City Leaders Envision William Rockhill Nelson Farm Coming Back to Life

Marc Lavoie City News

Ponderosa

Grain Valley Looks at the Historical Past of Sni-A-Bar Farms to Secure Its Future as a Collaborative Civic Complex

Shortly after Grain Valley’s municipal building at 711 S. Main was opened 14 years ago, city leaders noticed they had a problem; the town was growing at such a fast pace they would have to expand or replace their new facility.

Since 2001, Grain Valley’s population has swelled 160 percent to about 13,800 residents. If that pace continues, and there is little reason to believe it won’t, the town’s population will triple in the next three decades.

The police, community development and parks departments could use more space for all the new employees who will handle the city’s growing population and infrastructure.

The problem of space sent city officials looking for a building site where they could put a new, expandable municipal building, plus parks and recreational facilities.

That search led them to a plot of land that has a history older than Grain Valley itself, a site that ties the city to the man who drew development and settlement to eastern Jackson County more than a century ago.

“Once we found out about it, we were very interested, because of the available space and because of the history,” said City Administrator Ryan Hunt.

===Sni-A-Bar Farm===

Looking at a photograph of William Rockhill Nelson one gets the feeling he was a man a seriousness and purpose. Stories abound of Nelson’s temper. He asked for something once, then it was time to cover one’s ears. Another account describes an incident in which the founder of the Kansas City Star felt threatened by the mayor, so his editors tossed the politician down the stairs.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Nelson proposed a new road that would lead from the intersection of 50th and Topping to U.S. Highway 40, a total of 18 miles.

“Build a road that goes some place,” Nelson said. It should not be considered a coincidence that “some place” was Grain Valley, where Nelson had purchased a big parcel of farmland, the community where he chose to build a summer home and laboratories for his agricultural curiosities. Depending on the historical source, the farm measured between 1,300 and 2,400 acres.

Called Sni-A-Bar Farm, the property bears the name of the creek that runs not far from its rolling hills and meadows. Nelson purchased shorthorn breeding cattle and began a program of improving a variety of animal that would produce a better beef yield on the lush vegetation native to the Midwestern climate.

Nelson’s Sni-A-Bar Farm would eventually develop relationships with veterinary schools at the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas and the University of Oklahoma. For decades, researchers at those schools would visit the property where they helped develop new animal medicines and vaccines.

Grasses and other plants native to the area were also studied for their usefulness to grazing animals. Sni-A-Bar Farm was instrumental in the development of several improvements in the agricultural sciences for the feeding of America’s growing population.

Like a lot of business leaders in Kansas City in the rough-and-tumble days of the city’s development, William Rockhill Nelson had enemies. Political obstacles kept Nelson’s road from being built for several years; he would die before it was finished bisecting the county on its way to Grain Valley.

The road was originally called W.R. Nelson Road. Modern drivers know it as Sni-A-Bar Road. The east-west artery was finally dedicated with a picnic celebration on October 3, 1924, nine-and-a-half years after Nelson’s death at the age of 74.

===A Place to Grow===

When Nelson died in April, 1915, he left Sni-A-Bar Farm on a 30-year trust for the benefit of the people of Kansas City.

Portions of the farm were later purchased by the Battman family. The land was eventually purchased in the 1980s by Steve and Debbie Gildehaus, who made news in 2004 when a construction worker on the farm found the skeletal remains of a baby mastodon.

Ultimately, the property was in foreclosure, split into three sections, and owned by different financial institutions. The remaining parcels totaled 113 acres.

Even though most future growth in Grain Valley is projected to the north the spacious site on the city’s south end seemed like an attractive spot for the city’s needs.

The City of Grain Valley was able to negotiate a purchase of 40 acres of the largest parcel from Great Southern Bank, leaving 45 acres to a private owner, who would oversee stream and wetland mitigation. The owner’s effort in that area is coordinated with the Army Corps of Engineers. The purchase price was $175-thousand.

A central parcel of 11 acres, plus all the property’s buildings, was owned by the Bank of Lexington, which sold it to the city for $750-thousand. The buildings include a guest house and a main house which meanders on the property with multiple additions, totaling about 30,000 square feet.

“Both banks have been strong community partners in these purchases,” Hunt said. “As we worked through the purchase, they understood the vision of the city. This is a great example of how strategic partnerships benefit the community.”

“There is one last parcel on the south side of the city’s property,” Hunt said. “Acquisition of that piece is on the radar, but we’re awaiting partnership opportunities before we seriously consider it.”

The final 17 acres is currently owned by Odessa Bank.

The name Sni-A-Bar is a bit of a mouthful, so city officials began using a different moniker for reference.

“It’s called the Sni-A-Bar Property in all the legal documents,” Hunt said. “But around city hall it’s known by its project name, The Ponderosa.”

The main house is a fascinating structure; it extends in multiple additions from an original, century-old structure of only about 900 square feet. It includes lush wooden paneling, a large kitchen, a quarter-mile-long tunnel in the basement that stretches to the Blue Branch Creek and its own indoor tower with a 1,000-gallon wooden tank, which provided gravity-fed water for drinking and bathing.

The big house prompts city officials to ask themselves about its value as a historic structure. Many of the features of the house that tied it to the early days of Sni-A-Bar Farm have been negated by ongoing additions that continued at least as recently as 2010.

“Obviously, the house has significance, considering the history,” Hunt said. “The decision the city has to make is, is the historic structure significant enough to put money into restoring it? Do we restore the original part of the house or do we start over with the property with new construction?”

===The Future of the Ponderosa and Grain Valley===

The city has already commissioned studies that show some tantalizing possibilities for The Ponderosa. Schematics drawings show a spacious municipal building with plenty of parking, community center and aquatics center, along with some other exciting public use facilities.

The land is well suited for all sorts of activities for families. Jogging, hiking and bicycle trails are considered no-brainers. The property has green space that represents the pasture as it existed in the days when William Rockhill Nelson was using it to graze his cattle.

A lot of work has gone into studying the property and its potential.

“We’ve partnered with Mid-Continent Public Library to do site evaluations,” Hunt said. “Going back before that, the city approved a comprehensive master plan in 2014.”

“During the yearlong comprehensive master plan process, we had multiple public hearings with citizens,” Hunt continued. “We had excellent public engagement. About 375 people came to one of the hearings. When setting the vision for the next 20 years, people liked the idea of a municipal complex down there. They thought it made sense for the city to preserve what’s there instead of allowing just more residential infill.”

A Brownfield Application has been filed for possible federal funds that would pay for environmental studies. This study will identify any environmental contamination that may exist and provide critical guidance for further development of the project. A project manager has been assigned and bids are being solicited for professional examinations of soil and water.

While there are plenty of proposals for what to do with the real estate, nothing has been decided. City employees attended an open house and tour in October. That afternoon stimulated innovations that the city administrator’s office and parks and recreation department never considered. Grain Valley residents can expect the city to reach out for more input in the near future. Construction on prospective facilities could begin within five to ten years. The current municipal building is located in an area that is ideal for commercial development; a variety of developers would be candidates to purchase it.

“There’s no doubt that public engagement will be a big part in what we do with The Ponderosa,” Hunt said. “We don’t want to build what we want; we want to build what the citizens want.”