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Lee's Summit, Past and Present . . .
 
Lee's Summit Train Depot, c. 1905

THE area now known as Lee's Summit began as a lush prairie inhabited by the Osage Indians. Tall grasses covered the area, and the only trees were located along the many streams that existed at the time.

In 1808, a treaty between the Osage Indians and the U. S. government was signed, and the Indians were eventually moved from their land to reservations. The word spread quickly about the beauty of this area. Several Southern settlers arrived to take advantage of the fertile land and the plentiful water supply. Some of the early settlers were the families of Dr. Pleasant Lea, Lapsley, Hickman, Shepherd, Perkins, Hodges, Hagan, Flanery, Fristoe, Harry Younger, Jones, Wiggington, Hargis, Boggs, Wallace, Birks, Harris, Thornton, Duncan, Talley, Snider, Kreeger, Easley, Daniels, Thompson, Carlton, Hall, Moon, Yocum, Chrisman, Cowherd, Browning, Noel, Hunter, Miller, Ritter, Fetters, Gammon, Lacy, and Howard. These families came from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and other Southern states. The Harris, Browning, and Powell Families came from Ohio. These early settlers arrived between the years of 1830 and 1867.

A little known fact about Lee's Summit is the area was called Big Cedar. Dr. Pleasant Lea, who was eventually assassinated by Union troops, served as Post Master for the United States mail, and it was called Big Cedar. Had it not been for the Civil War, Lee's Summit would have developed in an entirely different direction. For many years it has been unclear how Lee's Summit really got it's name. There are stories stating that the town was named after Dr. Pleasant Lea, in a misspelling by the Postal service and others stating Robert E. Lee. Everyone agrees that the "Summit" portion of the name came from the fact the Lee's Summit is the highest point on the railroad between St. Louis and Kansas City.

William B. Howard, the founder of our city, arrived from Kentucky in 1844 with his family and several slaves. Mr. Howard immediately purchased sections of land vacated by the Osage Indians. The original tract of land was 833 acres. Mr. Howard eventually added to his holdings until he owned over 1000 acres. He built a beautiful colonial home and cabins for his slaves. It is said that he freed his slaves in Kentucky before he came to Missouri, but the slaves were so loyal to the Howard family that they wanted to remain with them.

The period that was perhaps the darkest in the history of Lee's Summit and the surrounding towns was the Border War which started in the mid 1850s. The Border War eventually escalated into the Civil War 1861. Most of the citizens of Big Cedar (Lee's Summit), Lone Jack, Raytown, Pleasant Hill, to name a few, were Southern Sympathizers. There were many bloody skirmishes during this time. The notorious William Quantrill and his band of guerrilla's, which included the 3 Younger brothers, rode the country side and reaped havoc on the Union forces. In 1863 Quantrill burned Lawrence, Kansas, and killed many of it's residents. In retaliation for this slaughter, Union General Thomas Ewing issued the infamous Order Number Eleven. This order stated that all the residents of Jackson, Bates and other bordering counties must leave their homes and possessions within a 10 days or suffer the consequences. Families were forced to leave everything behind, including livestock, and above all, their homesteads. The settlers fled to friends' homes in unaffected areas; and some, who had the means, went back to their original family homes in the South. This was the case for the Howard family.

Union troops burned and slaughtered their way through the counties listed in Order Number 11. Many towns were totally destroyed, lives were lost, and the face of the area was changed forever. The scars of Order Number 11 remain with us today. The horror of the times is described in the following letter written in 1863, by William Edwards, a 12-year-old at the time of Order Number 11. He was a resident of Harrisionville in Cass County.

Dear Jimmy,
I just got pushed out of my house by the Feds. They took nearly everything.
They left me with a wee bit of food, gunpowder, the musket I hid in the cellar,
and a wagon.

I think I will try to get to Charles' house in Oxford, Kansas. If it hasn't
been raided by Quantrill. They got the land from the Black Bob Indians last year.
I am sure that they won't mind another mouth to feed.

Ever since Pa went to fight for the Rebs and Grandpa got sick and died, it's been
very hard for me to run this farm all by my lonesome. I'm just glad that Ma and
Sis are safe in Georgia.

When they issued the order, I thought it was just a big joke. I was wrong, dead
wrong. It could be dangerous for me to go to Kansas City. I hear there's whole
brigades of Feds just waiting for some Reb like me. I hope I stay away from there
too. This place ain' t safe for anybody anymore.

I hope I'll meet up with you again soon. You're about the only person I'm looking
forward to seeing. And I don't even know if I'll ever see you again.

Sincerely Your Friend,
William Edwards

In 1865, William B. Howard returned to the area. He found that his farm had been spared. Union troops had attempted to burn it twice, but a Union officer ordered his men to stop the fire because he wanted the beautiful home for himself.

Before the war, Mr. Howard had been in negotiations with the Pacific Railroad to establish a right-of-way. He donated several lots to the railroad; and from that point, the town was given life. All that remained was the naming of this town. Mr. Howard named this new town Strother, after his first wife's family name. The original town, which was 70 acres, went from First Street to the school house (possibly the corner of West Main and Third) and from Jefferson to Douglas. A few years later the townsfolk petitioned for the town to be called Lee's Summit, as it had been known as before Mr. Howard filed the plat for Strother.

Mr Howard's impressive business skills changed the direction of the town. Big Cedar faded into history, and Lee's Summit was born. The rich prairie gave way to farms, orchards, dairy and cattle operations. Lee's Summit was once declared the show place of Jackson County. Early photos are a testament to the this declaration.

Another notable resident of Lee's Summit was J.J. Pryor who owned the property that is where Summit Woods is located. He had a farm that consisted 120 acres. There was a large orchard, crops, a pond and a magnificent rose garden. Mr. Pryor also raised race horses. Many of Lee's Summit finest young men learned to swim in the pond, including Mr. Frank Graves and Mr. Bob Belser. Mr. Pryor was the treasurer of the Ready Mix Concrete Company that was owned by Tom Pendergast. He was also part owner along with William Boyle of The Boyle Pryor Construction Company.

Mr. Pendergast had control of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in this area. There are many dams on farms that were built by the WPA. More than likely the concrete used to build these dams came from Tom Pendergast's concrete company. Mr. Pryor was a friend of Harry Truman. Eastern Jackson County was a Democratic stronghold in those days. Mr. Truman spent a great deal of time in Lee's Summit and was responsible for the paving of key roads in the metro, including Lee's Summit Road during the 1920s. Mr. Pryor's wife was very active in the Lee's Summit community and well respected by the citizens. She was a very kind person who helped many Lee's Summit families. The home which was located on the site was a beautiful stone house with a tile roof. It was a land mark in Lee's Summit for many years.

The History of Lee's Summit is about more than facts and figures. It is about the strength of its citizens. The early settlers who suffered through the Civil War, grasshopper plagues, drought, disease, and the fire of 1885, which destroyed most of the town prevailed and worked hard to build what we see today. Many of our buildings are from the turn of the century. Think of those early settlers. What would they think of their town now?

 


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