Labor and Industry


“The black schools [in Kansas City] were much better than they had any right to be, partly because they were full of talented teachers who would have been teaching in college had they been white, and partly because Negro parents and children simply refused to be licked by segregation.” Then-reporter Roy Wilkins’s statement about education in the Kansas City area aptly summarizes the unjust obstacles that segregation created for black students, their parents, and educators at the segregated schools of Kansas City.

Donnelly Garment Company interior

The history of the Donnelly Garment Company and its battle with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) is one that defies conventional understandings of American life in the Great Depression. It is a story of a female entrepreneur succeeding in an era of economic paralysis, and one of a union failing to organize a factory in a period when workers won substantive rights. ILGWU president David Dubinsky, Nell Donnelly Reed, and Senator James A. Reed were the principal figures in a contest to organize a single garment factory, a legal battle that came to represent much larger questions.

Sign for development of the Country Club District

Kansas City, like other American cities, added new suburban-style developments at its edges during the early decades of the 20th century. What makes it a unique case for understanding this shift is the character of Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols. Born in Olathe, Kansas, in 1880, Nichols had a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, and included transforming thousands of acres of land into a planned suburban community.

1928 Republican National Convention

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.

Unidentified man working in the Stockyards.

There are world records for nearly everything, including cattle processing. And in September 1918, Kansas City broke them all. As World War I entered its final fateful months, the Kansas City stockyards handled more than 55,000 cattle in a single day and 475,000 for the month.  That fall, during a remarkable three-month span, more than 1.3 million cattle passed through the city’s yards. The Kansas City cattle business was impressive, but add to these figures hundreds of thousands of sheep, hogs, and horses, and more than 3.3 million animals were yarded in the city. First seven, then 12, then 34 railroads brought these animals into the city and out again to distant markets.

General Hospital No. 2 Exterior

"They did not try to build something ‘good enough for Negroes’ but something as good as money could buy." This is how Chester Arthur Franklin, the Republican founder of The Call newspaper and one of Kansas City’s most prominent black leaders, greeted the newly constructed eight-story building that housed General Hospital No. 2, serving the indigent African American population of Kansas City.

Barney Allis achieved greatness in 1931 when he assumed control of the Muehlebach Hotel at 12th and Baltimore in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Allis’s zealous attention to detail, high standards for physical accommodations, and insistence on excellent service brought the Muehlebach into the ranks of the world’s best hotels. 

Emery, Bird, Thayer and Co. building

For 30 years, Annie Ridenbaugh Bird enjoyed the conventionally genteel life of a prominent merchant’s wife. The last 17 years before she died in 1937 were far less traditional. She served as president of the city’s largest commercial establishment, the Emery, Bird, Thayer & Co. and is believed to be the first Kansas City woman to hold such a position.

More than 5,000 homes in dozens of neighborhoods bear the mark of Napoleon Dible, one of Kansas City’s earliest and most expansive developers. For more than 50 years, Dible methodically platted and developed tracts of land into the city’s early suburbs.

Walter S. Dickey

Walter S. Dickey joined his family in Kansas City in 1885, at the age of 23, and got involved in the Republican Party. In the 1920s, Dickey purchased the Kansas City Journal and the Kansas City Post eventually consolidated them. He took an active hand in managing the Journal-Post, but turned the operation over to his son and son-in-law in 1929.

Regent Theater

Kansas City’s Dubinsky Brothers were talented performers and innovative entrepreneurs. Their story illustrates the changing trends of popular entertainment in 20th century America. Maurice, Edward, and Barney Dubinsky would move from a life of traveling tent shows to the silver screen, building one of the largest theater chains in the Midwest, later AMC Entertainment.

Mary Tiera Farrow

On November 8, 1917, Mary Tiera Farrow and 20 other female lawyers formed the Women's Bar Association of Kansas City. Farrow was one of the few women in the United States who successfully practiced law in the early 1900s, overcoming the discrimination women faced in the legal field and society generally. Having been denied the professional benefits of any existing bar association, she led a group of 20 women in establishing their own bar in Kansas City. It was just one of many pioneering acts that Farrow undertook for herself and for women's rights at large.

