The house is almost as old as Kansas. Its builder, a stonemason who emigrated from England in 1855, bought the land from a family of Shawnee Indians named Whitedeer.
On a recent sunny summer morning, B.J. Klein approaches the empty house and presses his face against a window. He sees dust and darkness. "It's a shame to see how this is all deteriorated," he says. "It's a crime."
Klein lives in a 1960s ranch house across the street. Retired for several years, he used to work for the man who owned the old house, a custom-golf-club maker named Kenneth Smith.
Smith bought the house and 20 surrounding acres in 1933. Using stone quarried from the site, he built a factory next to the residence and moved his club-making operation from midtown Kansas City. Set amid trees and ponds, the building looked more like a fireplace-warmed clubhouse than a manufacturing facility. Even today, vacant and surrounded by untamed taxus and red barberry plants, the shop looks inviting.
Smith built a thriving company in what was then sparsely populated countryside. His clubs appealed to the rich and famous. Dwight Eisenhower, Bing Crosby and Mickey Mantle all used sets of hand-manufactured Kenneth Smith clubs.
The business took Smith to exotic places. In 1971, he attended a party for the king of Morocco that was interrupted by a failed coup attempt.
"We thought the shooting was firecrackers at first," Smith told The Kansas City Star afterward. "Then some people fell, and we realized it wasn't fun."
While moving in rare company, Smith looked after his employees. He gave out car loans and Christmas bonuses. When employees had babies, his wife, Eva, presented the newborns with engraved silver spoons. The Smiths were themselves childless. "He always called us his family," says Klein, who worked 44 years for the company.
Smith died in 1977.
In the years before his death, Smith amassed 180 acres along 71st Street. He dreamed of building a championship golf course. He had even placed a restriction on the land, forbidding the construction of anything but fairways and greens.
The course was never completed, and now a builder wants to put up luxury homes on the portion of the estate that remains undeveloped. The plan puts new homes where the residence and factory now stand.
Preservationists and Smith's former employees say the land should be protected, that it deserves a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
As any map will attest, the pro-development argument usually wins in Johnson County. But those who want to see Smith's ground preserved also face an unlikely opponent: Thomas Jones, the man to whom Smith's widow entrusted her estate.
Critics say his decisions dishonor the legacy of Smith, one of Kansas City's most innovative businessmen.
On a hot Thursday afternoon, the Adams Golf equipment trailer is parked near the swimming pool at the Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate in Overland Park. The 2006 Greater Kansas City Golf Classic, a tournament for professional golfers ages 50 and older, begins the following day.
Inside the trailer, Max Puglielli uses a viselike contraption to adjust the loft on a set of irons when tour player Larry Ziegler pokes in his head.
"Ziggy, how's that new hybrid, good?" Puglielli asks. (A hybrid club features properties of both an iron and a metal wood.)
"I don't hit it good, I'll be honest with you."
"What are you doing with it?"
"Hitting it dead-right."
"Let me have it," Puglielli says. "I'll take the right out real quick."
Puglielli spends 47 weeks a year on the road, mending and tweaking clubs for touring pros sponsored by Adams, one of the game's major manufacturers. Golf equipment is estimated to be a $5.8 billion business, and companies spend considerable energy putting clubs in the hands of the pros who play on television.
Club design has come a long way since Smith sold mashies and niblicks. During World War II, the persimmon that Smith used to make drivers and 3-woods was scarce. Today, the clubs are still called woods, but they're made from titanium and they're performance-tested like jet fighters.
But Smith's work endures. The swing-weight scale, a device he invented to measure a club's balance, is still used today. Cleveland Golf equipment specialist John Moriarty, who also works with tour pros, keeps a Kenneth Smith-brand swing-weight scale on his workbench. "I guarantee you'll find one of these in every single trailer," Moriarty says.
Smith is also remembered for the high quality of his clubs. Jerry Garrison, Puglielli's assistant, was stationed in South Korea while serving in the Air Force in the early '70s. Garrison says that many of the generals in the Korean and Japanese armies owned Kenneth Smith clubs, which were seen as status symbols.
"Everything was high-quality," Garrison says. "The best leather, the best stainless steel, good shafts, everything."
Ultimately, though, craftsmanship lost the race against engineering.
"Nowadays, no human being can build a good wood by hand," Puglielli says. "It's got to be totally calculated: mass properties, different weights of metals that you use."
