John Wornall House Museum
Built in 1858, the John Wornall House is one of the few antebellum homes remaining in Kansas City. It was built by its namesake, John Wornall, who had it designed in the Greek Revival style. The two-story brick structure was built with thick walls and is today furnished with period furniture to represent what a prosperous, pre-Civil War household looked like. Wornall made his living as a farmer. The house stood on a 500 acre property and slaves tended to the crops and household tasks. The house is also significant for its association with the Civil War Battle of Westport, which took place in October 23, 1864 and resulted in a Union victory. The house was used by the Union and Confederates as a field hospital. Given its age and significance, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
Backstory and Context
John Bristow Wornall along with father Richard, mother Judith and his brother George Thomas came to Jackson County, MO in 1843 from Shelbyville, KY after Richard’s trading business failed. Richard and Judith purchased 500 acres from John C. McCoy, the founder of Westport. They paid $5 per acre for the land which included a small, wooden, four-square log cabin built in 1837. The original property stretched from what is modern day 59th to 67th streets, Main Street to State Line.
The Wornalls were farmers who grew corn, hay, oats, and wheat and sold horses and mules to those moving west. Records show the Wornalls made enough money in their first year to pay off the farm entirely. The Wornalls were also slave owners; four are listed in the 1860 census: two women, one man and a child. While slavery in western Missouri was very profitable this was a working farm, not on a plantation scale, and the owners would have worked alongside the slaves.
In 1845 Richard and Judith sold the farm to John and George. In 1849 George caught “gold rush fever” and set out for California. Unfortunately, he died along the way of cholera. Judith also passed away that same year and Richard returned to Kentucky. The Wornall farm became John’s sole property. John married three times. The first marriage was in 1850 to Matilda Polk from Kentucky. Matilda died childless in 1851 after one year of marriage. In 1854 John married Eliza Shalcross Johnson, daughter of the Reverend Thomas Johnson of the Shawnee Indian Mission in what is now Kansas. John and Eliza had seven children of which only two, the first child Frank and the last child Thomas survived. John and Eliza had five daughters pass away, all before the age of three. Eliza died in July of 1865 due to medical complications three weeks after giving birth to Thomas. John married for the third time in 1866. The new bride was Roma Johnson, Eliza’s cousin. John and Roma had three sons, of which only two – John Jr and Charles Hardin – survived.
Besides farming, John Wornall became involved in real estate, banking, religion, and politics. He assisted in founding Kansas City National Bank and Westport Baptist Church, was a trustee for William Jewel College, a Baptist affiliated college in Liberty, MO. And served one term as a Missouri state senator taking office in 1871. John Wornall died in 1892, Roma lived until 1933.
The Wornall House
Completed in 1858, the house is a Greek revival style that was popular in the south during this time and is approximately 3,850 square feet in size. While the exact amount is unknown, similar houses were built in Missouri at this time for around $4,500. The “H” marker on the front of the house was placed in 1923 and signifies that the house is a Kansas City historic landmark. Both the interior and exterior walls are 12” thick and are constructed from red bricks fired on the site. Mortar for the bricks was made from sand brought from the Missouri River. One wall, between the dining room and kitchen, is 24” thick and served as a fire wall.
The foundation, door and window lintels are made of limestone that was quarried on the farm. Except for the ornamental brick fireplace in the parlor, the rest of the fireplaces are also made of limestone. The ceilings in the house are 11’ high and the second story floors are original to the house and were made of white pine. The original wood framed home was located about 200 feet to the north of the new home. The barn stood at the corner of what is now 63rd and Brookside. Outside the kitchen door would have been the icehouse, smokehouse, chicken yard and a well (located in the neighbor’s back yard today). Closer to the house on the southeast side was where the horse stables were located. To the south of the house was were Eliza’s original vegetable garden was located. The location of other outbuildings and slave cabins is unknown.
In 1863, Union Colonel Doc Jennison of the Seventh Kansas Calvary used the house as his headquarters. About 200 men under his control occupied the land for eight days destroying fences, killing livestock, and destroying crops. When no evidence could be found to support rumors of John’s Southern sympathies Jennison departed, leaving $2,800 for damages done to the farm.
Though living in the house for most of the Civil War, the family would briefly leave the farm after Union General Thomas Ewing issued Order #11 in 1863. They would return to the farm in the spring of 1864.The house was used as a field hospital for both the Confederate and Union armies during the battle of Westport in October of 1864. John and Eliza left the house in 1865. The moved to Kansas City where Eliza died. John and Roma were married in the house but did not return to live at the farm full-time until 1874.
