Here’s a famous Missourian with a little-known connection to Daviess County. William T. Kemper, whose family fortune became one of Kansas City’s largest, was born in Gallatin on Nov. 2, 1865. Kemper is the name lavished on Kansas City’s civic arena. Kemper is the name of the family which controls one of Missouri’s largest financial institutions, United Missouri Bank of Kansas City. And Kemper is one photograph you will find displayed in the third floor courtroom of the Daviess County courthouse.
William Kemper’s ties to Daviess County were probably brief. Local records show that his father, James Kemper, was in the mercantile business at the southeast corner of the Gallatin business square in partnership with Major (Lt.Col.) Samuel P. Cox and Capt. John Ballinger. These partners were well-known adventurous citizens who figure prominently in early Daviess County history. The firm was called Ballinger, Cox & Kemper and lasted at least from Feb. 28, 1865, to Jan. 13, 1866. During this time the real estate was jointly held (Block 3 west and 3 south in Gallatin; Book L, page 587 and Book M, page 531), purchased for $1,500; John Ballinger later purchased Kemper’s interest for $1,250.
J.M. Kemper and his wife also held a lot in the northwest corner of the square From Nov. 23, 1865, to April 5, 1866, although it is not known whether this was business or residential property. This was purchased from James L. Davis and sold to Elizabeth Seat (Book M, page 436 and Book N, page 232. All of Lot #6, Block 5 West and 2 south). The Kempers paid $650 and received $700 for this property.
The only other local record found shows J.M. Kemper signing a petition on adding land to Caldwell County. This petition, dated Jan. 22, 1868, proved unsuccessful.
The Kempers evidently left Gallatin for St. Joseph. William T. Kemper Sr. began his career at age 14 sweeping floors in a shoe store in which his father was a partner. From shoe store janitor, young Kemper became shoe salesman representing Noyes, Morman & Kemper. He called on the Valley Falls, KS, firm of his future father-in-law, Rufus Henry Crosby. He married Charlotte Crosby in 1890, and the couple moved to Kansas City three years later.
At age 26, Kemper organized the Kemper Mill and Elevator Company, followed by Kemper Investment Company, and then Kemper Mercantile Company, an early day mail order house. At the turn of the century when Kemper was elected to head the Board of Trade, he was its youngest president ever at age 33.
Every decade became a milestone for Kemper as he entered banking. Within 10 years, W.T. Kemper was persident of the Commerce Trust Company empire. Ten years later he made a fortune, selling the Commerce at the boom price of $220 a share, and then 10 years later buying it back at $86 per share. Ironically, one source of Kemper’s fortune did not derive from banking but from the defunct KC, Mexico & Orient Railroad. Stock of dubious value in the never completed, disconnected route to the west coast of Mexico proved valuable when oil was discovered along the road’s tracks in Oklahoma, Texas and the Southwest.
Money-making, Kemper’s long suit, was interspersed with modicum of political activity — as Democratic National Committeeman, one-time Democratic mayoral candidate (defeated), and police commissioner. But for the most part, Kemper stuck to his last — banking — until his death at age 72 in January, 1938. His death attracted widespread attention, with journalist icon William Allen White eulogizing Kemper’s life that reflected broadly on the nation’s history.
Taken from research by Brent Schondelmeyer, William Kemper’s grandson, in a corporate history of the United Missouri Bank of Kansas City, and by David Stark of Gallatin; June, 1994.