William T. Kemper in 1902. [Political History of Jackson County: Biographical Sketches of the Men Who Have Helped to Make It (1902)]
National Bank of Commerce in Kansas City, circa 1902. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Kansas City Photographs Collection, P1047-19]

Progenitor of two of Missouri’s most prominent banking families, William T. Kemper also headed companies involved in grain and railroad transportation. Born on November 3, 1866, in Gallatin, Missouri, he retained a Kentucky heritage from both his parents. He once referred to his family as “old-time Rebels.”

Kemper’s entry into the business world came as a salesman for Noyes, Norman, and Kemper, a St. Joseph company in which his father held part interest. His introduction to banking came in Valley Falls, Kansas, where he had already established a mercantile business before he was twenty-one years of age. Marrying the bank owner’s daughter, Charlotte Crosby, he also assumed the position of cashier for the Valley Falls Bank of Deposit. His father-in-law, Rufus Crosby, was also a cattle rancher and merchant in the northeast Kansas community.

Kemper and his young bride sold their interest in the Valley Falls mercantile and bank in the depression year of 1893 and moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Kemper organized the Kemper Mill and Elevator Company, the Kemper Investment Company, and the Kemper Mercantile Company with sale profits from Valley Falls. By 1900 he served as the youngest elected president of the Kansas City Board of Trade.

Kemper involved himself in politics during this period as well. Selected as one of three Kansas City police commissioners in 1902, he attempted to succeed his fellow commissioner James A. Reed as mayor in 1904 on the Democratic ticket. Kemper allied himself with alderman Jim Pendergast’s faction of the local party. They were defeated by the rival Democratic faction led by Joseph B. Shannon, which in turn lost to the Republicans in the general election of 1904. Kemper also ran unsuccessfully as an independent Democrat for mayor in 1906. When Thomas Hart Benton painted his famous mural in the Missouri capitol in 1936, he portrayed Kemper sitting next to J. C. Nichols, with both men listening intently to a speaker standing next to Tom Pendergast, the longtime Kansas City political boss from 1910 to 1939.

Kemper reentered the banking business in 1906 through a stock purchase. He bought into Commerce Trust, a new affiliate of the National Bank of Commerce controlled by physician William Stone Woods, whose donations helped to underwrite William Woods College in Fulton, Missouri. Both banks reorganized in the bank panic of 1907, and Kemper emerged from the crisis as the active president of the companies.

In 1917, while still involved at Commerce Trust, he became the receiver for the bankrupt Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad. By 1923 he had sold his Commerce Trust stock to devote his full attention to operating the Orient Railroad as its president. That venture ended with the profitable sale of Orient’s assets to the Santa Fe Railroad in 1927.

In 1925 Kemper’s oldest son, James, assumed the presidency of Commerce Trust. His middle son, Rufus Crosby Kemper, bought a small bank in 1919, which he soon renamed City Bank and Trust. Between 1927 and 1933, William T. Kemper worked with Crosby at the smaller bank. In 1933 he and Crosby, together with James, bought out the other investors in Commerce Trust, and he resumed his position as board chairman. He held that office until his death on January 19, 1938. At that time his son James was president of Commerce Trust, and his son Crosby served as president and chairman of City Bank as well as vice chairman of the board of Commerce Trust.

Federal banking legislation prohibited the holding of officer positions in more than one bank after January 1, 1939. Crosby resigned his position at Commerce Trust, remaining chairman of City National Bank. James assumed the Commerce Trust chairmanship upon his father’s death.

William T. Kemper held various posts in the national banking structure. He unsuccessfully sought the chairmanship of the Reconstruction Finance Commission during the New Deal. He long served as the Tenth Federal Reserve District representative on the Federal Reserve Council. At his death he chaired the Missouri Social Security Commission, which oversaw social security at the state level. Since the passing of Kemper, Commerce Trust has evolved into Commerce Bancshares, and City Bank has been transformed into UMB Financial Corporation.

Further Reading

Fowler, Dick. Leaders in Our Town. Kansas City: Burd and Fletcher, 1952.

Kemper, William T. Clipping File. Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Schondelmeyer, Brent. Building a First-Class Bank: The Story of United Missouri Bank. Kansas City: United Missouri Bancshares, 1986.

Published November 3, 2023

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