But Garrison suggests that if Smith were starting in the business today, he would have found a way to be on the edge of discovery.
Though he had endorsement agreements with other manufacturers, local golfing legend Tom Watson knew Kenneth Smith.
Watson, a competitor in the Greater Kansas City Golf Classic, tells the Pitch that he stopped by the Shawnee factory in the '70s to have a putter refinished. Eva Smith, Watson recalls, was at the shop on the day he arrived.
"I was treated very, very nicely," Watson says. "They had a full operation going on there, making clubs. It was always fun to be in a place where they were making clubs professionally, not just kind of gluing them together. They were out there, grinding on them and doing what they used to do with golf clubs. Now they just cast them, buff them up a little bit, stick a shaft and a grip, and, voilà, golf club."
At first, Kenneth Smith thought golf was dumb.
One day, when he was 13 or 14, he tagged along with an older brother who borrowed a set of clubs from the YMCA and set out for the golf course at Swope Park. Kenneth struggled to hit the ball in the air, and he thought the course was better suited for grazing.
A few years later, a sister suggested that Smith could supplement his newspaper-delivery income by working as a caddie at Mission Hills Country Club. He made 60 cents on his first day. "Big money compared to what I had been making," Smith later told Kansas! magazine.
Smith learned about making clubs from James Watson, the assistant pro at Mission Hills. Later, he became an assistant to a pro at a golf course outside Detroit. When he wasn't building clubs for members, Smith earned a degree from the University of Michigan.
He returned to Kansas City and started a club-making business in a shack behind his family's Westport home. In 1928, he opened a shop at East 30th Street and McGee. By this time, he had married Eva. (The couple met while he was working a summer job at a golf course in Duluth, Minnesota.)
He built his business on the idea that golf clubs, like suits, should be tailored to the player using them: longer clubs for taller golfers, more lofted clubs for players who tended to hit low shots, and so on. Smith believed that golfers who bought off the rack wasted their money on "misfit clubs."
Customization came at a price. A set of Kenneth Smith irons sold for $115 in 1940 about $1,660 today.
The 1940 sales catalog includes pictures of Smith handcrafting clubs. A handsome man, Smith bore a passing resemblance to Bobby Jones, the great amateur golfer who founded the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. The winner of the first Masters, Missourian Horton Smith (no relation), used Kenneth Smith clubs.
A man who liked to tinker, Kenneth Smith held several patents and is credited with inventing the mitten-style head cover for woods. His catalogs bulged with testimonials from physicians, military officers and international businessmen.
When orders backed up, customers had to wait. Smith limited his output to maintain quality. The factory turned out just 100 clubs a day in the '50s.
Smith employed a grateful workforce. Many of his employees were farmers who had known hard times. B.J. Klein's father, John, worked for Smith during the Depression. Klein says his mother's banker used to marvel at the size of the paychecks she deposited.
"He was a fine fellow to work for," says John Kimpel, a 30-year employee. "He wanted a good day's work, but he wasn't hard to work for."
Eva Smith was also well-liked. A few times a year, she took the women in the office to lunch at Indian Hills Country Club, where the Smiths belonged. "It was like a big family," says Mary Hanks, a 20-year employee.
Working for Smith meant being able to enjoy his property, which was ideal for picnics and pond fishing.
Taking notice of how his employees hit golf balls during lunch breaks, Smith suggested building some tees and greens. Working nights, they built a nine-hole course. A woman in the office won a contest to call it the Happy Hunting Golf Course, a name that still shows up on maps. Only Smith's employees and their families were allowed to play.
Smith appreciated the effort his workers gave. He frequently applauded their craftsmanship and willingness to participate in charity drives.
In 1965, Kimpel left the wood department to work on Smith's larger ambition: building an 18-hole golf course suitable for tournaments. Kimpel and a crew of students moved the earth, though they didn't have a lot of confidence. "I was an old farm boy," Kimpel says. "I didn't have much of any idea about building golf courses."
The course never opened. Shawnee was growing, and the city took a piece of the property to extend 75th Street. That meant moving two holes and shortening the course length, Kimpel says.
Smith sold some of the land but didn't give up his dream of a golf course. In 1974, he put in a deed restriction that was supposed to last 25 years.
Smith's death on July 12, 1977, was sudden, if not unexpected. Workers say Smith lived only a short time after being diagnosed with leukemia.
