Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories

What we call Kansas today has long been contested space. Kansas has been a crossroads of people, lifestyles, and ideas for hundreds of years. The struggle between Native culture, traditions, and society and their Europeanized counterparts played out across the American West, including in Kansas and Johnson County. A new exhibit at the Johnson County Museum highlights this tension by exploring the history of federal, off-reservation Indian boarding schools. Titled Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories, it is a nationally traveling exhibition, on display at the Johnson County Museum for just seven weeks before moving in 20 crates to its next destination. The exhibit is packed with original photos, artifacts, artwork, and multimedia storytelling. In the exhibit, the tragic and the positive, the despicable and the empowering are all wrapped together in a nuanced exploration of our shared national history.

The traveling exhibit, Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories, will be on display in the Johnson County Museum’s special exhibit gallery from Feb. 1 to March 18.
The traveling exhibit, Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories, will be on display in the Johnson County Museum’s special exhibit gallery from Feb. 1 to March 18.

The Federal Indian Boarding School System

Beginning in the 1870s, the U.S. government attempted to educate and assimilate Native populations into “civilized” society by placing children – of all ages, from thousands of homes and hundreds of diverse tribes – in distant, residential boarding schools spread across the American West. Many were forcibly taken from their families and communities and stripped of all signs of “Indianness,” and were even forbidden to speak their own language amongst themselves. Up until the 1930s, students were trained for domestic work and trades in the highly regimented environments of federal Indian boarding schools. Many children went years without familial contact, resulting in a lasting, generational impact. Away from Home explores these off-reservation boarding schools through a kaleidoscope of voices.

Native children responded to the often-tragic Indian boarding school experience in complex ways. Stories of student resistance, accommodation, creative resolve, devoted participation, escape, and faith in one’s self and heritage speak individually across eras. Some families, facing increasingly scarce resources due to land dispossession and a diminishing way of life at home, sent their children to Indian boarding schools as a refuge from these realities. In the variety of reactions, Ojibwe historian Brenda Childs finds that the “boarding school experience was carried out in public but had an intensely private dimension.”

Flipping the Script – Indigenous Led Education

Unintended outcomes, such as a sense of “Pan Indianism” and support networks, grew and flourished on campuses, and advocates demanded reform. Indian boarding schools were designed to remake Indigenous children, but it was the children who changed the schools. After graduation, some students became involved in tribal political office or the formation of civil rights and Native sovereignty organizations. The handful of federal boarding schools remaining today embrace Indigenous heritage, languages, traditions, and culture. What is today known as Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas was the closest federal, off-reservation boarding school to Johnson County. In the 20th century, it transitioned from a federally run Indian boarding school to a Native-run university that teaches, explores, and celebrates Indigeneity.

Students at federal Indian boarding schools were stripped of their Indigenous identities and given new ones in the Euro-American fashion – including birthdays, religion, clothing, haircuts, languages, and even names.
Students at federal Indian boarding schools were stripped of their Indigenous identities and given new ones in the Euro-American fashion – including birthdays, religion, clothing, haircuts, languages, and even names.

Before the Federal Indian Boarding School System

The federal system that Away from Home explores does not include the Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site, located in Fairway, Kansas. In fact, there were nuanced but important differences between it and the federal system:

  • First, the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Manual Labor School, as it was known in the 19th century, pre-dated the federal system by several decades. Methodist missionary Thomas Johnson first opened it in 1829 in Turner, Kansas, before moving the Shawnee mission to Fairway in the late 1830s. Despite a nearly 20-year operational history, the Shawnee school closed in the 1860s – more than ten years before the federal system developed.
  • Second, the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Manual Labor School was an on-reservation Indian boarding school located on the Shawnee reservation. Students generally lived nearby, and according to records, were able to return home when school was not in session. But, in another example of contested spaces, the Shawnee reservation was land that had previously been inhabited by the Kanza and Osage people. The federal government had removed the Shawnee there in the 1820s as part of what in 1830 became known as the policy of Indian Removal. Though located on the Shawnee reservation, more than 20 different Native tribes sent their children to the school.
  • Third, as its name might imply, the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Manual Labor School was religiously affiliated and run by the Methodist church – specifically by missionaries like Thomas Johnson and others, not federal officials (though it did receive some federal funding). In the 19th century, there were also Baptist and Friends (Quaker) mission schools in Johnson County.

Know Before You Go

Away from Home contains stories of resilience, revitalization, agency, honor. Yet also it also contains descriptions of human indignities, hardships, and phrases that reflect historically racist perspectives and language from past eras. In presenting historical facts about acts of seemingly unfathomable violence and suffering in the lives of Native peoples, this exhibition is advised for more mature audience members, grades eight to adult. Away from Home will leave visitors thinking more deeply about contested spaces, the role of education in society, and the complexities of hearing from all the voices of the past.

Tom Torlino, a Navajo student at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, upon entry in 1882 (left) and after three years of Indian boarding school re-education (right).
Tom Torlino, a Navajo student at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, upon entry in 1882 (left) and after three years of Indian boarding school re-education (right).

This traveling exhibition was adapted from the permanent exhibition, Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories, organized by The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. Both exhibits were supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is brought to you by the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City’s Crossroads District, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Chickasaw Nation.

Away from Home: American Indian Boarding Schools will be on display February 1 to March 18, 2023, at the Johnson County Museum. The Museum will present related programming during the exhibition’s run. Visit for more information and to plan your visit.

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Johnson County Library’s Corinth Branch Celebrates 60 Years

Johnson County Library’s Corinth branch, at 8100 Mission Road, is popular with patrons from Prairie Village and beyond. It opened Feb. 24, 1963, so 2023 will mark its 60th anniversary milestone.

In the 1950s, before the Johnson County Library had funding, volunteer run libraries were spread through the county. In 1953, a branch was opened in the Prairie Village Shopping Center. It was located in the basement of one of the shops.  When funding was available in 1956, the library moved upstairs to a rented space on the Concourse.

Mrs. Monte Redman and Judy Redman in Prairie Village Volunteer Library. JoCo History
A view of the interior of Prairie Village Volunteer Library, circa 1954. JoCo History

In 1961, voters approved a bond issue that allowed for the site purchase and build of a library in Prairie Village. Corinth opened its doors on February 24, 1963. The branch site and that of the adjacent Corinth Shopping Center were already famous in Kansas City history.  The clothier Herbert Woolf built Woolford Farm on 200 acres and raised thoroughbred racing horses. He hosted lavish parties whose guests included Theodore Roosevelt and many other notables.  In 1938 his horse Lawrin won the Kentucky Derby. Lawrin is buried on the top of the hill just west of the library.

Kansas thoroughbred, Lawrin with jockey, Eddie Arcaro. JoCo History

In 1967 Corinth expanded on both the north and south sides to reach its current size of 20,475 square feet. In 1988 it had an interior renovation, with the addition of an elevator and east side windows.  

The building has had some major maintenance in recent years, including a new roof and updated electrical and heating/cooling work. It has a well-stocked children’s section and a spacious computer area and remains a favorite Library destination for young families and adults.  

“We are quite busy. We are well loved,” says Amy Barclay, who has been branch manager since January 2019. “Corinth is known for being a place for families to come and meet and connect. We have tutors here all the time. We often rank quite high on customer service.” 

But there’s also a recognition that the community could use a more modern facility. The current land-locked location is not conducive to expansion. The 2015 Comprehensive Library Master Plan identified the need to replace Corinth with a new building, but no timeframe was specified.  

The Library Board has been weighing how to prioritize the timing of new construction for Corinth and the best way to work with Prairie Village city officials. 

Very preliminary talks began in 2019 between the Library and Prairie Village leaders over possibly collaborating on a civic campus that could include a new community center and Library, in proximity to Harmon Park. Survey results in December 2019 showed strong support for the Library in Prairie Village overall, and support for the Library being included in a shared campus. Talks were then put on hold due to COVID-19. 

Stakeholders from the Library and city of Prairie Village resumed conversations earlier this year and indicated a willingness to keep working together.  

Barclay and other Library leaders would love to see a new Corinth branch with a convenient drive-thru, larger meeting rooms, better accessibility for people with disabilities, and other amenities found in the newest branches — Monticello and Lenexa City Center — and in the renovated Central Resource Library.  

The Prairie Village City Council is beginning to explore the feasibility of building the community/civic center, but this remains very tentative. On Oct. 3, the City Council debated whether to conduct a survey to gauge citizen support for the project, but postponed a decision. At their November meeting, the City’s ad hoc civic center committee elected to send an updated version of the survey to residents. If citizen support exists, the city would still need to figure out a location, conceptual design and how to pay for it.   

The Library, which has its own dedicated funding source, will also pursue its own areas of inquiry, including programming and how much space will be needed; site feasibility including traffic flow, parking and potential phasing; and cost estimating. 

In the meantime, Barclay says Corinth is doing well and enjoying the return to in-person programming, with its popular Storytimes, book groups and Legislative coffees. 

“It is really refreshing to be in a branch where the community is so invested in this building,” Barclay said. “I do still think the community pretty much loves this branch. We’re not losing patrons to the prettier branches. There’s a lot of loyalty to Corinth and to Prairie Village.”

-Lynn Horsley, freelance journalist for Johnson County Library
-Johnson County Library staff

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Things We Learned During REDLINED

The Johnson County Museum’s year-long run of REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation comes to an end on January 7, 2023. Although Museum staff spent 18 months researching what would become a 22,000-word exhibit, we still found ourselves learning something new with practically every group tour, REDLINED program, and countless redlining-related news stories published this past year. As we prepare to close the exhibit, we wanted to share six of the things we learned since REDLINED opened.

The Johnson County Museum’s special exhibit, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation, closes at 4:30pm on Saturday, January 7. Don’t miss your chance to see this exhibit!
The Johnson County Museum’s special exhibit, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation, closes at 4:30pm on Saturday, January 7. Don’t miss your chance to see this exhibit!

1. Redlining Impacted Farm Loans

We frequently were asked the question: what about rural and farm loans? Although the federal government and private banks made redlining maps representing urban centers and suburban developments, it might not be surprising that the federal government’s agricultural loan programs in the 20th century denied investment to Black farmers. In 1920, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recorded that 14% of all farmers in the U.S. were Black (925,708). During the New Deal, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) reduced the amount of land used for producing crops to help drive up prices. But since 40 percent of Black workers were sharecroppers or tenant farmers, more than 100,000 Black farmers were driven off their land in 1933 and 1934 alone. Legislation throughout the 20th century continued this trend, and today just 1.4% of all farmers are Black. The loss of Black-farmed land is equal to 16 million acres over the last century. The topic of funding for Black farmers has been in the news recently around alleged discrimination in COVID-19 agriculture funding.

Black migrants leaving behind agriculture in the American South for industrial jobs in northeastern and midwestern cities during the Great Migration (1910 – 1970). Courtesy Library of Congress.
Black migrants leaving behind agriculture in the American South for industrial jobs in northeastern and midwestern cities during the Great Migration (1910 – 1970). Courtesy Library of Congress.

2. Native Americans were Redlined, Too

In REDLINED, there are physical examples of racially restrictive covenants prohibiting Black homeownership and reports how the legacies of redlining continue to impact African Americans, Latinos, and other communities of color. This includes Native Americans. Redlining practices denied Indigenous people access to home loans and other sources of funding for decades, too, and the inability to access banking continues to impact Indigenous communities today. For example, a 2017 Native Nations report found that the average distance to a bank from the center of a reservation is three times the national average of four miles. Lack of access to banks and mortgage products has resulted in a rate of Native homeownership that is 22.5% lower than the national average (50.8% for Indigenous populations, 73.3% for white non-Hispanic Americans) in 2019.

