John J. Pryor might have gotten a kick that there’s a bond election to improve the road named after him.
Pryor was a prominent member of Kansas City-machine politics in the early 1900s. He owned the Dixie Stock Farm, now the site of SummitWoods Crossing shopping center, where he built a large, stone country house.
He was a cohort of political boss Tom Pendergast, amassing riches and falling with him.
A lot of their money came from insider deals that misappropriated tax money from public improvement projects all over Jackson County and the state.
“He ended up being in the slammer,” said Kathy Smith, president of the Lee’s Summit Historical Society.
In that period the Lee’s Summit area was popular for these wealthy Kansas City men to start livestock operations, she said. It had good pastures, spring water and had its own stockyards on the railroad downtown.
Pryor was born in 1872, son of a saloon keeper known as Fighting Jim Pryor, who was a friend of Kansas City alderman and political boss Jim Pendergast, the older brother of infamous Tom, who got the family its political start.
John Pryor was raised in the north end river bottoms, a brawling place full of saloons and in those days elections, and Democratic politics, often decided with fists and guns and stuffed ballot boxes.
Tom Pendergast and John Pryor were friends as youths, according to William M. Reddig, author of Tom’s Town.
As they grew older and became leaders of machine politics, John Pryor’s construction companies benefited from the Pendergast patronage. Pryor was vice president of Pendergast Liquor Co. He was co-owner of Boyle-Pryor Construction Co. and owner of Dixie Machinery Co. He was also involved in saloons, gambling and cheap hotels.
As his money increased, he added luxury to holdings.
Along with his Lee’s Summit farm, he owned 500 acres at an ox-bow lake in Ray County, where he built a Pryor Lodge, a 20-room mansion with six fireplaces and a pavilion for dancing. He spent more time in Lee’s Summit, going to the lodge for summer breaks.
Smith said he was a generous man, however, and so was his wife Catherine Pryor. She reportedly never paid with anything smaller than $100 bill and never asked for change.
He led a rambunctious life.
During the election of 1894, a rumor started that Pryor had so threatened a staunch Republican, an elderly German gentlemen, that he switched his vote to Democratic out of fear, enraging members of the American Protective Association, an organization like the Ku Klux Klan.
They armed themselves with rifles and kidnapped Pryor. His Democratic friends soon intercepted the band, but armed with only one pistol, during the ensuing battle got they worst of it. One Democrat dead and six were severely wounded.
But Pryor, a big, rough man at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, escaped.
Maybe that explains his life-long penchant for wearing a loaded pistol on his hip. And later traveling with body guards armed with machine guns in is black, Packard limosine driven by a chauffer
An essay written by a graduate student in the historical society archives outlines other brushes with the law.
In 1906 he was charged with second-degree murder. Arguing politics with a cook in one of his saloons, Pryor struck the man, who fell and hit his head. After one trial with a hung jury, the case was dismissed in 1908.
In 1910-12 he and a partner bought a river boat, the Saturn, to run excursions between Kansas City and St. Louis where the offered gambling on board, flouting state law. Authorities eventually raided the boat.
In 1921 the first scandal for misusing public money emerged, he was accused of spending $26,367 to rock the road at his Lee’s Summit home, at a grossly inflated price.
His sins compounded.
A scheme was uncovered where the Rathford Engineering Company, a front for Boyle and Pryor, was being paid $5,000 a month by Kansas City to look for water leaks, adding up to $356,500 over several years without hardly any work. Pryor was indicted but not convicted, but repaid $40,000 to the city in a settlement.
He also was accused of fraud for accepting $100,000 from Kansas City’s emergency funds, for no apparent purpose, given to him by City Manager Henry McLeroy, another Pendergast crony.
In 1940 Pryor was convicted of income tax evasion. He owed $729,392 to the IRS. He was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.
Pryor got out at age 69 and lived in Independence as a gentleman farmer.
Smith said the information on hand at the historical society doesn’t mention exactly when he had bought the Lee’s Summit property or its acreage, but she thinks the house was probably circa 1920s. She believes it burned.
Pryor died in Sept. 29, 1953, with no children or close relatives. His remaining property was sold at auction.