History of Lee’s Summit, Missouri

Early History

The area that is now Lee’s Summit was originally inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Osage, Kansa, and Shawnee. The first European settlers arrived in the early 1800s and the town of Lee’s Summit was founded in 1865.

Some key events and facts about the early history of Lee’s Summit:

  • The land was acquired by the US government in a treaty with the Osage Tribe in 1808.
  • The Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail both passed near Lee’s Summit, bringing wagon trains of settlers westward in the mid-1800s.
  • William B. Howard acquired 240 acres of land in the area in 1843 and established a homestead.
  • The town was formally established in 1865 and named after Dr. Pleasant Lea, who donated land for a railroad line.
  • The town was incorporated in 1869.
  • Agriculture was the main economic driver in the early years, with corn, wheat, and livestock being key products.

Key Figures in Lee’s Summit’s Founding

  • Dr. Pleasant Lea – physician who donated land for a railroad line through the town. The town was named in his honor.
  • William B. Howard – early settler who established a homestead in the area in 1843. Platted the original town.
  • John Walker – entrepreneur who purchased the Howard homestead in 1865 and established the town of Lee’s Summit.

Growth in the Late 1800s

After its founding, Lee’s Summit began to grow steadily through the late 19th century. Key events and developments:

  • The railroad connecting Lee’s Summit to Kansas City and St. Louis was completed in 1867, increasing commerce.
  • The population grew from 200 people in 1865 to over 1,000 by 1890.
  • Downtown buildings were constructed in the late 1800s, including the Old Town Hall, Opera House, and Howard Bank.
  • Agriculture continued to thrive with stockyards opening to support the livestock trade.

Some notable residents of Lee’s Summit from this era:

  • Ewing Kauffman – pharmaceutical entrepreneur who founded Marion Laboratories in Kansas City.
  • Miller Nichols – real estate developer known for constructing the Country Club Plaza.
  • B.D. Mastin – photographer who documented early life in Lee’s Summit.

20th Century

Lee’s Summit saw continued growth and development throughout the 20th century.

Key Events & Changes

  • The automobile became popular in the early 1900s, connecting Lee’s Summit to nearby cities.
  • Lee’s Summit was impacted by World War I and World War II, sending many residents to serve in the military.
  • Suburban neighborhoods began development in the 1950s and 1960s as Kansas City expanded.
  • Major civic institutions were established, including the library, city hall, police station, and high school.
  • The population grew from over 6,000 people in 1960 to over 70,000 by 2000.

Notable Businesses

Some major businesses emerged in Lee’s Summit in the 20th century:

  • Hodgdon Powder Company – gunpowder factory that opened in 1935. It supplied powder for WWII and employed hundreds of residents.
  • Wilcox Electric Company – electronics manufacturer founded in 1965. They were one of the city’s major employers for decades.
  • Marion Laboratories – pharmaceutical company started by Ewing Kauffman in the 1950s. It brought jobs and economic growth to the region.

Recent History (21st Century)

Lee’s Summit has continued to develop rapidly in the 21st century. Some major milestones:

  • Several new housing developments and shopping centers have been constructed, expanding the city’s footprint.
  • The population has grown to over 98,000 residents as of 2020.
  • Downtown Lee’s Summit has been revitalized with local shops, restaurants, and a performing arts center.
  • The city has expanded its parks and recreation offerings, with a community center, aquatic park, and hundreds of acres of parkland.

Some initiatives and developments currently shaping Lee’s Summit:

  • School district improvements – a $290 million bond initiative was approved in 2020 to improve schools.
  • New city hall complex – a new city hall and police station are under construction downtown.
  • Expanding tech sector – tech firms like Garmin and Tanium have facilities in Lee’s Summit.

Origin of the Name

Lee’s Summit was named after Dr. Pleasant Lea, who donated 67 acres of land in 1865 for a railroad line to be built through the area. The town that grew around this railroad depot became known as Lea’s Summit, later changed to Lee’s Summit.

Some background on Dr. Pleasant Lea:

  • He was a physician who moved to Jackson County, MO from Kentucky in the 1830s.
  • He established a homestead and large plantation west of Lee’s Summit.
  • He played a key role in bringing the railroad to the area, donating the land that enabled the Missouri Pacific Railroad line to be constructed.
  • He never actually resided in Lee’s Summit but he frequented the town and invested in real estate there.

The Lea family was originally from Virginia and dr. Lea was born there in 1794. So while he did not found Lee’s Summit, his donation of land for the railroad ultimately led to the town bearing his name.