3. Just How Much was Invested in the Suburbs

One researcher estimated that the federal government extended mortgage insurance for over $129 billion in 1950s money for home purchases — or more than $1.239 quintillion in 2019 dollars. This unfathomable number accounts for just the initial injection of money into suburban communities through buying and building homes. It does not, however, account for any of the subsequent investment that occurred in those new communities for things like schools, highways, and other infrastructure. The FHA backed approximately 11 million home loans nationally between 1934 and 1972. By 1970, less than 2.5% had gone to homebuyers of color. Of the 77,000 FHA-backed loans issued to the Kansas City area in between 1934 and 1962, less than 1% (less than 770 loans) went to Black homebuyers.

For more on the FHA’s investment meant for Johnson County, check the out “The FHA and Suburbia” blog we published earlier this year.

Cars parked in the driveways of new homes in Prairie Village, Kansas. Johnson County Museum.
Cars parked in the driveways of new homes in Prairie Village, Kansas. Johnson County Museum.

4. Factoring Life Expectancy

One of the Museum’s REDLINED-related public programs was a panel discussion about how the environment around us can impact our health. During the program, Dr. Alex Francisco with the Kansas City Missouri Health Department shared data from Health Explorer, a new online dashboard that dives into the factors that make up a person’s life expectancy. While half of a person’s life expectancy is determined by genetics, behaviors and risk factors make up the other half. Analyzing health data at the census tract level, the KCMO Health Department’s Health Explorer reveals health disparities are clearly geographic in nature. The areas of the city most impacted by risk factors generally align with areas previously redlined. In REDLINED, we compare a life expectancy map from 2019 to redlining maps. These maps show that a person born into a previously redlined neighborhood on the city’s East Side would have 16 years less life expectancy than a person born in a previously greenlined neighborhood along Ward Parkway. Using census tract data, Dr. Francisco discovered a life expectancy difference of 18 years in one area of town by crossing a single street — Troost Avenue. For decades, one side of this street received systematic investment while the other did not.

Watch the panel discussion about social determinants of health here:

Explore the online dashboard here:

5. Defining Community Reinvestment

When a group of bankers toured the REDLINED exhibit, they pointed out a lack of information on the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) in the section on undoing the system of redlining. The intent of the CRA was to ensure that banks invested in the local community, regardless of who made up the community around the bank. Yet the legislation’s lack of objective standards and ambiguous wording has made the CRA difficult to navigate and enforce. Just last week, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency made changes to certain banking thresholds and is considering more changes in the future, and an upcoming Supreme Court case about race and banking may decide if the CRA continues to exist at all.

Construction on I-435 through Johnson County in the 1990s. Continuing investment in infrastructure is one example of opportunity hoarding. Johnson County Museum.

6. Hoarding Opportunities

Areas that experienced systematic investment during the period of redlining continue to reap the benefits today. Dr. Sheryll Cashin, Georgetown law professor, acclaimed author, and featured speaker a program we partnered on with the Kansas City Public Library and UMKC’s History Department, calls the continued investment in areas already invested in “opportunity hoarding.” Dr. Cashin spoke about not just how systematic investment begets continued systematic investment, but how boundary maintenance often keeps that investment closed off to some of the population. In the Kansas City area, it is easy to think of several boundaries — real and imagined — that divide populations, neighborhoods, and levels of investment. Whether talking about the racially restrictive covenants that were in force throughout northeastern Johnson County through the mid-20th century, the racial steering practiced by real estate developers and real estate agents, or home prices that have risen beyond the purchasing power of the systematically disinvested populations (typically communities of color), various barriers continue to maintain opportunity hoarding in this region and in communities across the nation. Dr. Cashin writes extensively about this topic in her 2021 book, White Space, Black Hood.

Watch the program here:

Bonus Lesson: Continuing to Learn

One last thing we learned during the course of this exhibition is how little known and understood the history and legacies of redlining are today. From the research that made the exhibit to the lessons learned since it opened a year ago, we are constantly reminded the breadth and depth of the history and legacies of redlining. There is so much more to learn. And we remain committed to that learning. Continue to learn more with us by following the hashtag #RedlinedKC on social media, and by checking out program recordings and more resources at You can also take home the exhibition after it closes — the Museum published the exhibit as a book for sale in the Museum Store. More information coming soon on how this exhibit will live on in the future.


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Local Johnson County Light Show Celebrates 10th Anniversary at the Deanna Rose Farmstead

Holiday lights are a seasonal favorite pastime for many residents in Johnson County.  One local offering, the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this December.  Since its inception in 2013, this seasonal sensation has hosted over 1,000,000 people.  Starting November 25th and running through January 7th, individuals can visit the farmstead at 13800 Switzer and treat themselves to a 45-minute spectacle of lights and music.

 This treat is the brainchild of Mark Callegari, Johnson County resident, and technology enthusiast.   Decades before Deanna Rose hosted the event, Mark coordinated a scaled down version of what would become Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane.  With a background and passion for computerized lighting and animation (he double majored in Business Administration and Computer Sciences at Rockhurst University), Callegari put his hobby to use and created a light show at his home in Deer Creek.  From an early age, Mark appreciated the majestic beauty of holiday lights and made it his mission to make the holiday season special for those around him.  He finds a strong sense of joy in spreading holiday cheer, choosing not to do these things for himself but for the community.  His extensive experience with lighting (having founded several companies including Innovative Software, Visual Components and LightWild) have enabled him to explore and pioneer new innovations with holiday lighting.

An image of the Callegari home in Deer Creek, where the inspiration for the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane was formed; photograph courtesy Mark Callegari

As technological advances with LED (light emitting devices) lighting continued, Mark developed his platform into a 30-minute show that featured nearly a dozen holiday songs.  The elaborate LED patterns and movement were synchronized to a symphony of sound, which residents could listen to on an FM radio signal while parked in front of the Callegari home.  His efforts did not go unnoticed or unseen; he achieved national acclaim on HGTV’s series All Out Christmas in 2008. As the popularity of the light show continued, it became clear that the nightly crowds were becoming too big for his neighborhood to accommodate each night.  A search began for a new venue to host the holiday extravaganza, one with plenty of room to grow.  Investigating several locations, Callegari was introduced to the people at the Deanna Rose Farmstead in Overland Park, Kansas.  There was great potential to be found in this location due to it being closed in the winter, ample parking accommodations for holiday onlookers, and most importantly a friendly and welcoming farmstead team.  A partnership was made in 2013 for the very first holiday light show at Deanna Rose.  

Mark Callegari at Deanna Rose Farmstead; photograph courtesy Mark Callegari

The very first year at the farmstead saw over 37,000 people attending the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane.  Kathi Limbocker, Educational Program Supervisor at the Deanna Rose Farmstead, reports that the average car will have four people inside.  Attendance is counted by counting the number of cars that enter the farmstead parking lot.  Their numbers do not include visitors that may view the show from the Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex just north of the farmstead.  The 2013 show was very similar to the offering at the Callegari home in Overland Park with the 20’ LED Christmas tree moved from the Overland Park address to the front of the barn area.

The very first Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane (2013); photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

The following year saw an important addition to the farmstead spectacle: the technicolor grid on the façade of the famous barn.  The canvas is 140’ wide and 40’ high and decorated with tens of thousands of pixel lights.  To accompany the new grid were large animals that adorned the roof, paying tribute to the farmstead roots.

Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane, 2014; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead
Farm animals dressed in their ‘holiday best’ and waiting to greet everyone at the Deanna Rose Farmstead; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

The following years were marked by a variety of changes to the scenic design, music selection, and length of the production.   In 2015, two large pyramid of spheres were added to the mix.

Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane, 2015; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

2018 saw a slew of changes and alterations to Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane.  Two giant round ornaments were added to the left and right of the display area.  At 20’ tall, thousands of pixels are utilized to keep the lights bright during the holiday season.

Mark Callegari proudly shows off the newest unit to the light festival in 2018; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead
Exactly how many lights do you see on the ornaments? Photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

The entrance sign at the front of the light show was also added in 2018.  You’ll find two Nutcrackers standing at attention and keeping a close watch on holiday proceedings.  The entrance includes important instructions for the best possible viewing experience.  These include: headlights off, tune to 90.5 FM, and most importantly – watch for kids.

Photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

Also new to the scene in 2018 is the famous ‘Gridzilla.’  Gridzilla functions to provides background information about the event and displays additional lighting effects and images.

The final new feature in the 2018 year was the Naughty or Nice Santa Clause.  Each visiting car can get an individualized ‘naughty or nice’ reading (for best results drive slow!).  On the way out of the farmstead, you may come across the one and only Mr. Grinch

2019 saw the most recent major display enhancements.  Fourteen-pixel snowflakes adorn the farmstead roof, adding extra festive cheer.  More roof magic took place this year with sixteen moving light beams on the rooftop, shining proudly for all to see.

The show is currently 45 minutes long, and the music can be accessed on the FM station 90.5.  Careful consideration is given to the song selection list (around thirteen tunes, all perfectly matched to the lighting patterns).  Callegari notes with pride that each minute of song requires at least five hours of time to create the lighting effects so that they are properly synchronized.  A standard three-minute song may take up to fifteen hours of preparation time in order to get it ready for the event.  The current set list includes thirteen songs that stretch a wide gamut of entertainment (classic holiday artists, orchestral suites, current artists, and movie themes that include Star Wars, Frozen, and Harry Potter).  Over the past ten years, one or two new songs have been worked into the rotation, and previous songs have been reworked and workshopped back into the program.

Whimsy trees and farm animals jam on with the music at the Holiday Lights at Farmstead Lane; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead
The entire show is 45 minutes.  If you hear a song repeat – you’ve seen the whole performance; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead
A drone’s eye-view of the holiday proceedings; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

Callegari takes pride in referring to the farmstead event as a ‘visual concert’ or a ‘concert of lights’, going beyond the traditional lighting display to include music and synchronous movement.  The work on the event traditionally begins in June of each year in order to get everything ready by the Christmas season.  In the summer months, display items are refurbished and polished, and new items are added to the mix.  In October, the lighting items are put in place for the holiday season. There are around half a dozen individuals including Chris Maloney, Blake Steward, and Mark’s brother Chris, that work diligently in the fall season to prepare this festive show for families around the Johnson County area.  Callegari estimates around 1,600 hours of work from the group members to make the lighting event a success each year.

Hats off to Mark Callegari and the amazing volunteers that put together the Farmstead lighting; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

In addition to the hard work of volunteers, several local companies have contributed equipment, storage space, and time to ensure that everything runs smoothly.  Foley Equipment Rentals donates lifts that allow the team to install and maintain the lights from October-February each year.  Steve Bullard, another perennial volunteer, delicately positions huge holiday pieces utilizing a boom truck Twice each year, Enerfab arrives – once to install the large items and again to take them down at the end of the run. Without the assistance of volunteers and company donations, the event would not take place.

The nutcrackers do not come to life by themselves; without the hard work of volunteers, they would not sparkle and shine.  Photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead
Each light pixel is inspected and maintained for accuracy.  Photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

The Deanna Rose Farmstead partners with Callegari in other ways throughout the year.  In October, the holiday lighting display is also utilized for the Night of the Living Farm event.

Callegari also hosts a patriotic Veterans Day show, honoring veterans that have served their country in early November.  In late January, there is a display honoring police officer Deanna Hummel Rose, the first Overland Park police officer (and first female officer in Kansas) to be killed in the line of duty.

