Before the days of GPS, it wasn’t uncommon to see cars sporting bumper stickers that read “Where the Hell is Parkville?”
Today, everyone within a 50-plus mile range of the city knows the answer.
It was prophesied in 1885 that Parkville would become a bedroom community for Kansas City.
Today, Parkville Economic Development Executive Director Mike Kellem considers Parkville well positioned as “a small town within a big city.”
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Nineteenth-century settlers like David and Stephen English and George Park may have been first to envision future prosperity for the tiny settlement, but they could not predict the events that would make Parkville the city of more than 6,200 it is today. It’s one of the Northland’s toughest cities. It has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and the flood of 1993.
“Landing, village, town, city — Parkville has been all of these and some more than once,” wrote the late Parkville historian Sylvia Gault.
“I would tell my friends I lived north of the river,” said Lisa Muehlbach, a native of Parkville. “Twenty minutes from downtown and 20 minutes from the airport.”
But the city boasts much more than an ideal location.
It is now home to an acclaimed small college. Park University was founded in 1875 on land donated by George Park. Park University draws students from all over the world. The Park Hill School District makes national lists of top schools.
Areas of the city that were dated have been reinvented.
A defunct golf course was remade in 2000 into the world-class National Golf Club of Kansas City, attracting business, tourists and residents. A tired shopping mall was rebuilt in 2004 as Parkville Commons and today draws the public to restaurants, stores and a community center. A second shopping center is planned for the near future.
Every development spurs another development, said city administrator Joe Parente, and new investment brings new jobs.
“The city has high standards, and it is its policy to develop properly,” Parente said.
Kellem emphasizes the need for a strong residential component. Rooftops equate to a demand for services.
“Density is important,” he said.
Stephen Lachky, community development director, said that 63 single-family residential building permits were issued in 2016; 14 have been issued so far this year. The National, Riss Lake, Thousand Oaks and River Hills are among the larger developments.
Two major land annexations adding 12 square miles have encouraged development.
The voluntary 1998 annexation of the National and the voter-approved 2001 annexation of land to the west of the city expanded the city from 3.46 square miles to 15.41 square miles, said Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston.
The present city limits are a far cry from the small landing and warehouse George Park acquired in 1841 from the English brothers.
Park became postmaster in 1841, hence the name Parkville. He touted his town as the gateway to the West with “its warehouses, steam sawmills, flour mill, lumberyard, blacksmiths, wagon makers, carpenters, saddlers.”
The view of the Rev. Charles Lord, who was sent to the area by the American Home Missionary Society in 1843, was decidedly less idyllic.
He reported his 30-foot-by-30-foot Presbyterian meeting house was delayed, many people were ill, slavery existed, and alcohol was used freely. He also found illiteracy, lawlessness and people who did not observe the Sabbath.
By 1853, a report on the prosperity of Parkville listed personal property valuation at $86,135; and retail trade in excess of $160,000. Though inflation has made a comparison difficult, residential building permits in 2016 had a valuation of $17.8 million.
Good schools were absent in early Parkville so children were often sent to other towns for education, even boarding in Camden Point. In 1853 A Female Seminary was established in Park’s hotel and Francis McDonald arrived to take charge of the district school.
The first school building for black children, Benjamin Banneker, was built in 1885 with bricks and labor furnished by Park College. Efforts continue to restore the building, on the Register of Historic Places, as a living museum.
Park started the first town newspaper in 1853. The abolition-leaning editorials in The Industrial Luminary so angered the members of the Platte County Self-Defense League, part of the Kansas League supporting slavery, they censored the news by throwing the papers in the river. Loyalties were split and the number of residents and businesses fell sharply during the Civil War.
Although Parkville was never the scene of a major battle, Southern-leaning bushwhackers raided the town in 1864 and shot several residents, including a Mr. Brink who lost an ear to wandering hogs before the body could be rescued from the street.
Old minute books that recorded official city business are a rich source of history:
▪ Ordinance 1, April 1858, hired an assessor for $25 annually. Property was taxed at a quarter of 1 percent of its assessed value.
▪ Ordinance 5 lists taxed items to include any type of conveyance; all animals of the horse, cow, ass, mule kind over the age of 2 years; hogs of any age; watches, clocks, stocks, money, gold and silver; and any household property valued at more than $200.
▪ Ordinance 9 sets a tax of $1 on free white males 21 to 55. Every steamboat touching the wharf paid a fee, which paid the wharf master.
▪ Ordinance 4: forbid having an election in a grog shop. (Noted in the margin, “too bad, it may have caused a good turnout.”)
Misdemeanors in 1858 included dogs running wild and anyone leaving a cellar door open after dark. The long-sought railroad finally became a reality in 1869, but times change. Passenger trains that once stopped three times a day in Parkville to transport shoppers and workers to Kansas City ceased in 1971, as did the Greyhound bus.
In 1912 The Gazette newspaper reported “automobiles are getting thicker and thicker” and The Good Roads Men taskforce study led to the establishment of the extant Parkville Special Road District in 1916.
Today, 18,000 vehicles a day pass through the intersection of Missouri highways 9 and 45. Three major infrastructure projects are in progress, Parente said. The widening of Missouri 45 is slated for completion in October; Phase 1 of a multi-year, multi-phase Missouri 9 project that includes sidewalks and trails is in progress; and $1.13 million has been approved for Parkville street improvements.
Limited resources require innovation to continue progress, Parente said, and forming partnerships with the county, MoDOT, Park University and other entities is beneficial.
The Great Depression of the 1930s required belt tightening. As remembered by the late Robert L. Burns, “there wasn’t $10 in the entire town of Parkville.” But the town survived through its own efforts.
Citizens provided their own entertainment with dances on Main Street in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, free movies were popular on Saturday night when the farmers were in town to shop. The late Howard Breen said the screen was attached to a 1935 Chrysler parked in front of the lamppost, which was conveniently located in the middle of Main Street (a Gale Stockwell painting of Main Street and the lamppost hangs in the Smithsonian). The cord was plugged in at the Park Pharmacy and the merchants paid for the movie. In 1949, the merchants sponsored the Parkville Volunteer Fire Department to present the movies as a fundraiser to buy equipment.
Parkville survived the flood of 1993 that inundated most of downtown. Volunteers helped rebuild and create events to bring people back to the downtown businesses.
Today, the city is known for its festivities. Christmas on the River is celebrating 25 years. The Fourth of July and Parkville Days in August bring thousands to the town for the parades and the carnival.
Parkville has made the most of its location on the river with English Landing and Platte Landing parks. The parks and the Nature Sanctuary rank high in popularity, Johnston said, and are a priority. Future plans, Lachky said, include a wetland and a baseball field in Platte Landing Park.
Parkville still retains a small town atmosphere, but, not to the extent it did when Muehlbach was growing up. If she received a warning for speeding, she said with a laugh, her parents knew about it before she arrived home.
These days, Parkville does not need bumper stickers advertising its anonymity. George Park had it right. It was a great place to settle a town.