I had mentioned this briefly in an article about White City some time back, but wish to expand on the subject now. The house that now stands at the south east corner of Mackenzie and Commercial Streets in White City has a considerable history. Thomas B. Eldridge built it in 1871 or 1872. Thomas and his brother Colonel Shalor Winchell Eldridge were both involved in the New England Emigrant Aid Society, and arrived in Kansas in January 1855. By May 1856 Thomas and Shalor were lessees of the Free State Hotel in Lawrence which was burned to the ground on the 21st of that month by pro-slavery men. It was rebuilt then burned again during Quantrill’s raid August 21st 1863 and rebuilt again.
September of 1856 found Thomas the agent of the National Kansas Committee in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. There he arranged for transportation and purchased supplies for emigrants moving to Kansas. Besides providing wagons, horses, camp and garrison equipment Eldridge also provided guns as the period was a very precarious one for the Territory of Kansas. Thomas was greatly responsible for several hundred Free-State men coming to Kansas in 1856.
Although Cutler’s History of the State of Kansas gives a favorable biography of Thomas, Samuel Smith of Lawrence, Kansas wrote to a friend in Massachusetts on November 26th 1856 saying that Thomas and Shalor had several complaints filed against them, namely that “nature never designed them for distributions of charity.”
When Thomas returned to Kansas in 1857, he and his brother started the Kansas Stage Company which ran a line from Lawrence to Leavenworth and Lawrence to Kansas City. He was also involved with companies that were locating towns throughout the Territory, which may be how he found his way to White City about 15 years later. Thomas is known to have built the Broadway Hotel in Kansas City, and it is likely he contributed to other towns in this same way. During the Civil War Thomas earned the rank of major while doing staff duty in the western theater.
It appears that Thomas did not stay long in White City. By 1873 he was serving in the Montgomery County Legislature and was also engaged in bank business at Coffeyville. Thomas died at his home in Lawrence on Sunday December 3rd 1882 of ‘rheumatism of the heart.’ The history of his hotel in the decade following the birth of White City is practically unknown, but at some point Francis C. White took over the hotel and it eventually became known as the Commercial House.
James Thornley was the proprietor of the Commercial House in August 1885. The White City Whig stated that Thornley kept a first-class house and that he had repainted it and put up a sign to ‘guide the weary and hungry to a place of rest.’
In early September 1899 T. Jenson arrived in White City from England. It was not long until Jenson bought the property and began making improvements. By mid September he had put up a windmill then a carriage house and barn. April 7th 1900 the newspaper reported that C. M. Reese had rented the Commercial House and would open the hotel about the first of May. Reese must have lost interest for we find no more mention of this person. Instead, W. S. Jamison who had operated a livery business in White City for many years had taken charge of the hotel. After the papering was finished the hotel was up and running in early June 1900. About the same time the name was changed to the Jenson House.
In March 1902 Mr. Jenson was preparing to build an addition to his hotel, and it appears from the news paper that it was about finished by the end of May. When the building sold in January 1931, the 1902 addition was separated and moved to the lot east of the hotel where it was remodeled into a home and the original hotel was remodeled into a duplex. Sometime during the summer of 2013 (much to this author’s disappointment) the 1902 addition was torn down.
Fortunately, the original structure from 1871-2 still stands. I earnestly hope that someone or some group of individuals become interested in the preservation of one of White City’s oldest standing structures. Its significant history ties White City to some of the most active figures in the shaping of this great State, and it is a story worth retelling. The old hotel is conveniently situated near the Katy Park, Baxter Schoolhouse and is right on your way into town from the east. It would no doubt make a very good museum and attraction for the community if devoted citizens get involved.