The Deanna Rose Farmstead was created in 1985, dedicated to honor Deanna Hummel Rose by the city of Overland Park; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

Additional lighting opportunities take place February.  One is to honor the Kansas City Chiefs (if they happen to make it to the playoffs that year), and the other is to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Chiefs Kingdom comes to Overland Park; photograph courtesy Deanna Rose Farmstead

The contributions of Mark Callegari and his team of volunteers have not gone unnoticed by the city of Overland Park.  In 2017, the display at Deanna Rose was named of the of the top three displays in the Kansas City metro area.  In 2018, Mayor Carl Gerlach designated February 19th as ‘Mark Callegari Day’ to recognize the decades of entertaining citizens over the years both at his home and at Deanna Rose.  Callegari and the volunteers continue to find joy and fulfillment in spreading holiday cheer for others.

If you are wanting to check out the festive scene this holiday season, the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane runs from November 25 to January 7, 2023.  Additional details can be found at the farmstead website.  Visit the Holiday Lights Facebook page for additional winter season cheer.  Visitors are encouraged to utilize the farmstead parking lot for viewing the festivities.  If the parking lot happens to be full, an alternative is the Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex.  Whichever way you choose to view, have a safe winter season!

Author note: I send my deepest gratitude to Mark Callegari and Kathi Limbocker for their vast knowledge and willingness to share the history of the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane.

-Heather McCartin, Johnson County Library

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Hollywood at Home: A History of Johnson County Video Stores

Hollywood at Home video store circa 1985. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

It’s hard to describe the video store phenomenon to somebody who missed it. To tell the story in the most boring possible way: There were so few places to rent movies in the Kansas City area in early 1980 that they didn’t even have their own section in the phonebook. By 1985, I counted about 50 to 70 locations in the yellow pages. By 1999, I counted well over 100 stores in the Kansas City area that rented videos.

Today, however, in late 2022, there are zero. There are still a few places where you can rent movies in Johnson County, but with the closing of two Family Video stores in 2021, there are now zero dedicated video rental stores in Johnson County.

Now, kids, if you want me to explain the phonebook, I’ll save that for another post. This post will simply be a history of video stores in Johnson County, Kansas, for the enjoyment and edification of those who were there and those who weren’t. It’s not a complete history, because that would be a task far too big for this blog. We’ll focus on one particular store for the most part, but hopefully it’s enough to give readers a sense of the wild wave that was the rise and fall of the video store era in one humble Kansas county.

The first record I could find of any place in the Kansas City area renting videos was an ad in the Kansas City Star classifieds from 1979 for “Video Exchange Club.” It was located in Kansas City, Missouri, but does not appear to have been a physical storefront. According to their ad, you would contact them to get a catalog, and if you were interested in renting tapes, you could pay $299 per year (approximately $1,200 in 2022 dollars) to rent regular and/or adult films on VHS or Beta, which – I believe – were sent to you in the mail.

In late April of 1980, Antin House of Video – which was primarily an electronics store and was located around 81st and Santa Fe in Overland Park – advertised that they now had a “movie club,” where you could pay to become a member, and then rent tapes from a selection of 800 (tapes, not titles) for $5 for five days. That’s about $18 for a five-day rental in 2022 money.

So in early 1980, VCR-owning Johnson Countians had those two options, but neither of those were truly “video stores” as we came to know them. No, the first true video store in Johnson County was none other than Hollywood at Home at 9063 Metcalf.

The entrance to Hollywood at Home circa 1980. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

Richard Rostenberg graduated from the University of Missouri in 1972 with a degree in Accounting. He got a job at a small accounting firm and got a CPA, but his heart wasn’t really in the work – partially because he just didn’t like sitting down all day. A boss recommended that he try retail, and he ended up taking a job at Macy’s as an assistant buyer. He rose to buyer quickly, and loved the work. He traveled a lot for the job and – best of all – rarely had to sit down.

He worked at the Macy’s in the now-demolished Mission Shopping Center at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue and was in charge of all the soft goods as well as the TV and stereo department. Rostenberg told his boss, “I don’t know anything about TVs and stereos. Please don’t make me do that.” He chuckled. “And [my boss] said, ‘Well your office is next to there, so you’re going to do that.’”

Throughout 1979, Rostenberg watched the TV and stereo business, and one phenomenon in particular caught his eye. “For every fifteen TVs, basically, we were selling one VCR.” Customers would come in and pay $300 for a TV, and up to $1,500 for a VCR. He saw that people were very interested in “time-shifting,” where they could record a show while they were out and about and then watch it later. At the time, recording television was essentially the only reason people bought VCRs. “Dallas” was one show in particular that was popular with time-shifters, as it was must-see-TV yet it aired on Fridays when people wanted to go out. They got a VCR and their problem was solved.

Rostenberg sensed big potential in this VCR-owning demographic and booked a ticket to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. He returned determined to start a video store.

He thought about doing the store inside of an electronics store like Antin’s. He even talked to Sidney Antin at one point, but they both decided there was no reason to split the money when they could each just go into business on their own. Rostenberg didn’t want to be working for anybody anyways, so he and his wife Linda decided to open up their own store. They suspected that a location in relatively wealthy Johnson County would have a higher concentration of VCR-owners, and picked an 800 square-foot spot in the brand-new Loehmann’s Plaza on Metcalf.

They opened for business on April 26, 1980, with an estimated 300 to 350 titles to rent out, and… there was basically no business. Rostenberg recalled that most people hardly knew what a VCR or VHS tape were (only 2-percent of US homes had a VCR in 1980), and even VCR-owners didn’t really have an idea that you could go out and rent movies.

“We had ‘zero days,’ days when it was just nothing… very depressing.”

It was him, his wife, and one employee, and he wasn’t sure how long they could hold out with as little business as they were getting. Then something wonderful happened. On July 4th, the temperature rose to 100 degrees and stayed there. Summer kicked into gear, and Overland Park had two solid weeks of 100-degree days. All of the sudden, people discovered video rentals. Hollywood at Home made their break-even in July and August, and soon Rostenberg was confident he was going to be in business for a long time.

And that’s how Hollywood at Home became the first video store in the Kansas City area. No club to join, just come on in out of the heat and rent your tape.

Rostenberg seated at the counter beside his burgeoning video collection which includes Superman, Blazing Saddles, Chinatown, The Exorcist, Grease, King Kong (1976), The Longest Yard, Patton, and more. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

By May, the Kansas City Star reported that there were six places to rent videos in Johnson County, with another set to open in June. Along with Hollywood at Home and Antin, Master Video, The Video Shop, and Continental Video Center (which claimed to have sold the Kansas City area’s first VCR in April of 1976) were all among the first, though some of those – if not all of them – appear to have been mainly electronics stores like Antin. The practice of renting tapes was so novel at the time that the reporter, Linda Rosewicz, actually consulted with the FBI to confirm that it was legal.

An advertisement for the Antin Movie Club from 1981.

When I asked Rostenberg how he selected movies early on, he smiled and said, “Let’s just say that my big claim to fame – in my mind – is we had ten copies of ’10.’” (If you’ve seen the cover with Bo Derek running on the beach, you can guess why that would have been a hit.) He said that “Superman” was another big title in the early days, and that tracking the box office was generally a good indicator of what people would be wanting to rent six months down the road.

Hollywood at Home started with Beta and VHS, but quickly moved away from Beta. Rostenberg said that Beta customers were strangely picky and would come in looking for one specific title, and if you didn’t have it, they would just leave. VHS customers were more likely to browse and rent whatever was available.

The Kansas City Star reported that the area’s most commonly rented film by far was “10.” After that, “Superman,” “Norma Rae,” “The Muppet Movie,” “Tunnelvision,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Jaws,” “The Godfather,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “The Groove Tube” led the race, along with many X-rated movies. The cassettes cost the stores anywhere between $35 to $100, and it seems $5 was the average cost of a rental at most places.

Along with renting and selling tapes, Hollywood at Home also rented out VCRs for $35 to customers who didn’t yet own one but wanted to watch films at home. Another option was to have a “screen party” at the store for $50 where you could invite your friends and watch a movie or two in the store while Rostenberg and his wife Linda played host. It was common for stores to rent out VCRs, but Hollywood at Home was the only store I saw advertise anything like screen parties.

After a somewhat slow start in 1980, the Johnson County video rental industry really started to take off over the next few years. I found an article from 1981 that described “slow-motion” and “fast-forward” features to readers presumably unfamiliar with such exotic things, only to see an article from late 1984 saying that 16 million American households now had VCRs and at least 10,000 video retailers had opened across the United States. Sales of pre-recorded cassettes leapt from $200 million in 1982 to almost $2 billion in 1985.

Something to note is that by and large, the rental stores were the ones doing the buying in the 1980s. Early on, movie studios were very leery of putting their films on tape and selling them. They were afraid home video and the rental market would kill off the theatrical market, which was essentially their entire business back then. However, a few of the studios – 20th Century Fox in particular – were very eager to find new streams of revenue in the late 1970s. They started putting out a very limited selection of new and old titles on tape, but priced them very high ($85 in the early 1980s would be about $300 today) so that it wouldn’t eat into their theatrical business.

The high prices of the tapes created the reason for rental stores to exist, and some studios were less than thrilled about this work-around. Different studios tried different techniques of combatting the rental stores, and some got litigious. However, the first-sale doctrine within American copyright law (which allows for people to sell or rent copywritten materials that they have purchased like books, records, tapes, etc.) kept any lawsuits from moving forward successfully. This eventually led the frustrated studios to lobby for some legislation that would prevent people from renting out tapes, but even that was not to be, and Rostenberg tells me that this is where Johnson County video store owners played a pivotal role in the video rental industry on a national level.

Rostenberg said that when this legislation was up for discussion, a handful of people from the local chapter of the Video Software Dealers Association (a then-fledgling association that had grown out of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers and was comprised of video store owners around the country, and would eventually become a massive force in the entertainment industry) went to Kansas Senator Bob Dole’s office and made their pro-video-store case. Dole happened to be on the relevant Senate committee that was considering the law, and when it came up for a hearing, Dole didn’t show up. The legislation was tabled indefinitely.

“I believe that Johnson County video dealers have everything in the world to do with [tabling that legislation].” He says with pride. “That could have killed the whole thing, or made it very different at least.”

The studios came to terms with their defeat pretty quickly however. They weren’t making money every single time somebody watched a tape, but they were still making a lot of money.

Another angle to this story is that to some degree studios miscalculated audiences’ interest in watching the same movies repeatedly. To the extent that the prohibitively high prices for tapes was a strategy and not a mistake, it almost made sense for rental stores to exist because in the early 1980s the idea of a person buying any given movie to watch over and over and over again probably seemed unlikely. Price the tapes at $85, let rental stores buy them (often with a wholesale discount) and gradually make their money back, and everybody wins to varying degrees. But as VCRs popped up in more homes, the studios began to shift their thinking.

By the late 1980s, VCRs were in over two-thirds of American homes, and studios began to experiment with lower prices for titles they thought might be worth it. They were gambling, but their question was: Will it be better to keep the price of this tape high, and have it be a rental for most people, or is this a title that we should price lower to encourage direct-to-consumer purchasing? Titles like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Top Gun,” and – most notably – “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” all launched with lower-than-average prices to encourage people to buy them instead of renting them. When “Batman” came out on video in November of 1989, it could be had for anywhere from $16 to $25 at area retailers, and Warner Brothers shipped an initial 15 million copies. This all had the potential to put a bit of a squeeze on video rental stores, but Rostenberg wasn’t too worried. He told me that when “Raiders” launched, they sold between 800 to 1,000 copies for $40 each.

