Published October 7th, 2021 at 6:00 AM7 minute read
Flood and war.
Kansas City area residents who may casually consider the Fairfax Industrial District might think of those two scourges.
They may know B-25 bombers were assembled in the district during World War II, and that high water inundated it during the 1951 Flood.
But the Kansas City, Kansas, district’s dominant narrative remains what families have found there for close to a century – work.
On Thursday employees of the more than 130 businesses today operating within the district’s boundaries are scheduled to gather at Kaw Point Park for the annual Fairfax Festival.
While ticket sales were cut off this week, area residents can still participate. The Wyandotte County Historical Museum is soliciting district photographs, artifacts and memories for an exhibit to be displayed next year, marking the area’s centennial.
Meanwhile, those in the neighborhood on Thursday can simply look skyward.
Since arriving Monday at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, one of the 6,680 B-25 bombers manufactured in the Fairfax district has been flying over Kansas City, piloted by members of the Yankee Air Museum, a Michigan nonprofit which owns and operates the aircraft.
On Thursday afternoon crew members have scheduled a festival flyover.
Meanwhile, beginning the week of Oct. 18, new district signage is scheduled to be installed, aimed at raising the area’s contemporary profile.
“I grew up in Johnson County and a lot of my friends just don’t know about the district, which is a vital economic part of our city and state,” said Melissa Clark, executive director of the Fairfax Industrial Association, the festival’s organizer.
Currently the lobby of the Wyandotte County Historical Museum includes a display of about 10 county factories or workplaces, several of them located in Fairfax.
Visitors respond to them, volunteering memories of their employment there, said Amy Loch, museum director.
“Maybe some people don’t give the district that much thought or don’t even know it exists,” Loch said.
“But people who have a personal connection to the area certainly do.”
Admirers of the district consider it the first of its kind in the country and several things had to occur for it to happen when it did, Loch said.
The Wyandotte County Board of Commissioners created the Fairfax Drainage District in 1922, after several floods between 1903 and 1915.
The following year a subsidiary of Union Pacific Railroad acquired 1,300 acres of Missouri River bottom land.
The Fairfax Bridge, which opened in 1935 over the Missouri River, opened a path to Missouri, linking Wyandotte and Platte counties.
And, by the middle 1930s, commercial flights were leaving from what by then was known as Fairfax Airport. In 1935 the U.S. Navy established a reserve air base there.
“If all that work had not been done, that area would not have been available for the B-25 plant,” said Loch.
Officials broke ground for that on March 8, 1941.
The new district signage to be installed this month will incorporate the image of the B-25 bomber.
“When you think about aviation in Kansas today, you think about Wichita,” said Dan Desko, founder of the B-25 History Project, an online archive devoted to the aircraft and its manufacture.
“But the Fairfax plant built more medium bombers than any other plant in the world.”
The term “medium bomber,” used before and during World War II, referred to aircraft designed to deliver bombs over specific distances depending upon engine power.
One reason government officials decided to build the plane in KCK was its location – deep in the country’s interior, for security reasons.
But another reason was the quality of the local labor supply.
”American-born citizens make loyal, intelligent workmen,” read a Kansas City Chamber of Commerce brochure distributed to military contractors in 1940. The region, it added, was abundant with “farm boys with their farm-machinery experience,” who, it added, “make adept mechanics.”
During the war defense jobs would draw about 40,000 workers to the Kansas City area.
In the fall of 1940 the Remington Arms Co. announced it would build what is now the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant east of Independence.
That December the U.S Army Air Corps announced that it would build the Fairfax bomber plant to be operated by North American Aviation, Inc. of California.
The facility, according to the Kansas City Times on Dec. 7, 1940, could employ “up to 12,000 workers.”
In fact, throughout its war-time operation, 59,337 workers would earn paychecks there, according to Desko, whose grandparents worked at the plant.
The Fairfax facility became the country’s biggest producer of B-25 medium bombers, and it’s hard to overstate the factory’s local economic impact, Desko said.
“If you were a family that lived in the Kansas City area during World War II, one of your relatives worked at that plant,” Desko said while visiting Wheeler Downtown Airport this week.
“It was just that simple.”
While the hourly wage in the Kansas City area averaged perhaps 50 cents in the early 1940s, Desko said, the wages at the B-25 plant often proved to be about three times that.
Employees often benefited from day care facilities or insurance plans, he added. Some roles also were filled by those with disabilities, or those with hearing or visual impairments.
“Those were people who might not have had a job at all if not for that plant,” he said.
The opportunity found at the plant by area women, meanwhile, was transformative.
