Weston: Small town with a big history

Even after cars replaced steamboats as the primary mode of transportation to Weston, it remains a small town full of loyal residents.
Even after cars replaced steamboats as the primary mode of transportation to Weston, it remains a small town full of loyal residents.

Take a drive through Weston or, even better, a walk.

Admire the Christmas decorations on the street lights, the candles in the windows, the trees sparkling with colorful bulbs — and on weekends greet Father Christmas on Main Street. It is a scene reminiscent of the past, when candles were used for light in Weston homes and sleighs weren’t simply ornaments displayed during the holiday season, but were used for transportation.

Stop at the Chamber of Commerce office and talk to Mary Jo Heidrick or Jennifer Toy, descendants of early settlers, or pick up a driving tour booklet and look at the timeline of Weston’s history, starting in 1837. Browse through the town’s plethora of shops and when you become weary, stop for a drink or meal.

Much has changed in the nearly 180 years since the town was founded, but the past and the present are connected through a sense of community and pride in Weston’s history.

That past is important to the families who trace their roots in the town back five or six generations and now work to preserve what their forebears created. While many simply see a charming, calm town, those with deep roots in Weston know their ancestors overcame floods, fires, a war and loss of major crops.

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The population of Weston reached a peak in 1855 with 5,000 inhabitants, a number that fell precipitously after the Civil War to fewer than 1,000. Today, the community is growing, with a diverse population of more than 1,700. Some are retirees, some are military members or civilians who work in Fort Leavenworth, others work in Weston in some of the many shops and businesses.

Several choose to live in the close-knit community and commute to work in other cities. And then there are the old-timers: the descendants of the early settlers who wouldn’t live anyplace else. Fortunately, many of them have recorded the events that have made Weston what it is now.

Carolyn Bless Larsen, a fifth-generation resident, is one of those who have worked to capture the story.

“My parents spent 35 to 45 years researching downtown businesses,” Larsen said. “After they died, I took over.”

She finished the research in 2012 and, with Weston Historical Museum volunteer Marsha West, spent a year digitizing the data.

The 22-block historic district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Thanks to that distinction, plaques on the buildings offer pertinent facts. For example, the Avalon Café, formerly a residence, and the neighboring house in the 500 block of Main Street, were built in 1848 and 1847, respectively. Homes on Spring Street and elsewhere date from the same era.

Weston was described as the jewel of the Platte Purchase of 1836, when the U.S. government increased the size of the state by buying the northwest corner from American Indian tribes for $7,500.

The Missouri land acquisition created six new counties, making land with river access available as well as “fertile soil and landscape,” as written in the description recorded by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery in 1804, when the group camped near the site of the present City Hall at the end of Main Street.

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Weston is the oldest Platte County town still in existence, and until Texas became a state in 1845 some 24 years after Missouri, the city was the most western town in the United States.

“A Directory of Towns, Villages and Hamlets Past and Present in Platte County” (compiled by Arthur Paul Moser from “History of Platte County,” published in 1885) describes Weston as being at one time “the commercial metropolis of western Missouri and west to the Rockies.”

Some debate exists about the name of the town. One refers to the geographic location of Weston, from West Town. Gene Davenport, a fifth-generation resident, believes Weston was a place to outfit people traveling “west-on” to other places.

Larsen, a former state archivist and onetime curator of the Weston museum, attributes the name to 1st Sgt. Tom Weston of D Company First Dragoons, Fort Leavenworth. Weston laid out the town after former U.S. Army Dragoon Joseph Moore claimed the land, reserving one lot on which to build a house. He moved on and the development fell to attorney Bela Hughes, who successfully marketed the area.

Whoever had the naming rights, the town was established in 1837, incorporated in 1842 — several years before Kansas City — and quickly gained prominence as the second largest steamboat port on the Missouri River, second only to St. Louis. Steamboats, as many as 10 at a time, Larsen said, docked to deliver supplies for Weston and Fort Leavenworth across the river.

Hemp, lumber and tobacco were cargo on the return trip. Passengers debarked to establish a new home in the area or to start the trek west, often on the Oregon or the Mormon trails. Records show that 265 steamboats used the landing in 1850 as commerce flourished and the population soared.

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The landing site for the steamboats had no wharf, said Carl Felling, a native and president of the Weston Historical Museum. A large painting at the museum painted by his father, R.J. Felling, depicts the town and port in the mid-1800s.