Inside Hollywood at Home circa 1986. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

Video stores popped up all throughout Johnson County and thrived through the mid-1980s. However, as early as 1986 the Kansas City Star was reporting that – while still healthy – the industry appeared to be approaching a “glut.” Individual stores weren’t making as much money, and some of the smaller stores started closing down because of increased competition. The industry went from a point where – as Don Cahail, the owner of almost two dozen local Applause Video stores, told the Kansas City Star – “if you could walk and chew bubblegum at the same time, you could run a video store and make money” in the mid-1980s, to an extremely competitive industry by the decade’s end. That had more than a little to do with the arrival of Johnson County’s first Blockbuster in March of 1988, but first, the elephant in the room: Pornography!

In 1985, pornographic films accounted for about 13-percent of the video market (sales and rentals) nationwide according to the VSDA. Going by genre, only Adventure films and Science-Fiction films were more popular. Regular video stores (the ones that weren’t exclusively “adult”) generally had their adult films on display on higher shelves or off in nooks that were less likely to be seen by younger customers, and some had entirely separate rooms. My childhood video store (Polo Video in Leawood) had a doorless room in the back corner that you couldn’t see into because of the way a little makeshift hallway blocked your view. The felt letter board reading “ADULTS ONLY 21 & OVER” did catch my attention whenever I was there, but as a kid I was always too blissfully browsing through new releases and video games to care at all about what “adults only” were up to.

Hollywood at Home had a little raised room in the back that had some signs around it warning the underaged to stay out. Employees affectionately referred to it as the “smut hut,” and it was an important source of revenue over the years. Customers came and went and virtually nobody ever had a problem with it, until one fateful day in 1987 when the National Coalition Against Pornography (NCAP) came to town.

The NCAP was based in Cincinnati, funded by donations, and was focused on getting laws against obscene material (material that is not protected by the First Amendment because it has been found to be in special violation of community standards) enforced in various states and municipalities. They would look for places with favorable obscenity statutes already on the books and get to work. An article from 1991 described the success they’d had getting porn almost completely banned from St. Louis. Over several years, seized films were screened by various juries with no success until, finally, in 1989 they won a guilty verdict on nine obscenity charges in one case. Since the lines for obscenity aren’t clear, this verdict was apparently enough to drive pornography vendors out of business or out of city limits, and got other vendors to pull any potentially offending material off their shelves. In one case, a store-owner had tried to fight the group in court but gave up once the legal fees got too high ($400,000 in his case).

Locally, it started when several video stores in Kansas City, Missouri, received a letter from the Kansas City police chief asking them to review their shelves and ensure that they didn’t have any adult videos that were in violation of Missouri statutes. It wasn’t clear exactly where the official pressure was coming from, but on the citizen-side it was coming from the Kansas City chapter of the NCAP (KCCAP), which reportedly spent almost half a million dollars on a media campaign (“STOP: Stand Together Opposing Pornography”) in the area in 1987.

The leader of the KCCAP, Chris Cooper, wrote an editorial in the paper criticizing the availability of pornography and stated the main aim of the group’s STOP campaign was to have existing laws in Kansas and Missouri enforced. He claimed that (the Missouri laws, at least) were “approved by the US Supreme Court as being constitutionally valid.”

For their part, the Kansas City police didn’t seem very excited. They told the Kansas City Star that there were certain types of pornography that were already illegal, and they believed it would be tough to prosecute obscenity charges against other types of pornography without violating anybody’s constitutional rights.

Rostenberg countered KCCAP in two ways. First by forming People Against Obscenity (PAO), a group of video store owners who believed self-policing was the best way to go and created guidelines video stores could follow to ensure their stores were within community standards. The basic guidance was: don’t rent or sell illegal pornography, don’t let minors enter restricted sections of stores, prohibit employees who are minors from selling or renting adult films, and see that the majority of the films in your store are non-adult. This was already the common practice of virtually every store, but having it codified showed that the store owners were perfectly happy to stay within the law and community standards. Plus, stores in compliance received a nice little sticker to display in their shops.

Second, Rostenberg wrote an editorial rebutting Cooper’s. He said he valued his clients and community, and sincerely viewed his store as video store for the entire family, which meant providing entertainment for children and for adults. Hollywood at Home, he said, had a section for adults 21 and over, and that the age limit was strictly enforced. They possessed no illegal material, and they were discerning about any violent or pornographic material they did stock. They even honored the wishes of any parents who didn’t want their children renting violent tapes.

His piece made it clear that neither he nor his store were the wicked caricatures the coalition was trying to drive out of business, and he ended with what I consider to be a pretty bold throwing of the gauntlet, especially considering how these people fully intended to shut down his store: “Movies that have not been judged obscene by the courts are entitled to First Amendment protection. If others want to take exception to that they have to prosecute, movie title by movie title.” Or, in words I’ll borrow from a movie that would have been sitting on a shelf at any self-respecting video store: “Go ahead. Make my day.”

Hollywood at Home’s “smut hut” circa 1987. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

At the start, most store owners reported nervousness and confusion. An employee at one Applause Video said he had seen coalition members looking through his store for offending tapes. By October some area retailers said they had removed various sexually explicit tapes from their shelves. Even Rostenberg told the Kansas City Star that he reviewed Hollywood at Home’s collection and removed about 30 titles, “the ones I wouldn’t feel comfortable defending in court.” He also said he would like to be arrested so he could clear himself and fellow video dealers of wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, KCCAP sponsored a two-hour program about the dangers of pornography that aired on KSHB Channel 41, and Cooper said Rostenberg’s PAO was “a deception” meant to undermine the anti-pornography campaign. Rostenberg responded in another editorial accusing the Cincinnati group of using the Kansas City area as a test to see if they could ban all adult material, which he described as a “goal that is beyond the nation’s laws.” He said he had discussed the laws with Johnson County District Attorney Dennis Moore and also consulted with attorneys at the ACLU.

At one point, the KCCAP sent “cookie ladies” to Hollywood at Home to stand outside the store distributing cookies while encouraging men to eat cookies instead of looking at pornography. I asked Rostenberg, “Was that legal? Could you have asked them to leave?” He shrugged and, with a laugh, said, “It’s a cookie! I ate their cookies.”

Things went quiet for a little bit. A Kansas City Star follow-up at the end of 1988 said the anti-porn movement had mostly fizzled. Adult tapes were still available and still made up about 10-percent of the video store marketplace. Rostenberg told the paper he had removed a few other hyper-violent tapes, demonstrating his sincerity about wanting to fit into the community.

Then news surfaced that NCAP was still at it. After a failed attempt in February of 1989, the first grand jury in Johnson County in nearly twenty years convened on May 22, 1989. It was called in response to petitions filed by NCAP, which sought a decision on whether X-rated films in video stores were in violation of Kansas obscenity laws.

In Kansas, if you get enough signatures, you can summon a grand jury of fifteen randomly selected private citizens to investigate for criminal activities with the assistance of the district attorney and determine if there is enough evidence of a crime to hold a person for trial. They usually meet for three to six months, and can subpoena witnesses to testify at their closed-to-the-public meetings. By the end, at least twelve of the fifteen have to vote in favor of an indictment for it to lead to an arrest and trial.

At the start of the 1989 grand jury, Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison was quoted as saying that under the law, something is obscene when it depicts patently offensive, explicit sex acts and appeals to prurient interest, and also if a reasonable person would say that the material is without serious artistic, political, scientific, or educational value. He said that in this case the decision went to a grand jury because Johnson County government officials didn’t want to be the arbiters of what was and was not obscene and instead wanted guidance from the community.

Fun Fact: One of the judges working for Johnson County at the time was Judge Herbert W. Walton, who had been involved in the 1969 ruling that the Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow)” was obscene. It had played in an Overland Park theater and been challenged. After a trial, Judge Walton ordered that the print of the film be destroyed and forbid the movie from being screened again in Johnson County.

The 1989 grand jury was much more merciful. They met for 16 days and listened to testimony from law enforcement and human sexuality experts, and also watched portions of sexually explicit films. At the end of it all, they didn’t indict any video dealers for obscenity, but they did recommend that vendors permanently remove pornographic films “dealing with incest, sexual conduct with minors, bondage, torture, bestiality, rape, fetishes and those lacking significant storylines or plots.”

The attorney representing the local video dealers said that the recommendations would only result in about a 5-percent reduction in the X-rated inventory of most stores, and that they were pleased overall with the outcome. Cooper also told the press he was pleased with the outcome, but claimed the recommendation knocked out 95-percent of the stores’ adult inventories. He may have been trying to play up the win for his followers, but my good-faith assumption is that he felt the “lacking significant storylines or plots” guideline would wipe out most of the films. It did not.

Morrison said the next step was for law enforcement to send out letters to video stores that handled X-rated tapes and inform them about the ruling. Then they would have a grace period to remove offending tapes before violations would become criminal. First offenses could result in a misdemeanor charge with a maximum punishment of $2,500 and one year in jail, and repeat offenses escalated to felonies with maximum fines of $5,000 and five years in a state penitentiary.

This chapter of the Johnson County video store saga closed with an article in October of 1989 that followed a detective in the criminal intelligence unit of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department. He was the lone detective assigned to the video store beat, and twice made it clear to the reporter that this was just one of the many things he did for his job. He told the reporter that he generally only went to a video shop when there was a specific complaint, and that since June they only had two – both dealing more with how videos were displayed than with the content of the videos. He said that on the rare random check-in, he would examine the collections for films that either in title or in description appeared to violate the rules. If he found one, he would rent it and examine it, but so far that hadn’t been necessary. A brief epilogue: Rostenberg told me he really took the NCAP seriously and even went to two of their national conventions. In response to the wave of threats to free speech in the Kansas City area at the time, Rostenberg and a friend started the Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, which later became the Free Speech Coalition. Throughout the 1990s they had an annual Culture Under Fire event, which showcased provocative films, music, poetry, and so forth. It gradually wound down, but he said it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Alright, enough filth! Let’s get back to business!

By 1987, the average video rental in the Kansas City area cost about $2.00 per day. More people than ever were renting videos at more stores than ever, and prices declined as competition increased. If you were in Johnson County and you wanted to rent a movie, you could go to Antin House of Video, Applause Video, Continental Video Center, Hollywood at Home, Master Video, Movies at Home, The Movie House, National Video, Peaches Video, Video Biz, Video Corner, Video Exchange, Video Library, Videolane, most grocery stores, most drug stores, some gas stations… or any number of other places. Then Blockbuster Video stepped into the Johnson County scene, and things really heated up.

An advertisement for the grand opening of the area’s first Blockbuster.

In 1988, Blockbuster was an aggressively expanding national chain that aimed to be the McDonald’s of the video rental industry. It started in Dallas in 1985 and thanks to some big investors quickly took the country by storm. The store would eventually have near-universal brand recognition and – at its peak in 2004 – almost 9,000 stores around the world.

The area’s first Blockbuster was at 8701 Metcalf Ave, and it opened in March of 1988 with about 10,000 tapes (not titles). It was half a mile down the street from Hollywood at Home, which by then had 10,200 tapes (between 6,000 to 8,000 titles). I have to imagine somebody at Blockbuster corporate had done their research and put a target on Hollywood at Home.

In describing the new Blockbuster store, one article said Blockbuster was different because, among other things, they had all of their videotapes on display on the floor. Customers would pick up their tape, housed in its own Blockbuster case, and bring it to the counter to rent. Many stores practiced what Rostenberg described a “closed system,” where the video cases or clear plastic slips with the collapsed or altered video case art were out on the floor, but all of the tapes were behind the counter or in a back room (or anywhere they would fit). Presumably this prevented theft or damage to the tapes and was easier to keep organized. Very early on, a lot of stores simply had catalogs customers could browse, then pick their film and rent it, but by 1982 or 1983 that was pretty rare. Anyhow, Hollywood at Home utilized the closed system, and plenty of stores I visited over the years did too, but I was told Video Library in Lenexa opened in 1985 with the tapes out on the shelves, and possibly even pioneered this technique, so I suspect this was marketing bluster from Blockbuster and no real claim to fame.

