The Barkleys: Preserving Johnson County

On April 24, the newly redesigned entrance to Shawnee Mission Park off Renner Road was rededicated as Barkley Plaza. Since opening in 1964, Shawnee Mission Park has been Johnson County Park and Recreation District’s largest and most-visited park – and until Big Bull Creek Park opened in 2018, it was also JCPRD’s largest park. In addition to a beautiful pavilion, two new interpretive panels present visitors with the history of JCPRD and its parks, as well as the Barkley family. But who were the Barkleys?

When we think of foundational families, we often think of the 19th century, not the 20th. But the 20th century was a period of great change for Johnson County, and the Barkleys were truly a foundational family for the modern Johnson County. John Lewis Barkley was born in Johnson County, Missouri in 1895. He grew up on a farm and served in World War I—winning the Medal of Honor, as well as decorations from half a dozen other nations for his heroism during the war. When he returned stateside, he lived briefly in Kansas City before moving to a farm in Johnson County, Kansas, near present-day Mission.

John and Marguerite Barkley at a Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club picnic in 1961.
John and Marguerite Barkley at a Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club picnic in 1961. Johnson County Museum.

Living in an Era of Great Change

Barkley married Marguerite Mullen in 1936. The Mullens lived on the old Walmer-Mullen homestead, a large farm that encompassed much land to the northeast of the intersection of Metcalf Avenue and Shawnee Mission Parkway. Known as “Farmer John,” Barkley walked dairy cows across Highway 50 twice a day to his barn.

Soon after their marriage, Johnson County’s farmland began to transform due to prewar and then postwar suburbanization. The Barkleys were instrumental in organizing some of Johnson County’s most valued amenities through their community service in volunteer, social, and political positions. Barkley was elected to the Mission Township Board for District 1 beginning in 1952. Through this position, he helped establish essential public services such as police and fire control, sewers, and parks. The Barkleys also sold much of their farmland in what is Mission today, making room for the developments around Target, HyVee, and the Johnson County Northeast Offices.

John Barkley, third from left, at the 1959 groundbreaking for the E.R. Squibb building, located near the cloverleaf at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Metcalf Avenue.
John Barkley, third from left, at the 1959 groundbreaking for the E.R. Squibb building, located near the cloverleaf at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Metcalf Avenue. Johnson County Museum.

Preserving Johnson County

Through the Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club, John Barkley got involved in what would shape perhaps his greatest legacy. The Sertoma Club sought projects to better the community, and Barkley was an advocate for creating a park district in the county. The organization successfully lobbied to create a special tax district that eventually funded the Shawnee Mission Park District (renamed Johnson County Park and Recreation District in 1969). As the district’s first superintendent, Barkley managed the purchase of land for Antioch and Shawnee Mission Parks, opening in 1958 and 1964 respectively, as well as their development and maintenance. John Barkley was honored for this work in 1963 with the Jaycees Distinguished Service Award.

In 1930, Marguerite Barkley and others established the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society. Over the following decades, Marguerite was instrumental in securing a building and funding for sharing the history of Johnson County. These efforts laid the roots for the Johnson County Museum, which Marguerite helped establish in 1967. Marguerite served as the chairwoman of the museum’s volunteer board for 15 years; John served on the museum’s board of trustees. Together, the Barkleys helped start and shape the services and amenities that make Johnson County a great place to live today.

The Barkleys in Washington, D.C., in 1952. Left to right: Kansas Senator Errett Scrivner, Marguerite Barkley, Joan Barkley Wells, and John Barkley.
The Barkleys in Washington, D.C., in 1952. Left to right: Kansas Senator Errett Scrivner, Marguerite Barkley, Joan Barkley Wells, and John Barkley. Johnson County Museum.

The Legacy Continues

John Barkley died April 14, 1966 at age 70. Marguerite passed away almost 21 years later at age 86. The Barkleys’ work on behalf of those living in Johnson County outlived them, however. The new residential and commercial districts they shaped are mature, thriving areas today. Johnson County residents consistently rank JCPRD and Johnson County Museum, which the couple helped create, among the most important amenities in Johnson County. Today, the Barkleys’ daughter, Joan Barkley Wells, has continued to provide leadership on the Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County’s board. The Barkley family was and continues to be a steward for Johnson County’s future.

For more information about John Barkley’s wartime service, the Barkleys’ other activities in the county, and the history of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District, visit the newly dedicated Barkley Plaza at the East Entrance to Shawnee Mission Park, off Renner Road.

Ribbon cutting on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at the rededicated Barkley Plaza at Shawnee Mission Park. Joan Barkley Wells is seventh from the right.
Ribbon cutting on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at the rededicated Barkley Plaza at Shawnee Mission Park. Joan Barkley Wells is seventh from the right.

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April Showers Bring May Flowers

Spring is a busy season for many as they cultivate their gardens with the hope of seeing blooming dividends.  One organization dedicated to the pursuit of gardening is the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs.  At one time, more than seventy-five individual garden clubs belonged to the KAGC.

In 1926, a garden club in Emporia, Kansas was formed and became the founding member of the Kansas Association Garden Clubs.  Six years later, the Emporia group joined the National Garden Club, Inc.  In the next several decades, several groups throughout the Midwest joined the KAGC.  The Kansas groups were broken into districts based on their location: East Central, Mid East, North Central, Northeast, Northwest, South Central, Southeast, and Southwest.

One of the many highlights from the KAGC is the annual garden shows that take place among the various groups.  The Johnson County Museum houses several artifacts and photographs from various garden shows, particularly those of the East Central District.  I was able to speak with KAGC historian Sheila Miller on the history of garden clubs in Kansas and several of their traditions.

Not just for adults, youth would often participate in garden shows.  Pictured above are Susan Miller, Jeffery Woods, and Janet Elswood circa 1959.  (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)

Sheila Miller has spent decades with the Kansas Garden Clubs and belongs to the Bonner Springs Group. The group in Bonner Springs joined the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs in 1960, and Sheila joined in 1964 after getting a recommendation from a friend.   Being new to the community at the time, she saw joining the group as an opportunity to get to know her fellow gardeners.  For the past seven years, Sheila has worked diligently as the historian for the KAGC, preserving official documents, memorabilia, and general history of the organization.  These include yearbooks from the different Kansas clubs, which can provide inspiration for club members.  Some of the fond memories include working together on projects, visiting nursing homes, planting flowers at Kelly Murphy Park, and other gardening events (like the yearly garden shows).

Kelly Memorial Park, located in Bonner Springs, honors slain police officer Maureen Kelly Murphy.  (Photograph is courtesy of City of Bonner Springs.)

