Owens-McCoy House History
The original portion of the present McCoy House was constructed in 1840 on property owned by Samuel Combs Owens who was the first Jackson County Clerk in 1827 and a prominent Santa Fe Trail merchant. Samuel was also one of the original group of men who incorporated and founded the Town of Kansas in 1838 and would later be renamed Kansas City.
There is photographic and archaeological evidence of a two-story kitchen and servants wing construction that predated this construction to possibly around 1830 or even earlier. The earliest owners were made up of land speculators/fur traders or their half Native American children and a son who helped start Harmony Mission. Samuel Owens had businesses in Independence, Lexington, and Liberty, Missouri. The county of Jackson was only 13 years old when this portion of the home was constructed and the city of Independence had not yet been incorporated. The center of all activity in the county was here on the Square. The Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails had their starting points here. This location was chosen for several reasons: (1) near the bend in the Missouri River; (2) where there was a natural landing for river boat landings; (3) large and small village communities near Independence when the US Government at Fort Osage closed down; (4) where there was an abundance of fresh spring water, timber, and grass to support animals. Local business men could make a lot of money financing the movement of international goods into the Western Territory of the United States. One of the first incorporated railroads west of the Missouri River was actually a timber railed track connecting Wayne’s Landing on the Missouri River (now called Sugar Creek and Cement City) to the Square. Rail cars pulled by animals brought goods from the riverboats to the center of town. The early rail route traversed the property behind the McCoy House.
In 1837, three years prior to the construction of this home, Samuel’s sister, Mary, had ended a courtship and engagement to a gentleman from Illinois that their other sister, Elizabeth (Betsey) Abell, had set up. The reason for the break up appeared to be his deficiencies “in those little links which make up the chain of woman’s happiness.” This gentleman from New Salem, Illinois ended up becoming the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Mary would marry Jesse Vineyard and move to Weston, Missouri.
Samuel Owens continued to accumulate wealth through trading on the Santa Fe Trail. On his last trading mission in 1847, he was enlisted in the US Army and called into battle in the Mexican War. Prior to this military outing, he had suffered some social disgrace from his oldest daughter, Maria Frances. She was somewhat “outgoing” and married a much older gentleman in town at a very young age. Father’s disapproval of the marriage was the attempt to send Maria Frances off to join a convent in the East; which failed. Upon her return to Independence by steamboat it was rumored that she had a flirtation both on the steamboat that continued in Independence, with a handsome young man who was traveling to Independence, and then west for his health. Maria Frances's husband ended up shooting and killing this traveling gentleman during a card game in town and was thrown in jail; the victim did not play cards. Possibly due to blackmail purposes, or a change in heart, Maria Frances eventually freed her husband from the jailhouse by exchanging clothing with her husband during a dinner time rendezvous. He was eventually caught but was acquitted of murder charges, by the famous William Doniphan; however, the Owens name had been shamed. Samuel was already heading to Chihuahua, Mexico when all of this drama was taking place with his daughter, and even with the threat of war with Mexico, did not return back to Independence. He decided that there was no other way to bring honor back to his name but through heroism serving in the US Military. His opportunity came in 1847 while he was in Mexican Territory. Being a possible breeder and owner of fine horses, Samuel usually took a carriage to Mexico Territory, instead of walking like the other hired hands, who handle the ox teams pulling the weighted freight wagons. Upon reaching civilization, Samuel probably would ride into town on one of his fine show horses, with an elaborate saddle and bridle, for everyone to see; his status as a wealth merchant and trader. On the day of the Battle of Sacramento, he changed into his best white leather, and shirt, with a red scarf, and mounted a white horse. Neither, Sam or his mount had been in a noisy battle before, and in my opinion, the horse panicked, and Samuel, was unable to control the animal, for none of his men followed him toward the enemies’ lines. The enemy instantly killed him, and in the middle of the battle, the enemy stripped Samuel of his clothes and took the saddle and bridle. Some called it heroism, but most old account called it suicide. His property was eventually sold on the courthouse steps in 1850. The 14 acres property making up the McCoy House was purchased by William McCoy who had just completed his first (and only) one-year term as Mayor of the newly incorporated City of Independence.
In an attempt to convince his fiancée that there was civilization west of the Mississippi, William McCoy added on to the original two-story brick structure to create a two-story Greek Revival and Italianate Style home which was considered the style of the time. Eleanor Waddell, William’s fiancée, finally decided to marry him and move to Independence in 1850 and move in 1852. The home was situated on a 14-acre plot of ground that was considered just outside the limits of the city. The property included a carriage house, ice house, garden shed, smoke house, and barn that supported the estate. There was also a vegetable garden, herb and kitchen gardens, orchard, and a 2-acre flower garden, along with a circle drive for carriages and two formal entrances to the home. The McCoy’s had approximately 2 or 3 servants (or working for freedom slaves). Mr. McCoy would become the business partner of Hiram Young and Emily Fisher, two African-Americans who purchased their freedom and ran successful businesses. William’s brother, John McCoy, would sell part of his City lot to the African-American community to build a church. The original Church was lost to Urban Renewal; standing today on White Oak and part of John McCoy’s lot is the Second Baptist Church, which still is serving the African-American Community.
During the Civil War, William McCoy and his family stayed in Independence. William’s brother, John, and his family also moved in with William and Eleanor, for a short time, since it was considered a safer location. William conducted business and tried to maintain sanity in the community. William McCoy was responsible for negotiating with Charles Jennison and others to prevent them from burning Independence to the ground. His negotiations lasted into the early morning when the Union troops were called to the Harrisonville area where Quantrill and his gang had been sighted. Mr. McCoy was well respected by both sides in the conflict and was able to survive the War with his home and businesses intact. The home was a part of the First Battle of Independence on the morning of August 11, 1862. During an ongoing gun battle at the Union encampment near Pleasant and Walnut Streets, groups around 50 Union soldiers were forced north and eventually entered the McCoy House where they broke out windows and continued to exchange gun fire until the Confederate retreated.