A peek behind the counter at Hollywood at Home in 1985. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

By the end of 1988, Blockbuster had nine metro area stores, 235 stores total across 33 states, and was opening four or five per week. Most of their growth at that time was the acquisition of existing stores and small, city-wide or regional chains. They were a force to be reckoned with, but when I asked Rostenberg about the competition he said that when Blockbuster opened up, his store really didn’t see much of a dip in business, and when they closed many years later, Hollywood at Home didn’t see much of an uptick. By 1988, Hollywood at Home had a much deeper collection of films and video games than Blockbuster would ever have, as well as adult films (which Blockbuster never carried), and thankfully there were enough VCRs in the area by then to keep everybody afloat.

An ad for Movies at Home circa 1986.

As competitive as things were by the end of the 1980s, 90% of stores nationwide were still independent (as opposed to franchises or chains), and business was good for most of them. Industry research reported that tapes were breaking even more quickly than in previous years, and individual tapes were getting more rentals before being trashed or sold-as-used than ever before. By 1990, the VSDA estimated video sales and rentals were a $10.5 billion per year business and said 68% of US households had VCRs. That year brought two significant acquisitions that changed the Johnson County video store landscape. In May, the local chain Movies at Home sold their 10 VHS rental stores and one all-Beta store to a Belgium-based retailer called Super Club (which was purchased by – you guessed it – Blockbuster in 1993). The former owners said they didn’t expect to change their stores and would continue to be involved in running them. They said they made the sale with the hopes of having a partner with deeper pockets that would help them expand the business further.

Then in July, Blockbuster purchased Applause Video, then the Kansas City area’s largest chain with 22 stores. This took Blockbuster to 36 stores in the Kansas City area. At the time of the deal, the unflappable Richard Rostenberg told the Kansas City Star that he was happy about it. “Instead of competing against two, we’re only competing against one now.” He added that Hollywood at Home was having its best year yet.

Another competitor that was ruffling the feathers of at least some video dealers was Phar-Mor. They sold tapes for $10-12 below suggested retail and rented tapes for as much as $2 less than the average rental store: 69 cents per night. Nobody could figure out how they were staying afloat. Their margins were way too thin for any video store to be able to compete, but they also appeared to be taking huge losses. The article I read was humorous in retrospect, because Phar-Mor famously collapsed due to shady financial practices in the early 1990s and never recovered, closing their final stores in the early 2000s.

Probably the most significant thing in the history of Johnson County video stores – and possibly even the history of Johnson County itself – occurred on Saturday February 1st, 1992 when Marky Mark of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch appeared at the Movies at Home store at 95th and Antioch for an album signing. Residents still look at that day as the day Johnson County finally made it to the big leagues.

Rostenberg proudly shows off his newsstand and seven copies of “Roxanne” circa 1992. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

In 1995, Hollywood at Home celebrated their 15th year of business. An interview in the Kansas City Star detailed how they were continuing to thrive with annual sales of $500,000. Tapes were still their bread and butter, but around 1990 the store – which had expanded from 800 square-feet to 2,800 square-feet in the mid-1980s – had added a newsstand that had since grown to 2,000 publications and made up 20-percent of the store’s business. Rostenberg told me that at one point in the 1980s they’d had every Atari game that existed, but by the mid-1990s they had sold those off and were renting Sega and Nintendo titles. (Fun fact: Back in the 1980s, they had a Pac-Man competition at the store and a little kid won $5,000.)

A boy tries out an Atari game at Hollywood at Home circa 1983. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

Things were so good in 1995, in fact, that Hollywood at Home purchased a computer with “Clair V.” software on it. The program had people fill out a 10-minute survey and then gave them film recommendations. I chuckled reading about this the other day, picturing somebody standing there in 1995 for ten minutes filling out the quiz, but I know that if the computer had still been there when I started visiting the store in the 2000s, I would have used it.

Movie Gallery, another large national chain, entered the Kansas City area in 1996. Like Blockbuster, they were expanding rapidly by building new stores and acquiring old ones at that time. Polo Video in Leawood was among their acquisitions, as were most of the Movie Exchange and Flicks and Discs stores.

Hollywood Video – yet another large national chain – came to town that same year and had eight stores in the area by the end of 1997.

Almost every household (85 to 90-percent) had at least one VCR by the mid-to-late-1990s, and the nation had around 27,000 video stores. Video revenue was almost two-thirds of the movie business’s income, compared to theatrical revenue (which was about a quarter). Yet video hadn’t cannibalized theatrical like the studios feared it would in the early days. Surely it impacted the theatrical business to some extent, but the theatrical business was thriving too.

A Hollywood at Home employee poses by a homemade display celebrating the release of “Titanic” circa 1998. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

Unfortunately, the news wasn’t as rosy for video stores. By the end of 1996, sell-through spending was starting to surpass rental spending. The bright side here was that it brought down the average price of tapes quite a bit for video stores, so it was easier to reach a profit by renting them. The downside is that customers were buying most of their movies at places like Wal-Mart, not their video store. Rental stores were still doing very healthy business as a whole, but they were mostly shouldered out of sell-through business, and rental profits were spread very thin over a lot of stores. Then, in 1997, rental revenues fell 4.2-percent, their biggest (and possibly first) drop ever.

The industry brought down rental prices to compete for consumers’ entertainment dollars, and Blockbuster abandoned their one standard nationwide price and began to compete price-wise on a local basis. On top of that, the biggest chain stores began competing with each other by buying tons of copies of the biggest new releases so that customers would have no need to ever go to a competitor to get the newest film they were looking for. That was rough enough to make a profit on for the major chains, but buying 100 to 200 copies of the biggest new movie just wasn’t possible for the littler guys who saw their business further siphoned off by this practice.

That said, it was pretty cool as a customer. For a while, my Blockbuster had a deal where if they didn’t have a title they were “guaranteed” to have, you could get a coupon for a free rental of something else. I remember regularly checking to see if they were out of any of the guaranteed titles just so I could get the occasional free rental. (Don’t worry, they made plenty of money off of me otherwise.)

An advertisement for a Blockbuster movie sale circa 1992.

In July of 1999 Hollywood at Home reported that business was great. By then about half of their business was video-related, while books and magazines were about 35-percent, and cigars, cigarettes, and candy made up the remainder.

20 million VCRs sold that year, but a new format was gaining steam: DVD, which used discs instead of tapes and offered higher-quality picture and sound, plus (usually) some fun bonus features. DVD rentals and sales were starting to pick up as the millennium neared, and the format would lead to one last shot in the arm for rental stores in the early 2000s.

Also in 1999, a company called Netflix – a website, really – introduced monthly subscription plans for renting DVDs through the mail. I’m pretty sure the company quickly disappeared and was never heard from again, but I’ll have to check my notes before I start writing the next section.

Hollywood at Home celebrated its 20th anniversary in April of 2000 with Bo Ling’s cuisine, free nail buffing and chair massages, and of course an autograph signing with local girl and Penthouse “Pet of the Year 1997” Elizabeth Hilden. In an interview with the KC Star, Rostenberg admitted the rental industry was unpredictable, but speculated that the store would be in business for at least another five years.

A few years later, Robert Butler wrote a great piece on the still-thriving video store that had a lot of details that took me right back to the store in the days when I’d first discovered it. New releases were $4, but you got a $1 credit if you brought them back the next day. The older movies were four movies for $4 for four days, which was absolutely perfect for burgeoning movie buffs looking to kill a weekend.

I first found Hollywood at Home in 2003 or 2004, when I was calling every video store in the phonebook searching for a copy of “Confessions of an Opium Eater” starring Vincent Price. (Like everybody, I went through a big Vincent Price phase in high school.) Nobody had it because I don’t think it ever had a VHS release in the US and the DVD wasn’t out yet, but I caught Hollywood at Home’s Eric on the phone and he started talking to me about Hammer Horror and Amicus Productions. It was the first I’d heard about such things, and I had to know more, so I went out to visit the store. I can’t say that I specifically remember the first time I ever entered Hollywood at Home, but I do remember that any time I entered it, it just felt like Home to me. I could and did browse for hours, and always went home with 4-8 movies and maybe a magazine or two. I was there all the time. I brought my friends. I brought my dad. Sometimes the clerk actually knew who I was when I stepped up to the counter to rent. I just loved it.

Butler described how the clerks played movies on the in-store TVs instead of promo reels like the more corporate shops had. He relayed the following anecdote from a customer: “One time I came in here with one of my friends and one of the clerks was on the P.A. system doing a Marlon Brando imitation. I’ve never seen that at Blockbuster.” I never caught a Brando impression, but I do remember always being quite pleased when somebody was watching a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode on the TVs. You really sense you’re a part of something bigger than you when you chuckle at the same Tom Servo riff that gets a smile from the clerk and a snort from another customer.

A look inside Hollywood at Home circa 2010. Photo courtesy Steve Wolverton

Butler revealed that the store required all potential employees to take a 50-question movie quiz in 10 minutes and be evaluated for their movie knowledge. (Rostenberg gave me a copy of the quiz and I scored 45/50.) Turnover was extremely low at Hollywood at Home. Butler talked about how the store offered insurance benefits, a pension plan, profit-sharing, and – of course – free rentals. This was virtually unheard of for a video store (except for the free rentals part). “Whenever we go to conventions and Richard brings up the fact that we have a retirement plan and profit-sharing, the other video store owners look at him like he’s some kind of alien,” Steve Wolverton, then-employee, soon-to-be-owner told Butler.

And then there was the collection. I may be wrong, but I believe the only video collection in Johnson County that ever surpassed the depth and variety of Hollywood at Home’s was Video Library’s. Video Library was a massive independent store that had been around since 1985, and they truly had everything. Hollywood at Home had a much smaller space, but being in operation since 1980 and specifically selecting movie maniacs to curate the joint left them with a huge collection full of hard-to-find films. Rostenberg told Butler that they had a few regulars who would drive in from central Missouri or central Kansas, get a hotel room, and spend the weekend with a stack of movies they couldn’t find anywhere else.

After a busy but shaky late-1990s, the early-2000s started off happily enough for video stores. I found conflicting figures, but it appears that the video rental market hit a new height (its peak) in 2001, thanks in large part to a boost from DVD.

DVD launched in 1997 and took a little while to catch on. VHS was still the dominant rental format in 2001 when DVD players were only in about 2 million US households. That year VHS rentals were $7 billion and DVD rentals were $1.4 billion. However, by 2004, DVD players were in more than 50-percent of US households, and the rental figures had just about flipped: DVDs accounted for $5.75 billion in rentals and VHS tapes for $2.3 billion. Total rental revenue was down about $400 million from 2001, but DVD had caught on, and VHS was on its way out.

A Hollywood at Home employee is excited about DVD circa 1999. Photo courtesy Richard Rostenberg

DVD spurred a rise in overall home video spending (renting combined with purchasing), but it presented a couple of challenges to the brick-and-mortar rental industry. First, with DVD people spent more money buying DVDs than they did renting them. Gone were the days of $80 new release VHS tapes that made it logical to rent films instead of buying them. By the time DVD was the dominant format, it was normal to find big new releases for $20 on release day and $5 bins for older titles at most major retailers. Second, the lightweight discs allowed for things like Netflix (rental discs in the mail) and Redbox (a company that rents disc from a vending machine and was founded in 2002) to be more economically feasible. It’s cheaper and easier to ship a disc than a VHS tape, and as those services caught on, they ate up consumer dollars that would have otherwise gone to video rental stores.

I’ll sum up this final phase of the video store story as succinctly as possible:

In 2005, Netflix had about 4 million subscribers.

