Tom Connor and the legacy of his hotel still loom large in Joplin

FRED FLETCHER-FIERRO (HOST) : It’s Morning Edition, I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro. I have a question for you. Can you name the first building on the US’s National Register of Historic Places to be demolished? If you guessed Joplin’s Connor Hotel you would be correct. The hotel that put the city on the map, partially collapsed the day before it was set to be demolished, on November 10, 1978 killing two men. The remainder of the hotel was demolished on November 19th. Next year Joplin will mark its 150th anniversary of being established and throughout this year we’re going to take a look back at some of the people, places and events that made the city what it is today.

Recently I spoke with author and historian Chad Stebbins about his book, Joplin’s Connor Hotel. I first asked Chad about the man behind the hotel, Mr. Tom Connor.

Joplin’s Connor Hotel

CHAD STEBBINS (GUEST) : The O’Connor family as it was known back then moved to the United States from Ireland around 1853. And they settled in Tiffin, Ohio. And within a short time Tom’s father passed away. And so the mother had cobbled together numerous odd jobs to support the family. And when Tom was 13, the Civil War broke out and he was determined to enlist with the 8th Ohio volunteer infantry.

Of course he was too young to go. He actually had to sneak on board the train, carrying the soldiers off to their basic training and hide underneath their legs and some luggage. And for over two years, sold newspapers to soldiers during the civil war was a newsboy. And as such, he witnessed some of the major battles of the civil war, including Antietam Gettysburg, and returned to Tiffin.

When he was 16, his mother was so pleased thinking Tom would find a job, settle down, live there, the rest of his life but he had this severe case of wanderlust spend only a few months and Tiffin withdrew all his money from the bank. He’d earned quite a bit during the Civil War selling newspapers, gave half of his money to his mother and then set off and traveled west through St.

Louis, Kansas city, Denver, Utah, Montana. Bought cattle in Texas, ended up in Seneca, Missouri, and then ultimately Joplin, where he became arguably our most prominent citizen along with Charles Schifferdecker and Patrick Murphy, and a couple of others.

FRED : At that point in the late 1800’s Joplin and Southwest Missouri was largely built on mining, and Connor, Joplin’s first millionaire played an influential role. He stood out for the man that would purchase land anywhere.

CHAD : We need to go back and take a look at Joplin’s rich mining heritage. Joplin was established as a lead and zinc mining community. And a lot of men came to Joplin and made their fortunes. Joplin quickly turned out numerous millionaires during the first decade of his existence, including Tom Connor who years later bought the old Joplin hotel at Fourth and Main was persuaded to tear it down and build a brand new majestic hotel in its place. The Connor. Which he originally didn’t plan to name the Connor, he was going to call it the Joplin hotel or the new Joplin hotel, or even the Catherine hotel in honor of his late mother.

FRED : A recurring theme in Stebbins book, Joplin’s Connor Hotel is the love and devotion that Connor he had for his mother. Today when we think of millionaires and billionaires we think of people who want to show off their money and live grandly. Perhaps how you would think of the Connor hotel in its heyday, but that wasn’t who Tom Connor was, nearly the complete opposite.

Interior of Joplin’s Connor hotel

CHAD : Connor is remembered by Connor avenue. There is a Conor ballroom at Missouri Southern. Tom Connor helped build St. Peter’s Catholic church in Joplin and was really a benevolent man. Didn’t have any, any children for awhile. He later adopted a nine-year-old daughter, but he didn’t build himself a large mansion as these other mining pioneers did. He lived at the old Joplin hotel and was kind of a lonely man. And donated so much of his money to other causes.

FRED : Joplin’s first millionaire while known for zinc and lead mines likely never mined a day in his life. Instead he would purchase land throughout the area, the very same land today is considered wasteland, that still nothing has been constructed on. The legacy of Tom Connor endures.

(Merge Chad 4&5) CHAD : I’m driving north on 249, just north of the Zora road toward Webb city, you look off to the left and to the right, and that was land owned by Tom Connor. And it’s, it’s still wasteland today, but you can imagine the amount of mining and for so long Joplin had these enormous chat piles surrounding it. And you know, the tailings from the lead and zinc mining, you know, that was direct evidence of what Joplin had once been.

He never, you know, threw a pick or handled a shovel himself. He just had a knack for buying up land that had these rich deposits of lead and zink underneath. And he and his wife, Melissa, would take buggy rides around the area and they would stop and he would point to a piece of land and he would surmise.

That land had rich deposits of lead and zinc, and so he would, I mean, we’re talking wasteland, land that nobody else wanted and he would buy for a good price and, and then he would lease the land out. I was called grubstaking. He would lease the land out to other miners who did the actual work. They gave him a percentage of their profits. And within 10 years he was a millionaire.

FRED : While grubstaking helped make him rich, Connor had his sights on a new project. Prior to the Connor being constructed at 4th and Main St, there was already a building there, called the Joplin hotel. Chad says it’s easy to still imagine what downtown Joplin looked like about 100 years ago.

CHAD : So every time I go to Fourth and Main I almost get chills. That used to be the heart of Joplin. That’s where everything took place. That was just an incredible corner. You had the six story Keystone hotel built in 1892. You had the Connor hotel built in 1908. You had the House of Lords saloon on another corner.

And then the corner where the First national bank building now stands or US bank is today was once an empty lot. But it was built in 1924. And so that’s where everything happened in Joplin was at Fourth and Main and certainly no grander place than the Connor hotel.

FRED : At the time the Connor was completed in 1908 it was considered a skyscraper at 9 stories tall and 130 feet. He spared no expense building the new structure that would stand for 70 years.

The Connor’s marble staircase

CHAD : Right. Tom Connor spent a quarter of a million dollars building this ornate marble staircase. And you could walk up the stairs to a mezzanine level and look down on the lobby. And in, in my book, I refer to the lobby as sort of Joplin’s living room. It’s where everything took place. If you sat on a leather couch in that lobby for several years, you would’ve seen everybody walk by. A who’s who of Joplin. All the famous actors and politicians who came to visit. All the leading townspeople. I mean everyone in Joplin at one point or another passed through the lobby of the Connor hotel.

FRED : That quarter of a million dollar staircase would be the equivalent of over $7.5 million today. But the heyday of the Connor wouldn’t last forever. Listen for the second part of my interview with author and historian Chad Stebbins where we cover the final years of the hotel, various groups and people tried to save the hotel. And lessons learned from the Connor and how it still affects Joplin city policy to this day. That’s tomorrow on KRPS’s Morning Edition. I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro.

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