816 North

From Smith’s Mill to Smithville, this Clay County town continues to grow

Bearing the name of 1820s settler Humphrey “Yankee” Smith, the city of Smithville now boasts a population that has nearly doubled this century to almost 10,000 residents. In 1824, Smith built Smith’s Mill on the Little Platte River — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bearing the name of 1820s settler Humphrey “Yankee” Smith, the city of Smithville now boasts a population that has nearly doubled this century to almost 10,000 residents. In 1824, Smith built Smith’s Mill on the Little Platte River — and the rest, as they say, is history. Special to the Star

City administrator Steve Garrett describes Smithville as the sum of many different, often opposing parts. The city’s slogan “Thriving Ahead” may be new, but the meaning behind it is many decades old.

Starting with Humphrey “Yankee” Smith, credited as the original settler of the area, the town has moved steadily forward, albeit sometimes slowly.

Smith would be proud that the city bearing his name has thrived for almost 200 years, overcoming floods, fires, political battles and the Great Depression. Its population, approaching 10,000, has nearly doubled since 2000.

Only once since 1880 has the census recorded negative growth, and that was during the Great Depression.

Mayor Brian Fullmer says the city issued more building permits in the region in 2016 than any other city except Kansas City. That may be because the city has become known for its low crime rate, good schools and small-town atmosphere.

A city-contracted survey in 2015 found that the school district attracted 95 percent of the newer residents, Fullmer said, adding that his family was among them.

“2017 will be a great year,” Fullmer said. “We have the lowest taxes in the area. We’re competitive to make retail commercial development happen.”

The challenge is to provide that growth and maintain the natural beauty and ambience of the area, which is known for Smithville Lake, a 7,700 acre lake and park. It attracts thousands to its shoreline and surrounding area, to enjoy boating, fishing, swimming and hiking.

The city is laying the groundwork for development south of town with a major sewer line, Garrett said. When construction is completed in 2018, it will open almost 1,000 acres to development. Plans include residential, commercial and three industrial parks.

Land along U.S. 169 is zoned for restaurants and retail, he said, and will draw customers not only from Smithville, but from nearby cities.

It’s all part of a plan to draw more people to an area that has been lauded for its family-friendly atmosphere.

In 2016, Movoto Real Estate designated Smithville as No. 5 on the list of the best suburbs to raise a family in the Kansas City metro area.

“We have suburban living with metro amenities,” Garrett said.

All the new development would have been beyond Humphrey Smith’s comprehension, as the area he settled in was raw, open country.

In 1822, Smith moved his wife and seven children to Clay County to build Smith’s Mill on the Little Platte River in 1824. He would likely be surprised to know that the river that turned his millstone continues to create prosperity today, as it’s the main water source for Smithville Lake.

The lake, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control, draws 1.5 million visitors annually. Smithville Dam was authorized in 1965, and the dam was completed in 1977.

In addition to marinas and beaches, the area offers equestrian trails, two 18-hole public golf courses, camping and hunting. It also provides the water supply for Smithville and Plattsburg, and Kansas City is able to tap into a portion of it.

When Smith settled in the area, land was available for $2 an acre — the equivalent of approximately $39 in today’s dollars.

As part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the government paid France 3 cents an acre for a territory that doubled the size of the United States. The land that would become Missouri in 1821 was part of the Louisiana Purchase territory.

Missouri had only been a state for a year and Clay County was only a few months old when the Smith family arrived in the county. That trip was only the first of many hurdles they overcame.

The family had originally settled in Howard County in mid-Missouri, but that area was a poor choice for an outspoken abolitionist.

The Civil War was decades away, but passions already ran high in the Southern-leaning, pro-slavery region, where many families had slaves working the hemp and tobacco fields.

After a confrontation with slave-holding neighbors left Humphrey bloodied and his wife, Nancy, blind in one eye when she jumped to her husband’s defense, the family moved on from Howard County. Clay County was pro-slavery and no more sympathetic to abolitionists, but Humphrey had likely learned to turn away when challenged.

According to a document from the National Historical Co. in St. Louis, titled “History of Smithville — 1885,” Smith had a store at his mill, and soon after, other merchants arrived and a little village sprang up. Smith’s son Calvin managed the store.

Humphrey Smith was described in the article as having Yankee enterprise and shrewdness when locating his mill, which earned the patronage of the government Indian agencies, and the business of settlers passing through to the Western frontier.

