One way to view the history of Kearney is to examine the evolution of its transportation.
Its first settlers came by way of horse and buggy. The railroad welcomed another era, and an interstate highway brought with it a spike in population.
The once-quiet town is now nearly 10,000 people strong. Kearney, which was home to brothers Frank and Jesse James and their family, also is a popular destination for tourists.
Historian and city alderman Gerri Spencer has worked at the James Farm for 24 years.
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“Last year, visitors came from 42 countries and all 50 states,” Spencer said.
A mural on the side of the Pence Heating and Cooling building in downtown Kearney captures much of the history.
Bob Pence, a second-generation owner of the business, which is the oldest continuously operating business in Kearney, commissioned it as a gift to the downtown revitalization program. The mural is a composite of three pictures from the Kearney Historic Museum, at 101 S. Jefferson St.
Pence, whose Kearney lineage extends back several generations, included Frank and Jesse James on their horses.
“Two Pence ancestors rode with the James gang, and also with (William) Quantrill,” he said. “Another relative was killed in the Civil War fighting for the Confederacy.”
The first settlers in the area arrived from Kentucky and other points in the east in the 1820s and ’30s, gradually forming a community with amenities needed to grow and prosper. (Missouri had become a state in 1821.)
The Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church was founded by pioneer John Major in 1856 on Christmas Day in the living room of his 1822 home. Today, there are 17 churches in the area, according a longtime resident, Ruth Cave.
Many settlers were Southern sympathizers and some brought slaves. The Civil War brought a serious decline in population, said Jim Eldridge, Kearney city administrator and city clerk. When the war started in 1861, about 20 families lived in the area, but many left.
In 1856, Uriel Cave, the first of the Cave family in Missouri, sold to his son William R. Cave a portion of the land he had purchased from the United States government in 1831. William partnered with David T. Dunkin in founding Centerville.
Kearney was laid out by John Lawrence in 1867 upon the building of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad (now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe). Kearney merged with Centerville in 1869, when the former incorporated.
The naming of the town is in dispute, but the two most plausible theories are that Lawrence named it after Kearney, Neb., or that it was named after Charles Esmonde Kearney, the first president of the Kansas City and Cameron Railroad, a subsidiary of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad in 1869.
Charles Kearney was responsible for having the Hannibal Bridge built. The bridge established Kansas City as the region’s dominant city and the center for westward expansion. It also was a boon to the community of Kearney, providing transportation for settlers and a means to get cattle to Kansas City. At its peak, 60 trains a day passed through, Spencer said.
Today, there is only a short bit of track from Kearney to North Kansas City. But for the city’s sesquicentennial in 2006, the city was able to procure the veteran steam engine “the Spirit of Louisiana” for the celebration.
“We would not be here if not for the railroad,” said Darrell McClung, owner of Darrell’s Style Shop and a longtime businessman in Kearney.
Bill Wilkerson, 90, recalls four passenger trains going daily through Kearney.
“Two trains went south and two north every day,” said Wilkerson, whose family’s Kearney roots go back 150 years.
One of his memories of riding the train is a trip to Cameron with his high school basketball team to play a game in Maysville.
“We didn’t have enough for a football team,” he said, adding that his high school graduating class in 1944 numbered only 12.
“It was still a country town and we rode a horse the mile to high school,” he said. “All three of us (his siblings) on the same horse. I was the rumble seat.”
His family raised cattle, hogs, grain and hay and hauled their tobacco crop to Weston. He recalled the trucks along Washington Street loaded with corn from Iowa brought down to feed the cattle.
“We (Clay County) grazed more cattle than anyplace in Missouri,” Eldridge said.
Bluegrass seed was a byproduct of the bluegrass pastures that fed the cattle, Eldridge said. The tool to strip it was invented in Clay County, and Eldridge recalls stripping the seed as a young boy. The seed was dried, packaged and shipped by train.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics in Jefferson City, in a 1913-1914 report, stated that Missouri shipped bluegrass seed “which finds ready sale in Kentucky and other states.”
The same report stated unimproved land sold for $40 per acre, and farm labor with room and board was $20 a month, a dollar a day without.
Ruth Cave, 94, rode a horse to school for 12 years. A bus was provided the year she graduated in a class of 20 in 1939.
Her late husband, Darrell Cave, a descendant of the founder, never lived more than five miles from where he was born. The couple, who had been married for 74 years when he died, rented their first house in Kearney for $7 a month. It had no water, no sewer and an outhouse she had to clean.
When they bought a house, she made sure it had a bathroom.
Darrell Cave drove a truck that hauled hay in the summer and coal in the winter. He also would haul cattle to Kansas City, wash the truck and haul orders of groceries, hardware or other supplies back to Kearney three times a week.
He also was the caretaker of Mount Olivet Cemetery. The worst day of her husband’s life, Ruth Cave said, was when they exhumed Jesse James in 1995, “because the crowd had no respect for any of the graves.”
Many other residents recall the olden days with fondness.
Pence said that when his father started the heating business in 1947, the floor was dirt for five years. Washington Street, the main business street, was first graveled in the 1930s and remained oil and gravel for years.
“It was a poor town,” Pence said. “No one had money.”
In 1952, Mack Porter gave up teaching in Highland, Kan., and moved to Kearney to start a lumber yard.
