Ben McLean's long legacy continues

Ben McLean's long legacy continues

Three-term Wichita Mayor Ben McLean, pictured here in 1905, contributed much to the preservation of green spaces and public recreational areas in the city. The residential development Benjamin Hills was once part of the McLean family farm and is named for his grandson, Ben II. Source: Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum

Perhaps the most consistently scenic thoroughfare in Wichita is the long, winding, river-hugging McLean Boulevard, snaking through the city's heart from north to south. Keen-eyed readers traveling upon McLean may have taken note of the splendid Ben F. McLean fountain just north of Douglas Avenue, as well; both street and fountain share a common namesake, early Wichita banker and civic leader Benjamin F. McLean.

The first wave of city fathers — James R. Mead, William Greiffenstein, William Mathewson and N.A. English — established Wichita and helped nurture it on its way to proper cityhood. After the calamitous real estate bust of the 1880s, a new generation of businessmen and related boosters had their work cut out for them when it came to keeping the city on its feet and moving it forward.

Ben McLean, a natural-born Canadian, moved to the Wichita area in 1885. He took a position managing a lumber yard, a business that would prove to serve him well over the years, as a fair amount of the city's earliest wealth was piled up by lumber barons. In 1887, he married Julia Barwise, whose father Asa was a successful local grain trader; son B. Drew McLean was born in 1889.

Taking an interest in politics, McLean served as a city councilman in the 1890s under Mayor Finlay Ross, a respected local furniture dealer. McLean quickly began pitching public projects to enhance the people's enjoyment of the city.

As reported in the Sept. 28, 1897 edition of the Wichita Eagle, McLean proposed that the issuance of "$12,000 in bonds to be used to purchase lands known as Riverside Park and Griffenstein Park be submitted to the voters at the next general election. These parks contain 106 acres, to be obtained at not more than $100 an acre."

In January of the next year, the city council formed a "committee of three, one councilman and two citizens, to act as Park Commissioners to have supervision over all park matters. Messrs. George Dickson, J. P. Allen, and B. F. McLean were appointed by Mayor Ross," according to the Jan. 11 Eagle.

In 1900, just as McLean's lumber business on West Douglas was picking up (with an order for 16,000 railroad ties for the new street railway), he was forced to move his entire yard over one lot to the west to make room for the coming Missouri-Pacific railroad depot. This placed his new lot directly on the corner of Douglas and Waco, where the Chamber of Commerce building sits today.

On Tuesday, April 2, 1901, Ben McLean was elected mayor over incumbent Finlay Ross. His work in securing and preserving green space and other recreational areas for public use had made him popular with the general public, but not everybody was happy with his leadership. A year into his first term, the Wichita Beacon ran a long editorial "critical of Mayor McLean for allowing vice to flourish in Wichita," including a "long list of places with slot machines, 'resorts,' gambling houses, etc."

McLean also found himself embroiled in the fight between two early competng telephone companies. The earlier Missouri & Kansas Telephone Company had lost its state charter, and, therefore, its legal right to erect telephone poles and string wires on city property; this did not stop the company from doing so, and several of its workmen were arrested for violating the law while simply doing their jobs. The July 8, 1902 Eagle reported: "The fight between the city and the Missouri & Kansas Telephone company was continued yesterday when the police on orders of Mayor McLean cut down eight new poles erected by the company near the corner of Third and Wabash."

This perceived interference with free enterprise did not sit well with certain factions of the business community, prompting former Mayor Ross to run against McLean in the next election. McLean triumphed, but only by a bare margin.

When a city boulevard was planned along the west bank of the Arkansas River, the Eagle's "City Regulator" opined: "I would name the new drive along the river that will soon be finished McLean Highway, in honor of our mayor." The city agreed.

In 1904, on the same week the Eagle reported that a total of 75 automobiles were registered in Wichita, McLean sold his downtown lumber yard, though he held on to two others he owned — one in Peck and one near Clearwater. Later that year he would finally take a stand against the "vice" in Wichita's red-light district, issuing an order on Dec. 19 "to Chief of Police Burt to remove all the disreputable houses from Tremont Street."

After two consecutive terms in the mayor's office, McLean was ready for new vistas. In 1908, he purchased 464 acres of fertile land northwest of Wichita from farmer "Cottonwood" Davis and took up the hobby of gentleman farming. In 1910, he bought controlling stock of the Fourth National Bank from L.S. Naftzger and took the reins as president of the bank.

McLean spent the 1910s running and expanding his banking business, dabbling in real estate and indulging in pet projects including a horse racing track. His son Drew graduated from Harvard in 1913 and followed his father into the banking business; in 1919 the elder McLean approved a loan to a hard-working, independent young woman named Elizabeth Mabry for a winter coat and was suitably impressed with her to introduce her to his son. Elizabeth and Drew were married in October of that year.

In November 1920, Ben McLean bought out the Fidelity State Bank and added its assets to those of his Fourth National Bank, making him one of the most powerful bankers in the state. The next year he once again threw his hat in the political ring, running for city commission. He was elected and then chosen by the commission in 1923 to serve once again as mayor.

But banking is a stern mistress, and it soon became apparent to McLean that it was too difficult to run his financial empire and City Hall at the same time. He resigned as Mayor on Feb. 4, 1924.

A year later, the new bridge over the Big Arkansas River at Seneca Street was opened to the public and named in honor of B.F. McLean. The mayor had, for many years, lived in a house only a block south of the river on Seneca. Though by the time the bridge was opened, he had sold the property, and it was being used as the nurse's home for nearby Wichita Hospital at Douglas and Seneca.

In 1929, McLean announced that he intended to retire and hand over control of the bank to his son Drew, who had, by that time, given him two grandchildren, Benjamin F. II and Julianne. Sadly, before he had the opportunity to enjoy his retirement, Ben McLean suffered a fatal heart attack at his home at 1031 N. Topeka. He was 71 years old. Besides Drew, he left behind two other adult children, Helen and John, the latter of whom lived on the McLean farm.

That farm land was parceled out among the surviving family members; for years after McLean's death, much of the acreage continued to be planted. The July 23, 1932 Eagle reported that the land had, that growing season, "averaged 27 bushels per acre of wheat on 360 acres."

The city honored McLean's legacy of public service in 1934 by setting aside the land at the northeast corner of Douglas and McLean as McLean Park. The fountain there continues to operate during summer months today, 80 years later.

When the city annexed the McLean farm in 1950, the property taxes soared. Drew McLean's wife Elizabeth, responsible for the 138 acres that had been deeded to her and her husband, platted their share for residential development. A talented artist and graduate of New York's National Academy of Design, she insisted on maintaining aesthetic control over the landscaping, the street layout and even the designs of proposed houses in the area. This new neighborhood was christened Benjamin Hills in honor of her son, Ben McLean II, who had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

In 1956, Elizabeth McLean made news again with the construction of the chic McLean House at 2359 N. McLean, a stunning example of high-end ranch-style design housing, clad entirely in pink marble. The same year she donated the land for McLean Elementary School.

Husband Drew died in 1965, leaving Elizabeth in control of the much of the family legacy. She would go on to spend much of her life making sure that Benjamin Hills was developed in a way that maintained the natural beauty of the area, even going so far as to refund money to a contractor who intended to excavate a hilly section of the neighborhood in order to flatten it out. She then banned the contractor from working in the development.

Elizabeth Anna Mabry-McLean lived in the house she designed until dying peacefully in 2000, at the age of 102.