The History of Lee's Summit
City Charter & Code of Ordinances - Historical Preservation Commission
Over a hundred years ago, the small 11 block Town of Strother straddled the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks. Today, that small town consists of 65.24 square miles and is known as the City of Lee's Summit. In the late 1800's, a man by the name of William B. Howard was drawn to this fertile, gently rolling prairie land with the dream of building a city. Today, over 93,000 residents have been enticed to this progressive, yet restful and family-oriented community atmosphere, with a unified dream to create a dynamic, vital city. From yesterday to today, the story of this once small town has been filled with the courage, dedication, and quiet determination of its citizens, making Lee's Summit an ideal city in which to live and work.
On October 28, 1865, William B. Howard founded the Town of Strother by filing a plat containing the 11 blocks that currently encompass the downtown business district. At the time of incorporation, the population count stood at one hundred people. In November of 1868, the name was changed and the area incorporated as the "Town of Lee's Summit". Although the "Summit" portion of the name was obviously based on the fact the town's elevation is the highest point on the railroad between Kansas City and St. Louis, there are numerous opinions and theories on the origin of "Lee". According to one theory, the town was named after Civil War General Robert E. Lee, since incorporation took place shortly after the war and the majority of citizens migrated from the Southern states. However, another version suggests the town was named after a prominent early settler, Dr. Pleasant Lea. The discrepancy in the spelling of "Lea" has been attributed to railroad sign painters.
Lee's Summit's most infamous citizen was Cole Younger, called "The Last of the Great Outlaws" by author Homer Croy. According to history, soldiers drove Younger to a life outside the law after his father's murder and subsequent robbery. While Union forces were enforcing Order #11, the command issued in 1862 ostensibly to burn homes belonging to those with Southern ties, Younger and his brothers were credited with saving some of the original homes within Lee's Summit, the most prominent of which belonged to William B. Howard. Order #11 helped to unify the transplanted southern population in Missouri and compelled Younger to join the Confederate guerrilla band known as Quantrill's Raiders. Cole Younger was arrested after an attempted bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota. Following 25 years of imprisonment for his crimes, Cole Younger was paroled in 1901. Three years later, Younger returned to Lee's Summit where he lived as a model citizen until his death in 1916. His grave is located in the Lee's Summit Historic Cemetery.
The Fire of 1885 demonstrated yet again the stamina personified by citizens in Lee's Summit. While most of the town's residents were attending Sunday morning church services, fire erupted in the downtown district, which consisted of dry, wooden buildings. A detailed account of the fire, as printed in the April 16, 1885, issue of The Lee's Summit Journal, stated the buildings burned "...like greased wood". Virtually the entire business district was destroyed and the loss aggregated at $87,000, with a total of 25 buildings consumed by the flames. However, the stalwart citizens took their losses in stride and promptly commenced to rebuild the town.
Almost 30 years later, Mr. R. A. Long, a prominent Kansas City lumberman, began building his dream, which became a reality with the construction of Longview Farm. In 1912, Mr. Long purchased approximately 1,700 acres in the southwest portion of Lee's Summit. Mostly self-sufficient, the farm included five major barn groups and 42 buildings. When completed and functional, Longview Farm became internationally known for the horses and livestock contained within its white rail fences and was one of only three dozen such showplace farms.
The history of Lee's Summit abounds with the tragedies and triumphs of courageous people who have never failed in their dream of creating a city that will continually progress and prosper. Most importantly, Lee's Summit is comprised of dedicated people who never lose touch with the basic values that make a community livable. We feel Lee's Summit has lived up to the dreams of its forefathers.