Kimpel says Smith seemed to grow weaker in the year or two before he died. He remembers Smith folding a coat over his arms and moving slowly when he made his usual midmorning inspection of the property.
"There was something wrong," Kimpel says. "Most of us didn't know what."
The company passed to Eva Smith.
The widow ran the business with help from a succession of general managers. The task was difficult. Advances in technology, such as the metal driver, made laminated wood seem quaint. Ping, a brand of clubs made by an Arizona company founded in the late 1960s, brought customization to the masses. Sales diminished, as did morale.
"After Smith died," Klein says, "it never did seem the same again."
Eva Smith turned 80 in 1985. The business demanded more attention that she could give. "Mrs. Smith got in such bad shape than she couldn't run it," Kimpel says. "She couldn't even come down to the office anymore."
Control of the company eventually came into the hands of two men, her lawyer and her accountant.
Court records indicate that Thomas Jones was Eva Smith's attorney as early as 1982. Former workers say Jones was friends with Pat McMahon, who kept the company's books.
McMahon became president of Kenneth Smith Golf Clubs in 1990. Some employees felt he was rude and arrogant. "He was very narcissistic," Mary Hanks says. "He used to run Mr. Smith down."
In 1996, Eva Smith put the Shawnee property in a trust, giving Jones power of attorney over it. She died in 1999.
Former employees believe that McMahon and Jones took advantage of Eva Smith before she died.
Bernice Klein, B.J. Klein's sister-in-law, who sewed Kenneth Smith head covers, says Eva Smith exhibited signs of dementia before her death.
Two months after Eva's death, Bernice Klein typed a letter to Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison. The letter, which B.J. Klein signed, complained that Eva Smith was not of sound mind when she signed her will. The Kleins later met with Morrison. Morrison spokeswoman Terri Issa says the prosecutor has "some recollection of a meeting of this nature but could not recall all details." In any case, no action was taken and no charges were filed.
Bernice Klein, whose husband, Harold, also worked for Smith, didn't hide her feelings. She says she told off McMahon at Eva Smith's funeral. "I could care less if I embarrassed Harold," she says. "It was wrong."
Kenneth Smith Golf Clubs closed in 2003.
Speaking to the Star, McMahon blamed new technology and the increased emphasis on marketing and distribution. "Rather than try to reinvent ourselves and try to compete in that world, we decided to call it quits," he said. (McMahon referred all questions to Jones, who did not return repeated phone calls from the Pitch.)
Kenneth Smith was gone, and his company was, too. But in time, Smith would come to mean a great deal to some people who had no association with golf.
Not even a Monday night Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium stopped a crowd from showing up at Shawnee City Hall.
It was November 22, 2004. Shawnee's City Council was considering rezoning 60 acres along 71st Street, between Quivira and Pflumm roads. The change would allow a developer, Darol Rodrock, to divide the property into smaller lots and build 86 half-million-dollar homes in a development to be called Fairway Park.
Cities rezone property all the time. But this proposal called for the destruction of a piece of Shawnee history.
Discussion of the matter began with a brief description of the land and how it had been used by Kenneth Smith. The city's planning director, Paul Chaffee, said the new development would mean the construction of homes significantly more expensive than those in some of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Council members asked questions about traffic and retention basins. They seemed enthusiastic. Then they reviewed a letter from Jones, trustee of the Eva Smith estate.
The letter encouraged city leaders to look favorably upon Rodrock's development application. Jones wrote of his "high regard" for Rodrock and his staff.
The letter described the estate's passing to the Kenneth L. and Eva S. Smith Foundation. The foundation, Jones wrote, had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthy charities. Jones said he was "legally obligated" to sell the property and add the proceeds to the foundation.
Jones emphasized the importance of legacy.
He said his agreement with Rodrock called for the development to recognize Smith with "a memorial of sorts."
The plan looked like a winner. But if Rodrock and city officials thought rezoning the property was going to be easy, they were wrong.
In the mid-'90s, Rodrock had built a development, Fairway Hills, on a piece of ground on the western edge of Smith's land. (A 1994 court order had lifted the deed restriction.) Many Fairway Hills residents who were relatively new arrivals themselves were unhappy to learn about Rodrock's new plan for Fairway Park. Storm flooding was already a problem, a condition that the addition of new rooftops and streets seemed likely to exacerbate.
