Monday, November 28, 2011

Looking for the wreath

The former H.D. Lee headquarters, 20th and Wyandotte streets.
A reader in the U.K. recently wrote to ask about a passage in Paris of the Plains: Kansas City from Doughboys to Expressways, a mention of the H.D. Lee Company. That got me thinking about an obscure POTP anniversary of sorts.

Eighty-six years ago today – November 28, 1925, a cloudy, chilly Saturday – a few hundred manufacturing workers assembled for a company portrait in what is now called the Crossroads District. They sat or stood in tiers along 20th Street near the plant entrance, beneath an ornate canopy identifying the H.D. Lee Mercantile Co.

Today, of course, the company known as Lee Jeans operates from offices across the state line in Merriam, Kansas. You won't find mention of it on the website, but the Lee Company started as primarily a wholesale grocery business – coffee, spices, canned fruits and vegetables and other foods. (Denim work clothes were a sideline.) It began life in Salina, Kansas, in 1889, but in 1917 the company opened this new Kansas City headquarters at the corner of 20th and Wyandotte streets: 225,000 square feet, nine red-tapestry brick stories of office and factory space.

The Piper Apartments occupy the building today, and the old four-sided water tower on the roof shows four blank circles that look as if they were made for clocks. In November 1925, as the Lee employees – and their boss/founder, Henry David Lee – sat for their panoramic photo down on 20th Street, each circle on the rooftop water tower framed the company logo –

As an old newspaper ad said: Look for the LEE WREATH.  When it appears on can, carton, bottle or jar of food products – it is a mark of highest quality ingredients.

By the early 1950s, jeans having eclipsed jellies and jams, Lee sold off its foods division to a Chicago conglomerate, and the colorful mark of highest quality ingredients eventually disappeared from can, carton, bottle and jar, as well as the downtown skyline in Paris of the Plains.

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