Honoring the History of Hickman’s Mill
By Diane Euston
The development of the suburbs and the roads leading to them have permanently altered the places that stood in the past. The remnants of the smaller settlements in south Kansas City that were once large landmarks along the Santa Fe Trail have all but disappeared from memory and from sight.
One such pioneer is especially important in south Kansas City in his namesake. Although Edwin Alfred Hickman’s time in southern Jackson County was limited, his industriousness brought a mill to the area. That mill- Hickman’s Mill- became a landmark in name more than in its brief physical existence.
Hickman Mills holds a very important part of our early history and how the Civil War forever changed the landscape. The history of this little settlement and the man it’s named after is a gateway to the interesting history of the area in its earliest days.
Squatting in the Lost Township
Legal settlement on the western side of Missouri began in the 1820s, but the area to the south had a bit of an issue that led to delayed legal purchase. In order to purchase land, it had to be surveyed – but there was a delay in our neck of the woods.
The story goes that a government surveyor made his way to the southern part of Jackson County and ran across a man (some story variations say it was a Native American) willing to give him a taste of the liquor made along the Blue River. When he woke up after partaking in too much of the firewater, he had lost his field notes.
Instead of reporting his mistake to the government, he instead told them that the land wasn’t worth much and was predominantly hilly prairie not desirable to settlers. This story is meant to explain the reason that legal settlement was delayed in this area for over 15 years.
The delay for legally purchasing the land didn’t stop many from heading into the wild, uncultivated land in Washington Township. Settlers, predominantly from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, took that trip to Jackson County and chose the area near present-day Hickman Mills, Grandview and Martin City. These squatters didn’t have any legal right to the land, but by the late 1830s, several families had begun to settle and clear the land for cultivation.
Some of the earliest settlers squatted near locations close to timber and water. Early settlers included John Bartleson near the Cass Co. line who was said to have survived off “hominy and potatoes.” George Fitzhugh and his brother built a mill in 1835 on Indian Creek at current-day 103rd and State Line and later sold it to Anthony Watts. Families such as the Kirbys, Sheltons, Abstons and Bryants all chose this area as their home before legal settlement began.
Harry S. Truman’s maternal grandfather, Solomon Young, arrived in the area in 1841. His paternal grandfather, Anderson Shipp Truman, settled just north of the future site of Hickman Mills in 1846.
Harvey H. Kemper (1906-1988), a descendant of two pioneer Washington Township families, wrote, “[Men] came to subdue the Western wilds for their future homes, bringing with them their families and their property. When they came, the vast prairies of the Big Blue River had no fences and for miles, not a tree could be seen.”
As families slowly settled into the area, they needed to build cabins and barns in order to cultivate the land. Hand-hewn logs were common but weren’t the quickest way to build a structure- using a saw mill was.
Before Hickman’s Mill was built, the man behind its construction had an incredible pioneer journey.
Edwin Hickman’s First Mill
Born in 1819 in Franklin Co., Ky., Edwin Hickman remained on his father’s farm until the age of 12. He headed to Frankfort to learn the business of saddle and harness making. There, he worked making mail bags for the government.
On Sept. 1, 1840, he saddled up and left for a new adventure. Hickman joined the slew of other Southerners who were choosing Missouri as their new home. He arrived in Independence Oct. 9 and was able to secure employment as a school teacher. This would remain his profession for his first six years in Missouri. In 1843, he married 19-year-old Catherine Oldham. They would go on to have five children- three of which died in infancy.
In Spring 1847, Hickman bought a tract of land northwest of Independence near current-day Fairmount Park and launched into the business as a steam saw and grist mill operator. Because the area had a huge influx of travelers along the Santa Fe Trail, the demand for cut lumber was at its highest. His son, William Z. Hickman wrote in 1912, “Houses were in process of erection in every quarter of the town, new enterprises were springing up in the country, and this rapid growth created a demand for all the lumber the local mills could supply.”
Unfortunately just a few short years later, there was less timber available and structures weren’t being built as frequently. Westport was quickly replacing Independence in trail traffic.
Hickman then turned his attention to an area to the south. Watts Mill on Indian Creek was doing incredible business. Perhaps, Hickman thought, there was enough business a bit further southeast just off the Santa Fe Trail.
Hickman’s Second Mill
In 1854, Hickman bought 40 acres of land from Sidney Barnes for $397. Barnes had come to the area with his family and settled on land on the Santa Fe Trail in 1839. Today, the old site of their homestead known as “Barnes Enclosure” is a park known as Cave Spring at 8701 Gregory Blvd.
