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William Rockhill Nelson

Kansas City Missouri Its History and Its People 1800-1908

by Carrie Westlake Whitney, vol. III, The S. J. Clarke Publishing CO., 1908

William Nelson

William Rockhill Nelson, founder, owner and editor of The Kansas City Star, was born March 7, 1841, at Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father, Isaac DeGroff Nelson, a native of New York, removed to Indiana in 1837 and held various positions of public trust in that state. He died in 1891. The maternal grandfather of W. R. Nelson was William Rockhill, a native of Indiana and was closely associated with its development in pioneer times. He carried on farming on a very extensive scale and was the first agriculturist in America to plant a thousand acres of corn. A man of prominence and influence, he was one of the first representatives of congress from the Hoosier state.

William R. Nelson, grandson and namesake of the pioneer, was educated at Notre Dame University and afterward took up the study of law. He was admitted to the bar but never practiced his profession, his energies impelling him toward ventures in other directions. Soon after the Civil war he engaged in cotton planting in Georgia, an enterprise which failed because of the sudden and unforeseen fall in the market price of the product. Then he became interested in the Nicholson pavement patents and introduced that pavement into many cities. For a time, he was a contracting bridge builder. Incidentally, politics engaged his attention, though he was never a candidate for office. His participation in polities, though not in itself important, was destined to color his whole future career. Born a democrat. Mr. Nelson’s natural affiliation, when he entered polities, was with that party. This caused him to become active in the Tilden campaign of 1876, when he was Mr. Tilden’s personal representative in Indiana. When Tilden failed of the presidency, Mr. Nelson felt that he was entitled to renomination in 1880 and when the democratic party named Hancock instead, Nelson became an independent, a position which he has maintained consistently every since and which has had an important part in directing the conduct of his newspaper.

For a year or two before coming to Kansas City, Mr. Nelson had an interest in and was manager of the Fort Wayne Sentinel, and thus he discovered his permanent life work. He decided to enter a field of larger possibilities than Fort Wayne seemed likely to offer and selected Kansas City, than a raw but vigorous town of perhaps fifty thousand inhabitants. With his Fort Wayne partner, Samuel E. Morss, he sold the Sentinel and the two proceeded to Kansas City, where, on September 18, 1880, they issued the first copy of The Kansas City Star, a small four page daily newspaper. Within a few months Mr. Morss’s health failed, compelling his retirement from the work. Since then Mr. Nelson has been sole owner and editor of The Star.

The progress of the paper was steady and its owner never hesitated to apply its revenues to improvements and innovations. The Star is now issued in evening, morning and Sunday editions—the morning edition being sub-titled The Times for convenience—and the subscription price for the whole week’s issues, thirteen separate papers, is the same as it was for the original four page paper, ten cents a week. There is also a weekly edition, which was the first weekly periodical to be sold for twenty-five cents a year.

Mr. Nelson’s extraordinary energy and practical foresight have been a great influence in the development of Kansas City. In The Star he inaugurated and vigorously prosecuted the long fight for parks and boulevards which resulted in the present system of beautiful highways and pleasure grounds which is the city’s proudest and worthiest boast in the way of civic achievement. In 1898 he founded the Western Gallery of art with a collection of valuable paintings to which he has added each year. He promoted the building of the first public baths in the city. Good architecture, efficient municipal service, public hygiene,—everything that promises material, moral, social and aesthetic advancement for the community he has consistently and ardently labored for.

In 1881 Mr. Nelson married Miss Ida Houston, daughter of Robert Houston. They have one daughter. The Nelson home is at Oak Hall, in Kansas City, a spacious house standing in ample parklike grounds. He has a summer home at Magnolia, Massachusetts.

In recent years Mr. Nelson has traveled much, in America and abroad. His alert mind is keenly interested in all phases of human activity. Yachting and motoring are his preferred diversions but, for the most part, his pleasure lies in the attention he gives to problems of city development and beautification and to the active, tireless personal direction of his newspaper.