The annual garden shows are intended to educate the members and community about various gardening techniques and showcase the plants and flowers that are on display.  Members have the opportunity to show off ‘the very best of their garden’.  It takes a great deal of careful planning and preparation to be able to enter the show.

Mrs. Charles O’Conner stands proudly with her flower arrangement, circa 1959. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)

The majority of the flower shows are open to the public, with family and friends of the members coming to show their support and learn a little bit about gardening in the process.

The East Central District Garden Show was held in a local school gymnasium.  Date unknown.  (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory).

While there may not be monetary prizes involved with winning at a local garden show, there is a great deal of pride and honor that goes with the title.  Ribbons are given out to the winner in each group.  The JoCoHistory Collection houses over 40,000 historical photographs and maps, including many garden exhibits and flower gardens.

Mrs. N.L. Wilson poses beside her prize-winning iris, circa 1954. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory).

The Kansas Associated Garden Clubs has gone through many changes over the past several years.  There are currently nine local Kansas gardening clubs that fit under the KAGC banner, and the impact of the 2020 pandemic has forced groups to meet virtually for the time being.  The Bonner Springs Garden Club is one of the nine that continue to meet and discuss various garden topics including horticulture, health and environmental issues, and participation in projects for the benefit of the local community.  Though the club may seem different, their goal of beautification and education remains the same.

This image is provided courtesy of the Bonner Springs Garden Cub.

-Heather McCartin, Johnson County Library

Author note: The author offers her deepest gratitude to historian Sheila Miller for her cooperation and knowledge of the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs.

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Johnson County’s Historic Jewish Community

This spring, the Johnson County Museum is doing something new with its largest artifact, the 1950s All-Electric House. Starting March 26 through May 1, the table in the dining room will be set for the Jewish Passover Seder (“order” in Hebrew), which is centered around food, rituals, singing, and storytelling.

This temporary display builds on a long-standing tradition of rotating objects displayed inside and outside the house on a seasonal basis, including a retro Christmas display that thousands enjoy each year. This is the first time that Passover—or any other Jewish holiday—has been incorporated into the All-Electric House.

The Museum has partnered with Johnson County’s Congregation B’nai Jehudah and the Klein Collection for the display. This includes the Seder table setting inside as well as a special exhibit of three pieces from the Klein Collection featured just outside the All-Electric House. The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah is one of the oldest Reform Jewish Congregations in the nation. Founded in Kansas City in 1870, it is the oldest Synagogue in the Kansas City Metro area.

The synagogue entry and gathering hall at Temple B’nai Jehudah, built in 2000, with the Klein Collection display in the background on the left and right. Learn more about the Michael Klein Collection: https://www.flatlandkc.org/commentary/a-lifetime-collection-of-jewish-artifacts-finds-a-home/ Image courtesy of Temple B’nai Jehudah.
The synagogue entry and gathering hall at Temple B’nai Jehudah, built in 2000, with the Klein Collection display in the background on the left and right. Learn more about the Michael Klein Collection: https://www.flatlandkc.org/commentary/a-lifetime-collection-of-jewish-artifacts-finds-a-home/ Image courtesy of Temple B’nai Jehudah.

Visitors to the Johnson County Museum often ask who could and could not live in a house like the All-Electric House. The answer is complicated. Built in 1954 in the Indian Fields subdivision of J.C. Nichols’ Prairie Village development, the neighborhood likely included racial restrictive covenants. While there are stories in the community about Nichols prohibiting Jewish families from living in his developments, deed records suggest that this was only true on the Missouri side and fairly early in Nichols’ real estate development career—at least on paper.

While all of Prairie Village was governed by racial restrictive covenants that banned Black families from purchasing property there, Jewish families were not expressly prohibited as they were in the Kroh Brothers’ Leawood development. This did not mean, however, that Jewish families were always welcomed by their neighbors. Experiences varied over time and place, but some Jewish families found a cold reception once they relocated to the postwar suburban neighborhoods in northeastern Johnson County.

Congregation Ohev Sholom built its first synagogue in Johnson County—a modernist, tent-like structure—at 75th Street and Nall Avenue in 1963. It still stands today. Johnson County Museum.
Congregation Ohev Sholom built its first synagogue in Johnson County—a modernist, tent-like structure—at 75th Street and Nall Avenue in 1963. It still stands today. Johnson County Museum.

Of course, Jewish people resided in Kansas long before the postwar era. As early as 1877, Temple Ohev Sholom held services on the Missouri side in the West Bottoms that served congregants from both sides of the state line. Following the 1903 Flood, that congregation moved to Kansas City, Kansas. In the 1920s, Johnson County saw the first recorded Jewish residents arrive in the Overland Park area, including the Finkelstons, who operated a store there, and the Ashners in present-day Mission, who owned Greenwood Dairy at 49th Street and Lamar Avenue. The Finkelstons reported some intimidation from residents who did not want to have Jewish neighbors.

Sol and Dora Finkelston relocated to Overland Park in 1921 and owned a dry goods store at 80th Street and Santa Fe Drive. Photo circa 1939. Johnson County Museum.
Sol and Dora Finkelston relocated to Overland Park in 1921 and owned a dry goods store at 80th Street and Santa Fe Drive. Photo circa 1939. Johnson County Museum.

Although the majority of Jewish residents in the region lived in Kansas City, Missouri throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish families like their non-Jewish counterparts flocked to Johnson County after World War II. In 1953, Paul Berman along with 100 other Jewish businessmen started the Meadowbrook Country Club at 91st Street and Nall Avenue (Meadowbrook Park today, part of Johnson County Park and Recreation District). At the time, only Oakwood Country Club in Kansas City, Missouri permitted Jewish membership. Meadowbrook was an important center for Jewish life, drawing hundreds of members across the state line, many of whom purchased homes nearby in Prairie Village.

As Johnson County’s suburbs grew, so did the number of Jewish residents. Whole congregations began to move across the state line starting in the 1960s, followed by the Jewish Community Center and Menorah Medical Center in the 1980s, and social and philanthropic organizations. The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah moved to a new facility at 12320 Nall Avenue in Overland Park, in 2000. A report in 2007 estimated that of the Kansas City Metro’s Jewish population of some 20,000, nearly 80 percent lived in Kansas, with the heaviest concentrations in Overland Park as well as neighboring Leawood and Prairie Village. The Jewish community in Johnson County today is historic, vibrant, and active.