The house was sold to J. C. Nichols in 1909. Mrs. A. Ross Hill operated a day school for boys in the house for one of those years. This was the beginning of the Pembroke Country Day School. The Wornall family exercised an option to repurchase the property and brought it back into family ownership after two years. The Wornall descendants lived in the home until it was sold to the Jackson County Historical Society in 1964. The Society restored the home over an eight-year period and the John Wornall House Museum opened in 1972. Very few structural changes were made during the course of the 100 years of family residence. Some changes that occurred during the 1880s included cutting the door between the dining room and kitchen where at first it had been only a pass-through. At some point the open galleries were glassed in as sun porches and a door connecting the master bedroom with the one behind it was cut.
Other changes include reversing the gallery steps and adding the north and east porches. Hardwood floors were place over the pine and a general modernization took place. During the restoration process (1964-1972) the house was taken back to its original 1858 appearance as much as possible, allowing for necessary 20th century conventions such as bathrooms, central heating, and electricity. Great care has been taken to reproduce what the house was like during the 1850-60’s and there are a few original family pieces from this era in the house. They include a grand piano in the parlor, a trophy (shaped like a pitcher) for raising cattle that John won in the secretary of the sitting room, the wardrobe in the children’s bedroom, a daguerreotype of John and Eliza, the blue and white tea cup in the parents’ bedroom (Roma’s), the blue Lincoln rocker (John’s), the silver grooming set (Roma’s), three bibles that belonged to family members, the green velvet sofa and the ladies and gentleman’s chairs (Roma’s).
Front Hallway The front doorway with the sidelights and the overhead windows keeps the interior hall from being dark and gloomy. The slight inward sloping door and window frames are topped with a slight pediment, a type of molding known as “Greek ears." Visitors would be greeted in this front hallway. The hallway was a mediating space from which visitors would either be escorted into the formal parlor, into the sitting room or even through the opposite door. Ladies would have “at home” days when she would receive visitors. Other days she would go out to visit others.
It was the custom to visit between 3-5p.m. and appropriate to stay for 30 minutes. Since it was considered rude to be caught looking at a watch or clock, one must develop a good sense of timing. When guests arrived at the Wornall house, they would place their calling card on a tray, usually located on a hall tree or hallstand. Calling cards were used as a means of identification as well as a way of leaving a message without a face to face visit. For example: if the visitor folded down the top right corner of his card, he indicated that he came in person. A fold in the top left corner said congratulations, bottom right said goodbye and the bottom left meant condolences. A card folded in half would mean that they had stopped by, but could not stay. A servant would take the tray into Mrs. Wornall to decide if she wanted to accept the visit. Often the cards of prominent visitors would be displayed on the front table.
In the 19th century having a parlor was considered controversial. Opponents criticized the room as useless while others considered it a “pardonable luxury.” Considered a demonstration of wealth and refinement as shown through the painted walls, furnishings, piano and portraits, the parlor was reserved for adults and special events. Used for Christmas celebrations, weddings, or funerals, the parlor could also be used by the farmer for meetings, for the wife to meet with her sewing society, a place where a daughter could hold hands with her beau and where sons could meet with a reading society.
The pale grey walls and acanthus borders are strictly formal and classical. The fact that the walls are painted and not wallpapered shows that the Wornall’s were wealthy. Wallpaper hides cracks and imperfections and by painting only certain rooms you could show that you were wealthy enough to afford a home of solid construction. The gold draperies set within the framework of the windows are ornamented with tassels on a long hanging cord called a “Cornish” and would be similar to those advertised in the Westport Border Star.
The portrait above the fireplace is Christina Polk McCoy. She is the mother of John Calvin McCoy, founder of Westport, whom the Wornall’s purchase their land. As far as can be found, she is not related to John’s first wife Matilda Polk. Her portrait is on permanent loan from the Jackson County Historical Society. The portraits on the side table of John, Eliza and Roma were originally painted by George Caleb Bingham. The portraits of John and Eliza are still in the family, but Roma’s portrait is at the Nelson-Atkins in the Bingham collection. Bingham charged $100-$150 each for the portraits. The framed copy of the receipt from Bingham to Wornall shows a cost of $100.
The green chairs and sofa were owned by Roma Wornall sometime after the Civil War. The chair without arms is sometimes referred to as a lady’s chair. A popular myth states that the reason for the chair to be armless was due to the wide hoop skirts that women wore during this time period. In fact, armchairs were an indication of status and were often reserved for the head of the household or other important guests. The piano is a “square or boxed” Grand Steinway piano from 1867 (patent 1859). It is an original family piece. It is unique not only in design (sometimes called a coffin piano because of its shape) but the fact that is an octave short of a full 88 keys and there is a mechanism under it that allows it to play the keys and sound like a harp. It has been fully restored. The collection of Charles Dickins novels in the secretary is reflective of books popular during that time period. Other treasured items would be displayed here to give an air of culture.