Back then, the town of only 500 people had crank telephones, manned at a central office by “Mrs. Bratton or Mrs. Smith.” The two women knew where everyone in town was at most any given moment, Porter said.
There was electricity but no water system until the late 1950s.
“It was the only place that had a building I could afford,” Porter said of his decision to move to Kearney. The building he rented had been empty for many years, and was occupied by hogs, chickens and mules housed by another merchant.
“I paid $50 a month rent. Sometimes I could not pay until my customers paid me. I don’t know why they did not kick me out.”
Porter purchased a 1948 Chevrolet 14-foot flatbed truck for $950 for his business. He paid it off at $50 a month.
“I put every penny back in the business.”
In 1956, he bought a new, bigger truck.
This time, he paid cash. The community had been kind to him.
In 1978, as chairman of the Clay County Parks Board, Porter found himself involved in an important piece of Kearney’s history.
No history of Kearney would be complete without the story of Jesse James and his gang.
In 1978, Clay County acquired the James Farm, restored the James home, and built a museum, a series of events Porter remembers well.
Jesse Woodson James was born on the farm near Kearney in 1847 to Zerelda Cole James and the Rev. Robert Sallee James, a Baptist minister. Jesse and his older brother, Frank, who was born in 1843, were Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War.
The Rev. James acquired the farm in Clay County more than 20 years before Kearney was incorporated in 1869. One of the founders of William Jewell College, he contracted cholera on a trip to California and died there shortly after his arrival in 1850.
After the war, Jesse and Frank James joined several gangs before starting their own. Jesse was severely wounded in 1865 and recuperated at the hotel owned by his Aunt and Uncle Mimms in Harlem, Mo. He married his first cousin Zerelda “Zee” Mimms in 1874. Two children survived them.
Jesse and Frank formed their own gang of train robbers in 1866. Several members of the gang were captured or killed 10 years later in an attempted bank robbery in Minnesota, and the James brothers were under sharp scrutiny by the law after that.
In 1882, Jesse, who had a bounty on his head, was assassinated in his St. Joseph home by Robert Ford, a gang member who was hoping to collect a bounty.
Frank James retired and served little jail time. He held a variety of jobs and died at the James Farm in 1915.
After Jesse was murdered, the farm drew the curious, some of whom wanted souvenirs. Although Zerelda James, the mother of the outlaws, had her son buried near the house to protect the grave from grave robbers, it is documented that she cashed in on the popularity of her infamous child.
For two bits (25 cents), she would pose by the marker and sell the pebbles that blanketed the grave. According to documents from a tour guide, she replaced the stones with others from a nearby creek, creating a steady source of income.
Although the grave and marker are still at the farm, the remains of Jesse James are not.
He was reburied in 1902 in the James family plot in Kearney’s Mount Olivet Cemetery next to his wife and twin sons, who died in infancy. During that transfer, the bottom fell out of the casket. When the empty grave at the farm was opened in 1978, the remnants of the old casket were removed and placed in the museum, but not until Porter spotted the name and serial number on the old casket.
He called the funeral home in St. Joseph that sold the “Everlasting” coffin in 1882.
“I told them I had a complaint,” Porter said with a laugh. “The nails holding the bottom on were made of iron and corroded. The casket was not everlasting.”
In 1995 Jesse James was exhumed again, this time for DNA testing based on a claim by a family in Texas that Jesse did not die in St. Joseph, but escaped. The Texas family claimed they were related. Testing showed they weren’t.
Transportation again had a hand in the growth of Kearney in the late 1960s. Although the population rose from 396 in 1870 to 678 in 1960, growth was relatively slow.
But what railroads did for Kearney in the 19th century, Interstate 35 did in the 20th century, and growth continues today.
“I-35 made Kearney boom as the town became open for development,” Wilkerson said. “They (highway builders) took three acres of Dad’s land and three acres of Grandpa’s land.”
The highway was a turning point, Pence agreed.
Today, Kearney is mainly a bedroom community within easy commuting distance to Kansas City, North Kansas City, Liberty and other surrounding cities.
“More than 80 percent of our population commutes,” Eldridge said. “Our biggest employer is the school district.”
Gone are the stockyards, the mainline railroad and agricultural industries that had sustained many families for more than a century.
According to the Kearney Area Development Council, the population of Kearney today in comparison with the Kansas City metro area is younger, and income tends to be higher.
Porter, who has participated in the development of the Metropolitan Public Library and Smithville Lake, said Kearney is a unique community.
“Where else can you raise a half a million dollars from volunteers to build an amphitheater?” he asked. “Mayor Bill Dane came to me and said the city needed $750,000 to build one, and could put up $250,000 of that.”
In two weeks, they had the money, he said. Four businesses, including Porter’s, gave $250,000 and the rest came from newer residents.
The same thing happened when the high school coach needed money for turf for the football field, Porter said. The money was raised in five days.
Kearney’s story has been one of hardship, perseverance and community spirit, McClung said.
“Kearney may not be perfect, but we have a lot to be thankful for.”
The James Farm
21216 James Farm Road
Visitors center hours (October-April):
Monday-Saturday: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Kearney Historic Museum
101 S. Jefferson St.
Hours: Friday and Saturday, 10-2