During recent summer painting projects, we discovered a bullet hole in a metal lintel cover for a second floor window that was filled with old putty. There are stories that the house suffered damage during the 2nd Battle of Independence.
William McCoy was a partner in a local bank on the Square. In 1867, his bank was robbed. Some say it was Jesse James and his gang but they were probably blamed for many more bank robberies than they actually committed. William and his bank teller were locked in the vault for hours before Eleanor was able to release them with her key. When William decided to retire from the banking business, account holders lined up to collect their money and the property was sold.
The boom years of growth in Independence, Missouri had begun several decades before this time. Large lots of property close to town were subdivided into smaller parcels creating lines of homes in the Victorian style which was the fad during the 1880’s through 1900. Only a small city lot remained from the original 14 acres that used to be called “The McCoy Mansion.” The McCoy estate had also been subdivided to create fine Victorian homes and turn-of-the-century bungalows with the north side of the property developing into an area of smaller cottages, with sidewalks and curbs, housing for the servants of Delaware Street and the African-American community in Independence. The north side of the original property became known today as McCoy & Slover Park. The headwaters of Mill Creek started here, with a 24ft. waterfall that provided a rapid stream, which drained in the valley, with the Southern Railroad track and trestle bridge structure passing overhead. With the community facing a housing shortage, the McCoy House saw some dramatic changes. The property had changed hands several times since the McCoy family had last occupied the home in 1908. The out-of-date two-story summer kitchen was demolished utilizing the soft clay brick to add rooms to the west where the two-story gallery-style porch used to overlook the gardens. The building which once utilized seven open fireplaces for heat now would have only three remaining to make room for efficient apartment living. The back porches on the north side were enclosed with a room also added on top of the main east porch. Staircases were moved and partitions were added to make the building five apartment units.
Eleanor and Grace Minor, who were referred to in town as “The Minor Sisters,” moved into a two-story Victorian home only a half a block away from the McCoy House on Spring Street. They were the granddaughters of William and Eleanor McCoy who were raised by their grandparents in the McCoy House. Both of their parents were deaf so William and Eleanor McCoy ended up supporting three generations in the home. The Minor Sisters had never married and lived together their entire lives. They were part of a small group of women in town who met every Tuesday to play bridge, sip tea, and gossip. One of the most famous members of their group was Bess Wallace Truman who became First Lady and wife of Harry. They ended up visiting Bess in the White House several times and became the subject of a Life Magazine article.
William and Eleanor's grandson, William Stewart McCoy, would study and become an Associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, serve in WWII, become Independence Mayor in 1920 and would attend birthday parties and Sunday School with Bess Wallace and her brothers, and neighborhood friend. Later these young men would also have their day of card playing, however, the game was poker. Instead of the scent of perfume and tea brewing there was the stench of tobacco smoke, bourbon, and a whole new interpretation of the English language. Who knew that one of their poker buddies, Harry Truman, would eventually take his card game to US Senators, high-ranking military generals, and world leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill.
The boom years of growth in Independence, Missouri that began in the 1880’s was even stronger in the 1970’s with suburban growth sprawling to the south along Noland Road with a lot of “Old Town” Independence experiencing a downturn of investment. Federal programs were showing some promise to renew historic and blighted areas in town through a program called “Urban Renewal.” The term “Renewal” actually meant removal. Area around the square and in McCoy Valley, were small clean, safe communities mostly made up of African-American and some were in an area nicknamed “The Neck” which was slated for a beautiful public park called “McCoy Park” to compliment the investment the Federal Government made across the street on 24 Highway called “The Harry S Truman Library and Museum.” Some community leaders saw this as an opportunity to not only rid Independence of blight but to also relocate large African-Americans populations to public housing complexes in town and to Kansas City. A public housing complex was also planned by the RLDS Church as a part of the park development, which would have required the demolition of more modest historic homes including the McCoy House.
Retired couple, Forest & Martha Ingram, decided to purchase the home and restore it to near original as possible, thus, saving it and the entire block from demolition. In 1959, Forest and a friend had made a similar decision to purchase a Civil War era three-story woolen mill near Lawson, Missouri. This historic site ended up being saved from demolition and restored to what is now called Watkins’s Mill State Park and Historic Site. Although they were successful in saving the McCoy House, the City took the back 25 feet of their lot through eminent domain and gave it to the RLDS Church for their public housing complex. The RLDS Church ended up going against recommendations in the Urban Renewal Plan while ignoring land use zoning in building an 11-story high-rise apartment building that loom over the McCoy House and the surrounding historic presidential neighborhood.
Eleanor and Grace Minor, granddaughters of William and Eleanor McCoy, were still alive during the time that Forest and Martha Ingram purchased and restored the McCoy House. They were able to assist the Ingram’s in duplicating interior features of the home that had been removed. They were so pleased with the idea that their childhood home was being restored that they donated their grandparent’s bedroom furniture to the home. This furniture which had come into town on a steamboat in the 1850’s was finally back home in the McCoy House where it remains even today.
Brian and Sharon Snyder purchased the home from the estate of the Ingram’s in 1992 and continued the restoration and maintenance of the home. It is now on the National Registry of Historic Places and is considered one of the few properties in the area with ties to the pioneer trails. In 2009, the Snyder’s signed a Certification Agreement with the National Park Service – National Historic Trails System and agreed to preserve the property to the highest standards including the property with the government’s national historic trails interpretative program for the benefit of the nation. The home is presently a private residence with hope for public tours in the future.