Also, some Fairway Hills residents had paid a premium for lots that bordered on what remained of the Kenneth Smith estate, where foxes roamed and owls and hawks perched on mature trees. Fairway Hills resident Paul Wohl tells the Pitch that he was led to believe the property beyond his fence line would not be developed, a promise he failed to get in writing. "I'm old enough, I ought to know better," Wohl says. "That's a mistake on my part."
After the city's planning commission recommended the zoning change, 40 residents signed protest petitions. They also hired a lawyer, Sherwin Epstein, who addressed the council at the November 22 meeting.
Epstein asked the council for a 30-day delay to allow more study of the new development's impact. Epstein was joined by a hastily hired civil engineer, Floyd Cotter, who described "a high-hazard storm-water situation."
Most council members were clearly not in the mood to listen to lawyers and engineers. Before residents who were opposed to the development had a chance to speak, Mayor Jeff Meyers said he felt a continuance wasn't needed. Councilman Frank Goode said Rodrock's proposal was one of the better projects he had seen in a long time.
"We're talking about $400,000, $500,000 houses," Goode said. "Who wants to run people out of town when they're trying to come to your town to build a $400,000 to $500,000 house? I don't."
Rodrock eventually addressed the council. The home builder sounded like a man accustomed to getting his way. Earlier in 2004, the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce had presented him with its Distinguished Corporate Citizen Award. "This isn't the first development I've done ... " he said.
Rodrock said his company had been diligent about protecting the environment. Yet earlier that year, the EPA had inspected Rodrock's Grey Oaks development in Shawnee and found violations of federal storm-water regulations that protect streams and lakes from contaminated runoff. The EPA fined Rodrock Industries $7,500.
But water and trees were not the only concern. At the council meeting, Fairway Hills resident Cindi Johnson encouraged the city to save the buildings. The Smith residence, she noted, dated to the mid-1800s. "We don't have to develop every square foot of Shawnee," she said.
Rodrock said he was willing to donate the buildings, but somebody else had to pay to move them.
The council voted 7-2 to change the zoning.
Fairway Hills residents left feeling frustrated. Their request for a simple delay had met with a stern refusal.
"I was surprised the city was callous," says Fred Northcraft, a lawyer who has lived in Fairway Hills for six years.
On December 22, 2004, Epstein filed a lawsuit that accused the city of being unreasonable. Epstein asked the court to set aside the council's decision to change the zoning until more testimony could be heard. (On August 30, a judge will hear arguments and decide if the zoning stands.)
By their nature, developers like to build, and city officials like to collect new taxes. Also by their nature, homeowners object to more houses being built on the wide-open space in their backyards.
But neighbors of the property and former employees have found it strange that Jones, the trustee, has seemed indifferent to the loss of the Smith house and factory. As Shawnee resident Doug Raden puts it, "It doesn't appear that he gives a single bit of care about that property or any history about it or anything."
While Epstein worked the legal side, Fairway Hills residents took another tack championing Kenneth Smith's historic significance.
A few weeks before the 2004 City Council meeting, Russell, the president of the Fairway Hills Homes Association, learned that in 1999, working under a grant, the Johnson County Museum had inventoried Smith's buildings as a site potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The discovery was significant. Rodrock was going to need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because his development would cause the loss of wetlands. The buildings made the process more difficult. The law requires federal agencies to consider how a development might affect historic properties.
Preservation-minded groups began to take interest. On February 23, 2005, Mindi Love, the director of the Johnson County Museum, wrote a letter to Mayor Meyers. Love encouraged the council to consider alternatives to the demolition of the Smith buildings.
Love had tried to salvage items from the Smith workshop in 2004, after a museum board member tipped her that the business would close. Museum officials contacted McMahon, the accountant who had served as president of the company in its final years, to discuss the possible donation of artifacts. "He said, 'I'll call you back,' and we never heard back from him," Love says.
After a few months passed, Love says, "We tried several times to call back and never really got in contact with him. When we finally did, he just pretty much said, 'I'm not interested' and didn't give a reason and didn't seem very open about discussing it, so we, of course, didn't pursue it further."
Russell, meanwhile, began to track down some of Smith's former employees. "The more I found out, the more I thought he was a world-renowned person who should be recognized," Russell says.
Russell's fascination with Smith contains a selfish component, of course. He believes that Fairway Park threatens the value of his home. "My interest is, keep me from flooding," he admits.