If not for a five-year period battle with tuberculosis, Richard Fowler, one of the Kansas City Star’s most prolific writers, might have spent his life as a chicken farmer. A five-year period of enforced bed rest began Fowler’s writing career in 1930.

Chester Arthur Franklin was a leading African American editor and publisher of the Kansas City Call, who used his newspaper platform to advocate for systemic change and equity, both for Kansas City’s black community and for African Americans nationwide. By the time of his death in 1955, Franklin had served as a prominent publisher over 30 years and was heavily impressed in Kansas City’s memory as an editor, activist, and leader.

Joyce C. Hall

J.C. Hall’s story is a Kansas City legend. The young man arrived here from Nebraska with a box of postcards to sell. With good ideas, good luck, and hard work, his business grew to become Hallmark Cards, the world’s largest greeting card company.

Sid Hare, 1934

Whether strolling the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or campus of the University of Kansas, appreciating the layout of Mission Hills and the Country Club District, or paying respects at Forest Hill Cemetery, most Kansas Citians have experienced designs of Sid J. and S. Herbert Hare. As the work of this father and son evolved from engineering to urban planning, their careers reflected the development of the modern American approach to building great cities.

Henry C. Haskell was a playwright, author, editor and columnist for the Kansas City Star starting in 1929, musician, civic leader and philanthropist. In 1938, Haskell was appointed art editor and assembled the newspaper’s first special section to cover music, dance, visual arts, book reviews, criticism, and features.

Barnett Helzberg, Sr. was one of Kansas City's boldest and most successful businessmen. From an inauspicious beginning in 1915, he built a small, family-owned jewelry store into one of the largest and most profitable jewelry store chains in the country.

Lou Holland

In the 1920s, air travel was new and uncertain. City booster Lou Holland, one of the first to see its possibilities, became the "Father of Kansas City Aviation" when he helped establish Kansas City's first municipal airport.

Hudson Oil station

A world traveler and self-made millionaire, Mary Hudson was one of only three women on Forbes Magazine's list of 400 richest Americans. As an oil industry leader listed in the World's Who's Who of Women, she made international news when her empire collapsed. Hudson’s career began in 1933, as a 21-year-old widow with an infant to support. She borrowed $200 to buy a gas station in Kansas City, which led to a prominent role in a man's industry. An in-your-face independent distributor, among the first to offer no-frills, self-service gasoline, she co-founded a national organization for independent dealers.


Rose Mindlin's handmade hats were so admired that other women begged her to make theirs. When she could no longer keep up with requests, she hired help and opened a shop near 12th and Troost. That was a risky venture in 1904, but Rose was a risk-taker. Besides, she could work and keep an eye on her three boys, since the family lived at the back of the store. By 1918 she opened a new store at 3221 Troost. In 1922 her son, Harold, became her partner. By the time her husband died in 1923, her business was established enough that it provided job security for her three sons. The store expanded its line to include clothing, and reportedly became the first store outside downtown to offer stylish ready-to-wear women's apparel.

Jenkins Music Co.

John Wesley Jenkins expanded his family music business from a small room rented from a sewing machine and wall paper shop to numerous store locations throughout the Midwest. He began working for his father as a teenager and, upon his death in 1932, was a millionaire.

Postcard of the Jones Dry Goods Company

J. Logan Jones once recalled in an interview how he raised $400 to start his first retail operation. As a teen in southern Illinois, Jones purchased calves at a low price from several farmers in the area whose poor circumstances that year allowed them to winter only their hardiest stock. Jones fattened and resold the animals at a profit, hitting upon the strategy of “underbuying and underselling” to which he later attributed the great success of his dry goods and department stores in Illinois, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.

