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John F. Richards, born October 23, 1834, in Bath County, Virginia, the founder of the wholesale hardware house Richards & Conover Hardware Company of Kansas City, Missouri, and now residing at 200 Forty-fourth Street in that city, is not only one of the merchants who have risen to prominence in this section of the Middle West, but had a career connected by many experiences and activities with the Territory and State of Kansas.
His parents were Walter and Nancy (Mayse) Richards, both natives of Virginia. Their old farm, Cloverdale, was situated on one of the stage lines which then crossed and recrossed the country before the railroad era, and this farm was also near a stage station where horses were changed. Mr. Richards’ maternal grandfather, Joseph Mayse, was a soldier in both the Revolutionary and Indian wars, and at one time was wounded in a battle with the Indians. Twenty years later his leg was amputated. The daughters of Walter and Nancy Richards were: Elizabeth Ann, who married William Saunders, at New Franklin, Missouri; Louisa, who became Mrs. Henry C. Miller of Arrow Rock, Missouri; Maria, who married Wesley Wickersham, who served in Colonel Hardin’s Illinois Regiment in the Mexican war; Mary Matilda, Mrs. Dr. A. F. Barnes of St. Louis, Missouri; the sons were William C., George Blackwell Shelton; Thomas and John Francisco Richards.
In 1836 Walter Richards started with his family from Virginia for Missouri, proceeding to Guyandotte, a small town on the Ohio River. The parents and the younger children there embarked on a steamboat for Cairo, Illinois, and thence proceeded by boat to St. Louis. The older boys took teams and servants overland from Guyandotte and met the family at St. Louis. On leaving St. Louis they went to St. Charles, Missouri, and while there Walter Richards was taken ill and died and was buried in that historic old community of Missouri. Soon afterwards the family removed to New Franklin, opposite Boonville, Missouri, and Mr. John F. Richards had his first conscious recollections of life in that town. Later the family went to Rocheport on the Missouri River, thence to Boonville in 1842. The older sons engaged in business, and for several years the family lived at Boonville, John F. Richards recalling the great flood of the year 1844. He was then ten years of age. In 1846 his mother moved to St. Louis and lived there until her death in September, 1848.
John F. Richards attended school at St. Louis during 1846-47-48, and after his mother’s death lived at Arrow Rock, Missouri, during the winter of 1848-49. There he attended school, making his home with his sister, Mrs. Miller, who died of cholera during 1849.
In September, 1849, when fifteen years of age, Mr. Richards went to Jackson County, Missouri, finding employment in a country store. He gained business experience there during the years 1849-50-51-52 and the spring of 1853. The village where the store was located was Sibley, at a point where the Santa Fe bridge now crosses the Missouri River. It was an old outfitting station and in early days was the site of Fort Osage, the military garrison subsequently being removed to Fort Leavenworth.
The winter of 1852-53 was spent as a student in an academy at Pleasant Hill, Missouri. In the spring of 1853 Mr. Richards entered the service, as clerk, of an old Indian trader, Capt. John S. Shaw, formerly of St. Charles, Missouri. Captain Shaw had a Government license as a trader with the Sioux and Cheyenne and other tribes. His ox teams were made up at Westport, Missouri, thence proceeding to Fort Leavenworth, where they were loaded for the Indian country. The so called Indian country at that time comprised what are now the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. Most of his trading was done along the North Platte River from Scott’s Bluff to Green River on the Salt Lake Trail. A trading trip with a large train covered a period of about fifteen months. In 1854 Mr. Richards returned to St. Louis, and was a clerk on a Missouri River steamboat until September, when, through the influence of Captain Shaw, he was given a position with Child, Pratt & Company, hardware merchants of St. Louis. He started in at wages of $25 a month, and was accorded increasing responsibilities with that firm during the next four years.
In 1857 Mr. Richards determined to go into business for himself. Recognizing the opportunities of Leavenworth, which was then one of the important cities along the Missouri River, he invested his modest capital and with credit given him by the hardware firm where he had been employed he loaded a stock of hardware on a steamboat and landed at Leavenworth March 4, 1857. The stock of hardware was shipped on the steamboat Emigrant. It was valued at about $1,700, which did not represent its worth as hardware was expensive in those days. The Emigrant was heavily loaded and was perhaps a week or ten days making the trip up the Missouri River. Mr. Richards took passage on the passenger boat the New Lucy, and made the trip in three days, arriving several days before the Emigrant. The New Lucy left St. Louis at 1 A. M. on the first of March and landed at Leavenworth March 4th. For his load of goods on the Emigrant he paid freight rates of from 30 to 35 cents a hundred without classification.
The stock of hardware was first put into one-half of a 24-foot frame building, making a store room 12 feet front and 40 feet in depth at the southwest corner of Second and Cherokee streets, with a small counter running along one side under which the owner slept at night. Leavenworth in those days was quite an outfitting place for points west, especially frontier military posts. Emigration into Kansas increased rapidly so that the demand for all kinds of merchandise was heavy and the increase in the Richards business soon compelled him to move to a larger building. This building now stands on the southwest corner of Third and Delaware streets, and being three stories and basement was considered quite a structure for those days.