The display in the All-Electric House will be open to the public from March 26 through May 1, 2021. On March 31, the Museum is offering a program called “Passover Traditions” with Klein Collection curator Abby Magariel and Congregation B’nai Jehudah’s Rabbi. This is a free virtual program, but participants must pre-register to receive the program link. Call (913) 831-3359 or register here: https://anc.apm.activecommunities.com/jcprd/activity/search/detail/4088?onlineSiteId=0&from_original_cui=true&locale=en-US

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The Past is Prologue: Now Available Through Library OnDemand

Johnson County Library is pleased to introduce Library OnDemand, our online programming platform hosted through ON24. Library OnDemand is a convenient destination for Johnson County Library’s virtual events that allows you to engage in new and exciting ways. Here you can browse and register for upcoming programs and events, as well as view past recordings in categories like The Past is Prologue, our new bimonthly program where we highlight topics often left out, glossed over, or misrepresented in our history books.

The Past is Prologue first featured programs from renowned Negro Leagues Baseball Historian Phil S. Dixon about the Kansas City Monarchs. Formed in 1920, the Kansas City Monarchs revolutionized baseball: not only were they charter members of the Negro National League and the first professional team to use outdoor lighting, the Monarchs also sent more players to the major leagues than any other Negro League franchise. This presentation explores the exciting early barnstorming days of the Monarchs, highlights great players such as Wilbur “Bullet” Rogan, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson who wore the uniform, and connects the spirit of the Monarchs to the many Kansas communities in which they played.

In November, Johnson County Museum Curator of Interpretation Andrew Gustafson will presented on Corinthian Nutter, the Webb Family, Esther Brown, the formation of the first Johnson County NAACP, and the South Park school desegregation case. These events served to set a precedent to the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education court case.

For January’s installment of The Past is Prologue, Nicodemus Historical Society executive director Angela Bates presented on Nicodemus, KS, a small, unincorporated town in Graham County. Nicodemus is the only remaining western town established by African Americans during the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War. Today the town is a National Historic Site.

In February, filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson joined us for a Q&A about his film Neither Wolf Nor Dog. This film was adapted from the acclaimed novel by Kent Nerburn. The story follows a white author who finds himself in the heart of contemporary Native American life in the sparse lands of the Dakotas by a 95 year old Lakota elder and his side-kick.

Patrons are encouraged to watch the film in advance of the Q&A. The film can be viewed through March 31, 2021. Create a Vimeo account for free to receive the library discount and stream now.

Our next installment of The Past is Prologue will feature Jim Lee, the vice-chair of the Shawnee Tribe Cultural and Historical Preservation Committee from Miami, OK, to share the history and culture of the Shawnee tribe. Register here to view this free program! The program will take place on Thursday, April 1 at 7:00 pm.

-Johnson County Library staff

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Ruth Shechter: Advocating for All

March is Women’s History Month, and at the end of the month is the Jewish Passover celebration. Both intersect in the life of a Johnson County history maker named Ruth Shechter, a Jewish woman who tirelessly worked to make the county more just and equitable. Shechter and her husband, Nathan, moved to Fairway from Chicago in 1958. Over the course of 60 years living in Johnson County, Mrs. Shechter galvanized her community in support of civil rights, equal and affordable housing, women’s rights, and more.

Ruth Shechter at the Plains State Anti-Defamation League meeting in 1962 in Omaha.
Ruth Shechter at the Plains State Anti-Defamation League meeting in 1962 in Omaha. Johnson County Museum.

Within a few short years of moving to Johnson County, Shechter had become a powerful advocate for civil and human rights both locally and nationally. She was involved in the Greater Kansas City Council on Race and Religion, was a frequent speaker and advisor for the Johnson County Human Relations Commission (HRC), served as the President of the National Association of Human Rights, a Commissioner on the Kansas Commission on Civil Rights, and was the first woman to serve as Chair of the Plains State Region of the Anti-Defamation League (covering Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri).

Ruth Shechter, in green at center, with others at the National Association of Human Rights Workers meeting in 1974. The photograph shows the moment Shechter became the first woman president of the organization.
Ruth Shechter, in green at center, with others at the National Association of Human Rights Workers meeting in 1974. The photograph shows the moment Shechter became the first woman president of the organization. Johnson County Museum.

Shechter focused much of her time and energy on fair housing. She served as the President of the Shawnee Mission Housing Council, an organization that worked to discourage discrimination and create affordable housing for low-income residents of Johnson County. Part of her work with the Council involved calling home sellers and asking them to pledge to sell to any interested party, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. From 1960 to 1972, Shechter also served on the Kansas Advocacy Council on Civil Rights, an organization that was instrumental in passing the 1970 Kansas Fair Housing Act.

In 1967, Olathe began an Urban Renewal Project. The city demolished much of the historic downtown in order to pave the way for more modern buildings. Fairview, the historic Black community near Olathe’s downtown, was also targeted for modernization. The Urban Renewal plan called for homes that did not meet code to be demolished, rebuilt and sold to the original owners with new mortgages. This plan, created without input or support from the Fairview community, would render many homes too expensive for residents to afford after modernization efforts were complete.

The home of Fairview residents Joseph and Mary Person, for example, was valued at $8,000. The new, modern house proposed to be put in its place would have cost $70,000. Although the planners intended for Fairview residents like the Persons to be able to purchase the new, more modern home, residents’ income had not changed. The Persons simply would not be able to afford a house that was nearly ten times more expensive than their original home. 

Photograph of Joe and Mary Person and their family, taken around 1948 or ’49.
Photograph of Joe and Mary Person and their family, taken around 1948 or ’49. Johnson County Museum.

When she learned with this, Ruth Shechter became an ally to those living in Fairview. She began by listening. Joe Person, who was serving on the Fairview Neighborhood Council, shared his story, as well as those of other Fairview residents. Shechter empathized with the Fairview residents and began advocating for those who were being priced out of their neighborhood.

Shechter and others began Homes Evaluation & Rehabilitation (H.E.R.E.). This organization bought Fairview homes deemed “sub-standard” by the Olathe Urban Renewal project and made repairs to the structures rather than demolishing and rebuilding them. H.E.R.E. then sold the repaired homes back to the original owners with low-interest, long-term FHA loans. Shechter’s program helped many Fairview residents continue to live in their homes in the historically Black neighborhood.
 

Despite Shechter’s efforts, the Olathe Urban Renewal project displaced 33 Black families from the Fairview neighborhood. They were pushed out by homes they could not afford, built by an urban renewal project that they did not originally agree to. One of those 33 families were the Joe and Mary Person’s family. The Persons were not eligible for the H.E.R.E. program because of Mr. Person’s role on the neighborhood council.

