Economic Boom, Depression, and Recovery
In the second decade of the 20th century, Kansas City was emerging as a key center of economic power west of the Mississippi. Agriculture constituted a central pillar of Kansas City’s success: dozens of railroads shipped grains and livestock through the city’s new hub at Union Station, and its manufacturing district developed large meatpacking, flour, and other food processing industries. Wholesale and retail commerce joined agriculture and industry as the foundations of Kansas City’s economic power.
The Liberty Memorial arose during a period of widespread monument-building, one that ran from roughly 1880 to 1930. It was restored amidst a second such period, beginning in the 1980s and continuing to this day. Locally, these two eras correspond with Kansas City’s emergence as a modern metropolis, and with its most ambitious program of urban redevelopment thus far. In each case and in different ways, residents framed the war and its remembrance as a means to future gains. These framings offer telling views of the city’s history, its greatest monument, and the changing nature of memory.
According to a May 29, 1928, editorial in the Kansas Citian, the Republican National Convention promised to “bring more influential people in industry, business, and financial circles than ever brought here by a convention.” Local leaders envisioned the 1928 Republican National Convention raising the national and regional profile of Kansas City in two related ways. First, delegates and visitors attending the convention could see the city’s growth in person. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the event and subsequent attention would bolster the city’s standing, particularly in relation to regional rivals such as Cleveland and St. Louis.
Louis Oppenstein was a millionaire who served his community quietly, showing his appreciation for Kansas City. Just as he became a responsible head of his family at the age of 14, he gave willingly of his time and resources to the city he loved.
James F. Pendergast, born in 1856 in Gallipolis, Ohio, moved from St. Joseph to Kansas City in 1876 and initially worked in an iron foundry. In the early 1880s, he purchased a saloon and a small hotel in the West Bottoms. Soon his brothers and sisters joined him to help with the business, and his political activities led to the creation of the Pendergast political machine that would be handed down to his younger brother, Thomas J. Pendergast, and dominate the city government in the 1920s and '30s.
The Board of Trade building was the pride of downtown Kansas City when it was completed in 1888. Designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Burnham & Root, the building at 210 West Eighth Street was once praised by the renowned British architect James Stirling (1926-1992) as “the toughest building of its period on either side of the Atlantic.”
On December 7, 1940, the U.S. Army Air Corps announced that the Fairfax Industrial District in Kansas City, Kansas, would host a North American Aviation B-25 bomber production plant to prepare for the possibility of the United States entering World War II. The medium-sized bombers would eventually prove crucial to the American strategic bombing campaigns in the European and Pacific theatres.
In the midst of a sweltering summer heat wave, the temperature reached a record-high 113 degrees Fahrenheit in Kansas City on August 14, 1936. These high temperatures in the summer of 1936 remain the most extreme in modern North American history. Compounding the problem, virtually no one had air conditioning in their own homes in the 1930s.
On December 16, 1936, 1,000 employees of the Fisher Body plant located in the Leeds district of Kansas City sat down on the job to protest the recent firing of a worker and demand that General Motors recognize the unionization of autoworkers. What could have been merely a local dispute instead gave early momentum to one of the most significant labor-management confrontations of the twentieth century, the so-called General Motors Strike of 1936-37.