There on his new land, Hickman erected a steam-powered gristmill and sawmill just behind the current fire station at 6006 E. Red Bridge Rd. His son wrote, “He found ready for sale all the flour and meal he could manufacture and his business affairs for several years prospered beyond expectation.”
Just as with most mills in operation at the time, people came from all around to have corn ground into meal and wheat turned into flour. The little place became a social rendezvous for pioneers in the vicinity.
He donated one acre of land near his mill for the erection of a church. Today, this is the location of Hickman Mills Community Christian Church, then known as Bethlehem Church.
Hickman’s success allowed him to loan money to neighbors and friends. Banks and businesses began to panic in 1857 following the Gold Rush- gold entering the market had inflated the currency rate. In turn, Hickman was unable to pay his own debts and those he had signed as surety. In order to try to get ahead, Hickman left his land, sold off his milling equipment and went to Colorado in 1860 to mine, leaving his family at a house he built just west of Independence.
The Early Civil War at Hickman’s Mill
The Border Wars prior to the Civil War brought about danger in the rural areas of Jackson County, and the area around Hickman’s Mill was no different. Being that most of the families living in the vicinity were from Southern states and some owned slaves, there was constant turmoil. Hickman’s Mill was vandalized multiple times.
By 1861, young men from rural areas assembled and formed under William Quantrill a band of guerrillas. Since some of these young men came from families in the Hickman’s Mill vicinity, the bushwhackers could easily get a hot meal, a bed and extra assistance from these settlers.
When the Civil War erupted, the Union Army chose convenient places to establish military posts to maintain control of the region along the western border. The locations chosen were Kansas City, Independence, Pleasant Hill, Harrisonville and Hickman’s Mill.
Hickman’s Mill wasn’t a town- it was simply a landmark in a rather desolate region of the countryside. During the war, Jayhawkers were looking for vengeance along the border.
In December 1861, the newspapers reported, “We learn that Jennison made a little excursion into the rebel country, from Kansas City, and burned Hickman’s Mills together with three or four houses of notorious rebels at Independence.”
In 1859, a 28-year-old Belgium-born civil engineer named Charles P.B. Jeffreys purchased an extensive chunk of land- over 3,000 acres- around Hickman’s Mill. An heir to a fortune in the British West Indies garnered by many generations of his family profiting from the slave trade, money apparently was no object.
Jeffreys spent his adult life mostly in Philadelphia, so why he chose to buy the land that now encompasses most of the Ruskin and Hickman Mills neighborhood remains a mystery.
Regardless, Jeffreys built two large residences, each containing 15 or 16 rooms. He named them Blithedale and Hawthorne as an homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his 1852 book, “The Blithedale Romance.” Hawthorne stood at the southwest corner of current-day 107th and Blue Ridge Blvd. and Blithedale was “about 500 feet north of [Red Bridge Rd.] where Orchard Rd. intersects.” Jeffreys’ land was surrounded by 15 miles of native stone fences that he erected around his property.
These homes and this area were the location of incredibly terrifying times during the late Civil War.
Order No. 11
Even with federal troops traipsing the countryside, the bushwhackers were still largely in control of the area. In June 1863, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, Jr. was appointed to the western border and given instructions to bring an end to guerrilla warfare.
Gen. Ewing ordered the arrest and removal of female relatives and children of known bushwhackers. In the Hickman’s Mill area, several were arrested- one even died in prison. Women, in the eyes of the bushwhackers, were off limits.
Matters were complicated further when a prison in current-day downtown Kansas City collapsed to the ground and killed five women. Just days later on Aug. 20, 1863, 400 guerrillas rode to Lawrence, Ks. and killed between 160-190 men and boys.
With the hopes of squashing the support along the border, Ewing issued General Order No. 11 on Aug. 25, 1863. The order mandated that everyone living in Jackson, Cass, Bates and part of Vernon county to vacate within 15 days. The exception was for those living within one mile of the limits of Independence, Hickman’s Mill, Pleasant Hill, and Harrisonville and the people living in the Kansas City/Westport area.
If you could prove loyalty to the Union, you were able to stay. The problem was most of the people living in this area would have a hard time proving loyalty with their history of Southern sympathy – especially to the bushwhackers.
These families who had worked so hard to establish their farms had little time to gather their possessions and move. 25,000 people were displaced due to this order.
When Gen. Order No. 11 went into effect, many families had no choice but to move onto the Union-controlled post of Hickman’s Mill. There, 32 families crammed inside of Charles P.B. Jeffreys’ two homes, Blithedale and Hawthorne. Other families left to never return.