Shechter was not deterred, however. In 1969, she joined the Shawnee Mission Fair Housing Council and began working on behalf of the entire community. “There is a great deal of work to be accomplished to promote equal opportunities for everyone in Johnson County,” she said, “and we believe that as an incorporated body we’ll have a little more weight to help.”

In 1982, the National Association of Human Rights Workers honored Ruth Shechter for her lifetime of work. She is shown here with other honorees.
In 1982, the National Association of Human Rights Workers honored Ruth Shechter for her lifetime of work. She is shown here at left with other honorees. Johnson County Museum.

Shechter worked on behalf of civil and human rights all of her life, leading many efforts and being active in Beth Shalom synagogue. Despite the losses experienced by those in Fairview, Shechter’s career as a community advocate had a positive impact not just on Johnson Countians, but the KC Metro and the State of Kansas. “I’ve been involved in civil rights—that’s been my life,” she said.

Shechter died in 2018 at the age of 96. She is remembered as a compassionate, optimistic, and dynamic trailblazer who spent her life working to provide equal opportunities, support fair housing, and advocate on behalf of all Johnson Countians.

Johnson County Museum will host a special exhibition inside and outside of the 1950s All-Electric House for the Passover season. Starting on March 26, objects from the Congregation B’nai Jehudah’s Klein Collection, will be on display at the Johnson County Museum. The table inside the All-Electirc House will be set for Seder. Both will be on exhibit through May 1. On March 31, the museum will offer a free virtual program in collaboration with the Klein Collection curator, Abby Magariel, and the congregation’s Rabbi. Register here: https://anc.apm.activecommunities.com/jcprd/activity/search/detail/4088?onlineSiteId=0&from_original_cui=true&locale=en-US.

To learn more about Urban Renewal in Olathe: https://jocohistory.org/digital/collection/alb/id/406/rec/1

To read Ruth Shechter’s 1995 oral history: https://jocohistory.org/digital/collection/oralhist/id/157

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Blooming Flower Architecture – 8101 Lenexa Drive

Every year at Christmas my parents, three brothers and I would travel from Emporia, Kansas, to my Uncle’s house in Liberty, Missouri, and it was always an exciting time for me!  My dad, a trucker by trade, always knew the quickest route to drive, but when I-35 was completed the 120+ mile trip went much faster.  When we reached the outskirts of Gardner, I knew we had reached “the city” where I could enjoy looking at the big city architecture. I remember the South Twin Drive-In, the Olathe Welcome sign in the middle of I-35, and the oh-so-sophisticated Georgetown Apartments.  However, my favorite was the Lee Co. building at 8101 Lenexa Drive with its unique concrete pillars that curved at the top. I will always remember it as the Lee Building, known today for their jeans, but it was originally built for Eisen Mercantile.

Entrance to 8101 Lenexa Drive, from Google Maps

Eisen Mercantile began as a dry goods store on Walnut Street in Kansas City, Missouri, by a Russian immigrant named Abraham Eisen. He ran this store until his death in 1939 when it passed to his two sons, Harry and Melvin.  In the 1950’s, they changed gears and opened House of Fabrics, selling not only fabric but a complete line of sewing notions, everything home sewers could want.

Dana Torchia sitting on a bull at Metcalf South Shopping Center. Stores in the background include House of Fabrics. Johnson County Museum

Over the years, they grew and had warehouses in the Northwest Industrial district at both Grand Boulevard and McGee Street, eventually adding a 40,000 square-foot building on Antioch Road in Merriam. They were doing well as sewing was a “gigantic business” for them.  By 1968, they totaled 128 franchised stores in 22 states, including 34 local stores in Kansas City and Independence in Missouri, and Topeka, Lawrence, Mission, and Overland Park in Kansas.

An ad for Eisen Mercantile from the Kansas City Star.

With this growth, they needed more space. They wanted a large warehouse to not only consolidate their existing warehouses, but also to revive their sidelined wholesale division.  They chose 18 acres at 82nd and I-35, 8101 Lenexa Drive. It was a new industrial area and was chosen because it was near Merriam, where most of their employees lived.  An industrial bond was secured with the city of Lenexa for over $3,000,000 and the architectural firm of Bloomgarten and Frohwerk was hired with another architect, Samuel R. Rosen.  This 208,000 square-foot building would have two floors, one for the offices, which would include “a circular entry foyer with towering external structures,” and one floor for the warehouse.  It would have elevators and a full-size store on the ground floor. Still thinking of their employees, they proposed tennis and shuffleboard courts with basketball and baseball areas. Finally, to complete the building, a beautiful circular design of the company’s logo was inlaid, in tile, on the front foyer floor.  This grand design consists of two threaded needles flanking the oversized E & M letters in the middle of the circle, with EISEN MERCANTILE along the top of the circle, and Division of Gambles along the bottom. Fifty years later, this design still grabs the attention. The gem of the building are the unique pillars that always draw the eye up to the sky. Harry Eisen called these concrete forms flower petals and said, “this was added for aesthetic purposes and to help give the building an identity.”  In 1970 the building’s outstanding lighting won a certificate in the industrial category for The Electric Association in their annual lighting competition.

Eisen Mercantile Logo inside the lobby of the Lee Co. building. Photo courtesy Extra Space Storage and Terri Bostic

The Eisen brothers stepped down in 1970 and 1972, not six years after Eisen Mercantile became a subsidiary of Gamble-Skogmo, Inc. Time marches on – everything was sold at 8101 Lenexa Drive and a post in The Kansas City Star was advertising for a new tenant.

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library

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The McCallops: A Community Legacy

As we begin Black History Month, the Johnson County Museum is exploring the history of a family who for five generations has helped shape our county’s history. The McCallop family has a legacy of freedom, helping the community, and determination in the face of adversity.

Making a Life in Kansas

Harrison McCallop was born enslaved in Tennessee. After gaining his freedom, McCallop fought with the Union Army in 1863 during the Civil War. Approximately five years after the Civil War ended, McCallop and his wife, Nellie Jackson, moved to Johnson County, Kansas and began farming near Wilder, a small agricultural community along the banks of the Kansas River in the county’s north central region. In the late 19th century, the area was home to several Black families who had fled the south after the Civil War. Together, the McCallops farmed the rich soil and raised a large family of 14 children. Many of their of descendants live in Johnson County and surrounding areas today.

Harrison and Nellie Jackson McCallop, possibly in 1875. Harrison wears military medals on his chest.
Harrison and Nellie (Jackson) McCallop, possibly in 1875. Harrison wears military medals on his chest. Johnson County Museum.

