Pioneer orchardist, preacher left behind tales of his work
Charles Kuhns posted this photo of his great-grandfather, the Rev. G.A. McKee, on Facebook a few years ago. Rev. McKee, a Methodist minister, was an expert when it came to growing fruit. Rev. McKee started his preaching career in Kinderhook, Ill., and after living in five or six different states, retired to Hannibal, Mo., where he died in 1923.
This portrait of Rev. and Mrs. G.A. McKee was found in the Portal to Texas History A History of Lipscomb County, Submitted by Clara McKee.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
In February 1906, The Rev. George A. McKee of Arlington, Kansas, visited Hannibal, Mo., climbing up to Lovers Leap in order to view the vast Illinois hills to the east of the Mississippi River.
Forty years prior, the now-aging Methodist minister had lived at Kinderhook, Pike County, Ill., and served his first congregation there. On this visit to the river valley, his curiosity called upon him to venture across the mile-wide Mississippi River from Hannibal to see for himself the town where his ministry began.
Among the things he noted from this visit was that few orchards were maintained in the fertile Illinois bottomland.
As a young preacher, McKee had been so taken with the fruit-growing lessons learned in Pike County, Ill., that he transplanted those growing techniques into Kansas soil, first at Hutchinson, Kansas, and later at Arlington, Kansas. At the turn of the century, the enterprising preacher was winning awards for his fruit at fairs in Kansas by growing clear-skinned Early Ohio potatoes, winesap, Missouri pippin and Ben Davis apples; sweet potatoes that compared to squash in size; Concord grapes; and peaches. His secret was irrigation.
“The old orchards are all gone and very few new ones are planted” in the Mississippi river valley, he wrote in a letter to the Arlington (Kansas) Enterprise upon his return home. “People said it was too much trouble to raise an orchard, would rather raise grain or stock and buy their fruit.”
Another observation related to the condition of the roads in the Illinois bottomlands.
“In all that country there seems to be two roads, one for dry weather which is all right, but the other consists of top, and somewhere down below is the bottom, except in some places. Now between the top and where the bottom should be there is a soft mixture they call mud, which is one of the most serious draw backs to all that country. I was right glad to get back to Kansas so could go on the top road.”
He also noted the prosperity of the Illinois acreage. “Land is worth one hundred dollars or more per acre and every available acre is cultivated.”
Rev. George A. McKee was one of nine children born to Robinson Joseph and Maria Somerville McKee, and he was married to Henrietta M. Sprague in 1868 at Washington, Ohio. The extended family moved west from Virginia, settling in Lathrop, Clinton County, Mo., near Kansas City. Rev. McKee received his Methodist Episcopal license to preach in 1875 at nearby Aullville, Mo.
His ministry would lead him to congregations in five states, including Lipscomb, Texas, in 1909, where he established a church, organized several Sunday schools and preached as often as three times a day. He purchased a 320-acre farm south of Lipscomb, which his son, and established a newspaper, the Lipscomb Herald.*
Rev. McKee’s 1906 visit to Hannibal followed the passing of both of his parents – within days of each other in Lathrop, Mo. – the previous January. Once in Hannibal, he visited his daughter, Augusta (Mrs. Walter) Griffen who had moved from Hutchinson, Kansas, to Hannibal with her husband and children circa 1901.
George and Henrietta McKee moved to Hannibal circa 1915, but continued to make regular cross-country trips back to Kansas and Texas during the next few years for extended visits with family and friends.
On March 12, 1920, the Plattsburg, Mo., Leader reported that Mr. and Mrs. McKee were visiting in town with his brother, W.S. McKee. Mr. McKee “is now in the lecture field with subjects as ‘The Passing of the Pioneer,’ ‘The Passing of the Indian and the Buffalo,’ ‘On the old Plantation’ and ‘Horse Sense in Humanity.’”
George A. McKee died March 5, 1923, at Hannibal. Henrietta McKee died Nov. 2, 1926. They are buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hannibal.
* At Hannibal circa 1901, Walter and Augusta McKee Griffen operated a business they named Yankee Produce Co. In 1915, they established Griffen’s Flowers, which remains in business today. The business patriarch, Dan Griffen, is the grandson of Walter and Augusta McKee Griffen. Augusta died in 1958.
* At the beginning of 1906, the McKees’ youngest daughter, Faye, married Jefferson B. Kuhns at the elder McKee’s farm home at Arlington, Kansas. Mr. Kuhns was from Pretty Prairie, Kansas.
Mr. and Mrs. Kuhns eventually moved to Hannibal with their two children, and in 1930 Jefferson Kuhns operated a radio repair shop. Jeffersons’ son, Cy, was a long-time watch repairman for Crescent Jewelry in Hannibal. Faye died in 1971. Chuck Kuhns of Springfield, Ill., contributor of the photo of G.A. McKee, is George A. McKee’s great-grandson.
* Amy McKee married Fred H. McCue. Fred went to Texas with the McKees, and he and his brother-in-law, Morris, prepared the ground south Lipsomb for farming. The family eventually made its way back to Missouri, where Fred was a foreman for a railroad round house at Brookfield, Mo. He died at Brookfield in 1954. Amy Henrietta McKee McCue died in 1967, and they are both buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Brookfield.
* Morris McKee, the only son of Mr. and Mrs. McKee, moved to Lipsomb, Texas with his parents, marrying Lillie Shahan on June 9, 1912. He continued the operation of the half section of ranchland until his death in 1958. He was survived by his wife and six children.
The Arlington, Kansas, Enterprise (newspapers.com) reported on Jan. 1, 1909, that G.A. McKee had recently started the Lipscomb Herald. McKee recruited Clive Starkey, who learned the printers’ trade in Arlington, to accompany him to Texas.
Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com