Historic Places

Lee’s Summit contains several historic buildings and landmarks that provide a window into the past:

Downtown Historic District

  • Listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • Contains over 30 historic commercial buildings from the late 1800s/early 1900s. Most are two-story brick structures with storefronts downstairs and apartments upstairs.
  • Notable buildings include Town Hall, Howard Bank, Todd George Building, and Old Carnegie Library.

B.D. Mastin House

  • Built in 1895 by photographer B.D. Mastin
  • Queen Anne architectural style
  • Mastin had a photography studio downtown and documented life in early Lee’s Summit.

Lee’s Summit Historical Cemetery

  • Established in 1865
  • Contains over 200 graves of early residents
  • Features gravestones with intricate carvings of symbols and designs

Howard School

  • Built in 1891 as the first schoolhouse in Lee’s Summit
  • Operated until 1972 and reopened as a museum in 1976
  • Features educational exhibits about the history of Lee’s Summit schools

Harry S. Truman Historic Site

  • Boyhood home of President Harry S. Truman
  • Truman lived here between the ages of 6 and 14 (1890-1898)
  • Restored to how it looked during Truman’s childhood

Harris-Kearney House

  • Built around 1850, home of pioneer John Harris
  • Also associated with Civil War general Stephen Watts Kearny
  • Italianate architecture style
  • Now operated as a historic house museum

Historic Figures

Lee’s Summit has been home to several notable figures who have shaped local and national history:

Dr. Pleasant Lea – physician and landowner who founded Lee’s Summit by donating land for a railroad. The town is named for him.

William B. Howard – early settler who platted the original town of Lee’s Summit in 1865. He donated land for churches and a school.

Miller Nichols – influential real estate developer who built the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. He was raised and educated in Lee’s Summit.

Ewing Kauffman – pharmaceutical entrepreneur who started Marion Laboratories in Kansas City. He was born in Garden City, Missouri and spent part of his youth in Lee’s Summit.

Madge Green – pioneering female journalist who wrote for the Lee’s Summit Journal in the 1910s/1920s and advocated for women’s suffrage.

President Harry S. Truman – the 33rd U.S. president, who lived in Lee’s Summit from 1890-1898 as a child and youth. The Truman Historic Site preserves his boyhood home.

Jessalyn Gilsig – actress born in Lee’s Summit in 1971, known for roles in TV shows like Glee, Nip/Tuck, and Vikings.

Paul Rudd – actor and comedian born in Passaic, NJ but raised in Lenexa and Lee’s Summit, graduating from Shawnee Mission West High School.

These figures helped shape Lee’s Summit through their contributions to business, politics, culture, and civic life. Their names and legacies are tightly woven into the fabric of local history.

Historic Events

Some key historic events that have shaped Lee’s Summit over the years:

1867 – The railroad line connecting Lee’s Summit to Kansas City and St. Louis is completed, boosting commerce and population growth.

1890 – The Howard School, the first schoolhouse in Lee’s Summit, opens its doors to students.

1918 – Lee’s Summit sees many young men march off to fight in World War I, with over 60 killed in action.

1942 – The new Municipal Auditorium hosts a war bond drive rally attended by President Franklin Roosevelt during WWII.

1954 – Racial segregation ends at Lee’s Summit schools in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

1965 – Wilcox Electric Company opens one of the area’s largest electronics plants, employing 1,200 workers at its peak.

1985 – Voters approve a measure providing free public bus service in Lee’s Summit, funded by a dedicated property tax.

2011 – Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street hosts the first-ever Beer, Bourbon & Barbeque festival, now an annual tradition.

2020 – Residents resoundingly pass a $290 million school bond issue to fund improvements to facilities and programs.

From its founding as a frontier railroad town to today’s bustling suburb, Lee’s Summit has been continually shaped by events large and small over its history. These events have made the community what it is today.

Architectural History

The architecture of Lee’s Summit provides a window into the history and evolution of the built environment in the city. Here is an overview of major architectural styles and eras:

Late 1800s – Most buildings are simple brick commercial structures with decorative elements like arched windows and cornices. The Old Town Hall, Opera House and Howard Bank date to this Victorian era.

Early 1900s – Bungalows become popular for residential homes, featuring front porches, tapered columns, exposed rafters and craftsman details. Historic downtown bungalows along Walnut St.

1920s/1930s – Art Deco architecture takes hold during this boom era, seen in the arched entryway of the 1926 James Theater downtown.

Mid-century Modern (1950s-60s) – Low, sprawling lines and minimal ornamentation characterize homes and commercial buildings from this period when suburbs expanded.

Contemporary (1990s-today) – New civic buildings like the Hart Prairie Home Center and Longview Community Center reflect current trends toward dramatic rooflines and natural materials.

