By Diane Euston
You won’t see her name splashed across most pages of our area’s history, but Elenore Canny was deputized as Kansas City’s first female officer for a very unique reason: she was there to grow and develop a safe place for children to play.
Her unique story tells us of the strong roots a woman had that were core to the development of Kansas City’s park spaces for children.
To fully understand this incredible untold history, we have to go back to her own experiences as a child, the formulation of the playground in the city and examine her lasting legacy on physical education today.
Elenore’s Early Life and Education
Elenore Kathryn Canny was born in 1889, one of five girls born to Thomas J. Canny (1857-1914) and his wife, Mary (1860-1937). Elenore spent her early childhood in Illinois and arrived with her family to the Kansas City area around 1890 where her father continued his work as a printer.
Thomas was quite involved in Democratic politics when Elenore was still in elementary school. And, as our history tells us, this was the beginning of the “Democratic Machine” run at the time by Jim Pendergast.
In 1894, Canny was asked to be an election judge for the 9th Ward. Ed Findlay, a well-known gambler and politician nicknamed “the policy king,” thought Canny was perfect for the job. Findlay’s political assistance in elections was desired, and he needed “friends” in polling places. The problem was that Findlay and his assistant, Arthur Morrison, underestimated Thomas Canny’s honesty.
The day of the election, Canny watched as Morrison removed 110 legal ballots cast for Republicans and replaced them for their Democratic nominees- he simply put the unwanted ballots in his pocket. Under duress, Canny signed the results.
Days later, Canny told the governor of the frauds he saw. The Democratic gangs were notified, and the Kansas City Star reported that “[Canny] fears that he is in danger of assassination at the hands of the men who perpetrated the frauds.” His testimony had Findlay, Morrison and five others arrested.
Both Morrison and Findlay were released on $1500 bonds signed by none other than Jim Pendergast.
The case drew out for years and the men were eventually acquitted likely due to their political connections and payoffs. Luckily, Canny wasn’t harmed, but this event likely did influence his daughters.
In 1904, Elenore graduated from Manual High School and continued “post-graduate” work at Central High School where she was a member of the girls’ basketball team and the Choral Club. In 1906, she returned to be an assistant in the physical education department at Manual High School. Elenore’s love of the outdoors would quickly change her course.
The Early Parks Department and the Growth of Space for Children
As cities grew due to the Industrial Revolution, they grew even more crowded and dirty. This was a nationwide problem, and Kansas City was no exception. There were very few public spaces reserved as parkland, and in 1893, a group of Kansas City leaders asked for a parks board to be appointed.
The first Park Board president was August Meyer, and under his leadership, landscape architect George Kessler was chosen to design the parks and boulevard system. The first parks designed were North Terrace (now Kessler Park), West Terrace and Penn Valley Parks.
In 1895, the Park Board proposed condemning the neighborhood of Holmes Square. The area comprised 18th to 19th Street between Holmes and Cherry. The plan was to build the first of their urban parks that would be available to a community with no green space. The area around it wasn’t desirable; it was full of saloons, factories and some of the poorest residents of the city.
Holmes Square Park, the first of the urban parks designed by George Kessler, was opened in June 1897. A stone shelter allowed for people to rest out of the sun and “ornamental landscaping” led to its urban beauty. A large section was to be reserved for a playground, but the early design didn’t include what we would term a sophisticated safe space for children.
Outdoor playgrounds like we see today weren’t part of the original plan in Kansas City; in fact, they weren’t really part of any parks at the time. In the late 1880s, Boston was the first city to introduce public playgrounds as a solution to urbanization. Playgrounds could be a relief from overcrowding in cities where children were left to play in the streets.
This small movement led to the creation of the Playground Association of America in 1906. One of their core beliefs was “inasmuch as play under proper conditions is essential to the health and the physical, social and moral well-being of the child, playgrounds are a necessity for all children as much as schools.”