“My father copied this old German lithograph of the early town,” Felling said, pointing to the small framed original. “My father was one of the founders of this museum.”

Gangplanks were placed between the boat and the land for unloading and loading.

“The area was known as Hell’s Half Acre for its saloons and brothels,” Larsen said.

In the winter, the frozen river made it possible to take a wagon, ride a horse or walk across to the Kansas side, though misjudging the thickness of the ice sometimes led to tragic results. Davenport recalls hearing how her father drove a wagon full of corn to Atchison on the ice.

In the days before bridges, a ferryboat operated by John B. Wells connected Rialto, a rival trading post 1 mile south of Weston, to Fort Leavenworth and was thought to have been the main crossing for immigration. Wells partnered with a man named Washburn, according to a 1933 article by George Root in the February issue of the Kansas Historical Quarterly.

In an 1854 Leavenworth paper, Wells and Washburn advertised, “To Kansas Immigrants. Steam Ferryboat. The undersigned with pleasure announce to all persons immigrating to Kansas, California, Oregon and Salt Lake City, that they have purchased a new, safe and commodious steam ferryboat, to ply between Weston and Fort Leavenworth.”

An 1856 article in the Kansas Weekly Herald again referred to the ferryboat and boasted that it carried 300 tons of freight, mostly lumber, and could carry any amount of stock and wagons. In 1858, the boat sank at the landing south of Weston, and the owners promised a substitute boat until the other was raised. No record of its surfacing exists.

The Missouri River, a major factor in the rapid growth of Weston, almost caused its demise. A flood in 1858 damaged the port, stopping the steamboats for several months, but the flood of 1881 nearly dealt the final blow when the water settled back into an old river channel a mile from the Weston landing.

What was once a busy port was high and dry.

Immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Sweden and other European countries found their way to the Platte Purchase counties, many via Kentucky, Tennessee and the Deep South, and some brought slaves to work their farms. This created a divide during the Civil War.

Larsen and Felling estimate the population before the war was 70 percent white and 30 percent black.

“Of the 70 percent, 60 percent were Confederate sympathizers and 40 percent supported the Union,” Felling said, adding that no record exists of battles in Weston.

However, the Union troops billeted there commandeered food, animals and housing from the residents. A town doctor, William Shortridge, was arrested for treason for treating wounded rebels. He was imprisoned at Leavenworth, where he played chess with the warden until released to return to Weston.

Some settlers were wealthy when they came and others poor, looking for opportunity. Like Davenport’s ancestors, some temporarily tried other areas before putting down roots in Weston.

Barbara Layton Baker, a former alderman and mayor of Weston, said her father came with his parents in 1908.

“They came to escape the tobacco wars in Kentucky,” Baker said, referring to a syndicate that was forcing many growers out of business by cutting the prices they paid for tobacco. “The soil here was good for growing tobacco.”

Many of the settlers became residents by chance. It was not uncommon for the boats to weather the winter trapped in ice when the river froze, sometimes with unexpected consequences.

Bill Ohlhausen of Weatherby Lake is the great-great-grandson of a riverboat crewman who met and married his wife while his boat was idled in Liberty. Their son, a head engineer on a steamboat, was marooned in Weston in 1867. His skills repaired the local grist mill, and he became the first of three generations to own the Weston Milling Company, which no longer exists.

Farming was a major industry. Hemp reached peak production in 1860, putting Weston on the map as a major world producer. By 1885, with the loss of the port and farmhands to work the labor-intensive crop, the last hemp was shipped from the town. It was replaced in the late 19th century by large-scale tobacco farming. The first tobacco auction was in 1912.

December and January brought the tobacco buyers to Weston for the annual tobacco auction, said Bob Kincaid whose late father was a tobacco farmer.

Harvesting and preparing the tobacco “was hard work,” Kincaid he said. “We cut it, put it in the barn to dry, then stripped it, graded it and took it to the warehouse for sale.”

The New Deal Tobacco Warehouse on U.S. 45, owned by Louis Smither and Jerry Cox, is still in business today, but the last auction was in 2001, Smither said.

“Very little of the process is automated, but is hands-on even today,” said Smither.

Tobacco is now sold on contract, but that ends this year, he said, and the future of the crop will not be known until February.