John A. Jones owned and operated his barber shop and pool hall as one of the most respected businesses in the 18th and Vine neighborhood. By installing the best equipment and insisting on high standards of conduct, Jones’s business succeeded as one of the earliest and longest-lasting establishments in the neighborhood.

Issac Katz

Isaac "Ike" Katz, who would go on to found the Katz Drug Co. in Kansas City and become a pioneer in the modern pharmacy business, was born in the town of Husiatin in western Ukraine (then a part of Russia) on March 8, 1879. Ike Katz brought customers into his drug stores with a unique business model, where customers could fill prescriptions, shop for groceries, buy appliances, and even purchase exotic pets such as monkeys or baby alligators; all at cut-rate prices. At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, the company boasted 65 retail locations spread across seven states.

R. Crosby Kemper, Sr.

Rufus Crosby Kemper, who went by R. Crosby or Crosby, was born in 1892 in Valley Falls, Kansas. The family moved to Kansas City in 1893 and lived in homes in the 2600 block of Troost Avenue and at 1000 Westover Road. James Madison Kemper was born in 1894. The Kemper sons attended Kansas City public schools and the University of Missouri, where they played on the football team. Both men also fought in World War I.

William Thornton Kemper moved to Kansas City in 1893 and established himself as a grain merchant, working out of the Kansas City Board of Trade. Over the next decade, he reaped profits from several organizations of his own creation: Kemper Mill and Elevator Company, Kemper Mercantile Company, and Kemper Investment Company. An avid Democrat, Kemper had a lifelong taste for politics. He ran for mayor of Kansas City in 1904, losing in a year when the Democratic vote was split by a factional rift. He made another run for mayor in 1906 on an “anti-bossism” platform, but his party’s nomination went to the Democratic machine-backed candidate. In the same year, he headed an affiliate of the National Bank of Commerce, and over the next two decades, the bank headed by Kemper evolved into the Commerce Trust Company. Kemper remained interested in politics and served as Missouri’s Democratic National Committeeman from 1924-36. 

George Kessler

George Kessler used his vision and skill to transform early Kansas City from an eyesore to a model for the City Beautiful Movement. Before Kessler arrived here in the 1880s, the city’s west bluffs were a slum, Hyde Park was a shanty town, and Penn Valley Park was known as Vinegar Hill. His distinctive park and boulevard system brought beauty and a civilized appearance to our town.

Irwin Krikwood

After William Rockhill Nelson's death in 1915, Laura and Irwin ran the Kansas City Star with the help of the Nelson-trained staff. Under her leadership, the Star printed its first photograph and first comics, both banned by her father, and began WDAF Radio as part of the Star empire.

Robert A. Long

While many entrepreneurs are motivated by youthful dreams of great success, the founder of one of Kansas City’s largest business empires claimed never to have set lofty goals for himself, but instead advised simply “doing what seems to be assigned to you to do next, and keep pegging at it.” This practical philosophy led Robert A. Long to build his Long-Bell Lumber Company from the ground up and made him one of the nation’s leading industrialists.

Jacob Loose

Self-made millionaire Jacob Loose moved to Kansas City in 1882, entered the cracker business, and eventually founded the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company, a gigantic producer of cookies and famous Sunshine Crackers. After a serious illness, he semi-retired in 1919 and died in 1923. His will created the Million Dollar Charity Fund Association, managed by his wife, Ella Loose. Her legacy includes the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and Affiliated Trusts as well as Loose Park at 52nd and Wornall Road.

Arthur Mag, who at age 78 was serving as a director on the boards of 29 corporations, was once described as “one of the best arguments in town against early retirement.” Mag believed in modernizing the law to allow arrangements in which trustees, who already were permitted to manage and invest trust funds, would also be empowered to make decisions as to how they could be used.

Conrad Mann

Between 1910 to 1939, nearly every major civic improvement in Kansas City bore the mark of Conrad Mann. This massive, bear-like man with a brusque, unpolished manner was a uniquely talented leader who knew how to "get things done."

