“To me there are some things in this world far dearer than the accumulation of money….Men become great and good and mighty not because of the amount they make, but because they utilize the money they accumulate….The world knows Kansas City is a great commercial city. It is my desire that the most essential element…the humanitarian side…be kept fresh in the minds of the people.” – Robert Alexander Long
The story of Robert Alexander Long’s life is not exactly a rags-to-riches tale. He came, in fact, from a well-established, middle-class Kentucky farming family. Born in 1850, Long might have been inspired to promote a “self-made-man” image by the Horatio Alger stories he read in his youth. In young adulthood, Long benefited from good connections. He landed in Kansas City, where his affluent uncle Churchill White, underwrote a few unsuccessful ventures before offering the advice to head west for new opportunities. When Long sold off lumber from a failed hay business, he stumbled into an industry that was the basis of his substantial fortune. This was in Columbus, Kansas where he met and married his wife Ella, a Pennsylvania Quaker, in 1875. After partner Robert White died in 1877, Long and silent partner Victor Bell incorporated the Long-Bell Lumber Company.
The Longs had two children, Sallie America (1879 – later Sally Ellis) and Loula (1881 – later Loula Long Combs). The family moved to Kansas City in 1891 with Long’s burgeoning business. They occupied a spacious Queen Anne-style house on Independence Avenue, one of the city’s toniest addresses. In 1907, the Longs embarked on the construction of an estate reflecting their local and national prominence, a mansion and related buildings that filled an entire city block and was called Corinthian Hall. The property overlooked picturesque North Terrace Park and nearby available acreage, which offered a convenient place for Long and his horse-loving daughter, Loula, to exercise their prize steeds.
Long and the Lumber Industry
Kansas City’s role as a major lumber center was hardly a fluke, since the frontier pushing west of the Mississippi River followed rail lines across the prairie. By 1900, Kansas City was shipping 4,000 railcars of finished lumber annually. Kansas City’s dominance in the trade was due to Robert Long. His portfolio included more than 50 lumberyards by 1892.
Long vertically integrated Long-Bell, the company’s slogan being: “From tree to trade.” Long controlled the forests where the trees were produced, the mills where logs were trimmed to lumber, the wholesale distributors, as well as the retail yards. This was aided by diffused distribution made possible by the growing railroad network. Long-Bell produced lumber and fence posts; the company acquired a coal mine, (coal was distributed by lumberyards.) The company mills in Lake Charles, Longville, and Bonami, Louisiana, and Lufkin, Texas, manufactured window sashes, doors, doorframes, and veneers. In 1914, Long-Bell harvested 590 million feet of timber a year.
After 1910, Southern yellow pine began to wane. Lumber demand dropped with slowing rural settlement. Cities expanded with concrete and steel. Long-Bell sold Southern holdings and launched in the Pacific Northwest. In the 1920s, a cash flow crisis forced Long-Bell to go public. In 1956, the once-powerful Long-Bell Lumber Company merged into its rival, the International Paper Company.
Longview Washington: A Planned Town
Some corporations felt it in their best interest to found well-designed, sanitary housing to attract a high-quality, stable work force, such as the 1880s Pullman city outside Chicago and Coleraine on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Robert Long would have known of such developments. Longview, Washington was a logical extension of Long’s perpetual quest for innovation, in addition to a paternalistic concern for workers. Long had good counsel in long-time friend Jesse Clyde Nichols, the energetic Kansas City developer. The chief designer for Longview was George Kessler, prominent landscape architect who laid out Kansas City’s parks and boulevards system. The community survives, and thrives, to this day.
Horsing Around: The Longs’ Equestrian Legacy
Robert and his daughter Loula shared a passion for horses. Loula focused her attention on the stables from an early age and quickly became a skilled horsewoman. When he made his millions, Long was able to indulge his daughter’s desire. Her fascination outdistanced her father’s and became an avocation from which she never veered. Loula began her show career at Fairmount Park near Kansas City in 1896 at the age of fifteen. She won a blue ribbon in the ladies horsemanship class and was hooked. She became one of the most celebrated figures of the show ring. Her vibrant personality, exceptional horses, formal gowns and large hats made her a crowd favorite. Barnum and Bailey even asked her to go on tour with their circus show. Loula also broke gender barriers competing in competitions conventionally entered only by men. She continued competing into her 80s, and in 1967 was one of two persons inducted, for equine sports, in Madison Square Garden’s Hall of Fame.
Horses were a hobby befitting Long’s position among Gilded Age elite. The Long family often faced the Vanderbilts and DuPonts in the show ring. While visiting a king’s stable on their European tour, a guide bragged about a pair of horses recently purchased for $5,000. Loula frankly replied, “H’m, that isn’t such a high price. Daddy gave me a pair last year that cost $9,000.” By 1907, the Longs’ stables were too small. According to Loula, “… a new stable had to be built; and since we were going to have a new stable, Daddy decided that we might as well build a new house, too.” The first blueprints produced were for the carriage house and stable. The Carriage House had room for twelve carriages and living quarters for five grooms; ten box stalls; four tie stalls; tack room; trophy room; and tiled washroom. The interior was finished with hardwood, oriental rugs and fine paintings. The nearby lodge was a home for trainer Dave Smith and his family.
At London’s 1910 Olympia Show, a London newspaper stated that “Great interest is being taken in Kansas City and throughout the Missouri valley in the fortunes of Miss Long, who will exhibit her prize winning gelding, The King.” Loula and the King won first place. The next day the London Times ran the headline, “Girl From The Wild West Takes Roadster Class at Olympia.”
Robert Long was strongly influenced by the civic examples of Andrew Carnegie and fellow industrialist John D. Rockefeller. Carnegie had libraries, Rockefeller foundations. Long had Kansas City, and he dedicated time and money to its betterment. Long’s work transcended his own self-interest. Whether from “noblesse oblige,” his religious convictions or a mixture of both, he was vocal about it.
Long’s first major building project was Kansas City’s first skyscraper, the 16-story R.A. Long Building. Thereafter, much of his benevolence was directed towards the Christian Church. He gave significantly toward building Independence Boulevard Christian Church; he funded a majority of the cost of a hospital run by the denomination; he was also a strong supporter of church projects outside of Kansas City.
His most prominent project was Liberty Memorial, which is now the official United States monument to the First World War. He led an ambitious fundraising drive that collected in only ten days $50,000 more than its $2 million goal.
When the expansive and experimental Longview Farm was under construction, he established a tent village where hundreds of inner-city families enjoyed rural vacations. He also promoted the construction of “a water works system that will care for the future as well as the present.” During the same period, he agitated to make Kansas City a nationally prominent center for the arts.
President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the first federal conference on natural resource conservation in 1908. Long made it a personal and business goal to replace every tree cut by Long-Bell. Today, this is standard practice and it is easy to underplay the radical as well as controversial nature of the changes espoused by Long.