In 2010, 18 million.

In 2015, 70 million.

And in 2020, they reported over 200 million subscribers.

The other factors we’ve touched on play a role, but Netflix’s growth is the short answer to, “Whatever happened to video stores?” Remember the “Layla” scene in “Goodfellas”? It was like that.

Anyways, you get the idea. Now for the longer version…

Most video stores, large and small rode out the mid-2000s fairly comfortably, but technology, consumer habits, and a recession had all of them on the ropes by the end of the decade.

To briefly tell the tale of the big dogs, let’s start in 2004. That year Viacom decided to divest itself of its controlling interest in Blockbuster, which had 9,000 stores globally (5,800 in the US) at the time – ultimately their peak. After that, Blockbuster attempted to purchase Hollywood Video (2,000 stores) for $700 million. Movie Gallery (2,700 stores) was mostly hanging out off to the side, and their strategy at the time was to keep the profitable stores they had in metro areas, close the unprofitable ones, and otherwise focus on rural areas that were too small to attract Blockbuster’s attention.

Blockbuster’s purchase of Hollywood Video stalled, partially due to the Federal Trade Commission not immediately approving the acquisition out of monopoly concerns. (The purchase would have given Blockbuster control of over 50-percent of rental stores, after all.) Then Movie Gallery swooped in and bought Hollywood Video in early 2005 for $850 million. At that time, the Kansas City area had 9 Hollywood Videos and 5 Movie Gallery stores.

I don’t quite understand why the chains were so eager to buy each other up, but Blockbuster (after declining to buy Netflix for $50 million in the year 2000) spent the mid-2000s trying to come up with ways to beat Netflix at its own game, first with discs through the mail and then with a variety of stabs at the streaming market (plus lowering prices and announcing “the end of late fees” in 2005). My guess is Blockbuster thought acquiring more storefronts would first eliminate a competitor and secondly better position them as a hybrid brick-and-mortar/discs-in-mail/streaming force that could compete with Netflix, but it was never completely clear to me what they were thinking long-term as I read contemporary articles and post-mortem histories of the company.

Anyhow, in 2006, Blockbuster floated out purchasing the struggling Movie Gallery, but didn’t end up doing it. In 2007, Movie Gallery closed its last two Kansas City area stores and went into bankruptcy restructuring in 2008. They emerged only to wind down the company in 2010 and sell their remaining Movie Gallery, Hollywood Video, and GameCrazy brands. I believe some stores survived for some time afterward, but as independent entities. To my knowledge, there are none that remain open anywhere.

A picture of a closed Movie Gallery circa 2013. Photo courtesy Mike Keller

In 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. It was purchased by Dish Network in 2011. Then in 2013, Blockbuster announced plans to close its 300 remaining stores across the US and wound almost all of them down in early 2014. I couldn’t find the exact date that the last Blockbuster in Johnson County closed, but the last one I remember visiting in the area was (I think) the store at 6600 Johnson Drive in Mission. If you know of any that stayed open later, let me know in the comments.

A handful of Blockbusters continued operating independently while licensing the Blockbuster brand throughout the 2010s, and as of 2019 there is one Blockbuster left. It’s in Bend, Oregon, and there is actually a charming little documentary about it.

Whenever video store conversations pop up in various forums, I tend to find two camps of people. There are the people whose only video store experiences were at Blockbuster, and some of them say they miss the store and some of them say they’re glad the store is dead. (The bile of the latter camp isn’t entirely surprising considering that by some reports late fees made up 15-percent or more of Blockbuster’s revenue.) And then there are the people who are annoyed that the soulless corporate behemoth Blockbuster gets so much of the nostalgia spotlight, and they implore people to remember the independent shops and such.

All this to say: There can be a lot of negativity surrounding the memory of Blockbuster, but as somebody who went to chain stores regularly for years, there was plenty of fun to be had at your average Blockbuster (or Movie Gallery or Hollywood Video), and I’d like to conclude our discussion of that particular chain by remembering the store at 8900 W 95th St, where I once purchased a ridiculously sun-bleached used copy of “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.”

I found an article from March of 2000 detailing that Blockbuster’s celebration of the release of “Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace” on home video. They said that the employees there dressed up like characters from the film, putting together their own elaborate costumes and makeup designs. Not only that, but on the Friday night after the tape was released, two employees dressed as Obi-Wan and Darth Maul put on a choreographed lightsaber battle complete with lights and fog.

The article said that in the past, that same group of employees had dressed up as Austin Powers and Felicity Shagwell, and once re-created the bow of the Titanic for when that film came out on VHS. That Blockbuster wasn’t representative of the whole chain by any means, but let us put aside our bitterness and remember what was good.

Around 2004 or 2005, Richard Rostenberg got sick. His illness left him exhausted and unable to work much more than 10 hours a week, and even that was pushing it. He decided it was time to sell, and his general manager Steve Wolverton stepped up to buy the store from him.

And Rostenberg? “Miracle of miracles, I got better after I sold the store,” he told me with a healthy chuckle when I interviewed him in October.

A view of Hollywood at Home from the parking lot circa 2010. Photo courtesy Steve Wolverton

Steve became general manager of Hollywood at Home in 1996 after a several year stint at one of the nation’s most famous video stores. Originally from Excelsior Springs, MO, Steve fell in love with movies by watching them on television as a kid. He particularly loved weird movies, and was a fan of “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film” by Michael Weldon (who he eventually befriended) and the “Psychotronic Video” magazine. There was an ad for Kim’s Video in New York City in the back of each Psychotronic magazine, and when Steve moved there in 1990, he applied for a job at the St Marks and 2nd Avenue location and actually got it, then quickly became a manager.

Kim’s Video was legendary for being one of the best video stores in the nation. It’s where people in the biz (show biz, that is) would go to get their movies if they were researching for a film they were making or something along those lines. It’s also a place where a lot of people who would go on to be famous worked. Among its famous alumni are Alex Ross Perry, Andrew WK, and Todd Phillips. In fact, Steve had to fire Todd Phillips from the store. And if he hadn’t, who knows, maybe we’d be living in some alternate reality where “Old School,” “The Hangover,” and “Joker” never came to be.

Anyways, Steve loved the job and got to know a lot of people in the New York film and video business, but unfortunately he was diagnosed with cancer and had to move home to recuperate. Once he had recovered, he applied to Hollywood at Home and got the job.

“We were more or less minting money… I mean, it was a great business back in the ‘90s,” he told me. The store’s overnight return drop was a slot in the front door where you slid the movie into a bin, and he said it was regularly overflowing with tapes when they arrived at the store in the morning.

Steve remembered the daily operations of the store with surprisingly good detail. They were open from 10am to 11pm seven days a week. Whoever opened the store arrived at 9:30 to get the overnight returns checked in and just generally get things ready for business. And once they opened, business was pretty steady, busier in the evenings and on weekends, and quieter during the weekdays. “You’d have time to watch movies and stuff. And frankly that’s why most of us worked at video stores, because you could watch movies while you were working,” he said with a laugh. “Plus you could take home all these movies for free.”

He told me that a long-time employee named Sue did most of the ordering, but “I’d always put in my two cents for obscure stuff that just came out. Richard would be like, ‘Is anybody going to rent this?’ and I’m like, ‘Maybe not, but we should have it.’”

When I asked him about competition with other stores he said he didn’t remember it being very competitive. He said that if they didn’t have a movie, he’d happily send people to other stores that did, particularly Video Library.

Steve bought the store in 2005, and the business was different from when he’d started in 1996. He estimated that pornographic movies and magazines were about 60-percent of their business by then, regular rentals were 20-percent, and non-adult magazines were the final 20. Everything went pretty smoothly for the first couple of years.

Then, in 2007, the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families delivered petitions to six Kansas City area county courthouses seeking grand jury investigations of 32 businesses for the promotion of obscenity. In Johnson County, Gringo Loco (Olathe), Movie Gallery (Olathe), Priscilla’s (Olathe), Video Library (Lenexa), Hollywood at Home (Overland Park), and a Spirit Halloween store were the targets.

This time the grand jury actually made indictments. Spirit Halloween had displayed adult costumes where minors could view them, and had their charges dropped by moving the costumes to a back section of the store. Gringo Loco was accused of selling an obscene DVD, and had their charges dropped after removing “Babysitter #18” from their shelves. Priscilla’s was accused of intending to sell various obscene devices and an obscene DVD, and I never found out what specifically happened with them or Movie Gallery. Hollywood at Home was accused of “unlawfully and knowingly or recklessly” possessing and intending to sell four obscene DVDs, and pled not guilty.

I couldn’t find any reporting on the outcome of their trial, so I asked Steve what happened. He said they hired a lawyer, it dragged on for six months or a year, and “it ended up costing us a few thousand dollars, but they ended up basically just kind of dropping everything.” He said the lawyer called him one day and said the group was dropping it because they felt like they’d made their point.

Hollywood at Home raised some money at the store to help with legal fees, but other than that and a new curtain to cover the adult section, the obscenity challenges didn’t affect the store much. However, they came at a bad time. 2008 brought the recession, and it was also the year that it became undeniable that Netflix, Redbox, and video-on-demand had caught up with the store. On top of that, the newsstand revenues that had helped them outlast several other area video stores had dropped off, and would continue to fall over the next few years. As Steve put it, “It was death by a thousand cuts.” Steve estimated that in the mid-1990s the store was bringing in roughly $500,000 to $600,000 per year, and that on some Friday nights they would make between $3,000 and $4,000. By 2013, they were bringing in about one quarter of that – enough to keep the store going, and that was it. And so, Steve decided to close the store.

Hollywood at Home shortly before closing, December 2013. Photo courtesy Mike Keller

“I probably kept the store open a year or so longer than I should have, but I just couldn’t bring myself to close it,” he said. “And when you’re the owner, you worry about where your employees are going to go. They’re not just employees, they’re friends. […] It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life.”

He said that the one bright spot in closing the store was all of the customers who came out to say farewell.

“We had so many great customers that had been coming there for years and years. They just came to us and said, ‘Oh we’re so sorry you’re closing, is there anything we can do?’ You know? ‘I started coming here when I was 8 years old with my parents, and I’ve been coming here for the last 20 years, and now I’m bringing my kids here.’ You know, it was tough, but it was just so nice, the outpouring of love and everything the last few months we were open.”

He said people came in every day during those final weeks to tell them they would miss the store. “And you know, honestly, I miss them too. I really do.”

Steve told me they had one guy who had been the store’s very first customer back in 1980, and was still coming in regularly in 2013. I’d only been going there for ten years at that point, but I visited several times in the final weeks to rent and buy movies while I still could. I even took home two shelves from the store and used them to display my movies (until they fell apart during a move about five years later). And I stopped in one last time on the night they closed, December 31st, 2013.

A view inside the store during their closing sale, December 2013. Photo courtesy Mike Keller

I was extremely disappointed to be losing the store, but it also felt like closing the book on one of the happiest parts of an entire era of my life. When I think about video stores, I think about all the movies that were just there for the taking, but I also think about the hours I spent walking the aisles with friends and family, chatting about whatever while trying to choose the evening’s entertainment. I think about the sleepovers that always involved pizza, Dr. Pepper, and a pile of tapes. I think about my parents tricking me into watching “Porky’s” by telling me they’d rented “Amelie.” I think about biking over to my Blockbuster practically every other night during my precious middle school and early high school summers to rent “Boogie Nights,” “IT,” “The Godfather,” “The Ice Cream Man,” or whatever caught my eye. I think about the guy in my driver’s ed class who let me borrow a tape he’d kept out way too long from Fine Arts Video in Mission: “Eraserhead.” I think about going to SRO Video over in Kansas City to see what else was out there in this crazy world of ours.

