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Weston -- The Town That Refused to Die

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Weston Missouri Engraving-1853

1853 Weston Engraving by Hermann Meyer

 

 

The Platte County area was originally part  of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. When Lewis and Clark were sent to explore the  new territory they passed through the area  in 1804, describing it as beautiful with  fertile soil, and diverse in plant and animal  life. Their report encouraged traders and trappers to come to the area.

 

 

 

In 1836 the Platte Purchase was made, where the Federal Government "officially” bought 2 million acres of land from the Iowa, Sac, Fox, Sioux and Algonquin Indians for $7,400. After the Platte Purchase, the Indians were moved to a reservation in Northeast Kansas.

 

The first people to settle in what would soon become Weston were two young soldiers from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1837. Rowing up the Missouri River in a canoe, they discovered that the river made a natural bay at the foot of what would later become Weston's Main Street. The bay, prime for a steamboat landing or ferry, prompted the young men to purchase property. Selling off a few of their lots, Weston officially began. Joseph Moore, one of the two soldiers, built the first cabin at the corner of what is now Market and Main Streets.

 

Early settlers arrived from many of the southern states including Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana and Virginia, bringing with them the important crops of tobacco and hemp, as well as their southern customs, including slavery. Soon, emigrants from Austria, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and Switzerland discovered the area, attracted by the rolling hills that reminded them of their homelands. The Platte Purchase allowed these new settlers to homestead their property if they cultivated at least ½ acre and built a dwelling.

 

Ben HolladayIn 1838, one of Weston's first entrepreneurs arrived by the name of Ben Holladay, at first establishing a small tavern. Later he would become involved in a number of businesses in the area.

 

By 1839 Weston had grown to a population of 300. Initially, the main source of income for the settlers was the farming of tobacco. As early as 1840, tobacco was floated on rafts to Glasgow, where it would be packed into hogsheads and shipped on steamboats to St. Louis and Cincinnati.

 

Tobacco is still cultivated in the Weston area to this day.

 

Later, the farmers would find that hemp, a product used to make rope, provided an even higher profit, and this became the main cash crop of the time. However, hemp cultivation is very difficult work, requiring the stalks to be combed into fibers. Here, these first southern settlers actively depended upon their southern custom of utilizing slave labor for the work.

 

In 1841, Ben Holladay became the first postmaster of the community. He also bought out a stage line and opened Holladay’s Overland and Express Company, capturing seven mail routes serving the Nebraska and Wyoming territories. Holladay would eventually become known as the "Stagecoach King” when in later years he acquired an almost monopoly of the stage, mail and freighting business between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City.

 

Ben Holliday Stagecoach in Weston, MissouriBut, his main source of business in Weston in 1841 was outfitting the Mormon wagon trains headed to Salt Lake City. Holladay would also later build the International Hotel, one of the best places to stay in Weston before moving west. Unfortunately the hotel later burned down and no longer stands today.

 

The town continued to grow as area businesses actively traded with Fort Leavenworth and the area Indians. Large warehouses were established along Market Street close to the wharf, to serve the burgeoning river trade.

 

Trinity Church in Weston, Missouri In 1844, the Holy Trinity church was built, sitting high upon a hill on Cherry Street. The Presbyterian Church, also built in the 1840’s, would ring its bell to alert dockworkers that a steamboat was coming. The Presbyterian Church is now the Christian Assembly church and sits at the corner of Washington and Thomas. Both historical churches are still active today.

 

With the coming affluence, early settlers began to build stately columned Federal Style two-story houses like those they had left in the South. The town residents also built several commercial buildings that exhibited the influence of the French traders from New Orleans and Canada, as well as a German influence from those emigrants who arrived in the area.

 

St George Hotel in Weston, MissouriIn 1846 the St. George Hotel (now the Hotel Weston) was built, one of the three in Weston during its heyday, but the only historic hotel remaining. In the 1800’s the hotel catered to the working man, providing 47 rooms on the top two floors. On the first floor was a saloon, sample rooms where traveling salesmen could exhibit their wares, a tobacco shop, a restaurant and two retail spaces.