Sitting Room The sitting room was the center of family life, similar to most living rooms today. It has a more relaxed, warmer atmosphere than the parlor and would be where the family spent the majority of their time, gathering in the evenings after the work day was done. Children would work on their lessons, mothers would sew or read from women’s magazines like Godey’s and fathers would write letters, work on farm records or perhaps read to the family from the Bible or from popular authors such as Dickens. The furnishings in this room are heavier and more durable than in the parlor. The Brick red color is cheerful and easier to care for. The large limestone block fireplace and wood box indicates that this was the major source of heat.
Although candles were still the main source of light, the families best lamp would be in this room so everyone could see. The astral lamp on the table was generally fueled by whale oil or kerosene. Astral lamps were popular as they elevated the flames and eliminated shadows. The long Empire sofa and other pieces are upholstered in horsehair cloth. The material was woven using horse hair and cotton and would have been cheaper and more readily available than pieces covered with different types of cloth which would have had to be brought in from other areas. Horsehair had the advantage of looking expensive while being very durable. The engraving above the sofa is after Bingham’s painting of “The Jolly Flatboatment."
The map on the wall is a map of the United States in 1844, the year the Wornall family came to Westport. Notice how much of the United States was still unsettled. The Wornall’s original land stretched to State Line and since Kansas did not become a state until January of 1861, the Wornall’s literally moved to the edge of the United States. Also, note that in the pre-Civil War map, there is only one Virginia, Florida was still a territory and Texas was its own country (joined the U. S. as a state in 1845). On the center table is one of the family bibles that includes records of births and deaths in the family. Pictures of John, Eliza and Roma (from the 1920’s) are contained in the bible.
On the side table are two board games from the Civil War era. The Game of Life was one of the first board games produced by The Milton Bradley Company which was founded in Massachusetts in 1860. The red and black checkered board game is one of the earliest copies. The Mansion or Happiness was produced about the same time by a rival company. Both games would have been played with spinners instead of dice. Gambling was done with dice and parents did not want to teach children how to gamble. On the wall is an 1861 U. S. Springfield rifle, a gun commonly issued to Union soldiers during the Civil War. It is said that a good soldier could load and fire the riffle four times in one minute. Donated to the house by a Civil War re-enactor. On the secretary desk is a bound copy of Harper’s weekly. This magazine was published weekly in New York City and distributed throughout the nation. It was an important source of news and social issues which included artists’ illustrations of events and political cartoons. Since mailing throughout the United States was not always reliable, Harper’s weekly for that year would be bound into a book and sold so that people would just have to purchase the magazine once.
The Dining Room
The furniture in this room is made of mahogany and of Empire design. John Wornall would have sat in the chair in front of the stove rather than at the head of the table. From this seat, he could see out the sitting room window and the dining room windows so that if danger approached during this tumultuous time, he could react and get his family to safety.
The coal burning stove is of the time period but is not original to the house. We know from a receipt that John purchase one just like it for $9. This stove is also an indicator of the Wornall’s wealth as coal was extremely expensive during this time period and only the wealthy would have this in addition to or instead of a wood burning stove. The sugar chest is made of cherry wood. Sugar was expensive – about $.04 a pound in 1861 – so the mistress of the house kept the sugar locked up and measured it out carefully. Most meals would have been sweetened with honey or molasses and white sugar would have been used for special occasions or holidays.
Note the pass through in the china cabinet. Southern architecture usually provided for a separate building for the kitchen so that the heat and odors were away from the rest of the house, but the colder climate in Missouri dictated an adjoining kitchen. For added fire protection, the wall that separates the kitchen from the dining room is 24” thick whereas the rest of the walls in the home are 12.” The slaves would cook the food and pass it through the window to be served to the family.
During the Battle of Westport, the family home was commandeered as a field hospital by both the Confederacy and the Union. The Confederates used the home first, then as the battle progressed they were driven from the house and the Union took over and continued the use of the home as a hospital. The doctors used the Dining room mostly to perform amputations. The Wornall family dining table served as the operating table for the surgeons. Visitors often note the cannon balls and the ball and chain on the floor. It is not known if the ball and chain was for prisoners of war or for slaves, or who owned it. They were found in the area on what would have been Wornall property during the time of the battle.
Both prints on the wall were done by George Caleb Bingham. The print on the left is entitled “Order Number 11”. General order number 11 was issued by General Thomas Ewing, commander of the Union forces in Kansas City. Tired of sympathetic Missouri farmers providing aid to the Bushwhacker’s and partially in response to Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, order number 11 required residents in the four counties along the border to evacuate the city. Once they left, Union troops usually burned the crops, sold the livestock and many times burned the homes. Over 11,000 people were displaced. Bingham painted “General Order Number 11” to show the suffering that was being endured. The print on the right is called “Election Day”. The scene depicted is quite chaotic, with much drinking taking place. Notice the absence of women or of men of color.