Muehlebach Field

George Edward Muehlebach assumed leadership of the Muehlebach Brewing Company in 1905 at the young age of 23, when George Muehlebach, his Swiss-born father and founder of the brewery died. A Kansas City promoter, he built the Muehlebach Hotel at 12th and Baltimore in 1916, became a bank director, board member of Research Hospital, and a member of several prestigious clubs.

James F. Pendergast
Jim presented himself as an advocate for the common working man, which enhanced his political base. He helped people find jobs and provided coal and food to the needy. In 1894 Jim’s brother Tom, the youngest of the Pendergast siblings, joined the family business in Kansas City. Jim moved Tom quickly into grassroots politics, teaching him how to get out the vote and how to steal elections.
Henry Perry BBQ

Perry’s lessons in the art of seasoning, smoking, and serving meat to Kansas Citians spawned both the Bryant and Gates barbecue names and led the way for the nearly 100 barbecue restaurants in the city today.

Nelle Peters

Nelle Nichols Peters is known as a pathbreaking female architect, designer of nearly 1,000 local buildings, and one of the most prolific architects in Kansas City during the 1920s. Despite the fact that many of these buildings still occupy prominent locations, especially near the Country Club Plaza, Nelle Peters remains a relatively obscure figure in Kansas City history.

Elmer Pierson

Elmer F. Pierson, who, along with his brother John, would go on to found the Vendo company and dominate the world's soft drink vending machine industry, was born on August 27, 1896. In addition to its achievements in the vending industry, Pierson's company made significant contributions to America's war effort during World War II and dabbled in new innovations in other, unrelated industries.

J. W. Putsch

Initially, Justus W. Putsch didn’t want to go into the restaurant business. Yet, for over 30 years, the Putsch name was synonymous in Kansas City with both gourmet food and cafeteria-style dining. Jud Putsch was born in Marshall, Missouri, where his parents operated a confectionery. The family moved to Kansas City in 1924 and opened the Bluebird Cafeteria at Troost Avenue and Linwood Boulevard. While he was a student at Westport High School, Putsch worked at the Bluebird and developed a distaste for the restaurant business.

Nell Donnelly Reed
Urged by neighbors, who were wearing her creations, she took a sample to a downtown store. When she delivered 218 finished dresses, they sold out in a few hours. That was the beginning of Donnelly Garment Company which grew to $3.5 million in sales and l,000 employees by 1931
Nell Donnelly Reed

Born Ellen Quinlan in Parsons, Kansas, Nell Donnelly Reed was the founding owner of the Donnelly Garment Company. The women’s clothing line became a national sensation. Reed’s was the first company to mass produce affordable and attractive ready-to-wear clothing for women. She was one of many people to capitalize on the garment industry’s move to Kansas City and other spaces outside of the Northeast. Reed was a talented designer who envisioned the mass production of flattering, beautiful clothing for working class women. After selling a few of her new designs to local stores, Reed decided to open her own shop. This was the start of the Donnelly Garment Company, officially founded in 1916. The innovation and glamour of Reed’s professional and social life in Kansas City, especially after her advantageous marriage to former-Senator James A. Reed, is clouded by accusations of her abusive managerial practices and her clashes with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

Roberts Co. Advertisement

Homer Roberts was as persistent in the 1920s as any car salesman today, but his goals reached well beyond the next sale. With enduring determination and a love of the motorcar, Roberts was the first African American to own an automobile dealership in the country.

In 1922, Samuel and two of his brothers, Sanders and David, founded a business of their own. Although they were young men, each had experience in the newspaper and agricultural industries, and their collective knowledge led to the founding of the Southwestern Miller, a weekly journal of the grain and milling trade.

Clara Stover

The Stovers, beginning with their early farming venture in Canada, had been willing to dream big and risk bitter failure. After one fantastic near miss, they founded the candy company that endures today as a household name for quality sweets.