When the Family Video stores in Shawnee and Olathe closed in 2021, Johnson County was officially without a video store for the first time since Rostenberg had opened Hollywood at Home in 1980. You can still rent movies at Vintage Stock locations, Johnson County Library, and Redbox kiosks, but there aren’t any traditional video stores left. I’m not even aware of any in the Kansas City area. As more and more retail disappears in the Age of the Internet, I often find myself feeling claustrophobic. There just don’t seem to be as many places to go. I miss all the places. But I miss the video stores more than anything. As a film fan, a mediocre video store was a fun time. A good video store was like a well-curated museum that allowed you to take the art home. And a great video store was a work of art itself. It was simultaneously a little shrine to film and a gold mine where you would go and hunt for some undiscovered treasure to take home. Johnson County had a lot of video stores over the years, and Hollywood at Home was a truly great one.

I’d like to thank Richard Rostenberg and Steve Wolverton for participating in interviews for this blog post. I’d also like to thank the fine reporters from the Kansas City Star who made all my research possible. Thanks also to everybody out there who ever started a video store or worked in one.

If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye on this blog in the coming months, as I’m also trying to put together a (much shorter) piece on Lenexa’s Video Library (1985-2007).

I hope you enjoyed reading about Johnson County video stores. Feel free to leave a comment with your own video store memories.

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library


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Confronting Segregation in Johnson County

The Johnson County Museum’s special exhibition, REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation (on display through January 7, 2023), is a gripping exploration of the history of redlining from its origins to its legacies, which continue to shape our lived realities today. REDLINED tells a national story told with a local focus that reveals how Johnson County both shaped and was shaped by the history of redlining. While the bulk of the exhibit is about the federal policy of redlining from its origins to its lasting legacies, the exhibit also highlights Johnson County’s unique role in each stage of the process, including efforts to combat redlining and its effects. In this post, we are highlighting the work of three Johnson Countians who confronted the system of redlining and, in doing so, changed our community.

Johnson County highlights in the REDLINED exhibition at the Johnson County Museum.
Johnson County highlights in the REDLINED exhibition at the Johnson County Museum.

Suburban Integrator

African American real estate agent Donald Sewing, Jr. was a prominent Johnson County housing activist working for integration. Sewing, whose own family purchased a home in Fairway, Kansas in 1966 through the help of a prearrangement with the seller, worked to place Black families strategically throughout Johnson County’s suburban neighborhoods. Sometimes this involved “straw buyers” (individuals who purchase something on behalf of another person). Over the course of a decade, his efforts helped more than 60 Black families move into the northeastern Johnson County suburbs. Many of these families were the first people of color in their subdivisions. Sewing attributed the lack of white flight to his scatter approach in placing Black families.

Sewing lived in Johnson County until his death in 2007. Reflecting on his choice to move his family to a previously all-white neighborhood, Sewing said, “I don’t think integration should be a matter of waiting until a neighborhood is ready. I think the best kind of education for a person who hasn’t had the experience of living in an integrated neighborhood is to integrate it.”

Donald Sewing, Jr. Johnson County Museum
Donald Sewing, Jr. Johnson County Museum

Fair Housing and the “Good Neighbor Pledge”

Like many communities, Johnson County was home to fair housing activists. One of the most visible was the Rev. Robert “Dr. Bob” Meneilly, leader of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. As early as 1947, Meneilly began preaching a simple message – love your neighbor. Working with other activists in the 1960s, such as Ruth Shechter, Meneilly went door to door to ask residents to sign the “Good Neighbor Pledge,” a promise that if a Black family moved in nearby, they would not move away and they would welcome their new neighbor. Meneilly made national news for preaching the importance of integrating Johnson County’s suburban neighborhoods. His sermons drew both support and ire.

The “Good Neighbor Pledge,” courtesy of The Kansas City Star.
The “Good Neighbor Pledge,” courtesy of The Kansas City Star.

In a sermon titled “I Trouble – Segregating God” delivered on Valentine’s Day Sunday in 1965, Rev. Meneilly told his congregation:

“In a community where there is no apparent race-relations problem you might say, ‘Don’t bring up the subject… Don’t be aggressive. Leave things alone and they will work out naturally in time.’ This kind of thinking is the reasoning of people who want to look like Christian citizens but don’t care to act like Christian citizens. This is the way people who want to look respectable rationalize their ‘do nothingness.’ …There is no beauty in peace when the peace is insured by keeping suppressed in their places those you consider a threat. How can we who live here dare say we love the Negro, or holding hand over the heart, pledge allegiance to our beloved flag, say: ‘with liberty and justice for all’ when we would go into a panic if we heard a Negro family might be able to consider a house on our street? …Prayer and prejudice can never dwell in the same heart.”

You can hear a recording of Rev. Meneilly, who passed away in 2021, read his own sermons in an interactive in the Johnson County Museum’s signature exhibit, Becoming Johnson County. For her part, Ruth Shechter, who was Jewish, continued her human and civil rights activism at the local, metro, and Kansas State levels, serving on the Shawnee Mission Housing Council, the Kansas Commission on Civil Rights, and the Kansas Advocacy Council on Civil Rights, which was instrumental in passing Kansas’ 1970 Fair Housing Act.

Rev. Dr. Robert Meneilly. Johnson County Museum

Advocating for Displaced Communities

Urban Renewal projects reshaped cities of all sizes across the nation. In the 1960s, Olathe, Kansas city leaders hoped to modernize the downtown area with such a project and later expanded its scope to include a “slum clearance” project of the nearby Fairview neighborhood. Fairview, Olathe’s historic African American community, was located north of Santa Fe Street and west of Kansas Avenue, literally the other side of the railroad tracks. Because the homes there were older and many were in disrepair, the urban renewal project planned to demolish them and build new ones. However, the new homes were priced too high for the residents of Fairview to afford.

Ruth Shechter helped found the Homes Evaluation & Rehabilitation (H.E.R.E.) organization to instead make necessary changes to the existing homes to bring them up to code. The goal was to keep homeowners in their homes in their own neighborhood. Despite these efforts, more than 30 Black families were priced out of the Fairview neighborhood by the urban renewal project and forced to find homes elsewhere. Shechter continued to advocate for all Johnson Countians, later reflecting, “I’ve been involved in civil rights—that’s been my life.” Shechter died in 2018 at the age of 96.

Ruth Shechter. Johnson County Museum
Ruth Shechter. Johnson County Museum

Learning More

These are just three of the many inspiring stories from Johnson County and the Kansas City region recounted in the REDLINED exhibit, and we continue to learn new histories from visitors about the experiences of their loved ones. If you have a story to share related to Johnson County’s history, your family, and overcoming obstacles, reach out and share at

The REDLINED exhibit remains on display through January 7, 2023 and is included in museum admission. You can learn more about the exhibit, learn about upcoming programming at the Johnson County Museum and at our partner sites across the bi-state area, and find additional resources to learn more about redlining at, and by following the hashtag #RedlinedKC on social media.

Dive deeper into this history in these past JoCoHistory Blog posts:

Building the Suburbs

The FHA Program

Redlined or Restricted?

Ruth Shechter

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Johnson County’s Poor Farm

Photo taken at the Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1917. Johnson County Museum
OVER the hill to the poor-house I ’m trudgin’ my weary way—,  
I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray—,  
I, who am smart an’ chipper, for all the years I ’ve told,  
As many another woman that’s only half as old.  
Over the hill to the poor-house—I can’t quite make it clear!          
Over the hill to the poor-house—it seems so horrid queer!  
Many a step I ’ve taken a-toilin’ to and fro,  
But this is a sort of journey I never thought to go. 

The story from the above 1872 Will Carleton poem “Adversity” was once a common tale for those living with poverty or disability in America. Anyone who could not find self-supporting work – due to age, physical or mental disability, dependent children, or other factors – and who had no family to care for them would find themselves facing the prospect of the poorhouse. Originating in the United Kingdom, poorhouses were institutions designed to employ the poor and disabled in exchange for food, housing, and healthcare. As the British Empire spread, so did its ideologies; Colonial America’s larger cities featured poorhouses and, as the Union formed and expanded, so followed poorhouses or – as was more common in the U.S. – poor farms. County governments in each state oversaw poor farms where residents, then referred to as “inmates”, were expected to complete farm labor and housework for room and board. 

By the early 20th century, most Kansas counties had a poor farm. Johnson County’s poor farm was built on a 160-acre plot at the corner of what is now 119th Street and Ridgeview Road in Olathe. While its specific origin date is unclear, it opened in the mid-1860s with 8 residents working the farm. With the assistance of a small staff, they grew corn, oats, black sorghum, hay potatoes, cow peas, and apples. They raised hogs, cows, and chickens. During its tenure, the farm housed an average of 15-40 residents, though times of widespread hardship saw higher numbers.  

Photo taken at Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1920. Johnson County Museum

In 1909, a visiting representative from the Olathe Mirror newspaper described the farm as clean, well-furnished, and comfortable. Of its then twelve residents, it was said: “Some of these are too aged to be of any assistance and three of them are blind, so that as a whole the inmates instead of being a help either on the farm or in the infirmary, must be helped.” This was true for many farms across the country. The circumstances leading people to poor farms often made them unsuitable for the hard labor of farm work. Over time, many county-appointed superintendents found it more financially viable to rent their farmland out, using the proceeds to provide for their residents, rather than rely on them for farm output.  

Photo taken at Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1920. Johnson County Museum

As management for poor farms was largely unregulated, quality of life varied greatly among different counties and states. Some superintendents received salaries while others made only what the farm earnings would allow. Ideologies differed, too, on what poor farms were designed for, with some treating them as purely charitable ventures while others sought high profits – leading many residents to experience mental and physical abuse, overwork, and unclean and inadequate surroundings. Residents of poor farms sometimes shared one razor, toothbrush, and wash basin among themselves. Unsurprisingly, disease spread quickly in these places. To justify such conditions, superintendents would claim they did not want to provide what they saw as luxury items, believing that providing comforts would prevent residents from wanting to leave poor farms – but most never had the ability to leave, regardless of want. 

Poor farms were ubiquitous for over a century in the United States, but population and economic changes made the already shaky system untenable in the first half of the 20th century. The 1929 economic crisis that ushered in the Great Depression led to overwhelming need for poor relief. Poor farms lacked funding to care for their already existing residents and were unable to take on further economic burdens. By 1933 almost one-third of all Kansas farmland was tax delinquent, and the country was in crisis. In 1935 Congress created the Social Security Act and, with it, federal financial support for the elderly, disabled, dependent mothers and children, and unemployed. These changes, along with a series of housing reforms, allowed many who would have faced poor farms to live independently. Three years later, nearly a third of all Kansas poor farms had been repurposed or closed entirely. 

Photo taken at Johnson County Poor Farm, c. 1920. Johnson County Museum

As methods of social relief changed, so did public opinion. Poor farms were increasingly viewed as inhumane and outdated, and public thought turned toward newer institutions designed to provide for people on an individual level – nursing homes, mental health facilities, and schools for deaf and blind students. Many former Kansas poor farms were converted to nursing homes, community centers, and hospitals. Operating through the end of World War II, the Johnson County Poor Farm became a senior care facility before the land was repurposed for government use. Gone but not entirely forgotten, the plot where the farm once stood still provides services to the county’s many residents; it now houses the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, MED-ACT, and the K-State Research and Extension Office.  

-Sam S., Johnson County Library

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Johnson County Museum: Past, Present, Future

By: Dr. Mary McMurray, Museum Director

Fifty-five years ago, on Oct. 29, 1967, the Johnson County Museum opened its doors to the public. The new museum was located in an old, familiar place – the Greenwood School site at 6305 Lackman Road in Shawnee. Visitors were invited to explore exhibits which looked at the history of Johnson County and included a pioneer kitchen, general store, and Victorian-era parlor.

