Kearney History

Kearney, located in Clay County, Missouri is approximately 15 miles northeast of Kansas City, Missouri. State Highway 33 runs through from the North to the South and State Highway 92 runs from East to West and 1-35 runs near the western boundary.

What is now the Southeastern portion of the town of Kearney was originally called Centerville, and was laid out by David T. Duncan and W.R. Cave in the spring of 1856. Duncan lived on and owned the South half of the site of Centerville. Cave purchased the North half from his father, Uriel Cave, the original owner. The first houses were built by Adam Pence and W.R. Cave, and theirs were the first families In the village.

Barney Spencer, a Kentuckian, owned the first store in Centerville, which was conducted for time some in the beginning by his brother-in-law, Sam Trabue. The second store was owned and run by John Wade, of Ohio. These stores were established in the spring of 1857. John Gilboe had the third store. A school house was built in about 1858 by W.R. Cave.

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Centerville contained about 20 families, but when it closed there were only two or three. During the war only two houses were destroyed, however, and these were burned by the Federals– Ford’s and Jeanison’s men. They were owned by John Corum and John Gilboe, but at the time they were burned, Dr. Cravens lived in Corums house, and W.R. Cave had a small grocery in Gilboes building. The Federals claim that they did the burning in retaliation of Mr. Bond by the bushwhackers.

The murder of John Julius, an old man and a reputable citizen, by Lysander Talbott, shortly after the war, was the only tragedy of note that ever occurred in Centerville. The killing was wholly unprovoked. Talbott was on the “warpath” and “wanted to kill somebody”. He was arrested, indicted, took a change of venue to Clinton County, escaped from jail, went to Texas, and was killed himself in a fight.

April 12, 1869, Alfred Pyle shot and killed Charles Smith, in a difficulty in Kearney, but Esquire Corbin acquitted Pyle on the ground that he had acted in self-defense, and he was never afterwards indicted.

The town of Kearney was laid out by John Lawrence in the Spring of 1867, upon the building of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad (now the Burlington Northern Sante Fe). The railroad was the first direct route to Chicago from utilizing the first bridge across the Missouri River at Kansas City. The first house was built by George H. Plitt on the Southwest corner of Washington Avenue and Railroad Street, fronting the depot on the East. Plitt originally used it as a storeroom and it was later used as a hotel called the Oklahoma House. The building was erected before the railroad depot. Plitt was proprietor of a lumber yard, and the leading spirit of the place for sometime. Perhaps James Hightower had the second store.

This town was named by John Lawrence for Kearney, Nebraska. It is understood that Lawrence was at one time a resident of Kearney, Nebraska before he came to Clay County. There is a second theory that the town was named after the Chief Engineer of the railroad. Soon after its establishment, the village began to grow very rapidly. Stores and shops of all kinds were built, and in a little time Kearney and Centerville were practically united. Kearney was incorporated “as a town or village” by the County Court, April 5, 1869. The first board of trustees was composed of George H. Plitt, Peter Rhinehart, R.B. Elliott, D.T. Dunkin and George Harris. As the location of the town is very attractive, the town itself presents a handsome appearance. Washington Street is still the principle street and is well lined with stores and businesses.

The first newspaper was a five-column sheet, called the Clipper, and was established by Thomas H. Frame, in July 1883.

The first church was the Missionary Baptist, which was called Mount Olive. This church was started when a group of consecrated pioneers met at the home of John S. Major on Saturday, Christmas Day, 1856. Meetings were held in the Major’s home until June, 1857, then in a school house in Centerville (now South part of Kearney). It was decided to build a building on a lot in the Northwest corner of Uriel Cave’s farm. This site is now a part of Mr. Olivet Cemetery. The building plans were begun in 1857, but were not finished until after the Civil War. In 1872, three years after Kearney was incorporated the name of the church was changed to First Baptist Church of Kearney. In June, 1900, the church was badly damaged by a tornado. A new building was completed in 1902.

That building was razed and replaced with a newer building, which has been again expanded, and the church is still active and located at the same site.

