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Remembering The Willows: KC’s Adoption Hub of the Nation Kansas City is famous for barbecue, jazz and fountains. Few realize it was once where you went to adopt children.

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Above image credit: Twenty-three people who were born at The Willows Maternity Sanitarium home for unwed mothers attended a recent ceremony to dedicate a historic marker at the site. (Diana Reese | Flatland)
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6 minute read

The Willows Maternity Sanitarium at 2929 Main St. was just a short taxi ride up the hill from Union Station, where trains from all over the country brought women in various stages of pregnancy – and aspiring parents who wanted to adopt babies. 

From 1905 to 1969, an estimated 30,000 children were born to women at The Willows. That was nearly a third of the 100,000 babies adopted out of Kansas City during the first part of the 20th century. 

Kansas City’s central location and easy access to rail travel, along with Missouri’s simplified adoption laws favoring secrecy, combined to create the country’s adoption hub.  

More than a dozen homes for unwed mothers flourished through the years, homes like the Fairmount and St. Anthony’s, said KelLee Parr of Manhattan, Kansas, author of “My Little Valentine,” “Mansion on a Hill” and “More Voices of The Willows.” 

“Not every maternity home was the same,” Parr said.  

The Veil, for example, was notorious for plagiarizing The Willows’ advertising and marketing practices. 

The largest, longest-running and most well-known home for unwed mothers was The Willows. 

“It was the ‘Ritz’ or the ‘Waldorf’ of such facilities,” Parr said. 

It began after Edwin P. and Cora May Haworth took care of a friend’s daughter who found herself unmarried and pregnant in 1905. They saw a need, and a business opportunity, and The Willows was born. 

“They liked helping people,” said Carol Haworth Price about her grandparents. 

Edwin, raised a Quaker in Illinois, was a published poet and an astute businessperson. Cora Mae, who grew up on a farm near Mount Vernon, Missouri, was described as compassionate and organized. 

Price herself was a Willows baby, born at the home in 1944. Cora May Haworth chose her for her son Don and daughter-in-law Peggy, who had not had any more children after their son. 

The Willows moved into a red brick mansion on Union Hill overlooking downtown Kansas City in 1908. The mansion could accommodate as many as 100 women, while the nursery had room for 125 babies. 

A couple of cottages provided additional space on the five-acre lot, and women who stayed in one could do chores to reduce the cost of their stay. A three-story concrete hospital was added in 1910 at a cost of $15,000, the same year a nursing school opened on the premises. 

The Willows Maternity Sanitarium at 2929 Main St. in 1921.
The Willows Maternity Sanitarium at 2929 Main St. in 1921. (Contributed | Carol Haworth Price)

Girls as young as 12 and women in their 30s in various stages of pregnancy usually stayed for a few months. Some waited until the last possible moment to arrive, Price said.  

A 1920 survey of the 353 residents found that they came mostly from rural areas and towns, rather than cities, and from all over the country – 26 states. Their occupations included domestics, clerical workers, teachers, telephone operators and even a few nurses. Not all were single. Some married couples, especially during the Great Depression, simply could not afford another child. 

The Haworths did not accept any government grants or aid or even charitable donations, preferring to keep the home independent of outside interference. 

Care didn’t come cheap.  

In 1920, a 16-week stay cost $442, or $6,858 in today’s dollars. By 1962, that same stay, including medical bills for a normal delivery, had climbed to $1,600, or $16,441 in 2024 dollars. 

Price is proud of the “love and care” her grandparents, and later, her mother, provided to the home’s residents. Her mother, Garnet “Peggy” Haworth, took over the operation of The Willows when Cora May died in 1953 until 1969, after the last girl had given birth. 

When Pregnancy Brought Shame 

An early brochure describes The Willows to be “a strictly ethical home and hospital for unmarried women.” Price stressed that seclusion and secrecy were promised. The residents could use an assumed name while they were there, and no one shared last names. 

These days it may be hard to understand the shame and ostracism experienced by women who found themselves pregnant outside of marriage. 

“And so, my crime was motherhood!” states a rather dramatic article titled “Unringed” in a 1928 issue of The Willows Magazine, a marketing tool. “Yet in one moment of unguarded passion…I had forgotten myself! Now I was to pay!”   

Those attitudes lasted for decades. 

“Panic gripped me,” wrote a woman in a letter to Nelle McEwen, the director of adoptions at The Willows. “I was very much pregnant and very much unmarried.” 

One of the nurseries at The Willows. The facility had space for as many as 125 babies at a time.
One of the nurseries at The Willows. The facility had space for as many as 125 babies at a time. (Contributed | Carol Haworth Price)

Laura Spencer came to The Willows in November 1963 from her home in Omaha. She was just 16 years old. 

“I wasn’t given a choice,” she said. In January 1964 she had a baby boy and gave him up for adoption. 

