When Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri River in 1804, they camped five different nights along the northern bluffs of Jackson County. The night they camped on an island near today’s Sugar Creek, they made notes in their diaries of the many Carolina parakeets, bears, opossums and raccoons that they saw along the riverbanks.

Sorry to say, but the Carolina parakeet is extinct; however, they did look much like the parakeets we buy in the pet store today, only a bit larger. They were green with bright yellow heads and black wing tips. They had a big red circle around each eye, with their little curved parakeet beaks.

The bear has moved on from our neighborhood, but the opossum and raccoons have adapted pretty well to our city life and are still quite prevalent. In the horse-and-buggy days of Eastern Jackson County there were a lot more of those fat little opossums than there are today, but with the coming of the auto age and fast roadways their numbers have dwindled tremendously. The little critter with a grin never learned to not play in the streets.

Independence city officials decided to take advantage of the tasty creature and on Dec. 2, 1909 held the first municipal “possum hunt” in the vicinity of George St. Clair’s farm. They took the dog, and 10 of the critters were rounded up for a grand “possum banquet” to be held in the Metropolitan Hotel for all of the city officials, employees, and professional men around the Square who paid their dollar to attend.

As the guests entered the hotel, they were required to “run the gantlet,” racing between two rows of men while being pounded on the back until they got to the end of the line. This custom was apparently handed down from the Native Americans who used to treat their captives in this fashion, but on this occasion it was all well-meant in good fun.

Fred Hammontree’s Orchestra was in the hotel lobby playing throughout the evening with a quartet composed of Thomas Brady, Frank Griley and a couple of their friends. There were also several vaudeville acts that night.

Acting as master of ceremonies was Mayor Llewellyn Jones, who proposed a toast: “To the animal with the grin, and to the smile that never comes off, and by the virtue of the authority vested in me as mayor of this city and presiding officer of the hunt and this banquet, I officially declare these hunts to be a permanent municipal institution to be held annually.”

Why the possum supper? According to Mayor Jones it was to bring the city, official, business, and professional men, all together in a closer friendship and to get rid of the restraints that shackle us in the stress of business. The mayor said, “We need something of this kind to enable us to know each other better.”

When the dinner was over, the speech making began. Llewellyn Jones claimed that although he was the present head of the organization, he could not take credit for it. It was due entirely to the fertile brain of Independence City Councilman W. Logan Jones, whom he dubbed right then and there as “Possum Jones,” a name that stuck with him for the remainder of his days.

The municipal possum hunt and banquet became an annual affair for many years afterward, and each year it became a little more systematically planned. The affair did much to bring together the warring political factions. It was hard for men to gather around a campfire at midnight, tell stories, eat hot dogs, and sip coffee and hard cider without getting to feel better toward each other.

Reference: “Independence & 20th Century Pioneers,” by Pearl Wilcox.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.