February 19, 2015

The Vaile Mansion ~ Part One

By Kent Burgess
Photo by Joe Calton
   Vaile Mansion, completed in 1881, was built for frontier tycoon Col. Harvey Merrick Vaile, and his wife, Sophia. The Vaile's were inspired by a mansion they saw while in the Normandy region of France during a vacation in the early 1870s.  It is a Second Empire Victorian-style mansion, with thirty-five rooms, set within the various four stories of the mansion.

   Harvey, who was a self-made man, was extremely intelligent. Born in 1831 in Vermont, his father, who was a farmer, moved to upstate New York in the 1840's. Here, he would meet his future wife, Sophia. He taught school in order to save up enough money to go to the University of Louisville, where he earned a degree in law.

    Upon graduation, and right before the Civil War, he practiced in Indianapolis, before moving to Kansas City in 1859, and was a strong supporter of the abolitionism movement.  He had a passion for education and abolitionism was also one of many passions. He desired to be in politics, and was a founding member of the newly formed Republican Party in Jackson County.

   His vast fortune was based off his involvement in the Star Route Mail system. Star Mail routes were the mode of transportation of mail through the territories that the Federal Postal service would not deliver mail through. This area was quite vast, and dangerous. He had the rights from 1863 until the early 1880's for the route to Sante Fe, NM, but in those days, it was Sante Fe, Mexico. The trade was international, which made the traffic heavy. It was more like UPS and Fed Ex as far as what parcels went back and forth. The trade likely involved American goods, usually fine crafted woodwork, or woven goods like exquisite dresses, for finely crafted gem works. Stage coaches and wagons were the primary forms of transportation utilized.

   Shortly after moving into his new mansion, misfortune visited them. 
   In 1882, Col. Vaile and everyone involved in the Star Routes, were summoned to court in Washington D.C. Harvey and all involved parties had been charged with defrauding the government. The subsequent trial ended in a not guilty verdict. This trial was front page news throughout the country in major papers up and down the coast. A year later, charges were brought up again. Once again, the Col. was found not guilty, but during the second trial, his wife, Sophia, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, passed away, creating a suspension of the trial so Harvey could return home to bury his wife. The date was Feb. 15th 1883, at 6 AM. Sophia only enjoyed the luxuries of Vaile Mansion for 18 months.

After the second trial, Col. Vaile divested himself of his lucrative operation and became involved in cattle breeding. He'd obtained vast swathes of land, not only locally, but throughout the territories when they became available. But his cattle’s’ breeding was cross-breeding of Herefords with Longhorn cattle and continued to add to his vast fortunes. It was viewed as a major success.

   His time in Washington D.C. had earned him many acquaintances in high places, and he was a lobbyist, when needed.

   Col. Vaile never remarried, nor did he have  any children.

   The area between Vaile Mansion, and Jones Rd., to US 24 Highway  and roughly to the border where the Truman Library was Harvey's original land tract for the Vaile Mansion. This was one of roughly 8 plots he owned in Jackson County, most of which reside within Independence borders today. But the plot where his house resided was surrounded by a huge grape vineyard with multiple apple trees for hard cider, because one of Harvey's other passions/distinctions was he was a connoisseur. He had a wine processing plant on his property, and a wine cellar with a capacity for 48,000 gallons of wine.

   The house was a 'house of the future' for it's time. It had access to natural gas, and had 'gasoliers'(chandeliers which used natural gas), and he accessed a natural spring within 100 feet of his house to fill-up 6000 gallon water tanks he'd built into his house, to become the first person in Jackson County to have indoor plumbing. The house contains 9 Carrara marble fireplaces, all engraved. Other interesting features include frescoes painted on many of the ceilings, ala Michelangelo. 

The house was Col. Vaile's rewards for such endeavors, and an o mage to his and Sophia's love of Victorian art. The house had a steep price of $150,000 in the 1880's to build, with $50,000 towards the brick work alone. Conversion rates would make that a $3-4 million dollar mansion in today's dollars.

Other interesting original items, which have all been restored to original condition, include the faux pas wood stain work. Most of the interior wood is pine, but Harvey wanted this house to exceed any other mansion, and had the pine stained to give the appearance of exotic woods such as mahogany, walnut, and birch. Another interesting fact is the colors on the walls match the original paint's colors. To see Victorian interiors is a whole other subject. Also, three chandeliers/gasoliers are original to the mansion. The craftsmanship is unprecedented for true masterly work that still exists from our predecessors.

Another interesting thing is, that besides having access to natural gas, when this mansion was built, it sat next to one of the cities many natural springs. In 1879, this plot of land was not within city limits. Col. Vaile was acquainted with the latest modern luxuries, which included a new concept called indoor pluming. With the access to the natural spring, he created an internal water system, including an 8000 gallon tank built into his house, to accommodate this luxury, giving him the distinction of being the first person in Jackson County to have indoor plumbing. 

   The house is essentially a museum, filled with Victorian-style furniture. It's a unique place to not only learn about the mansion, but to learn more about the Vaile's, and the times in which they lived. It will reopen on April 1st. There are many interesting events held on the property; strawberry Festival is by far the largest event of the year.

   Next issue I will discuss the second half of it's life.

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