The kitchen was the center of activity for the household. The Wornall’s originally practiced open hearth cooking. Most of the cooking was done on the brick hearth using a variety of cast iron pots. Initially a large fire would be built, then the coals would be raked out on to the hearthstone for cooking. The crane, crane sockets, trammel for adjusting the height of pots and most of the utensils were made of iron. The crane swivels above the fire so that one could hang your pot over it to boil a stew, soup or even heat water. The Dutch oven has three short legs on the bottom and a lid with a lip around it so that coals could be placed below and on top for even heating all around. It could be used for several things, most of the baking would be done in this past.
Children did not typically spend much time relaxing in their bedroom. Since there is no fireplace it would have been cold in the winter and there were chores to be done in the warm months. The main bed in the children’s bedroom is from about 1835 and is a rope bed. Notice that there are rope supports for the mattress which made the bed more comfortable than slats. The T-shaped item hanging on the bedpost is called a bed key or bed winder. It is used to tighten the sagging ropes when necessary. This brings to mind the old expression “Sleep Tight”, which some say comes from the need to pull the ropes tightly in order for them not to sag. The term is also thought to refer to the older Oxford English meaning of tight which means soundly, so by wishing someone to sleep tight you were telling them to sleep soundly.
This mattress is a feather tick, which was highly prized. Mattresses from this time period were often stuffed with straw, corn husks and cotton. If the family was well to do they would have goose down mattresses. Since multiple children would often share a bedroom, the trundle bed could sleep perhaps two or three small children and would easily slide underneath the main bed when space was needed. The family papers contain a receipt for such a bed – cost was $8.00.
The smallest bed is for dolls and was possibly a furniture makers sample from the mid-1800s. In the era before photography, samples would be created so that the makers could display their talent. Notice the doll sized quilt on the bed. Young girls would often learn to sew by making their doll’s clothing and bedding. Children would more than likely own only a few if any toys. In this room, you can see toys that children still play with today such as the tea set and the dolls. Notice the Frozen Charlotte doll on the dresser. The dolls were made popular with the mid-1800’s ballad “Fair Charlotte”. According to the ballad, Charlotte refused to listen to her mother’s request to wrap up warmly to go on a sleigh ride and froze to death during the journey.
This room was restored and furnished as a gift from the Kansas City chapter of the Colonial Dames of America. The decorations represent what new things John and Eliza may have purchased for their new home. The master bedroom furniture set was made in 1859 and would be typical of what the Wornall’s would have had in their bedroom. The baby cradle would be placed near, but not too close to the fireplace. Children often slept in their parent’s bedroom until they were 3 or so. Screens for windows were not yet invented but opening windows on a summer’s night was a must. Until children were old enough to learn to be cautious, they would sleep near their parents. The bed warmer would have been used on chilly nights. Coals were taken from the fireplace and placed inside this brass pan to warm the sheets before going to bed at night.
The small sewing table displays a sewing box that could house thread as well as a pin cushion. The clamp on the end is called a “sewing bird” and its purpose was to hold a hem straight as you were sewing. While ours is plain, man sewing birds were intricately designed and shaped like swans, butterflies, and dogs. Per the Monmouth Museum in New Jersey, sewing birds were often given as betrothal gifts from a groom to his future bride so she could work with it as she was creating her trousseau. The rocking chair was originally John Wornall’s rocker. The style is referred to as a Lincoln Rocker due to the fact that President Lincoln was sitting in a rocker similar to this when he was shot in Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln was said to have favored this design because it provides excellent lumbar support and he suffered from back problems.
Roma’s dresser set was donated to the museum by her great granddaughter. Notice the pieces are monogrammed with her initials: RJW. The pieces include a hair oil jar, a jar for face powder, a brush, mirror, coast brush, shoe horn, various files, and a button hook. Remember that there were no zippers or Velcro during this time period Also on the dresser are two items made with human hair. The first is a memory locket. Similar to the hair wreath, these were often made from a lock of hair of the recently departed do that the living could remember them. There is also a pocket watch chain that is also made out of human hair. In 1858 the wall behind the bed was solid. Sometime during the 100 years that the Wornall lived in the home the door was cut into the wall to access the back bedrooms, which were commonly known as “Stranger Rooms”.
Originally the two rooms behind the master bedroom were only accessible by the staircase on the back porch. Called “Stranger rooms” the purpose of these rooms was to allow visitors to have a warm, dry place to sleep that was in a place that was in accessible to the main house and family. It is possible that a lawyer who boarded with the Wornall’s for a time or any hired hands may have used these rooms. The rooms could have served a variety of purposes for the family including serving as bedrooms for the older boys or for quarantining sick children. These rooms now serve as administrative offices/gift shop.