Though they have been in Kansas City for over 150 years, many people overlook The John Wornall House Museum and The Alexander Majors House when considering what to do with their free time. Executive Director Kandice Walker sat down with Nick Haines to give you some good reasons to reconsider. From ghost tours to touchable history, these historical homes just might surprise you.
Alexander Majors ran one of the country’s largest freighting companies from Kansas City, created the Pony Express, and gave “Buffalo Bill” Cody his first job. Perhaps no one did more to help shape the future of the American West and the commercial destiny of Kansas City than Alexander Majors.
In the westward expansion of the 1850s, his firm’s freighting operations were instrumental in bringing supplies to settlements from the Dakotas to Arizona. The prominence of Majors’ company attracted governmental and private shippers to Westport Landing, giving Kansas City a head start towards economic success.
Constructed in 1856, Majors’ 3,400 square foot ante-bellum home in Kansas City is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Restored in 1984, the home features original hardwood floors and millwork, as well as furnishings of the era. Also on the site are blacksmithing demonstrations, gardens, and displays of tools, wagons and carriages from the mid-1800s.
John Wornall was one of the more prosperous farmers in Jackson County. In 1860 he paid “State, County, State Interest and Asylum” tax on $18,500 and received a receipt for $114.85. The Kansas City Enquirer and Star listed him as one of the “Solid Men of Jackson County, “meaning one of those who paid taxes on $10,000 or more. The 1860 census shows that John Wornall had four slaves and two hired hands (Silas Dawson and Josiah Bassett). Family records indicate that a young Kentucky lawyer, John Peyton, lived on the farm as did Harris Manion, a sixteen-year-old orphan, and Mittie Pigg, a fourteen-year-old orphan from Kentucky.
John Wornall was a leading citizen in Jackson County. He was one of the original members and president (in 1856) of The Jackson County Agricultural and Mechanical Association. The association, founded in Independence in 1853, sought to encourage better methods of farming and introduce superior types of crops.
John was active in the Baptist Church, serving as treasurer and moderator of the Big Blue (later Westport) Baptist Church. He was also a strong supporter of William Jewell College and acted as chairman of its Board of Trustees.
In 1857, John Wornall and his brother-in-law, A. S. Johnson, became incorporators for the Shawnee Town Company of Johnson County, Kansas. This interest in real estate apparently continued, as a directory in 1867-68 listed his profession as such. In 1860, the Kansas City Enquirer and Star reported that southern sympathizers formed a temporary vigilance committee called the Westport Minute Men. John Wornall’s name headed the list; he also served on its examining committee.
John Wornall co-founded the Kansas City National Bank in 1870. That same year he was elected to the state senate representing Cass, Jackson, and Bates counties. He served four years before declining re-nomination.
The Wornalls were representative of the southern migration to western Missouri, but they were not the “average” farm family. The average farmer at this time had between 80 and 100 acres of land. John Wornall met with almost unfailing success in western Missouri.
John Wornall’s choice of design for his new house expressed many desires. Perhaps it spoke of his determination to civilize the frontier by evoking images of a more settled Kentucky. Perhaps the house was a tangible expression of his position in the community, for Greek columns and pediments were symbolic of aristocratic leadership in a slave society. Wornall’s new house was also evidence of his financial stability; many men in the Kansas City area built brick homes when they could afford them. But Wornall’s house went beyond providing shelter for his family. Wiley Britton, a young man hired to help build the brick farmhouse, recalled that Wornall had been living in a substantial frame house but desired to build “the most pretentious house in that section.” Wornall chose the site of his new showplace carefully—it was two hundred feet away from the main road that lead south from Westport and headed toward the Santa Fe trail. Passers-by could not help but think that the man living in this landmark house with 25 ft columns was successful.
The limestone for the foundation, fireplaces and door and window lintels was quarried on the farm. Wornall provided a large root cellar under the kitchen, but the rest of the house stands on an 18-inch foundation. Receipts for materials for this house and others like it show that Wornall probably spent $2,055.65 in materials and $2, 450.04 in labor, for a total cost of $4,505.69. The house was completed in 1858.
The Wornall House hosted a reenactment of a Civil War hospital and The Local Show was there to capture the event. The Battle of Westport is often called the Gettysburg of the West, and was one of the largest battles west of the Mississippi. Thirty thousand troops entered the fray, with roughly 1500 casualties on each side. The John Wornall House exchanged hands from army to army many times that day. Today, you can visit the historic home and museum and see a bit of living history for yourself…..
On, October 23, 1866 Union forces under Major General Samuel R. Curtis defeated an outnumbered Confederate force under Major General Sterling Price. The battle had moved southward to Mine Creek, Kansas, and onto Arkansas. Once and for all, Missouri was under Union Control.
Back near Westport, the homes and farms surrounding the battlefield were strewn with the debris of the conflict, including the bodies of injured and dying men. Homes became hospitals and make-shift morgues. At the John Wornall House, the sounds of men groaning in pain or screaming in agony can still be heard 150 years later…