The movement of playgrounds with equipment entered the Park Board plans in Kansas City as this movement gained momentum. The Kansas City Police Department had told the Park Board they would try to staff a police officer at these new parks, but they knew that this wasn’t a permanent solution as they added more and more parks.
Even in the infancy of the Playground movement nationwide, the Park Board noticed the demand for a playground. In 1907, they added more amenities. The Kansas City Star reported, “Workmen have erected in Holmes Square a three-inch pipe 60 feet in length, 20 feet high, set in concrete, to carry four swings and three trapezes; eight smaller horizontal iron bars; six sand piles; four separate swings, four teeters, two ladders, two horizontal bars and two parallel bars and two climbing poles!”
Now that Holmes Square Park was equipped with the finest of playground equipment, the city sought to find someone who could supervise activities surrounding it. Elenore Canny, it turned out, was the perfect candidate.
In 1908, the Park Board hired Elenore to supervise this first playground at Holmes Square Park. Elenore’s job was to watch over the children and come up with programs for them. She had spent two years at Manual High School as an instructor “teaching games, apparatus work and gymnastic dancing.”
Elenore had the sense of a true teacher; she knew how important it was to get to know the children that would be frequenting the park. Nearby Holmes Square Park was McClure Flats, one of Kansas City’s most infamous slums.
Located at 19th and McGee, McClure Flats housed the poorest of the city. The area was absent of basic needs, including plumbing. An investigation just a few years later found that about 10,000 people in this slum didn’t have access to a bathtub.
Elenore wasn’t afraid to see the conditions of the children who would frequent the park. She went and visited McClure Flats so she could get to know the children.
Elenore still had strict rules for those who chose to play at the park. At the end of the season in 1908, she reported to the Park Board, “Rules prohibiting children with dirty faces and uncombed hair were made and enforced.”
She also had rules against swearing, the use of tobacco and gambling.
Elenore took protecting the children seriously, and she noticed that her authority wasn’t enough to discourage seedy characters from lurking around the play area of Holmes Square Park. In 1910, she requested that she needed more power so she could enforce the rules and protect the children.
The solution, it appears, was to give Miss Elenore Canny a badge.
In 1910, Elenore was the first woman sworn in as a police officer. She didn’t work for the KCPD directly, but she was deputized to give her the power to chase off the people who were hindering the children’s safe space. Elenore told the Kansas City Journal in August 1910, “I want to be a policewoman so I can have the authority to make these great big gawks of men who come hanging around our playground move on.”
It worked. She wore the police star badge pinned on her blouse.
Elenore was not only the first police officer in Kansas City- she was one of the first three in the entire nation at the time. She was 21 years old.
Developing Programs within the Parks
As Elenore worked to keep children safe, she was also director of athletics for Christian College in Columbia, Mo. She likely did this in the winter months when the parks were empty. At Christian College, she organized the school’s first women’s basketball team.
Elenore’s job wasn’t just to keep an eye on the children at the playground- she wanted to develop programs to keep them active. Slowly, her role within the Parks Department didn’t just contain Holmes Square Park- she was developing programs for the entire city. She had noticed that children didn’t just come to the parks for their wading pools and bathing; they also loved to dance.
These children in different neighborhoods came from different ethnic backgrounds, and she would see them oftentimes dancing to traditional folk dances. She thought it would be a great idea to hire some instructors to work with the children to teach them different dances from various cultures.
She told the Kansas City Times, “It is good recreation for them. . . Especially so are the Russian and Swedish dances. They are more gymnastic. The dances of Spain and Italy are more graceful and easier to perform.”
She worked throughout the summer of 1911 on this folk-dance program to teach children across the city. In November, they performed at Convention Hall at the “child welfare exhibit” that was under Elenore’s direction. Over 6,000 people showed up to see the children sing, perform the dances and even watch a basketball game played against the Washington Square and Penn Valley neighborhoods.
Activities like dancing, basket making, picture framing, hat making, handbag sewing, handkerchiefs and storytelling were all part of the programs Elenore developed during her deputized time as an officer of the parks. She had one rule with the children who participated in the various programs. She told them, “Anything you start must be finished.”
