Martin City has unofficially been around since 1887. That’s when Edward L. Martin helped map out the promising stretch of land near the Blue River and fresh train tracks. Mr. Martin was known for several interesting things, including the rise of the Kansas City Distilling Company and E.L. Martin & Co. Wholesale Liquor, making him an appropriate symbol of the kind of rough and tumble town we would become. We officially took his name in 1895. A decade later, construction of Wornall and Holmes Roads reached Martin City as stores sprang up like prairie flowers.
Edward L. Martin and early 1900s Martin City street scene. Photos courtesy: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
A house built in 1905 on one of the original lots owned by Edward Martin. It’s now occupied by the retail boutique Gilded Lily.
By the time The Roaring Twenties arrived, roughly 250 people called Martin City home. You could see them waiting at the Martin City Train Depot and browsing inside the general store. A hotel welcomed visitors and discreetly served liquor without a license (until they got caught), and a blacksmith pounded out horseshoes down the street. The Martin City Bank, built in 1909, watched its assets swell like the kick of the local whiskey.
The original Martin City Bank building still stands on 135th Street at 510.
Martin City 1912
During Prohibition, as the story goes, you could visit the drugstore in Martin City and ‘get a little nip’ at a window around back. Not far from that window, you could walk into the dry goods store, head upstairs, and ‘cut a rug’ inside the dance hall on the second floor. On occasion, they let you roller skate yourself sweaty up there, too.
Clubs were organized around popular past times, like shooting guns and playing basketball. You might say our rowdy reputation got rolling in those days. We’ve always been known for the pursuit of good times of our own making.
Where the city meets the country — Martin City, November 1933. Road leading to property of Joseph F. Porter, president of the Kansas City Power and Light Company. Photo courtesy: Frank Lauder Autochrome Collection, Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
Martin City Spirit of Survival
The Great Depression was just as unkind to Martin City as any other little town. The Martin City Bank went under in 1933, surviving only a few years after the stock market crashed. But the trains and a few businesses kept chugging along somehow, keeping us going, and continuing to define what we still are today.
A fancy spot for a photograph in the 1930s. Members of the South Central Business Association posed with a marching band at the Martin City Train Depot. Photo courtesy: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
The Methodist Church in Martin City dedicated its church building in 1890 on land donated by Edward Martin himself. A well-constructed basement took years to complete and became a gathering place for town meetings.
Angels must have been watching over that church when the worst tornado in local history blew Martin City apart in 1957. Miraculously, the building survived. Dozens of people hunkered down in the basement during a church supper as the storm rattled the sanctuary above. When the sky cleared, the church stood tall on a landscape of devastation, inspiring locals to rebuild when they may have been tempted to just pack up and move away.
The Methodist Church in Martin City
Actual photo of the ‘Ruskin Heights Tornado’ approaching Martin City from the direction of Spring Hill Kansas. Courtesy: National Weather Service
The Methodist Church was one of only a few local structures that survived the Ruskin Heights Tornado in 1957. According to the National Weather Service, 2 people died and 35 were injured before the twister moved north from Martin City. Photo courtesy of The Martin Event Space.
The church congregation stayed put all the way to 1975 when they partnered with another congregation to build Red Bridge United Methodist Church way up the road at 117th and Holmes. After they moved out, their old building sat vacant for awhile until Martin City restaurant pioneer R.C. Van Noy came along and boldly double decked it with a honkey tonk bar upstairs and a Mexican restaurant below.
“Turning a church into a restaurant and bar was a very R.C. thing to do,” Mike Van Noy once told us. He’s R.C.’s son and longtime owner of Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse. “My Dad saw dramatically different possibilities and wanted to give that historic building new purpose in Martin City. He kept the interior wooden arches intact, and you can still see indications of the original church’s design on the outside. It’s a survivor.”
Today the building still echoes the church’s original design.
The Martin Event Space now occupies the old church building.
Martin City picked itself up after the 1957 tornado disaster as ties with Kansas City, Missouri strengthened. By the 1960s, some of our businesses were drawing customers from all over. Kansas City annexed Martin City in 1963 and we settled into a ‘neighborhood’ profile. Our ‘city’ status was gone, but the independent identity we shared, and our penchant for doing things our own way, remained.
The site of the mid-century Mobil gas station on 135th Street is now The Sharper Edge business. Note the Gilded Lily house is also visible.
A ‘city’ becomes a neighborhood. Martin City street scene 1960s. Photo courtesy: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
The 1970’s ushered in the era fondly remembered as ‘Restaurant City,’ when Martin City boomed with a variety of good food, strong booze, entertainment, and occasional bar room brawls. The neighborhood’s nightlife caught fire from the spark of Jess and Jim’s popularity under R.C. Van Noy’s management and soaring ambition. Knee-jerk decisions to open, close, and rearrange restaurant spaces kept his two sons working round the clock. ‘Jess and Jim’s Annex’ opened to corral the overflow of customers from the main location. There was also the Pasta House, the Country Junction bar, the El Charito eatery, R.C.’s Cantina, and of course, a stand-alone pub. At the end of the wild ride, only his beloved Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse and R.C.’s Restaurant and Lounge ultimately survived. The latter still bears his name and was managed for decades by his son, David.
Unrelated to R.C. Van Noy’s endeavors, the original location of Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue first got cookin’ at the corner of 135th and Holmes in 1974. Great Plains Drilling Inc., of Martin City drilled the foundations for both Jack Stack and R.C.’s Restaurant, and was paid only in stacks of restaurant meat.
Martin City still has a school by the same name. It was originally established in 1910. The school grew to accommodate 80 students by 1926. Enrollment these days is nearing 700 as the current location expands with more classroom and gym space to support sixth through eighth grades. Martin City School K-8 is now part of the Grandview School District.
Martin City School K-8
We’ve had a U.S. Postal Office since 1888, seven years before we officially became ‘Martin City.’ Back in those days, it was crucial for convincing entrepreneurs that the community was here to stay. We still consider it a symbol of stability as times change.
U.S. Post Office – Martin City Station. Established 1888.
Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse still anchors ‘downtown’ Martin City, more than eight decades later.
The Martin City Community Improvement District, a self-taxing entity formed by local business owners in 2005, guides our revitalization effort and pays for key support propelling a community on the upswing. The modernization of 135th Street, our ‘Main Street,’ is the crowning achievement so far. We have sidewalks for the first time, hanging baskets, curbside parking, and a brand new street. Up next: Holmes Road.
How it started — 135th Street in Martin City.
How it’s going.
The excitement of revitalization depicted in a billboard concept in 2013.
Future of Martin City
Martin City’s future improvement plans include additional beautification and landscaping, more sidewalks, new parking, and other public amenities. New signage along entrances to our neighborhood and bike lanes are also in the works, and trails will eventually wind through the area as part of the greater KCMO Metro Trails Plan. Martin City is a place to walk, run, bike, drive, or catch a bus, and a regional destination for friendly service, good food, and of course, a good time. We think Edward Martin would approve. 🍻