Herbert M. Woolf

Author: 
Woolf Brothers store
Woolf Brothers store at 11th and Walnut, 1940. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The year 1880 was a good one for Alfred S. Woolf. Business was good; just a year before, he and his brother Samuel had moved their operation from Leavenworth, Kansas, to a three-story building at 557 Main Street in Kansas City. Here the Woolf Brothers sold men’s clothing and furnishings on the first two floors and operated a laundry and shirt factory on the third. They had made a name for themselves in Leavenworth selling made-to-measure shirts and doing business with some of the “toughest customers” in the West, including Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, and Buffalo Bill Cody, who were probably also familiar with another of the Woolf Brothers best-selling products—double-breasted red flannel underwear.

Alfred Woolf would also celebrate the birth of a son in 1880. Herbert M. Woolf, born October 11th that year, would eventually take the helm of Woolf Brothers and transform it into one of the Midwest’s classiest and most successful men’s clothiers. As an 1898 graduate of Central High, young Herbert Woolf started at the bottom of the family business and worked his way up from collector to window decorator to buyer, finally becoming a junior partner in his twenties.

After the death of his father in 1915, Herbert Woolf steered the company toward more diversified product lines and a further geographic reach, opening the flagship Woolf Brothers store at 11th and Walnut and establishing a first branch operation in Junction City, Kansas, the latter an outgrowth of Woolf’s pro bono assistance in uniforming U.S. troops preparing for World War I. In its heyday, Woolf Brothers set the style for men in Kansas City and throughout the region, with stores in Wichita, Dallas, Tulsa, and Memphis. As a manager, Woolf was beloved by his employees, who sometimes felt that the lifelong bachelor cared for them as he would a large adopted family. The company was known for its profit sharing opportunities and for hiring and keeping quality long-time employees, a practice that freed Woolf to pursue his many other interests.

Chief among these was his first and greatest love: horses. A boyhood interest in riding and ranching grew during an extended stay in Arizona, where Woolf was sent as a youth to recuperate from an illness. As an adult, he first raised Herefords and saddle horses on a farm near Bonner Springs. Success was apparent when his horse Beau Peavine won a grand championship at Madison Square Garden and his cattle herd was purchased by William Randolph Hearst to populate the pastures of his famous San Simeon ranch. But Woolf’s greatest triumph as a horseman was the victory of his own thoroughbred, Lawrin, in the 1938 Kentucky Derby. Lawrin was a product of Woolford, Woolf’s own 320 acre ranch. Located near today’s 79th and Mission Road, Woolford was then described as “a bit of old Kentucky: blue grass, big shade trees . . . all enclosed in the traditional white wooden fences.”

Throughout his life Woolf played a number of roles in addition to that of clothier and horseman. As hotelier, he partnered with Muehlebach owner Barney Allis in several projects. As movie mogul, he had an instrumental role in the creation of a Kansas City landmark, Loews Midland Theater at 13th and Main and later headed up a chain of 70 theaters. And as an early aviator he learned to fly and traveled in his own plane from one Woolf Brothers location to another.

When he died at age 83 in 1964 it seemed there were few activities in which Herbert Woolf had not turned a profit with panache and a true sense of adventure.

Primary Sources: 
Acknowledgement: 
KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.