One of the McCallops’ sons, Robert (born 1893), also sought to make his future as a farmer in Johnson County. He grew potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and wheat on his roughly 100 acres near Shawnee. Robert and his wife, Mary Jennings, raised their children on the family farm. The McCallops used their agricultural truck to haul their harvest and their neighbors’ harvests, as well as coal and manure to other locations for sale. This form of large-scale agriculture, called truck farming, involved using a large truck to pick up and move literal tons of agricultural products and was common in Johnson County in the first half of the 20th century.

Robert Lee and Mary Jennings McCallop. Robert was the son of Harrison and Nellie.
Robert Lee and Mary (Jennings) McCallop. Robert was the son of Harrison and Nellie. Johnson County Museum.

Getting to School

Growing up, Mary (Jennings) McCallop attended Shawnee’s Dunbar School, an all-Black one-room school. The McCallop children attended the integrated Greenwood School near Shawnee. However, when the McCallops’ children reached the 8th grade, they were barred from attending the whites-only Shawnee Mission High School. There was no high school in Johnson County for Black students.

Rather than allow segregation to stop his children from getting a full education, Robert McCallop, like his father, chose to fight for freedom. In 1934, McCallop turned his agricultural truck into a makeshift bus, which he used to transport his children and others from around Shawnee and South Park (Merriam today) to Northeast Junior High and Sumner High School in Wyandotte County. The need for this type of transportation was so vast that McCallop was able to start the first school bus service in Johnson County, the R.L. McCallop Bus Service. McCallop and his team drove African American children to school during the week and transported private school students and church groups on the weekends on a fleet of more than ten buses. He owned and operated the McCallop Bus Service for 39 years. Many family members worked as drivers.

The R.L. McCallop Bus Company operated for 39 years in Johnson County. Pictured from left are: S.H. Thompson, supervisor of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools; Robert Lee McCallop, Sr., bus company owner; William Jesse McCallop, driver; Mrs. Charlene McCallop (Charles’ wife), driver; Robert Lee McCallop, Jr., driver; Alexander Harrison McCallop, driver; and Charles Eugene McCallop, driver.
The R.L. McCallop Bus Company operated for 39 years in Johnson County. Pictured from left are: S.H. Thompson, supervisor of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools; Robert Lee McCallop, Sr., bus company owner; William Jesse McCallop, driver; Mrs. Charlene McCallop (Charles’ wife), driver; Robert Lee McCallop, Jr., driver; Alexander Harrison McCallop, driver; and Charles Eugene McCallop, driver. Johnson County Museum.

After schools nationwide were integrated in 1954 following the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Robert McCallop took on a new role in addition to his private bus line – bus driver for the Shawnee Mission School District. Mr. McCallop transported white students to the school his own children had previously been unable to attend for many years. He retired from driving for SMSD at the age of 78 and died in 1981.

As Oscar Johnson, past president of the Northeast Johnson County branch of the NAACP, said in a Johnson County Sun newspaper article in 2002, “children who went to school because of that ride [to Kansas City, Kansas] continue to contribute to the prosperity of this community and this nation.” Johnson, a former educator himself, continued, “the McCallops were a family so intact, so committed to stay the course in a community that wasn’t always welcoming. Yet, they thrived and flourished despite the odds they faced.” Robert McCallop’s dedication to education made it possible for his children and countless other Black students living in Johnson County to receive a full public-school education.

A New Generation

The McCallops believed in fighting for freedom, equality, and access to education. Jessica McCallop-McClellan, the great-great-granddaughter of Harrison and Nellie McCallop, continues her family’s tradition of service today. McCallop-McClellan was born in Wyandotte County and spent the first years of her life in Shawnee. She has fond memories her grandparents. Both her grandfather and father both drove for the McCallop Bus Service.

McCallop-McClellan’s earliest memory is of selling greens out of a truck with her grandparents, Alexander Harrison and Cleo McCallop. A woman came to the truck, which was parked near 31st and Brooklyn in Kansas City, Missouri, and asked for some greens. The woman told the McCallops that she didn’t have any money to pay. Cleo McCallop looked at her granddaughter and said, “just give it to her.” Jessica crawled into the truck and grabbed three bushels of greens to give to the woman. From that moment on, Jessica understood the power of helping others. “Giving is in my DNA,” she said, as was the idea that if she saw a problem in her community, she should work to solve it.

Jessica McCallop-McClellan. In addition to scholarships, Jessica supports domestic violence survivors, provides essential resources to end period poverty (pictured), and inspires cancer patients.
Jessica McCallop-McClellan. In addition to scholarships, Jessica supports domestic violence survivors, provides essential resources to end period poverty (pictured), and inspires cancer patients.

In 2013, Jessica started Giving Hope & Help, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting others so they can live their best lives. As a professional speaker and change agent for social justice, Jessica empowers people through her nonprofit’s scholarship program, “Education is Your Passport.” The scholarships benefit under-served high school seniors and non-traditional college-bound students, including students from Wyandotte County’s Sumner High School, the very school to which her grandfather once drove Johnson County’s Black high school students.

Since the scholarship program began in 2015, Giving Hope & Help has awarded 72 scholarships, including several full-ride scholarships. Jessica named two of them after her grandparents: the Neoma Spearman Legacy Scholarship and the Alexander Sr. & Cleo McCallop Legacy of Giving Scholarship Award, named for the grandparents who taught her the art of giving. The McCallop family history in Johnson County runs, as Jessica phrased it, “from slavery to school buses to scholarships.”

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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part Seven: The End (2009 to 2016… and Beyond)

This is the seventh in a seven part series about the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Click here to read parts one, two, three, four, five, and six.


empty Dippin' Dots kiosk

Dippin’ Dots, inside the Great Mall, 2015. (Photo by Mike Keller)

In January of 2009, the international economy was in sad shape and the long-struggling Great Mall of the Great Plains was down to 70% occupied. It was under this cloud that the new owners were announced. A group of local investors called Great Olathe Center LLC had purchased the Great Mall – which had been built in 1997 for between $110 and $120 million – for a mere $20.5 million. Talk about your discount centers!

Of the six investors, only David Block wished to be known publicly at the time. Block told the KC Star that the group hoped to rename and revitalize the mall. He felt that because Glimcher wasn’t located in the Kansas City area, and hadn’t owned any other properties in the region, they had been at a disadvantage in leasing and promoting the mall. He hoped local ownership would be able to get the mall going again.