 

Between the years of 1846 and 1848, Ben Holladay furnished supplies to General Stephen Kearny's Army during the Mexican War. Continuing to expand his empire, Holladay moved to California in 1852.

 

Missouri SteamboatBy the early 1850’s, Weston's population had grown to 5,000 becoming the second largest port in Missouri, behind St. Louis only. At this time, as many as 300 steamboats would be seen docking in Weston from April through November unloading supplies for Fort Leavenworth and shipment West on the Oregon Trail. On their return trip, the steamboats would be loaded with tobacco, hemp, lumber, animal hides and fruit.

 

Buffalo Bill Cody resided for a time in Weston. After Cody's father, Isaac, was attacked and stabbed while giving an antislavery speech in Kansas, Bill came to live with his uncle, Elijah Cody, in his home at 600 Main Street.

 

In 1855, the first in a chain of disasters would start the spin of decline for which Weston would never recover. The first was a major fire in the downtown district of the city where most of the businesses were destroyed. However, Weston persevered and rebuilt its business district. Most of the buildings today were built between 1855 and 1860.

 

Though Ben Holladay had already moved west by 1856, his business ventures were far-flung and recognizing the potential profit of the natural limestone springs of the Weston area, he built the McCormick Distilling Company in 1856. The distillery, still in existence today, is the oldest continuously operated distillery in the United States.

 

During this time Platte County and the Weston area were quickly becoming embroiled in the Kansas-Missouri border wars, which preceded the Civil War.  

 

Given the proximity to "Bleeding-Kansas” the town had sympathizers on both sides of the conflict, but given their dependency upon slave labor, most of the population was pro-slavery along with the rest of Missouri.

 

The "genteel” community formed a secret society and drew up a resolution, which provided for the "scrutinizing and reporting” of any "suspicious looking persons” who might be taking arms to Kansas or inciting abolition. There were about 500 members of the secret society who publicly announced their opposition to any pro-abolition members of the community, any businesses who profited from trading with those "Bleeding-Kansans,” and any who objected to the "regrettable excesses” of the vigilantes.

 

Quantrill RaidersBacking this secret society were the so-called Border Ruffians who were notorious pro-slavery thugs. In 1857, the Chicago Tribune reported these ruffians as, "a queer-looking set, slightly resembling human beings, but more closely allied … to wild beasts… They never shave or comb their hair, and their chief occupation is loafing around whiskey shops, squirting tobacco juice, and whittling with a dull jack-knife.”

 

Fervent abolitionists lived side by side with those whose way of life was built upon the institution of slavery. Bands of armed men ranged both sides of the border, making ordinary life impossible. The value of slaves and land dropped by half, and long before the war was officially declared in 1861, Weston experienced hand-to-hand fighting in the streets.

 

By 1858, Weston's population was second only to St. Louis, Missouri. Then, in the midst of the pre Civil War chaos, another disaster occurred, when a major flood filled the Muddy Missouri and destroyed the port of Weston.

 

When the floodwaters receded, the river’s channel had moved several hundred yards to the west (to the other side of the railroad tracks today.) Though this did not deter the river traffic, it was a blow to the community. But, in 1859 the railroad was built extending north from Weston which gave the community new hope.

 

Though Missouri was filled with pro-slavery sympathizers, the state joined the Union in 1861, and many of Weston's young men went to war. In November 1861, the Weston area saw its first and only organized battle at Bee Creek when the Union Army Major left St. Joseph for Platte City to capture Silas Gordon, a noted Southern partisan. Despite the 500 man Union force and two pieces of artillery, Gordon slipped away, and began gathering his friends to attack the Union force. The major let it be known he intended to stay in Platte City, but instead marched out and made for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on the Weston turnpike. The Southern sympathizers gathered about 50 men and made a hasty stand at the Bee Creek Bridge to stop the federal force.