Frank Justus, a local historian, notes that when the town site was laid out in 1830 before the Platte Purchase, it was the westernmost settlement in the United States. (The 1836 Platte Purchase extended Missouri’s northwestern border.) His family has been in Smithville since the mid-1850s.

His mother, the late Roberta Ann Hall Justus, was a pioneer of another type.

She was the first female pharmacist in Platte or Clay County. In the mid-1950s, she bought what became Justus Drugstore and operated it until 2001. It is now Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant at 106 W. Main, and the critically acclaimed spot draws fans of farm-to-table cooking from all over.

History repeated through generations has given credibility to the claim that Smith’s death in 1857 at age 83 was due to smallpox contracted from a contaminated abolitionist paper bought in Lawrence. He, in turn, spread the disease to visitors, causing a small epidemic.

Smith’s son, Calvin, wrote in his 1907 autobiography that his father left instructions that his epitaph was not to be inscribed on his tombstone or the grave location — just across the county line into Platte County — known until Missouri became a free state. He was afraid “men stealers” would rob his grave.

The Smiths sold their mill after 30 years, and shortly thereafter it washed away in a flood.

Collins Ford Kindred, 95, known as Colonel since childhood, is a fourth-generation resident of Smithville. He remembers well another flood, in 1965, which served as one impetus for the creation of Smithville Lake. He was trapped by 12 feet of water in the family Chevrolet dealership in downtown Smithville. His father, Collins Charles “C.C.” Kindred, had established the dealership in 1922.

The only exit was through a burglar-proof skylight of wire and glass. With drowning as the alternative, Kindred proved the skylight was not indestructible. Most of downtown Smithville was devastated by the flood.

Kindred and his wife Loula, 90, have contributed much of the written history of Smithville found on smithvillehistoricalsociety.com. Loula Kindred is descended from a farmer who settled in the area in 1829. She met her “Colonel” at an ice cream social after he came home from World War II with battle scars and a Purple Heart.

He proposed after three dates. The couple will have been married 68 years this year.

Loula Kindred, a member of the library board for 34 years, designed the Smithville library building.

Colonel Kindred recalls a happy childhood in the 1920s and ’30s. He recalls ice skating and playing hockey, and says when a Chautauqua traveling show came to town, it was a “big deal.”

Another favorite pastime was swimming, and he and his friends had several swimming holes in different streams.

“We didn’t have bathing suits,” he said, adding that occasionally a train would go by, and the crew would laugh at them as they ran for cover.

The Quincy, Omaha and Kansas City Railroad ceased operation in 1937, Loula Kindred said, but it had been the object of an irate letter from the Smithville Commercial Club about the inadequate depot and platform. The narrow platform was dirty, “making it impossible for women to get around the depot without soiling their skirts beyond decency.”

Colonel Kindred recalls homeless people walking along the railroad track during the Depression knocking on homes’ doors to plead for food. He remembers his father helping a man and his son whose car was out of gas.

“He put them in the stripping (tobacco) room and found some furniture. They stayed six months.”

He recalls the town bank going broke in the Depression and the banker having money at home in his safe.

“It took people’s savings,” he said. “Widows lost their savings.”

“When the (bank’s affairs) were settled,” Loula Kindred said, “the depositors received 16 cents on the dollar.”

Like many small towns, over the decades Smithville lost most of its downtown businesses, including groceries, a movie theater, a large mercantile store and hotels. The 16-room Peddicord Hotel, torn down in 1946, had housed both the famous and the infamous: film star Buster Keaton and outlaws Frank and Jesse James.

Retail, including Kindred Chevrolet, has moved to U.S. 169, a busy north-south road.

The major employers in Smithville today, Fullmer said, are the school district, Price Chopper and St. Luke’s North Hospital, which began when a young doctor, the late Arch Spelman, settled in Smithville in 1934.

In 1938, an 11-bed hospital was built in downtown Smithville. It was the first hospital in the Northland. A new 74-bed facility, part of the St. Luke’s Health System, was built in 1962 in its present location on U.S. 169.

While catastrophic events may cause some communities to dwindle, others, like Smithville, flourish as they adapt to changing times.

“The survey has provided a new sense of community,” Garrett said, referring to the 2015 city-contracted survey of residents.

“For instance, people who were active in the survey are now having conversations and meetings. They may not have known each other previously.”