The old Greenwood School, the first official home of the Johnson County Museum, located in Shawnee, Kansas. This photo taken in 1968. Johnson County Museum
The old Greenwood School, the first official home of the Johnson County Museum, located in Shawnee, Kansas. This photo taken in 1968. Johnson County Museum

The opening of the museum and curation of its exhibits was the product of service and dedication to the community. Less than a decade earlier, during a period of dynamic change for Johnson County, volunteer members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society decided to collect beyond the history of the mission site. As their collection grew, they worked with state and county governments to allow for and propose a 1/10th mill levy to support the establishment of a local county history museum. When the mill levy passed, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners appointed members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society as legal supervisors of the historical collection and the Johnson County Museum. By the end of their first year of operation, museum leadership had collected 889 objects, 70 photographs, and had welcomed 3,400 visitors.

Members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society in 1949. This organization of community volunteers with an interest in history preceded the Johnson County Museum.
Members of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society in 1949. This organization of community volunteers with an interest in history preceded the Johnson County Museum.

In the southern reaches of the county, another group of community volunteers – the Edgerton Dizzy Doers Extension – were also working to preserve local history. Their work focused on the only standing structure in a town that no longer existed: Lanesfield, Kansas. The town had served as a mail stop on the Santa Fe Trail and was the site of an 1856 skirmish between Missouri Border Ruffians and Free-State Kansans led by General James Lane. The only surviving building was a limestone structure that had served as a school for the community. The school was the oldest operating schoolhouse in Johnson County, with students receiving instruction in a single room from 1869 until 1963.

The 1869 stone, one-room Lanesfield School as it appeared in 1965. Today, the Lanesfield Historic Site is operated by the Johnson County Museum as a living history site.
The 1869 stone, one-room Lanesfield School as it appeared in 1965. Today, the Lanesfield Historic Site is operated by the Johnson County Museum as a living history site.

The Johnson County Museum has changed significantly over these past 55 years. Our primary location moved in 2017 to the old King Louie West building at 8788 Metcalf, in Overland Park. The Lanesfield Schoolhouse is now on the National Historic Register and a modern visitors center, complete with a history exhibit, stands on the grounds. Today, the historic collections include 21,500 objects; 1.3 million photographs, negatives and slides; and 400 cubic feet of archival material. A team of highly trained, professional staff oversee the sites and the collections. Earlier this year, the museum earned national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, which signifies our commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement. This year alone, we have welcomed tens of thousands of visitors (and climbing).

Johnson County Museum moved to the JoCo Arts & Heritage Center, in the old King Louie West building, in 2017. This photo was from renovation kick-off day in 2016.
Johnson County Museum moved to the JoCo Arts & Heritage Center, in the old King Louie West building, in 2017. This photo was from renovation kick-off day in 2016.

While much has changed in our 55-year history, the core of our work remains the same: service to our community. You can see it in the committed volunteers who make the Johnson County Museum better each day by greeting our visitors, providing tours, serving on our nonprofit board of directors, helping to oversee our management of the collections, and more. You can see it in the museum staff, who diligently work to collect, preserve, interpret, and educate our visitors on our county’s rich history. And you can see it on the walls of our signature exhibit, Becoming Johnson County, that tells the story of community members from all walks of life who worked to help Johnson County become what they wanted it to be at any given time in our history. Like the volunteers of the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society and Edgerton Dizzy Doers Extension, we hope these stories of community efforts inspire, empower, and embolden visitors to continue the never-ending process of helping Johnson County become what they want and need it to be in our time (and beyond).

Museum board members and volunteers enjoy the 5th anniversary reception for the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in June 2022.
Museum board members and volunteers enjoy the 5th anniversary reception for the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in June 2022.

As we celebrate the museum’s history, I can’t help but also think of the future of our institution. Looking forward, we want to continue to bring award-winning exhibitions, programs, fieldtrips, camps, and more to our community. Through these offerings, we can help our community better understand our county, the region, the national story of suburban development, and ourselves within those histories. We want to deepen our relationships with the community so that we can tell a fuller and more inclusive history of Johnson County and all of those who helped it become what it is today. We want to honor the roots of our museum through our service to our community, today, tomorrow, and always. 

We invite you to join us in whatever way you’d like – a visit to KidScape or Lanesfield Historic Site, attending a program, viewing REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation (closing Jan. 7!), donating to the collections, volunteering with us, and/or becoming a museum member. We exist because of our community, and we are honored to serve you all these past 55 years. Here’s to the next 55!

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Back to School Boost

Whether you are attending school in person, virtual, or a hybrid of both, check out these in person interviews from The Squire magazine that were published in 1963.  Ten individuals from various ages were asked what they were most anxious about when going back to school after a long summer break – Some of their answers may surprise you, others may remind you of yourselves and those around you.  The Squire was a local newspaper published in Johnson County by Tom Leathers from 1959 to 2005.  The JocoHistory collection has proudly preserved editions from 1961-1972

Greg Wilson, 633 E 96th St, "I like sports, and I'm anxious for the football season to start. I'll be a junior in the new Center High School. I think I'll like being in a brand new building."
Junior Greg Wilson was excited to attend a brand-new building and had his eyes set on the upcoming football season. The Village Squire
Larry Craig, 211 W 97th Terr. "I'm going to be a freshman at Center Junior high. I'd kind of like to get back to a schedule - I'm looking forward to football practice."
Fellow aspiring athlete, freshman Larry Craig is also looking forward to having a set schedule. The Village Squire
Mary Ann Donovan, 404 E 91st St. Terr. "I have had fun this summer, but it will be awfully good to see all the kids again. I'll be a sophomore at St. Teresa's this year - it's a good school."
Sophomore Mary Ann Donovan had a really fun summer but is still looking forward to seeing all of her classmates at St. Teresa’s – “a really good school.” The Village Squire
Joan Breslin, 209 E 115th St. "Oh, I've been in school a long time! I'm a second grader at Red Bridge school. I want to go back so I can learn to read better - I guess I can learn more about writing, too."
Second grader Joan Breslin is an aspiring reader and is also developing an interest in writing. The Village Squire
Mary Olsson, 3500 W 97th Pl. "I'm going to be a freshman at Iowa State this fall. To me, it's an exciting chance for a whole new life - and I love to meet new people and do new things."
College freshman Mary Olsson is ready for a whole new life at Iowa State with new people and experiences.  The Village Squire
Glen Chambers, 6018 W 102nd St. "I'm anxious to get started in the fifth grade. I just moved here, so I'd like to make some new friends. I'm going to be in Nall Hills school."
Fifth grader Glen Chambers is starting a new school in a new neighborhood and is ready to make some new friends. The Village Squire
Deborah Dreiling, 1109 E 104th St. "I'm going to be in the third grade at Christ the King school. I sure hope that I have Sister Mary Leslie again - that's the main reason I want to go back."
Third grader Deborah Dreiling is crossing her fingers and toes for a certain teacher this fall. The Village Squire
Linda Vance, 4337 W 74th St. "I'm anxious to start college life. I'll be a freshman at Pittsburg."
Future freshman Linda Vance is anxious with anticipation for college life in Pittsburg. The Village Squire
Judy Schaper, 9833 Lee Blvd. "I'll be a freshie at Pittsburg, too. I'd like to be out on my own."
Fellow Pittsburg freshman Judy Shaper is full of excitement to be out on her own for the first time. The Village Squire

-Heather McCartin, Johnson County Library

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Kids Become Junior Curators at the Johnson County Museum’s “History Geek” Camp

From Curator of Education, Leah Palmer

The Johnson County Museum just wrapped its fourth summer camp season. For a museum that just celebrated its 55th anniversary, that makes this a relatively new program. When the museum moved into the newly renovated Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in 2017, the new space allowed for new opportunities, like camps, that were not possible at the old location in Shawnee. Over the past four years, even in the midst of a pandemic, the museum’s summer camp program has seen tremendous growth and that has allowed the education staff there to create some truly unique opportunities for kids. As the museum’s Curator of Education, I get to see the magic that happens in these camps every day; I wanted to share some highlights from our camp season with you.

What is History Geek Camp?

One of the most fun things we do during the summer is our History Geek Camp. The name says it all, it is for kids who love history, museums, and learning new things. Over the course of one week, kids ages 13-16 learn about everything that goes into running a museum – they meet with curators, tour collection storage, and even visit our off-site storage facility where we keep all the big stuff few people get to see. But what is really cool about this camp is that at the end the kids fully produce a museum exhibit. They select topics within the year’s theme, conduct research, choose artifacts and images, plan their display cases, write labels, and even select design themes. If that seems like a lot for one week, it is! But these kids were up for the task. Zoey Karr, who is participating in the camp for a third year, said “I love learning about Johnson County history and getting the opportunity to make our own exhibit. It’s really fun.”

Campers meet with Curator of Collections, Anne Jones, and Collections Manager, Liz Lumpkins. During their tour of collections storage, the campers had an opportunity to view photographs retrieved from the 1952 Courthouse Time Capsule. These photos depict the official time capsule placement ceremony held May 7, 1951.

Although we have held History Geek camp for four years now, we continue to add new things each year. This is due in part to the passion of our education staff, and in part because of how awesome these kids are. “I love being able to provide opportunities for historians-in-the-making to engage with us and learn about history in a real-world setting within their community,” said Museum Educator Jessica Doyle. Each year we ask ourselves, what are we doing to facilitate this, and what might we be able to have them help with instead. For example, this year the museum director had them write the press release about their exhibit. And they did a fantastic job!

In previous years the theme of the exhibit has been Made in Johnson County. For this year we challenged ourselves, and the campers, with a new topic – JoCo Change Makers. Johnson County history is filled with people who worked to make our community a better place. What better way to get kids inspired than to let them tell those stories? This theme fit in perfectly with our current temporary exhibit REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation and allowed the campers to add to that story with first-hand accounts of people in our community.

Museum Educator, Madeline Thompson, assists two campers as they place artifacts and photographs in an exhibit case. The bag belonged to Dr. Adelbert Reece, who built the first hospital in Johnson County in Gardner in 1934.

The final exhibit covers three subtopics: housing, education, and health. For each of these, two individuals were profiled. The exhibit is on display right outside the iconic All Electric House until late November. When asked what they hope the public takes away from their exhibit, the camper Angel Martin said, “I hope people can learn more about the amazing people that have helped shape our community.” Camper Miles Brown added, “These people helped make this community into what it is today.”

So come by, check it out, and learn from some young change makers from right here in Johnson County.

What other camps are offered at the museum?

In addition to History Geek Camp, the museum hosted an additional two types of camps serving two different age groups. Our ever-popular KidScape Summer Adventures Camp for kids 6-8 explores a different theme each week. We use the museum galleries, including KidScape – our interactive children’s exhibit, to explore everything from agriculture and transportation to the 1950s. And during our Museum Explorers camp, kids 9-12 take a deeper dive into all things made in Johnson County. Camps explore the galleries to learn about the inventions and innovations throughout the county’s past before taking on the role of junior inventor.

Campers with the final History Geek exhibit. The exhibit will be on display until late November 2022.

Keep an eye out for these and camps and more next summer! Registrations open as early as January 2023. Don’t want to wait until next summer to get your kids involved at the museum? Check out our out-of-school program, Kids’ Day Out, and other great programs on our website. Museum | Johnson County Park & Rec, KS (

Special thanks to our History Geek campers: Olivia B., Miles B., Zoey K., Angel M., Griffin M., Elissa N., and Will R.!

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