In order to try to cut off all supplies to guerrillas, federal troops roamed the land and plundered the abandoned properties. Most homes were set on fire- a primary reason that antebellum homes in general don’t exist in this area.
Those who remained at Hawthorne and Blithedale watched for over a year as the Union troops moved in and out of the military station at Hickman’s Mill. In October 1864 on the eve of the Battle of Westport, 1500 troops were stationed there. At the close of the war, Hickman’s Mill was abandoned and residents of the area reluctantly returned to their decimated farms to try to piece their lives back together.
Captain Edwin Hickman
After his venture in Colorado, Hickman served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. At the Battle of Corinth in the Spring of 1862, all of his unit’s high-ranking officers were killed in action.
In this battle, Hickman was shot in the right arm. As a result, his arm had to be amputated from the shoulder-down. After being taken prisoner, he remained out of active service until February 1863 when he rejoined his unit in Mississippi. He was promoted to First Lieutenant and was placed in charge of fortifying forces.
During the siege at Vicksburg, Miss., Hickman was injured again. After recovering, he went to Louisiana and then to Texas at the close of the war.
He returned to Independence, Mo. in July 1865 where he sold brick for a short time and then was appointed deputy assessor. By 1871, he had surveyed all the land encompassing Jackson Co. and listed the names of all roads, schools, homes and churches.
His love of math was something he realized while owning Hickman’s Mill. He found that he was able to use mathematical equations for many situations, so in 1872, he published “A Trigonometrical Chart to Solve Arithmetic Problems Instantly.” In 1876, he wrote another book titled “Arithmetical Geometry.”
In 1877, Edwin Hickman was elected mayor of Independence. Ten years later on Dec. 9, 1887, Hickman passed away. He was described as “a man of great energy, possessed of an inquiring mind and inventive genius, an accurate and original thinker, a citizen of unquestioned probity and large influence in the society in which he move[d].”
Hickman’s Mill as a Town
Around 1867, what remained of Hickman’s Mill was torn down. The lumber from the old mill was used to build a barn at the Solomon Young farmstead (now known as the Harry S. Truman Farm) off Blue Ridge Blvd. The barn was destroyed by fire in the 1960s.
Even with the mill long gone, the community still gathered in the area because of the Christian church. In 1868, a post office opened in Hickman’s Mill, the first postmaster being James Robinson, son of pioneer Benjamin Robinson. An error in Washington had Hickman’s Mill forever changed when a clerk inverted the name and wrote down “Hickman Mills” as the legal post office name.
It took some time for the locals to adjust, but the incorrect name stuck.
Hickman Mills was never a large town, but it did offer services for the rural folks living around it. Isaac Bryant who came from Kentucky in 1847 later moved with his son to Hickman Mills and “ran a blacksmith shop for many years.”
Thomas Moore (1863-1948) owned quite a bit of land around Hickman Mills and operated a general store. Born in a log cabin one mile north of Hickman Mills, he was the founder and president of Hickman Mills State Bank- a stone building erected in 1921 that still exists at 5815 E. Red Bridge Rd. For a time, there was a feed store, a tailor, a confectionary and a carpenter living in the little hamlet. The Hickman Mills Community Christian Church’s current building was erected in 1930 and held the original millstone from Edwin Hickman’s mill.
The Remnants of Hickman Mills
Until the 1950s, Hickman Mills was described as a “quiet, peaceful roadside village.” Then, housing development engulfed much of the original charm as Ruskin Heights tract housing was built.
The 15 miles of stone fencing Charles P.B. Jeffreys erected around his extensive property had slowly disappeared. Part of it was used to pave Blue Ridge Blvd. at the turn of the century. The Blithedale and Hawthorne homes were long ago torn down. The last of the stone fencing was just north of Ruskin High School and was razed in 1953 to make way for homes.
A Chamber of Commerce had been created in the 1950s in hopes of improving the little town of Hickman Mills. Efforts stalled due to the population boom. In the 1960s, the chamber renamed itself the South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and used a gavel carved from wood from Hickman’s Mill.
One of the projects on the list for the chamber was to erect a monument at Hickman Mills commemorating Gen. Order No. 11. This historic marker, usually missed by the passing cars, is next to the fire station in the shadows of where the mill once stood and was dedicated in 1975.
There isn’t much to mark all of the history of Hickman Mills. There are a few buildings, although much altered, that stand in what was once the heart of a little town. What is most important is the history of the pioneers who chose the remote location in order to start a new life.
Harvey Kemper wrote of those ambitious pioneers and their contributions to the community. “They were a hardy and thrifty class of people who were undaunted by hardships and danger.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.