Early plans called for additional signs to make the mall more visible from the highway, a new look inside the mall, entertainment venues, and opening up walkways that would cut through the center of the mall and make it easier for people to get from place to place. In an interview with the Kansas City Business Journal, he said that since the group had obtained the mall for such a low price, they hoped to rent to local and regional retailers for 30% less than competing centers in the area. Given the state of the economy, they didn’t expect national tenants to be opening new stores inside the mall for another couple of years.

In The Olathe News, Block told Jack Weinstein that outdoor access to stores would be a priority going forward, and he also hoped to make the mall a resource of sorts for Olathe – a place where charity and community events could be hosted. “We just have to figure out what to do about that carpet,” he joked.

According to the Kansas City Business Journal, Glimcher used the proceeds from the sale to pay most of a $30 million mortgage on the property. The recession was hitting real estate investment trusts hard, and it made sense for them to unload the property, even if it hurt. One bit from an article that stung me a little was this: “After the recession, rent rates should climb, and the mall’s value should soar. […] Unless the recession drags on for years and many more tenants leave the mall, it’s hard to imagine a downside to this deal.” How little we knew.

Even under the new ownership, 2009 brought many closures. Dress Barn Outlet, Lids for Less, Limited Too, Nautica, and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory closed. Noah’s Ark relocated to a different spot in Olathe. Most painfully, VF Factory Outlet (an anchor) closed and moved to the Legends in Kansas City, Kansas. Still, the lower rents encouraged some locals to give the mall a shot. Shop Baby Kisses (clothing, accessories, and tutus for infants) and Sazzy’s lingerie boutique opened up in the mall with a handful of other stores. Late in the summer, the Kansas City Business Journal profiled a handful of people who had been laid off from their jobs elsewhere and set up shop in the mall, including Tony Sun, who started the Osaka Teriyaki spot in the food court.

Outside entrance for Treasure Hunt. A green awning with red lettering.

Storefront of what was once Dillard’s, then VF Factory Outlet, then Treasure Hunt. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

In July, the mall hosted the Fourth again, and a couple of weeks later they threw a carnival in the northeast parking lot to bring people out who hadn’t visited the mall in a while.

In late December of 2009, The Kansas City Garden Railway Society set up a huge model railroad in a former store inside the mall. This was always one of my favorite things to see when I visited the mall in its later years. It was an enormous, very detailed model train set, and I remember it running a lot on the weekends. The article I found about the society moving into the mall described the non-store’s location as “in the fashion district of the Olathe mall,” which made me chuckle a little.

Outside mall entrance. The awning is yellow and billboard signs for the Great Mall stand outside.

The Fashion Entrance, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

2010 didn’t bring much news. A June article about malls in the difficult economy observed that with conspicuous consumption at a low point and department stores no longer a draw, many area malls were trying to draw in shoppers with “experiences.” Among the Great Mall’s attractions were several children’s play centers, a photo booth, the aforementioned model train, a mini golf course, and a 1955 fire engine.

An automated fortune teller booth stands in the middle of a mall hallway in front of the Home and Hobby store.

Step right up, and I will tell you what the future holds. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

That July some cash-strapped cities cancelled their fireworks shows, but Olathe’s went on as usual at the Great Mall.

In the fall, the new owners of the mall requested and received a Community Improvement District (CID) for the Great Mall. This added a 1.5% sales tax to items purchased at the mall that would raise money to first fund a study that would advise the owners on how to revitalize the mall, and later contribute about a quarter of the funds that would go to the potential $210 million redevelopment of the Great Mall.

A diagram of how the Great Mall of the Great Plains could be revitalized

The redevelopment plan pitched in 2010. (Source: PlanOlathe)

The CID excluded the seven restaurants around the mall, six of which were owned by a fellow in San Francisco who did not feel it was fair to burden his restaurants with additional sales tax if it wasn’t absolutely certain that this project would benefit them. The restaurants would have generated 15% to 20% of the tax had they been included, so their exclusion extended the timetable for the whole project.

Over the course of 2010 it was reported that Safari Park Amusements opened inside the mall, and Shop Baby Kisses doubled its space. Famous Labels and Scrappers Paradise, on the other hand, closed.

In June of 2011, the DMV moved from 151st and Ridgeview to a location inside the Great Mall. The new location gave them a lot more space.

That same month, the Kansas City Garden Railway Society attempted to make the Guinness Book of World Records for “longest model train.” The record was 894 feet, but they were only able to get 705 feet to run on their 3000-foot track.

A night shot behind the Great Mall. In the foreground are dumpsters and portapotties, and on the horizon are several lit hot air balloons.

A picture from 2012’s Great Midwest Balloon Festival at the Great Mall (Photo by Tabitha V on Foursquare)

July saw more fireworks and added the Great Midwest Balloon Festival a little later in the month. The previous year’s festival had been held in a field in Overland Park, but it was held at the Great Mall in 2011, 2012, and 2013, before moving to the Kansas Speedway in 2014. Over the years the festival featured musical acts (such as Shealeigh, Clay Walker, The Elders, and The Scott Perry Band), skydivers, carnival rides, fireworks, kite performances, inflatables, and a whole bunch of hot air balloons. Some years it attracted as many as 50,000 people.

A crowd of people with lit hot air balloons floating above them.

A picture from 2013’s Great Midwest Balloon Festival at the Great Mall (Photo by Michael L on Foursquare)

In a strange twist, Glimcher Realty Trust acquired Leawood’s Town Center Plaza for $139 million in September of 2011. According to the Kansas City Business Journal, it was less an actual purchase and more of an asset swap, where Glimcher traded their Polaris Towne Center in Columbus, Ohio for Leawood’s outdoor mall.

The most noteworthy Great Mall event from 2012 appears to have occurred in April, when a suspicious package was found at the mall. The Olathe Fire Department’s bomb squad evacuated the northeast corner of the mall and used the Remotec Andros F6B robot (aka “The Tin Man II”) to render the package safe. No details were given on what was inside the box, but everything was back to normal after a couple of hours, so I assume it was innocuous.

A parking lot directory for the Great Mall of the Great Plains

The parking lot guide, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

In June of 2013, the Great Mall’s Community Improvement District and accompanying tax were terminated. There was no article about it, just a formal notice in legalese in the The Olathe News, but it would seem to indicate that at this point, 2010’s plans to revitalize the mall were no longer on the table.

2014 was a relatively bustling year for the mall. In January, Skills to Succeed opened up Create: Art Studio, which taught art skills to individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. In April there was an article about Rock School KC, a rock band style music school in the Great Mall. And in June, the Great Mall hosted the Friends of the Johnson County Library’s Annual Sizzlin’ Summer Used Book Sale. Oddly enough, I was unable to find any mention of Fourth of July celebrations at the Great Mall in 2014.