“In 1994, more than 8 million pounds of tobacco with a $14 million value were shipped,” Smither said.

At the peak of tobacco production, 3,400 acres were planted, with more than 2,200 in Platte County, he added. Today, tobacco is grown on about 575 acres in Platte, and the number of farmers involved has dwindled to 30 in Missouri.

But today’s generation can thank those early farmers for supporting a once-burgeoning population in Weston. Because of them, the number of churches grew.

The city cemetery was chartered in 1838. A section of the Laurel Hill Cemetery holds unmarked graves of slaves about whom Larsen has written in the book “We Too Lived.”

Buried in Laurel Hill are four generations of Daniel Boone descendants and Buffalo Bill’s aunt Louisa Cody, with whom Bill lived for a short period after his father was murdered in Leavenworth.

Culture was not forgotten. The town had a social life that grew in the winter months. Baker said her great-grandfather, Christopher Columbus Graves, built an eight-room house in town so his daughters could enjoy the social season and attend school in the winter. In the growing season, the family moved back to the farm.

“The (residents) made their own entertainment,” Baker said. “They were a happy bunch of people. Everything was home based.”

The Platte County Railroad laid tracks in 1861, and oak ties cut locally brought a dollar each. A public school was established in 1869, replacing some of the existing private and parochial schools. Churches were established, hotels built and businesses founded. The Bank of Weston opened in 1893. In 1904, Julius Rumpel began the town’s first phone system. Electric service was provided to homes and businesses in 1919.

Sebus Hardware, the oldest business still operating, was established in the late 19th century. It remained in business until the Depression, Bill Sebus said, when his father rented the building to another merchant.

“My father took it back in 1947,” Sebus said. “My brother Chuck and I run it now.”

And, like in the “olden days,” the third generation of the family operates the store without the benefit of a computer.

Many of the buildings standing today replaced structures that were damaged or destroyed by fires.

In March 1855, a major fire destroyed 41 downtown businesses, storage warehouses and two homes.

The Weston Museum now stands where the International Hotel burned, Larsen said.

In September 1858, fire once again devastated the city. Kansans crossed the river, gathered in several of the 12 saloons in town, and proceeded to shout anti-slavery slogans and set buildings on fire, Larsen said. The fire spread, and total damages were estimated at $25,000, a huge sum for the townspeople. Private funds helped in the rebuilding.

Fires in subsequent years destroyed homes, warehouses, a school and churches. In 1890, the first St. George Hotel, built in 1845, burned down. When rebuilt, the rooms had a “fire escape” consisting of heavy rope attached to an anchored iron ring for rappelling down the side of the building. Guests will be relieved to know that method has been replaced, said John Kern, who works at the hotel.

One of the most popular destinations these days is the McCormick Distillery. Though the brand name came to the community in the early 1940s, a distillery has long been part of the community.

The first was tied to early entrepreneur Ben Holladay, a colorful character who arrived in Weston in 1838. Before moving west and becoming known as the Stagecoach King for the Overland Express, records show Holladay owned a hotel and a dram shop in Weston, became the first postmaster and is reported to have helped his brother, David Holladay, establish the Holladay Distillery in 1856.

The distillery was sold twice with name changes each time before the third owner, Isadore Singer, bought the McCormick brand name and a specific type of production process from a distillery in nearby Waldron in 1942. Today, McCormick Distillery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest distillery west of the Mississippi operating on its original site. The company is expanding and will be open for public tours in the spring.

For visitors whose tastes run more toward wine or beer than hard alcohol, Weston has plenty to please. From a winery tucked in a historic building to a brewery and restaurants to please any palate, this tiny community has something to please anyone. And history buffs will enjoy wandering through the town, filled with antebellum houses.

Those whose roots lie deep in the town are proud of the care taken to preserve this gem.

Carolyn Horseman’s ancestors came from Germany generations ago. She recalls family Saturdays in town in the early 1950s — in what could be described as quintessential small-town America.

“The kids went to the movie, mom shopped and dad went to the pool hall,” Horseman said, adding that while the history of the town is rich, she stays because of the warmth of the community, which is somewhat off the beaten path.

“It is friendly and caring,” she said. “I would not want to live anywhere else.”

Essay contest

The Weston Historical Museum is sponsoring its fourth Weston History Essay Contest, “Family and Community in Weston’s History.” Visit for information.