By the fall of 1942 women held 27% of the plant’s jobs, according to a 2005 article by Richard Macias in “Kansas History,” the Kansas Historical Society journal. The women prepared electrical cables, installed fuel lines and assembled machine guns.
Of the 59,337 employees who worked at the plant during the course of the war, Desko said, 40% were women.
These were at least some of the “Rosies” referred to in “Rosie the Riveter,” a popular song released in 1943.
The B-25 that arrived in Kansas City this week is named “Rosie’s Reply.”
Military officials accepted delivery of the Kansas City-built aircraft on Dec. 17, 1943. The following April the plane was part of a bomb squadron flying out of Corsica, and for about a month a flight crew flew it on several missions targeting railroad bridges in Italy. The Yankee Air Museum acquired it in 1987.
“This is her first time back in Kansas City,” said Jerry Lester, a crew member.
The B-25 plant also played a role in Kansas City civil rights history.
Initially, North American Aviation officials insisted they would give only custodial jobs to Black applicants.
A rally soon organized in protest at Memorial Hall in KCK drew 3,500 area residents. This occurred in context of the “March on Washington” that A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, said he was considering organizing on July 1, 1941.
On June 25, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, prohibiting discrimination among defense workers over race, creed, color or national origin.
The same order established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to consider discrimination complaints.
While Black applicants were considered for production roles, by 1944 they constituted only 6% of North American Aviation’s Kansas division. Faced with ever-increasing manufacturing needs “the government did not enforce full compliance in all industries and geographic regions,” according to researcher Richard Macias.
Phil S. Dixon, a founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a Kansas City area historian, believes the plant has a mixed legacy.
“My mother worked at the bomber plant during World War II,” Dixon said.
But, he added, family farm land near the district was taken through eminent domain “to build new homes for the white workers coming in to work at the bomber plant.” Residential districts that stand today, he said, “once was land that belonged to African Americans.
“It’s a story no one talks about.”
The Japanese surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, ending World War II, and the government’s B-25 contract was terminated.
That November General Motors announced it had signed a five-year lease for the former bomber plant. The new assembly facility produced its first car the following summer.
Also in 1945 Transcontinental & Western Air – TWA – began negotiations to occupy a modification center in the district.
Founders of the Fairfax Industrial Association filed articles of incorporation in February, 1951.
On July 13, 1951 – a Friday – flood waters ruined much of KCK. The high water entered several districts – Armourdale, Argentine and the West Bottoms.
Officials had thought Fairfax would be safe from the flooding. But early Saturday water backed up in a sewer behind the district’s levees. The pressure displaced the top of the concrete box covering the sewer, and water rushed in.
Arguably the district’s most critical facility stood in its northwest corner – the Board of Public Utilities power and water plant.
Some 2,000 volunteers and Kansas National Guard members, having run out of sand, filled bags with dirt, helping to build a makeshift levee only a few hundred feet from the plant. The water rose to within 14 inches from the top of the 12-foot high hill, but it held.
Among the damaged factories were a fiberglass facility operated by Owens Corning, the General Motors assembly plant, a Phillips oil refinery, and the TWA overhaul facility.
Before the flood airline officials had begun looking for more space. In 1953 they unveiled plans for a new Platte County overhaul base.
Kansas City, Missouri, officials began acquiring close to 5,000 acres in Platte County for the new Kansas City International airport, which opened in 1972. Years later former Kansas City Mayor Ilus Davis described the “main impact” of the airport was how it helped save the TWA overhaul base for Kansas City, “one of the city’s major employers both then and now.”
Today approximately 10,000 employees work in the Fairfax Industrial District.
Several of the employers’ names remain familiar. Owens Corning and CertainTeed produce insulation. The General Motors Fairfax Assembly & Stamping Plant produces the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac XT4 sport utility vehicle (although production of both have been suspended due to part shortages much of this year). A Kellogg’s facility produces close to 75% of the world Cheez-It supply.
All of the jet fuel used in the Kansas City metro area, plus 95% of the area’s unleaded gasoline, is supplied by three pipeline facilities operated by Magellan, Phillips and Exxon.
Some families today need no explanation regarding the significance of Fairfax.
This week Charles Thomas came to Wheeler Downtown Airport to examine the “Rosie’s Reply” B-25.
His mother, who worked as a welder and riveter at North American Aviation, may have helped build it, he said. But that wasn’t all. For decades his father worked as a crane operator in Fairfax, as did Charles for various construction companies, performing work on the General Motors and Phillips petroleum facilities.
“Fairfax,” he said, “really was the lifeblood for our family.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.