A mall hallway. There are holes in the purple rug and empty kiosks and planters line the center aisle.

Sportibles, 2015. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

A handful of stores opened, and in June Sportibles expanded for a third time. Since 2004 Sportibles had gone from 1,500 square-feet, to 6,000, and finally to 25,000 in 2014. The year also brought some closures, such as Wetzel’s Pretzels and Claire’s Accessories (originally Claire’s Boutique), both original tenants. Hibbett Sports, which had been around since 2005 also closed.

One big opening came in October, when the Martin City Melodrama and Vaudeville Co. opened its 30th season in a new location inside the Great Mall. Previously the Martin City Melodrama had spent 14 years at Metcalf South Mall, which closed in September of 2014. Unfortunately, the Melodrama’s stay at the Great Mall would be very short-lived.

a tiled hallway leading up to the mall entrance of Zonkers.

Outside Zonkers. (Photo by Terri Bostic)

Before we get to the worst news, I’d like to take a minute to look around the Great Mall of the Great Plains one last time. I think that I only ever went to the mall once when it was in its heyday. I didn’t grow up particularly close to it. However, between 2010 and 2015, I walked around the mall with a friend on a pretty regular basis. Like Metcalf South Mall, it was just a nice place to go where we could walk around in a big, uncrowded, temperature-controlled space and chat about nothing in particular. There were plenty of random stores to poke around in. You could scope out the model train, pop into the store that had all the aquariums and animals, play some glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, wonder how old the gumballs in the enormous broken gumball machine in the food court were, marvel at the giant monkey outside Zonkers, and just bask in the late-90s glow of the place. In its final years, the Great Mall was like this barely-touched, abandoned time capsule that you could spend some time in every now and then. It might sound like I’m poking fun or only ironically appreciating the mall, but I’m really not. Johnson County can be a fairly cutthroat place for retail, where the hottest thing one month is gone the next, and there are crowds and traffic to contend with everywhere you go. It was nice to pop into the mall and see all of the uses the various spaces were being put to (a church, the Christmas Bureau, the DMV, the trains, etc.). It was clear that nobody was making a lot of money off of this, but it was cool to have a place like that.

A blacklit picture of a teenage boy sitting at a table with the words Party Zone lit above his head. a glowing green alien stands opposite him.

The author of this blog post in the Cosmic Mini Golf Party Zone, 2015. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

Which brings us to 2015.

In February of 2015, with occupancy down to about 50%, the Great Mall of the Great Plains announced that it would be closing in the fall. VanTrust Real Estate (apparently the entity over Great Olathe Center LLC) was managing the property at the time, and their vice president Jeff Smith told the KC Star that they needed to get the mall closed down so they could better plan the future of the area. Demolition seemed likely.

The Kansas City Business Journal reported that a retail study by the real estate feasibility company Jeff Green Partners had found that the mall could now only justify a fraction of its retail space. According to the report, “the structure, maintenance costs, and layout do not support preservation of the current building.”

VanTrust said they were working with the Olathe Chamber of Commerce and the Olathe Economic Development Council to determine what would be next for the area. Tim McKee of the Olathe Chamber said that they would be working with the remaining businesses in the mall and helping them relocate if they needed it.

Mall store front for a clothing shop. The name of the store is no longer present and a big white patch is in the middle of the awning. There is still merchandise in the store.

Mall entrance of what was once Dillard’s and later VF Factory Outlet. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

Purrfect Pets, a cat shelter that had moved into the Great Mall in late 2014 after Metcalf South closed, was understandably upset that their new facility (which they had upgraded at a cost of $12,000) was about to be shut down. However, one GoFundMe later, they landed on their feet at a space inside Oak Park Mall, where they still exist as of early 2020. The Martin City Melodrama expressed similar disappointment in the KC Star and also started a GoFundMe. They survived the misfortune and moved first to Crown Center and then to Grandview, where they remain to this day.

In April, dozens of volunteers moved the Johnson County Christmas Bureau out of the mall. According to Jennifer Bhargava in the KC Star, “volunteers on Saturday included everyone from the St. Thomas Aquinas High School rugby team to the Leawood Rotary Club. […] UPS donated trucks and drivers to take the boxes and equipment to four different storage facilities in Lenexa.” The Bureau opened in the not-yet-demolished Metcalf South later that year, and although I couldn’t figure out every place they’ve been since then, it looks like they have found other unoccupied retail spaces, and still open up every year.

In July, the Great Mall hosted its last Fourth of July celebration. Aquariums Wholesale and Pet Supply moved to around the Olathe Landing area at 135th and I-35, and Sportibles moved over there with them but closed that particular location in 2016.

Zonkers closed on August 2nd. Dickinson Theatres had been sold to B&B Theatres in late 2014, turning the Great Mall 16 into the B&B Olathe Great Mall 10. It closed on August 17th. The DMV closed and moved out in December. Soon, the only store still open was the Burlington Coat Factory.

On Monday July 11th, 2016 – almost nineteen years after it opened – the demolition of the mall began. It continued for several weeks. Today all that remains on the spot is the Burlington Coat Factory, the surrounding restaurants and hotels, and a big field. I wasn’t able to figure out why Burlington stayed up, but it must be doing good enough business to justify its existence.

An aerial view of fields, buildings, and roads.

An aerial view of the mall area in 2020 (Photo from Bing Maps)

Indian Springs Shopping Center also came down in 2016. Metcalf South Mall came down in 2017, after being closed for a couple of years.

In late 2016, the Olathe City Council created a Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) bond district around the Great Mall site. STAR bonds were/are meant to provide money to developers for large tourist attractions in Kansas, and although Olathe didn’t have concrete plans for any major tourist attractions at the time, they wanted to declare the district ahead of time in case something appealing came up.

In 2018 the Kansas City Business Journal reported talk of a $300 million project at the former Great Mall site that would include a hockey arena, “interactive golf concept,” gym, movie theater, restaurants, retail, and hotels. Later that year the project was named “Mentum.” However, a rival project in Overland Park was soon announced called “Bluhawk.” The projects competed throughout 2019, trying to show how they would be major tourist destinations that deserved STAR bonds and/or other tax incentives. In October of 2019, the state awarded $66 million in STAR bonds to Overland Park’s Bluhawk project, making Olathe’s Mentum look less likely, but not impossible.

In March 2020, Olathe and the developers announced that they were no longer pursuing STAR bonds, but still planned to move the development forward. However, this is a history blog, and we are getting dangerously close to the present, so I will conclude.