 

The small group of southerners were able to stave off the federal advanced guard, but when the US troops opened fire with their artillery, almost half of the Confederates fled. The fight lasted for about an hour, and only ended when the southerners ran out of ammunition. The entire battle was visible from the land of Red Barn Farm. Three of the Confederates were captured and two of them were later executed because two Unionists were killed at the Bee Creek skirmish. The third man named William Kuykendall was spared. He survived the war and moved west, and interestingly, served as a judge at the first "trial" of Jack McCall, who had murdered Wild Bill Hickok.

 

The next month the U. S. Army sent another force that captured two more suspected partisans and executed them at the bridge. One of the soldiers marked the letters "U S." on the bridge railing in the blood of the executed men.

 

Weston, Missouri, 1865 The town was torn apart by the devastation of the Civil War, never to recover its prior heyday status. After the war ended in 1865, all Hemp production stopped, it being too labor intensive to make profitable without slavery. In 1869, the railroad was extended south to Kansas City, but it was too late for Weston's recovery. By 1870, the town’s population had fallen to just 900 people.

 

If all that Weston had been through wasn’t enough, the city was yet to experience two more disasters. The first event would change Weston's life forever when the devastating flood of 1881 occurred. This time, when the waters receded the river slipped into an old channel almost two miles away, permanently ending any riverboat traffic.

 

Then, in December of 1890, Weston experienced another devastating fire in its downtown district. Weston was on its way to becoming a ghost town.

 

However, the people of Weston persevered. Tobacco was a still a strong agricultural product and many of its area residents stayed, though it would be more than sixty years before the city was to see a renaissance.

 

In the late 1950’s, the rich heritage of Weston resurfaced and the Weston Historical Museum was founded in 1960. The community began to look at its historic buildings and more than 100 antebellum homes started to be restored. Many people in Weston now believe that it was the "disaster” of the flood of 1881 that "saved” the town for today. No longer on a growth path such as Kansas City and St. Joseph, Weston's original buildings remained intact.

 

In 1972, twenty-two blocks of Weston were designated as a Historic District and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

The 1980’s saw a revitalization of the downtown business district as the empty storefronts were bought or leased, showcasing antiques, collectibles, specialty items and other novelties.

 

Weston, Missouri TodayToday, Weston's businesses, organizations and individuals have joined together to restore Weston to a place of pride, billing itself as the "Town that Time Forgot."  Lined with antique shops and restaurants, the visitor can easily step into the past.

 

Other Weston attractions include a 1,055 acre state park on the Missouri River; the McCormick Distilling Company (tours not allowed); the former German Lutheran Evangelical Church, built in 1867, which houses the cellars of the Pirtle Winery; O'Malley's 1842 Irish Pub where visitors can sample Irish beer in the cellar of the oldest brewery west of the Hudson River.

 

Just a short trip from Kansas City, Weston is tucked away in the Missouri River Bluffs just 25 miles north of Kansas City. Weston has a little to offer everyone including history, romance, shopping, casual and fine dining, wineries and museums.

 

Hotel Weston in Weston, MissouriThe Hotel Weston, formerly the St. George Hotel, built in 1846, has now been fully restored and is again open for business. The fire in December 1890 left the building in ruins, but two street side brick walls were left standing. With an added brick facade, those two walls are part of the current building, which dates to 1891. The building is now ten feet shorter than the original building. Except for the time between the fire and the reconstruction, the hotel was run continuously until 1984 when a small fire occurred in one of the three apartments on the first floor. Today, the hotel features a bakery, wine bank, and spa in its historic surroundings.

 

Nearby Weston Bend State Park, administered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, offers scenic overlooks, camping facilities, and hiking and biking trails. Four tobacco barns are located within the park's boundaries and one is used to tell the story of tobacco production.

 

More outdoor adventure can be found at the Snow Creek Ski Area. Snow Creek's snowmaking capabilities keep the slopes open from mid-December through mid-March.

 

 

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.

 

 

 
Also See:

The Mighty Missouri River

Bleeding-Kansas

Oregon Trail

Fort Leavenworth

Missouri (main page)

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