A Primer On Living 'Up North' In Kansas City From Longtime Newsman Dan Verbeck

Sep 3, 2015

The counties and the towns across the Missouri River from what we know as Kansas City-proper have had an identity of their own for a long time. And you don't have to live here long to figure that out.

Scratch the surface of an old-timer up here and you might find some of the Old West.

Northlanders might draw you into a debate that they can claim the most famous early day minister. He was a founder of William Jewel College in Liberty — the Rev. Robert James, also the father of outlaws Frank and Jesse James.

Weston, Missouri, used to be the second-largest port community in Missouri.
Credit Donna Vestal / KCUR

There's a bit of attitude among old-time Northlanders. You'll see some characters who tell you, correctly, that Weston was the second-largest city in Missouri in the mid-nineteenth century. St. Louis took top honors.

Some of the Northland's tender points

If you want a more current debate, try some of these topics, including the condition of Missouri River bridges, south to where many of the jobs are. Another is the possibility of a new toll bridge to Leavenworth, where the fort holds jobs.  

Development of rolling farmland and traffic into and loud jet sound from Kansas City International Airport are always hot topics.

Or try this tender point — city services to thousands of acres annexed by Kansas City in the 1970s and largely forgotten for decades until the last few. Water lines and fire hydrants seemed like they'd never arrive, and then did.

Forty years ago, you could drive down Missouri Highway 45 past Parkville, where they quit calling it Northwest 64th Street. It was two-lane asphalt and there was always a hawk on the wire.

It's four lanes now and the hawk is gone. Upscale housing is plentiful. Newcomers find it attractive. It wasn't always so.

Early settlers found a few towns, Parkville, Platte City and Liberty. Open land in between.

When muralist Thomas Hart Benton wanted someone to hunt quail for Sunday night dinner at his Valentine District home, he enlisted a young man who lived on a farm near Smithville up north. The same lad watched the Benton home when they summered on Cape Cod. The boy, now in his 80s, still speaks proudly of his upbringing among early settlers who came in the 1830s.

They are names like Callison and Dillingham, who founded the Stockyards and American Royal. The Platte County sheriff, John Dillingham, gunned down in a 1900 shootout.

You might think you're in Lenexa

The point is, I think a lot of Northlanders see themselves as made of hardier stock. There's more rural land, or appears to be, than in more populated parts of the metro. Veteran residents tend to know where things are because, after all, it's all in one state.

The Missouri River is one of the only agreed-upon boundaries of the Northland, although the traditional definition includes all of Clay and Platte counties.
Credit Alyson Raletz / KCUR

The Missouri River is the boundary and there's no artificial state line, running in dotted lines down a map.

RELATED: Why is Downtown Kansas City South Of The River?

In the traditional view, there are only two counties involved, Clay and Platte. The line runs through the middle of the yard of a man who once told me he'd considered whether to make his primary residence the house or the garage, based on which county property taxes were lower. I think he said it in humor.

The layout of this northern place has more logic than other parts on the other side of the Missouri River. Or so we more established people think.

For a new arrival, it's hard enough separating the two Kansas Cities in Missouri and Kansas. Then throw in this concept of Kansas City, comma, North. They get it over time, but some will tell you it wasn't easy.

And that was just the place-on-the-map thing.

There are opportunities for newcomers. Platte County has been filling with Johnson County, Kansans and others.

The same holds true in Clay. There is enough new housing you might think you're in Lenexa, Kansas.

RELATED: Why Kansas City Restaurateurs Have Avoided The Northland -- And Why That's Changing

Access south is good. The Interstate 435 loop punctures both Clay and Platte counties. Some of the old flavor is given up to progress. But there are still pockets.

Walk down a Parkville street on an evening when the nostalgia seekers from other towns are gone.

I first settled near there more than 40 years ago and moved a bit but only to a more remote spot. Of 11 families on my country road, only two have moved away in 15 years.

The rest stay here in the Northland where, many nights, the only sound you hear is the wind. 

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.