A Smith relative emerged. In April 2005, Kenneth Smith's niece, Melba, wrote a letter to The Shawnee Dispatch. Melba Smith suggested that the Johnson County Museum should move into the old Smith factory.
Smith, who is 72, lives in Shawnee. She tells the Pitch that she had no contact with Eva Smith after her uncle's death, a fact she regrets, given what's happened with the estate. "I wish I had been there for her," she says. "Maybe I could have done something."
Smith says she avoided her aunt because she didn't want to raise suspicion that she was after her money. The club-making business had gone bust, but the Smiths were worth plenty of money. Kenneth Smith had invested in real estate and stocks. In papers filed with the IRS in 2005, the Smith Foundation showed assets of $7.5 million, not including the land in Shawnee, which is held in Eva Smith's personal trust.
The foundation made grants worth $454,000 in 2004. Children's charities, such as the Lakemary Center (a school for the developmentally disabled in Paola), received the largest contributions. The foundation also sponsors an annual award for the area's best high school golfer.
The foundation's lone trustee, Jones appears to be accountable only to the laws that govern nonprofits. Private foundations often have small boards, and Kansas law allows a nonprofit to operate with a single trustee. (Other states require nonprofit corporations to have at least three directors.)
As a one-man board, Jones complies with the law, but the arrangement opens the foundation to criticism. "The best practice here would be to add a trustee or two, so you have more diversity of opinion and viewpoints," says Bruce R. Hopkins, a Kansas City lawyer and a leading authority on tax-exempt organizations. "But there's a difference between best practice and what the law requires."
Jones does not draw a salary as the foundation's trustee, records show; however, the foundation paid his law firm, Payne & Jones, $16,150 in 2004. (The foundation also paid $74,821 in "management fees," though the forms do not indicate who received the payment.) Laws address self-dealing, but here, too, the foundation appears to be in compliance. "As long as the fees that are being paid to the law firm and the management company are reasonable, that kind of a practice is legal," Hopkins says.
Jones insists that he is following the instructions of Eva Smith. In a 2005 letter to Janine Joslin, the executive director of the Kansas Preservation Alliance, Jones wrote that he had "no alternative" but to sell the Shawnee property so that the proceeds could "further enhance the wonderful work" of the foundation.
Undoubtedly, a $50,000 donation to Children Mercy's Hospital, which the foundation made in 2004, constitutes wonderful work. But opponents of the plan question why Jones who said in his letter to Joslin that he was always looking for ways to honor the Smiths' legacy has seemed unwilling to pursue a course that would add proceeds to the foundation while also saving the grounds. The Kansas Preservation Alliance presented an idea last fall to build 50 homes and save the important buildings. "We felt we were compromising by losing the landscape and preserving the homes," Joslin says.
Joslin says Rodrock came back with the idea of a plaque.
Jones' confidence in Rodrock puzzles opponents of the plan, who wonder if another developer might have come up with something more creative than putting cul-de-sacs where Kenneth Smith once built clubs for kings. Jackie Moore, a real-estate agent who lives on 71st Street, says she understands that other brokers and developers were not informed that that property was available.
"There was never a [for-sale] sign," she says.
A waist-high rock fence separates Kenneth Smith's empty house and factory from the road. The bushes need a trim, and glass panes need to be replaced, but the buildings appear to be in good condition. The estate pays a former Smith employee to maintain the lawn.
Wandering the grounds, B.J. Klein wishes he had billions. "If I had Warren Buffett's money, I'd buy the damn thing myself and fix it up and have my own private golf course," he says.
More realistically, Klein thinks the city should buy the property. He'd like to see picnic baskets and flagsticks return to the land that he and other former Smith employees enjoyed. "It seems like they can't leave anything open space," he says. "Everything's got to be blacktop."
Rodrock's antagonists appear willing to compromise. Gene Russell, the Fairway Hills neighborhood leader and an environmental engineer by trade, notes that the current zoning allows new home construction. A developer, Russell says, could build 20 to 25 homes and preserve the old buildings and several acres of green space at the same time.
The buildings are safe for now. The residents' lawsuit remains alive in the courts.
As part of the Army Corps permit process, Rodrock is required to offer the buildings to parties who might save them. His initial request for proposals, sent out last November, suggested a minimum bid of $1.3 million. The request drew no response. The deadline was extended tentatively to the end of August.
For now, though, ending the controversy over the Kenneth Smith estate seems like a long shot.