What Elenore was doing in Kansas City was getting national attention. She traveled to Wichita and De Moines to help them develop and organize their own playground programs.
By June 1911, five of the 15 planned playgrounds were finished. Washington Square in the city’s “Little Italy” neighborhood had a wading pool and baseball games were a draw. Penn Valley’s tennis courts were used by the boys and girls “whose parents are well-to-do and who can afford rackets and shoes.” The parks department only had two rackets and four balls for public use.
Garrison Square at 5th and Troost was being slowly developed “for the exclusive use of negro children” while Holmes Square continued to be the most popular park “averaging as high as 500 children some days.”
Elenore was in her element. She was “in the work for the sheer love of it” and there was hardly a child that she didn’t know by name. It was reported, “She has taken a deep interest not only in [the children’s] amusements but in their home life.”
The Height and the Decline of Playground Supervisors
By 1912, parks including Washington Square (Pacific and Holmes), Holmes Square, the Grove (15th and Benton) and the Parade (15th and The Paseo) all were to have playgrounds with supervisors. Elenore had plans that season to hire 16 supervisors, and all applicants had to undergo an examination that included arithmetic, spelling, penmanship, first aid, discipline and knowledge of games. Supervisors were to earn $60 per month.
Elenore’s plans were quickly halted due to the ongoing problem with public services: money. The parks department announced that there would be no more improvements to any of their parks in 1912 due to finances. That year, they cut 25 percent of their budget.
In turn, Elenore was only able to hire five supervisors. Her first course of action was to teach them the importance of getting acquainted with the children of the neighborhoods near the parks they would be stationed in. The newspaper reported, “Miss Canny believes that proper supervision of children in their play adds strength mentally as well as physically.”
In 1913, Elenore was invited to Richmond, Va. as Kansas City’s representative at the Playground and Recreation Association of America where she delivered an address on “The Physical and Moral Development at Play.” This topic was in its infancy, and Elenore was at its helm.
A year later, 205 acres total had been devoted in Kansas City for playground use. The city added more free bath houses and opted to add a flag pole with an American flag at every playground. Elenore jumped at this idea and introduced “patriotic exercises in connection with flag raisings each fair morning.” The city also added lights to the playgrounds so children could play well-past dark. Ten baseball fields, playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts all were a part of the playground system.
Unfortunately, in 1915, the parks department did away with Elenore Canny’s position and all playground supervisors. The absence of the supervisors was felt across the city. The newspaper reported that few children were at play and older teens had taken over. The reason for the abandonment of the program was bluntly proclaimed in the Kansas City Star. “The park board cannot afford it (Though it can afford a race course for horses at the parade)!”
Elenore Moves On
Surprisingly, Elenore accomplished so much without a college degree. After leaving the parks department, she completed her studies at the University of Kansas and worked for years in the athletic department of Kansas City Junior College.
Following in her father’s footsteps, she was also extremely active in Democratic politics in the 1920s and 1930s- the height of the Tom Pendergast era.
In the late 1930s, Elenore returned to her roots and taught physical education at Westport, East and Manual High Schools. She eventually left physical education and taught science before retiring. Holmes Square Park, the first urban park opened in Kansas City, was closed and replaced with housing for returning servicemen.
Elenore never married and lived most of her adult life at 2918 Lockridge with her mother before she passed away in 1936. She also lived with her sister and her nephews for a time. When she passed away at the age of 96 in 1983, only a few short paragraphs were published. The paper didn’t do a large story to commemorate her contributions to Kansas City. There was no mention of a police badge, the parks system or her impact on so many children.
From Park Supervisor to Policewoman to Educator
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Exercise and recreation are as necessary as reading. I will rather say it is more necessary, because health is worth more than learning.” Elenore Canny was able to create a safe place for children while also teaching dance, singing and crafts on the parkland’s grass. She lived her rather remarkable life instilling this into the thousands of children who passed through the park and her classroom – and this is what makes her a true Kansas City unsung hero.