move to East of Kansas City
The minister made some key decisions before the population boom in Kansas City. First, he bought real estate from Rev. Johnson near the levee in the growing Town of Kansas. In 1857, he purchased real estate between Main and Oak St. stretching two blocks. These became his first extremely successful real estate purchases of his lifetime, as this area was soon to be crowded with businesses.
In early 1862, Nathan purchased 40 acres overlooking the Missouri River a few miles past Kansas City’s limits. The Border Wars and later the Civil War erupted any sense of peace throughout the area, and the town of Westport was a hotbed of hostility. In 1861, Scarritt wrote, “Several of [our preachers] have had their houses stolen by ‘Jayhawkers.’ Repeated threats of hanging, shooting, etc., have been made against them.” Although Rev. Scarritt was part of the Southern Methodists whose sympathies leaned pro-slavery, he was not in favor of succession nor did he own slaves. Afraid for his family, Scarritt moved into a log cabin he constructed on his newly acquired land in what is now Northeast Kansas City.
From 1864-1865, Scarritt taught classes to local students above a feed store located at 6th and Main. But by the end of the Civil War, he turned his primary interests away from ministry and teaching and focused on his growing real estate business.
Building for the Future
Nathan and Martha had nine children, six of which survived to adulthood. In 1872, they decided to upgrade their log cabin in the Northeast after it burned. In its place was a stately, Victorian brick mansion overlooking the Missouri River that had “a magnificent view of the river valley and surrounding country.” The house stood near present day Gladstone Blvd. where Scarritt Point is now located. He filled his mansion with the finest furnishings, and his papers indicate his love of learning. “As showing his scholarly tastes, every nook and corner of his mansion is lined with books.”
After their last child was born, Nathan’s beloved wife Martha passed away in 1873. In 1875, he married his older brother Issacs’s widow, Ruth. A year later, his alma mater, McKendree College, bestowed an honorary Doctor of Divinity to Nathan Scarritt.
On New Year’s Eve 1878, Scarritt was hosting a party in his elegant mansion. The crowd was enjoying themselves after the stroke of midnight when “some rascal went upstairs and built a fire upon a bed in one room and another fire between the plaster and weatherboarding in another room.” With the help of a young man, Scarritt was able to save the home with only a few hundred dollars in damage.
Platting Today’s Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood
Kansas City saw tremendous growth in the 1880s, and the city was becoming crowded. What were once fashionable neighborhoods were now full of aged homes whose once expansive views were tainted by the construction of taller structures nearby. As the city limits crept closer to the Scarritt homestead in the Northeast and eventually reached the property, Nathan used his extensive knowledge of real estate to plat subdivisions around his home.
In 1886, he platted Melrose followed by East Melrose just a year later. He advertised that “no stores and no cheap tenements” would be allowed, and “only first class residences will be permitted.” Appropriately named, Scarritt Ave. ran through the subdivision, and since the land sat at the top of one of the highest bluffs in the city, the views of the Missouri River were impressive. All six of the Scarritt children were able to secure their own lots within this newly formed neighborhood. It became the city’s newest suburb for the elite.
Always intent on his faith, Nathan donated property in the Melrose neighborhood and gave $27,000 to build a Methodist church at 207 N. Bales. It opened its doors in December 1888.
After a trip to St. Louis, Nathan Scarritt returned to his mansion in Kansas City and died May 22, 1890 at the age of 69. It was said that he had suffered for years “of disease of the kidneys which undermined his strong constitution.” The man who had survived college on a diet of roasted potatoes had been on a diet absent of sugar or starch for years in order to curb his health issues.
His funeral was at Melrose Chapel, “one of the handsomest houses of worship in the city.” The coffin was red cedar and heavily lined with copper. On it, a plate listed his name, birthdate, death date, and the words “Ready.”
In his will, he left money to build Scarritt Bible and Training School at Norledge and Askew. The school was active from 1892 until it was moved to Nashville, Tenn. in 1924. It was estimated at the time of his death that his estate ranged between $1.5 million and $3 million.
Legacies Left Today
Unlike so many of the pioneers of Kansas City, Rev. Nathan Scarritt has a legacy that can be vividly seen today. The beautiful Melrose Methodist Church at 207 N. Bales kept their doors open for over 120 years but closed in 2011. It is now operated by another church. In 1890, an elementary school was named for him, but sadly, the school closed its doors in 2012.
The Scarritt homestead overlooking the river bottoms near current day Gladstone Blvd. and Scarritt Point survived for several years after Nathan’s death. For some time, it was sectioned into apartments and rented. Around 1918, the area was platted for new houses and the old homestead disappeared.
The land around Scarritt’s homestead was partially sold to the city in 1895 in order to create North Terrace Park and Cliff Drive. The park has been renamed Kessler Park in honor of landscape architect, George Kessler.
The neighborhood known as Scarritt Renaissance was the chosen place of residency for all of his children except his namesake, Nathan, who moved to Independence and managed the family’s property left to them in the estate. Nathan Sr.’s son, Edward, was a lawyer and judge for 40 years; he built a home at 3500 Gladstone Blvd. that is still owned by descendants. Nathan’s son, William Chick Scarritt built the most expensive of the residences at 3250 Norledge and served as a lawyer, police commissioner, and president of the Park Board in 1922. In 2006, a fire destroyed part of the structure; however, the home, listed on the National Register, was saved despite extensive damage.
Just to the east of William’s home were his sister’s homes. Next door at 3242 Norledge, sister Ann and her husband Bishop Eugene Hendrix lived in a stately Victorian. Just to the east of her home, sister Mary lived with husband Elliott Jones in a natural stone mansion at 3400 Norledge. Brother Charles, a Methodist minister, lived down the road at 315 N. Indiana.
All of these homes still stand in the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood overlooking Kessler Park and Scarritt Point.
There’s also the Scarritt Building, erected by his heirs in 1906 at 818 Grand Ave. that stands today as one of the oldest and largest historic buildings downtown. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is used as office space.
Nathan Scarritt’s Westport home at 4038 Central was owned by the family until 1881. By the 1950s, the building was repurposed into three apartments. In 1970, the home was up for auction and was purchased by an antiques dealer who renovated the home. The wood floors had been covered with layers of linoleum. The owners were able to remove all of the material and refinish the floors. It served as an antiques store and was listed on the National Register.
In 2004, banking firm James B. Nutter restored the home as part of their “Nutterville” block between Central and Baltimore. They restored the old homes, painted each in bright Victorian colors, and beautifully landscape the area. These houses, along with Nathan Scarritt’s home, are used as converted business spaces operated by James B. Nutter Company.
Nathan Scarritt’s lasting legacy can be seen through the homes and community he helped build before his death. At one time, eight of his descendants under the age of 20 were named “Nathan” after him – four of them lived in Kansas City. Well-intentioned, purposeful and full of ambition, Rev. Nathan Scarritt’s gift to our city is extensive. He was, truly, as the Kansas City Star reported upon his death, “a good man. He was sincere and earnest. His life purposes were pure.”
We are so fortunate to still have some of his spirit not just on the pages of our city’s history, but as a part of our community forever.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.