Architectural styles reflect the time period, lifestyle, aesthetics and construction methods of when they were built. Lee’s Summit contains a tapestry of styles that document the community’s past through architecture.

Cultural History

As a small town turned booming suburb, Lee’s Summit has cultivated a rich cultural history and identity:

  • Musical heritage – The town has had community bands since the late 1800s. The current Symphony Orchestra dates back over 50 years.
  • Farming traditions – The Gamber Farm in SE Lee’s Summit gives tours showing historic farming methods. Annual events celebrate rural heritage.
  • Downtown vibrancy – The historic downtown district has been revitalized with restaurants, boutiques, arts venues and a farmers market.
  • Literary arts – The Mid-Continent Public Library branch promotes reading and hosts author events. The local Raven Book Store sells works of regional writers.
  • Community theater – The 150-seat Summit Theater has provided an avenue for local performers and productions since 1994.
  • Historic museums – The 50-acre Harris Park features museums and historical buildings open for tours.
  • Multicultural festivals – Events like the Diwali festival and Juneteenth celebration reflect the community’s growing diversity.
  • Public art – Murals and sculptures are found throughout downtown and the parks system, creating cultural landmarks.

This blend of artistic, agricultural and commercial culture gives Lee’s Summit its unique sense of place and local pride. Community institutions help promote and preserve the city’s living culture.

Historic Industries & Businesses

Some key industries and businesses have powered economic growth in Lee’s Summit over the years:

  • Railroads – As a railroad junction, Lee’s Summit hosted major facilities for the Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads for over a century.
  • Agriculture – Fruit orchards, dairy farms and livestock breeding drove the agrarian economy in Lee’s Summit’s early days.
  • Gunpowder – The 100-acre Hodgdon Powder Company complex opened in 1935 and supplied gunpowder for WWII and sporting uses.
  • Electronics manufacturing – Firms like Western Electric and Wilcox Electric opened large factories in the 1960s-70s and employed thousands.
  • Finance – The Farmers Exchange Bank founded in the late 1800s evolved into the present-day Legacy Bank.
  • Pharmaceuticals – Marion Laboratories, started by Ewing Kauffman in 1950, became a Fortune 500 drug company.
  • Automotive – Car dealerships have operated in Lee’s Summit since the 1920s, currently one of the top retail sectors.

From powering 19th century expansion to high-tech jobs today, different industries have fueled Lee’s Summit’s economic engine throughout its past. These industries provided development opportunities and employment.

Educational History

Education has long been valued in Lee’s Summit. Here are some key developments in the history of local schools:

  • Howard School – Lee’s Summit’s first school opened in 1869 in a log cabin before moving to a permanent building in 1891, which still stands today as a museum.
  • Segregation – Up until 1954, Lee’s Summit schools were racially segregated. The all-black Douglass School operated from 1917-1955.
  • Consolidation – Small rural schools consolidated into a centralized district through the mid-1900s. Lee’s Summit R-7 School District was formalized in 1969.
  • Enrollment boom – Student enrollment exploded from around 3,000 in the 1960s to over 18,000 by 2021 as the population grew.
  • New campuses – Dozens of new school buildings have been constructed over the decades to accommodate growth, including multiple high schools.
  • Technical training – The Summit Technology Academy opened in 2007, providing career-focused training in fields like manufacturing, healthcare, and IT.
  • Higher education – The University of Central Missouri and Metropolitan Community College now have satellite campuses in Lee’s Summit.

From pioneering one-room schoolhouses in the 1800s to its modern, advanced education centers today, education has been central to the Lee’s Summit community throughout its history.


In its brief 150+ year history, Lee’s Summit has transformed from a fledgling frontier railroad town into one of Missouri’s most populous and thriving suburban cities. It has been shaped by determined founders, waves of growth, economic shifts, and key institutions that form the backbone of community. Lee’s Summit today proudly reflects its past while looking ahead to a bright future. This young city’s rich history provides the foundation for generations to come.


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  • Option 1: From Downtown Lee’s Summit, MO Head northeast on SE Green St, turning left onto NE Douglas St. Continue until you reach NE Skyline Dr. Turn left, and 20 NE Skyline Dr is on the right.
  • Option 2: From I-470 East Take the Douglas St/Colbern Rd exit from I-470 E. Merge onto NE Colbern Rd, turn right on NE Douglas St, then left on NE Skyline Dr. Find 20 NE Skyline Dr on the right.
  • Option 3: From Unity Village, MO Travel east on NW Colbern Rd, turn right on NW Woods Chapel Rd. Left on NE Douglas St, then left on NE Skyline Dr. 20 NE Skyline Dr will be on your right.