House of Robert Sutherland

Robert Sutherland began working in the timber business at the age of 19 by operating a lumberyard in Independence, Kansas. At the age of 33 he bought his first yard and started an empire that grew into one of the largest lumber businesses in the Midwest.

Edward Tanner

Architect Edward Tanner helped design some of our favorite streetscapes. His work can be seen on the Country Club Plaza, on the campus of UMKC, in Prairie Village, and in Kansas City’s most picturesque suburbs. A longtime partnership with developer J. C. Nichols cultivated Tanner’s creativity in our Midwestern city.

William Volker

As the brainchild of Kansas City philanthropist William Volker, the Board of Public Welfare was the first modern welfare department in the United States, a groundbreaking forerunner to modern welfare programs, and intended as a counterbalance to the charitable activities of the city's political machines led by Tom Pendergast and Joe Shannon. The board was just one of Volker’s many memorable contributions that included the creation of Research Hospital, the establishment of the University of Kansas City (now UMKC), the Civic Research Institute, the purchase of the land for Liberty Memorial, and reportedly thousands of individuals who received his gifts when down on their luck.

Portrait of Frank P. Walsh

Frank P. Walsh was a progressive lawyer and labor advocate. Walsh’s views of shared wealth, combined with his skill as a litigator, equipped him for prominent positions in the New Deal era. Described as an “agitator” and a radical, Walsh believed a country that was rapidly accumulating wealth should have higher standards of living for its citizens than primitive food and shelter.  His impact in Kansas City was defined by his passion for labor rights, public welfare, and a government accountable to the people. Though his practiced for some time in New York, he always considered Kansas City his home.

Wolferman's Grocery

The first Wolferman's, located at 9th and Oak, was a one-story, rented space in which canned goods and freshly ground coffee were sold. Wolferman learned hard lessons by experience; for instance, he was thrilled on the first day open to sell many cans of peaches at 15 cents apiece, only to learn later that each cost 25 cents to restock. The work was long and difficult. Wolferman made early market rounds each morning, then visited customers in person to take orders.

Woolf Brothers store

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.

Kansas City Board of Trade building

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.”

Kansas City Power & Light Building

In 1931 the new Kansas City Power & Light Co. building dominated the landscape as Missouri's tallest building. It rose 31 stories high, the crowning 97-foot-high pillar of changing colored lights creating a jewel-like glow visible for miles around.  Decades later it remains notable both for its spectacular lighting and as a magnificent example of Art Deco architecture.

Liberty Memorial

The Liberty Memorial, one of Kansas City’s most recognizable landmarks, is the only major memorial and museum in the United States dedicated to World War I. On November 29th, after an editorial in the Kansas City Journal newspaper suggested a monument memorializing those who served in the [first] World War, Kansas City’s City Council appointed well-known lumber businessman Robert A. Long as chairman of the “Committee of One Hundred.” 

Kansas City Life Insurance Building, 1920

On January 22, 1882, future architect William Drewin Wight was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1911, he joined his older brother, Thomas, in Kansas City, where they created the architectural firm of Wight & Wight. The firm went on to profoundly influence Kansas City's architectural landscape with prominent designs that included the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Jackson County Courthouse, the Kansas City Life Insurance Company Building, and City Hall.

B-25 Bomber

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.

General Hospital, 1930

When the new General Hospital opened its doors in October 1908, Kansas City was justifiably proud. Not only was the building a fine addition to the landscape, but the city could boast of being one of the few U.S. cities to provide free municipal health care for the indigent.

Lou Holland, Conrad Mann and other unidentified people at airport dedication

On August 17, 1927, a jubilant crowd of 25,000 gathered at the site of the present-day Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport to listen to speeches given by Charles Lindbergh and city officials in order to dedicate Municipal Airport. Several Kansas City leaders, including a previously-skeptical City Manager Henry F. McElroy, had flown in from old Richards Field in Raytown and landed on the soggy turf known as "Peninsula field," just north of downtown Kansas City.

Workers at automobile plant

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.