Kearney has always been a great place for “nicknames”. Northeast Kearney was long called East Tennessee after some ancient Tennessee people who lived there. Battle Row was the name given to a certain section of the town here in rougher pioneer’s time. Beer Creek was given its name because women razed a certain liquor store and dumped the liquor into the creek. The phrase “Down in Guinea” refers to an old water hole just north of 92 Highway and west of the railroad, where the boys, 75 years ago, used to go swimming. Little Italy is the name by which many people referred to the part of town down by the depot. Some of the people in the North part of town referred to their neighborhood as the North end, apparently the North end of Kansas City.

Prospect Street was once called Ridge Street. For 100 years it has been called by other names such as High Street, Pious Ridge, Holy Ridge, Hallelujah Avenue and Christian Ridge; probably because there were once two churches on this street, Kearney Christian Church and the old Central Presbyterian Church of Kearney, which was a Presbyterian Church for 12 or 13 years and the Methodist Church for 12 or 13 years.

The Methodist Church later built a new building on Jefferson Street. Jefferson Street was once called Water Street. Grove Street was once called Delaware Street and later Cottonwood Avenue. Lawrence Street was called Church Street although no one ever knew of a church on the street.

To the northeast of Kearney is found a farm that plays an interesting part in the history of the Kearney area as well as other parts of the country. On January 10, 1843, Alexander Franklin James was born on a farm three miles Northeast of Kearney. He died on the James farm on February 18, 1915. His body was cremated in St. Louis. Mrs. Frank James died July 6, 1944 in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Her body was cremated in Kansas City. Their ashes are buried in a cemetery at Hill Park, 23rd Street and Rock Creek Road in Kansas City, Mo.

Mrs. Frank James’ mother was a Hill and Hill Park was once the property of the Hill family. Jesse Woodson James was born September 5, 1847 on the James Farm and was killed by Robert Ford, a member of his own gang at 1318 Lafayette Street, St. Joseph, Missouri, on April 3, 1882. His body was brought back to Kearney by train and his funeral was held at the old Baptist Church in Mr. Olivet Cemetery. His body was originally buried in the Southwest corner of the yard at the James Farm.

In 1902, the remains of the body were moved to Kearney and reburied in Mr. Olivet Cemetery. The father of the James boys was Rev. Robert James and their mother was Zerelda Cole. After the death of Rev. James, Zerelda married an elderly man named Sims. He died and she later married Dr. Ruben Samuels. Miss Zerelda Cole was born in 1825 and died in 1911.

Frank and Jesse also had a full sister, Susan, who married a Mr. Palmer. Frank and Jesse were members of the infamous gang called “The James Gang”.
This gang consisted of about 28-30 members. It operated from February 13, 1866 to April 3, 1882, a period of 16 years. It was finally forced to discontinue its activities. Frank and Jesse had been in the Civil War on the Southern side and some of the other members of the gang had also followed the Southern side.

As the years went by, some of the first members of the gang died or were captured and sent to prison. At least five members of the gang, Frank, Jesse, Ed and Clell Miller and James Cummings, were from Kearney. Jesse James was a member of Mr. Olive Baptist Church and was a member of the choir. It is noted in the minutes of the church an incident, where “a group of brethren have been asked to talk with Mr. James about his activities”.

Jesse James, his wife, Miss Zerelda Sims, his first cousin; his mother, Mrs. Zerelda Samuels; his step-father, Dr. Ruben Samuels; and his little half-brother, Archie Payton Samuels, are buried in the left half of a lot in the West end of Mr. Olivet Cemetery.

The original James farm was 275 acres but now has only 40 acres. The original house is still standing and is open to the public. Many people from an over the United States and Canada and from foreign countries come each year to see the grave of Jesse James and to visit the farm. Also East of Kearney, is Watkins Mill State Park. This park contains the first woolen mill West of the Mississippi. It started about the time of the Civil War and continued to operate until about 1882.

Today, Kearney continues to grow and become an even better place to work and live. Many new subdivisions have been built. Some of these are Bogart Addition, Second Addition, Pence Addition, Cuthbertson Addition, Arnold’s Addition, Porter’s Addition, Kearney Manor and Southbrook. This development is part of a former feedlot owned by the Greenfield Brothers where thousands of cattle were fed through the years.

The railroad has played a great part in the development of Kearney. In years past, as many as fifty to sixty trains a day came through Kearney on their way to the markets in Chicago and Kansas City.

It is through the railroad that the Kearney Water Department was first purchased for $1.00 a year for their main lines from the wells and about $1.00 a year for the tower.