She returned home and later married and had more children. But she always wondered about her firstborn. In the year 2000, they found each other with her daughter’s help. 

“I never expected to find my son,” Spencer said. “I figured guys were not that curious.” 

When she learned that a historical marker commemorating The Willows would be dedicated, she and her husband drove more than 1,100 miles from Shelley, Idaho, to Kansas City for the event. She was the only birth mom able to make it that day. 

“It was a rollercoaster,” Spencer said about her emotions during the dedication ceremony. “I was happy but overwhelmed. It was a good day.”  

Dedication of the Marker 

“I’m a Willows baby, too,” Price told the crowd gathered to see the historical marker unveiled on a chilly and windy afternoon. “My grandmother (Cora May Haworth) picked me out and I have loved being a Willows baby.” 

Appropriately, the marker was dedicated on Price’s 80th birthday – March 23. Zoey’s House, a local adoption agency, hosted the event and provided a birthday cake. 

This new historic marker commemorates the former site of The Willows Maternity Sanitarium.
This new historic marker commemorates the former site of The Willows Maternity Sanitarium. (Diana Reese | Flatland)

Price grew up around The Willows. She said she was not allowed to interact with the pregnant residents, but once she was 12 or so, she could go into the nursery and help give the babies their bottles. 

Also at the dedication was Patty Anderson Brasel, another Willows baby with ties to the administration. Her adopted grandmother, Nelle McEwen, served as director of adoptions from 1921 to 1969.  

Brasel, born in 1951, found her birth parents in 1991, who’d married after her adoption, and had three more daughters. Her story is recounted in Parr’s “More Voices of The Willows.” 

People traveled from as far away as Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Idaho and Oklahoma to attend the ceremony. 

“We were all there for the same reason,” said David Lane from Webb City, Oklahoma, who was born at The Willows in 1956. “That’s where we came from.” 

Lane has a double connection to The Willows. After finding his birth mom, he discovered she had been born at The Willows in 1938. 

“The Willows is a part of our life story,” said Jill Nelson Stauffer, who came from Tulsa and whose story is in Parr’s second book. She and her sister were both adopted from The Willows, and both have located their birth mothers and half-siblings. “I came to honor my birth mother and to celebrate the place that gave me my adoptive family.” 

“I wish the building were still there,” Spencer said, a sentiment echoed by several. 

The facility was torn down shortly after the home closed, and that chapter of Kansas City’s history remained hidden for decades. 

Until the last few years. 

Missouri finally opened its adoption records in 2018. Suddenly, adoptees could get original birth certificates with at least the names of birth mothers, making searching easier. The popularity of DNA tests also aided those looking for their birth families. 

In 2016, Parr published his first book, telling the story of his mother, who was born at The Willows on Valentine’s Day 1925, and the journey for her and her birth mother to find each other in 1991.  

“I didn’t realize how large the facility was or how many babies were adopted in Kansas City,” he said.  

KelLee Parr and Carol Haworth Price, granddaughter of the founders of The Willows, spoke at the dedication ceremony for a historic marker at the hospital's former site.
KelLee Parr and Carol Haworth Price, granddaughter of the founders of The Willows, spoke at the dedication ceremony for a historic marker at the hospital’s former site. (Diana Reese | Flatland)

Two more books followed, as he learned more about The Willows and other maternity homes in Kansas City and collected birth and reunion stories. He’s taught courses for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and been a speaker at such venues as the Kansas City Public Library. He’s also a co-administrator for The Willows Facebook group, which has more than 700 members. 

As adoptees learned more about their personal history, they wanted to know more about The Willows. 

Parr said he was contacted about a historical marker after Ohio resident Phil Samuell looked for the place where he was born in Kansas City on a cross-country trip and was disappointed to find nothing. 

Money was raised through a GoFundMe with Price providing the rest. The marker was made just as the pandemic started, and then the owner of the apartment complex that sits at the top of Union Hill refused to allow its placement on his property. 

Willows birth mom Brenda Stacer, who could not attend the dedication due to health problems, suggested the Union Hill Day School at 2911 Main. 

That’s where the marker was placed, next to the limestone retaining wall. “That old limestone wall is ingrained in my memories,” Stacer said about the months she spent at the age of 15 waiting to give birth in the late 1960s. 

“It seems like the appropriate spot,” Parr said.  

Flatland contributor Diana Reese is an award-winning writer, journalist and editor with hundreds of articles published in magazines and newspapers. She has specialized in health and medical issues and now writes on whatever she thinks will make a good story.

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One thought on “Remembering The Willows: KC’s Adoption Hub of the Nation

  1. Thank you for this interesting article about a part of Kansas City history that I had never heard of. Well done! It is too bad the building isn’t there anymore, but that’s progress for you. So glad a historical marker now designates the location.

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