William Volker — (April 1, 1859 – November 4, 1947): Successful businessman, philanthropist and community leader who participated actively in the creation of the nation’s first public welfare department in Kansas City, MO.
Introduction: William Volker was an entrepreneur who turned a picture frame business into a multimillion-dollar empire and who then gave away his fortune to shape much of Kansas City, Missouri, both through the William Volker Fund and anonymously earning him the nickname of “Mr. Anonymous.” Volker was born in Germany in 1859 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1871. In 1876 at the age of 17 he began working for a picture frame manufacturer. When the owner died three years later he bought the company and moved to Kansas City in 1880 where he started the William Volker Company.
William Volker and Social Worker Leroy Halbert Join Forces To Combat Unemployment: In December 1909, during an economic depression, it was announced that a parade of unemployed men were planning to go to city hall and demand some sort of help from the mayor. Leroy Halbert, at the time managing secretary of the Kansas City Board of Pardons and Paroles, and William Volker, the Board’s president, learned of the proposed parade; and they arranged to meet with Mr. E.T. Brigham, Superintendent of the Helping Hand Institute, to discuss a plan to help the unemployed.
The Helping Hand Institute, established in 1894, was originally a rescue mission for homeless men and runaway boys. During the winter months, it also served as a refuse for the temporarily unemployed. In the winter of 1909, the Institute was managing a stone quarry in the city’s Penn Valley park under the auspices of a committee representing a variety of charitable and civic groups. The Institute used homeless and unemployed men living in their sleeping quarters to quarry and break rock. The Park Board bought the rock at a dollar a yard and used it for making streets and boulevards. The men who worked in the rock quarry were paid in script redeemable at the Institute for meals, groceries, lodging and clothing. With a days work a man could earn enough for a few days room and board. A city official at the time characterized this arrangement as the “best investment” of its kind Kansas City ever made.
Volker was also a member of the board of the Helping Hand Institute and he was helping to finance the rock quarry operation. With Volker’s support, E. T. Brigham and Leroy Halbert went together to Mayor T.T. Crittenden and suggested to him a plan for how the city could meet the demands of the unemployed by expanding the quarrying of stone activity thereby employing some of the men out of work. The Mayor accepted the recommendation and announced the plan to the unemployed. Almost immediately, Volker and Mr Pearson were appointed to be a committee overseeing this new operation; shortly thereafter, they met and recommended to the Mayor that he enlarge the committee into a commission to consider the whole duty of the city toward the poor and the unemployed and plan measures designed to prevent poverty and unemployment in the city.
The mayor appointed a body of prominent and representative people who were most experienced in dealing with social problems in the city and they set to work on this assignment. Volker sent Halbert and Charles A. Sumner, who was then secretary of the city club on a tour of large cities to study what was being done by other cities to deal with poverty and the unemployed. From the finding of their reports and their own ideas about what to do, the commission devised a plan to create a Board of Public Welfare.
Volker consulted various lawyers about drafting an ordinance to embody the ideas of the commission but he finally drew up the ordinance practically as it was passed. Volker increased the number of members on the Board of Pardons and Paroles to five (from three) and changed the name to the Board of Public Welfare, a name selected by Volker himself. On April 14, 1910, the City Council approved the creation of the Board of Public Welfare to provide aid to the city’s poor. Essentially, the new Board of Public Welfare was established by expanding the functions of the Board of Paroles and Pardons. Leroy Halbert was appointed to be the General Superintendent of the Department of Public Welfare, the first organization using that name in the country and a groundbreaking forerunner to evolving state and county welfare programs.
The board was just one of Volker’s many memorable contributions to Kansas City that included the creation of Research Hospital, the establishment of the University of Kansas City (now UMKC), the purchase of the land for Liberty Memorial, and for thousands of individuals who received some of his money when in need. He also started the William Volker Fund, which provided grants for scholarly research projects into libertarianism between 1935 and 1965.
Private correspondence of Leroy A. Halbert provided by Mary L. Mall, his granddaughter