Want to explore Martin City? Start with this beginner's guide to the neighborhood
With a small-but-mighty restaurant culture, its own newspaper, and a vision for the future, the neighborhood of Martin City is a cultural hub in South Kansas City.
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The neighborhood of Martin City is nestled in the southern corner of Jackson County, right up against the stateline border. The town was founded in 1887, just a few years before the booming metropolis of the City of Kansas officially changed its moniker to Kansas City.
E.L. Martin, together with John H. Lipscomb, platted out the area around the railway, north of the Blue River and about a mile from the Kansas border, and those elements are what shaped the budding farm town. (Though there is no longer a depot, the train still frequently rolls through town.)
Today, the growing suburban community 13 miles south of downtown still retains the structure of its origins, even as farm fields and woodland are felled to accommodate ubiquitous strip malls, paved lots and housing developments. “Goodbye milo field” announced a recent headline for The Martin City Telegraph, as the creep of urbanization outpaces the rural roots of the area.
Here’s where to get started in exploring this unique part of the Kansas City region.
The Town of Tilden
At its founding, the town was called Tilden, for former presidential candidate Samuel Jones Tilden. When it was learned there was already an existing Tilden, Missouri, the name Martin City was bequeathed, in honor of co-founder Edward Lowe Martin, who had served as the City of Kansas’ 15th mayor.
Martin had done quite a few things, in fact: founded the liquor company E.L. Martin & Co., served on the Board of Education, ran a bank, invested in real estate and an opera house, and, toward the end of his life, served as a judge. (While he didn’t live in Martin City himself, Martin and his wife donated the land where the Methodist Church was built in 1890.)
In 1888, Martin City was awarded a post office and by 1889, Holmes Road was extended to the town. Along with the railway, this made Martin City something of a transport hub for the surrounding community, centered along Kansas Avenue, known today as 135th Street.
Today, you can see historical photos displayed in the Post Office, along with images of the area's postmasters and two doctors: Dr. Benjamin Franklin Brainard, established his practice in Martin City in 1887, and his daughter, Dr. Ada Rader Tucker, who practiced medicine throughout the multi-county region from the late 1920s until her retirement in 1968. She was one of the few women physicians in the area during that time. Their home and office, just north of 135th Street, is still standing.
In 1957, a tornado swept through the town, destroying many of the buildings. Though it sustained damage, the Methodist Church remained. When the congregation combined with another in a nearby neighborhood, the church building went on to serve other purposes in the community.
Other historic buildings include the Martin City State Bank (built in 1909, closed during the Depression, and now a storefront, renovated by the Cocherel family), some residences, and a handful of shops. There’s also an old farm cemetery near 137th Street.
Kansas City annexed the area in 1963, moving the city limit all the way to the county line. Martin City retained its post office, zip code, and K-8 school (the first local school was founded in 1910), now part of the Grandview school system.
Dine and shine
Martin City is perhaps most well known for its small but mighty restaurant culture, a cohort of family-owned operations that have served the area for decades.
The oldest of these is Jess & Jim’s Steak House, founded in 1938 by Jess Kincaid and Jim Wright. It gained a national reputation thanks to Kansas City-native writer Calvin Trillin, and has continued to produce award-winning meals throughout the decades, named one of the best in the world in multiple lists. You can’t miss it on 135th Street — there’s a steer on the roof.
The restaurant is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, which included a visit from a giant potato as part of The Famous Idaho Potato Tour.
RC’s Restaurant & Lounge, a fried chicken joint about two blocks west, was founded in 1973 by R.C. Van Noy, a cousin of Jess and former employee of the Steak House. Now run by Van Noy’s son David, the restaurant is decorated with paintings of wine bottles, big screen televisions, and family portraits.
Martin City Brewing Company, founded in 2013, started out as a microbrewery but has expanded into a chain of restaurants throughout the region, including two in Martin City, one in Lee's Summit, two in Kansas, and one in the new KCI airport terminal. Co-founder Matt Moore is R.C. Van Noy’s grandson.
The brewery now boasts six core beers, 16 seasonal beers, and a variety of limited edition releases. There is also a seasonal Martin City Ice Cream Company stand in the summer. The brewing company hosts an annual Memorial Day Block Party — this year it’s scheduled for May 29, 2023.
Jack Fiorelli learned barbecue from his father Russ and founded the original Fiorelli’s Jack Stack Barbecue restaurant in Martin City in 1974. The current location is at 135th and Holmes, on the site of the former Jess & Jim’s location, destroyed in the 1957 tornado. (They moved down the street into their current location. It’s a small town, after all.)
Martin City beautiful
When Kansas City annexed Martin City, it promised infrastructure improvements, which were not delivered as anticipated. A few decades ago, 135th Street was a dreary conduit.
In an effort to restore the small town charm to the neighborhood, over 75 business owners bonded together to form the Martin City Business and Community Association in 1998, which expanded to the Martin City Community Improvement District (CID) in 2005. Through their efforts, the area is in a multi-stage rejuvenation plan.
Martin City is home to multiple construction and landscaping companies, including the headquarters for Suburban Lawn & Garden, founded in the 1950s, and Rosehill Gardens, a fourth-generation family business that moved to Martin City in 1992.
The neighborhood is also a place for healing, with the Cornerstones of Care’s Ozanam Campus, to support children and families, and Midwest Recovery Centers, to support men suffering from addiction.
The area is home to a range of sport options.
KC Running, which organizes races all over the Greater Kansas City area, is headquartered in Martin City. Each April, there is the Whiskey Run 5K, one of the few local runs that includes a whiskey tasting and breakfast. There have also been other runs through the area, such as last year’s Oktoberfest run and the Martin City Beer Mile.
Feeling beachy? Volleyball Beach has 14 sand courts (eight of which are domed in the winter), a bar and grill, and provides league and tournament play. The company was founded in 1989 and is the largest operation of its kind in the area.
The area also includes the Blue River Greenway to the south, which has biking trails through the forest. Eventually, it’s hoped these trails will link up with the Blue River Parkway trail system.
What's in a name?
Even after it became officially Kansas City, Martin City continued to build on its name.
The Martin City Melodrama & Vaudeville Co., founded in 1985, spent its first 16 years in the old Methodist Church. (The church has since been converted into The Martin Event Space, run by the Van Noy family.)
The company has changed locations through the years, but is now housed in Grandview, just a few miles east of its original location. The family-friendly shows often include rescue dogs as featured performers. They recently partnered with Englewood Arts for the show “The Wizard of PAWS.”
When journalist Kathy Feist saw a need for more reporting in the South Kansas City area, she named her honest-to-goodness print publication The Martin City Telegraph. Since 2015, they’ve been keeping up with local happenings, politics, and businesses, on newsstands every other Wednesday. Along with up-to-date news, historian Diane Euston writes a popular history column, helping Kansas Citians learn more about their past.
Like many Kansas City neighborhoods, Martin City loves to come together over annual celebrations, like the Martin City St. Patrick’s Day parade along 135th Street, the Holiday Lighting Ceremony in November, and a Law Enforcement Appreciation Celebration in May.