Mr. Richards exhibited considerable enterprise as a merchant, and even at that time realized the value of pictorial advertising. He had a large poster 2½x3 feet printed at St. Louis as an announcement of his store at Leavenworth and that poster is one of the interesting documents in the pioneer mercantile history of the Missouri River Valley. Above a pictorial announcement of various wares, including plows, horse power mills, and one of the old fashioned combined mower and reapers, one of the very first of its type, the general announcement read as follows in large type: “Hardware for Emigrants, Farmers, Miners and the whole People of Kansas and Missouri, at the new three story brick building corner of Delaware and Third streets. Call at J. F. Richards’ pioneer hardware store and agricultural warehouse, Leavenworth City, K. T.” The last letters of course signified Kansas Territory, and Kansas was a territory for several years after this advertisement was printed.
In 1862 W. E. Chamberlain moved his stock of hardware from Kansas City to Leavenworth, and the two businesses were consolidated under the name Richards & Chamberlain. Mr. Richards bought out his partner in 1866 and in the same year John Conover became identified with the house and became the pioneer hardware traveling salesman in Kansas. In 1870 John Conover became a partner and the firm of J. F. Richards & Company was established. This firm did an active and prosperous business at Leavenworth until 1884, in which year the business in that city was sold to Park-Crancer & Company.
In 1875 the partners established a Kansas City house at Fifth and Delaware streets and in 1881 put up a building on the southeast corner of Fifth and Wyandotte streets and incorporated in 1882 under the name of The Richards & Conover Hardware Company. Of the great expansion that had marked the business of The Richards & Conover Hardware Company in Kansas City little need may be said. It is one of the large mercantile houses of the Missouri Valley and in 1902 its building was erected at the northwest corner of Fifth and Wyandotte streets, giving the house a floor space of seven acres. In 1906 the company established a branch house at Oklahoma City. Mr. Richards when thirty years of age was elected vice president of the First National Bank of Leavenworth. Incidentally it should be mentioned that this was the first national bank established in the State of Kansas. It was started in 1864, only a few months after the National Bank Act was passed by Congress. The First National is still in existence. Mr. Richards is also a director of the Leavenworth National Bank and was one of its organizers. In matters of politics he had been identified with the democratic party. He served on the school board and was president of it in Leavenworth and was also a member of the city council there. Throughout his residence in that city he took a keen interest in local affairs and allied himself with every movement for the benefit of the community.
On June 16, 1857, at Sibley, Missouri, soon after he had embarked in business for himself, Mr. Richards married Martha Ann Harrelson. Their happy union was terminated with the death of Mrs. Richards at Leavenworth on February 14, 1874. Seven children were born to them, two of whom died in infancy, while a daughter, Martha Belle, died at the age of ten years. May R., the oldest of the four still living, is the widow of the late John G. Waples of Fort Worth, Texas. Walter B. Richards and George B. Richards, both fill positions of vice presidents with the Richards & Conover Hardware Company. Helen is the wife of Dr. J. E. Logan of Kansas City, Missouri.
On December 1, 1877, Mr. Richards married Lucia M. Durfee, widow of E. H. Durfee of Leavenworth. There were no children of this union and Mrs. Richards died December 19, 1906. She was a member of the Baptist Church. Mr. Richards is a Mason and had filled the various chairs in the Knights Templar Commandery. Though not affiliated with any church he had given liberally to the various denominations.
Few men now living have a recollection that extends as far back and affords a more intimate view of conditions in the Missouri Valley while Kansas was in its formative condition. At the time of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence in 1863, he and others mounted horses and, heavily armed, proceeded to Lawrence, arriving the night after the raid. They found corpses on the street and houses still burning. They assisted in burying the dead, in extinguishing fires, and for two days rendered all the assistance they could to the stricken town. During the war Mr. Richards was a member of the Nineteenth Kansas State Militia under Colonel Hogan and under Capt. J. L. McDowell. Captain McDowell at that time was mayor of Leavenworth. This company was ordered to Shawnee, Kansas, on the border, remained in camp there about a week, was then ordered to Missouri, passing through Westport and on to Independence, and while along the Little Blue east of Independence the company met the advance guard of Price’s army. Mr. Richards served in the battle of Westport, which battle was the turning point, as the southern troops retreated south after this. During this campaign Mr. Richards was detailed to guide the men carrying dispatches from General Pleasanton at Independence to General Curtis at Kansas City on October 23, 1864. During this invasion he was in active service for twenty-one days.
As a business man of Kansas City, Missouri, he was one of the organizers in 1886 of the First National Bank of Kansas City, Missouri, is the oldest officer of that institution in point of continuous service, and is now chairman of its board of directors. By appointment from Mayor Reed he served from 1900 to 1904 as a member of the Park Board, and while he was on the board the present park and driveway system of Kansas City, Missouri, was planned. In 1903 Mr. Richards was president of the Commercial Club, and in that capacity he took the leading part in rendering assistance to the people stricken by the great flood and also took effective measures for the reconstruction of the city after that disaster. Mr. Richards is a member of the Blue Hills and Country Club and the Kansas City Club.