Thank you for reading this history of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. I would like to thank all of the journalists at the Kansas City Star, the Kansas City Business Journal, and The Olathe News whose hard work I drew from. I would also like to thank everybody who provided pictures and/or anecdotes. Special thanks to Bryan for research tips and spending countless hours walking malls with me. And finally, thank you to all of the people who made the mall possible, and everybody who worked and shopped there and made it what it was during its all-too-short existence. If you have any memories about the mall you would like to share, please leave us a comment, or shoot me an email at kellerm@jocolibrary.org. Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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2020 Made History. Now Help Us Collect It

In a year where the fact that history is being made all around us has perhaps never been clearer, the work of the history museum becomes even more important. Collecting the history that we are living through in order to accurately and fully represent it to future generations is integral to the Johnson County Museum’s mission. The community is essential in that step—after all, the Johnson County Museum is our community’s museum. Presenting and preserving your history is what we do. And we need your help!

A Collecting Institution

The Johnson County Museum actively collects, preserves, and interprets artifacts related to Johnson County’s history. Since opening in 1967, the Museum has gathered over 20,000 objects and 1 million photographs and documents.

The Museum’s collection storage is not open for visitors, but our Behind the Scenes Tours are a great chance to go behind “Staff Only” doors and see in person what the Museum collects!
The Museum’s collection storage is not open to visitors, but our Behind the Scenes Tours are a great chance to go behind “Staff Only” doors and see in person what the Museum collects!

So, how does the museum know what to collect?

Anne Jones, the Museum’s curator of collections looks for objects with clear, strong connections to Johnson County, used by Johnson Countians, or that can tell a Johnson County story. Items that come with photographs of the piece being worn, used, or enjoyed are particularly coveted because photographs help us tell the story in a more engaging way for museum visitors.

A Collections Committee evaluates each item to make sure it fits in with the Museum’s Collection Plan, one of three core documents used to manage the Johnson County Museum’s collections. The plan addresses critical questions such as what is in the collections, or more importantly what should be in the collections. We can’t always accept items the public seeks to donate, but Collections Committee meetings are fascinating and filled with unique stories about Johnson County.

Curious if an item in your house (or attic) should be part of our community museum? You can email Anne Jones at jcmuseum@jocogov.org with images of the item you are proposing to donate to the museum. Anne will walk you through the process, ask you the right questions, and make an assessment.

Donor Samuel Griggs wearing a T-shirt created for Olathe Northwest’s 2020 senior class. The Museum accepted the T-shirt and photo of the object in use as a donation this year.
Donor Samuel Griggs wearing a T-shirt created for Olathe Northwest’s 2020 senior class. The Museum accepted the T-shirt and photo of the object in use as a donation this year.

Latino Collecting Initiative

To help direct our collecting, the Museum recently started targeted collecting initiatives. A Latino Collecting Initiative was launched in 2018. Latinos represent one of Johnson County’s oldest and the fastest growing communities. Despite this, the Museum collection lacks the stories, objects, photographs, and documents that are needed to accurately and fully represent the vibrancy, culture, and history of the Latino community.

This doll dress from Mexico was one of the few items the donor brought with her when her family immigrated. The Museum accepted it as part of the Latino Collecting Initiative.
This doll dress from Mexico was one of the few items the donor brought with her when her family immigrated. The Museum accepted it as part of the Latino Collecting Initiative. The number below the dress is the object number in the Museums collection, reflecting that this was the first object in the third donation in 2020.

For the last two years the Museum has connected with individuals and organizations, gathered stories and accepted photographs and objects into the collection. We will continue to reach out and make contacts in the community, and work toward forming long-lasting relationships within Latino populations.

Bilingual flier created to help promote the Latino Collecting Initiative, launched in 2018.
Bilingual flier created to help promote the Latino Collecting Initiative, launched in 2018.

Collecting COVID-19 Initiative

Sometimes the responsibility of representing history requires quick action. In March 2020, the Museum staff identified the importance of collecting objects, photographs, and stories around the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. In order to collect history as it happened, the Museum created a special online form for community members to share their experiences and suggest items for donation.

Collecting COVID-19 Initiative graphic, launched to help the Museum reflect the pandemic for future generations.
Collecting COVID-19 Initiative graphic, a collecting initiative launched in March 2020 to help the Museum reflect the pandemic for future generations.

Did you switch to virtual learning? Did you work from home, or perhaps lose your job or business? Have you lost a loved one, or are you an essential worker? Do you think it is all overblown? We want to hear from everyone—children and parents, students and teachers, employees and the unemployed, essential workers and business owners—in order to represent a full range of experiences during the pandemic.

More than 50 people have completed the online form to date, and objects such as masks, signage, photographs, and even an original piece of art associated with the pandemic response have already been collected. Collecting around the pandemic will be ongoing, as the situation continues to evolve and the lingering impacts on the community are not yet known.

Above, a photo of Shawn Jones and Carole Palmer making masks for community members in spring 2020. Below, one of the masks they made. Both the photo and a selection of hand-made masks were accepted into the Museum’s collection as part of the new Collecting COVID-19 Initiative, launched in March 2020.
Above, a photo of Shawn Jones and Carole Palmer making masks for community members in spring 2020. Below, one of the masks they made. Both the photo and a selection of hand-made masks were accepted into the Museum’s collection as part of the new Collecting COVID-19 Initiative, launched in March 2020.

Do you have a story to tell about COVID-19? We want to hear from you! Visit the online form to tell your story and suggest an item for donation: https://www.jcprd.com/FormCenter/Museum-11/COVID19-Collecting-Initiative-265

Hindsight is 2020

Lastly, 2020 has been a year full of history-making. This summer, protests and demonstrations took place across the country, including right here in Johnson County and in neighboring Kansas City, Missouri. Did you attend a protest? Do you have signs, shirts, photographs, or other things related to a protest movement, political movement, or other demonstrations? We want to hear from you. Reach out with your donation ideas at jcmuseum@jocogov.org.

Photograph taken by Johnson County photographer Rusty Leffel at the May 31st protest at the Country Club Plaza. A series of photographs reflecting this moment in the community’s history were accepted into the Museum’s collection. Image used courtesy of the donor.
Photograph taken by Johnson County photographer Rusty Leffel at the May 31, 2020 protest at Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. A series of photographs reflecting this moment in the community’s history were accepted into the Museum’s collection. Image used courtesy of the donor.

Johnson County is a community shaped by national and even global events, but it is the stories of individuals whose contributions of all levels shaped Johnson County’s past, present, and future that resonate most with Museum visitors. You are part of our county’s history. We hope you’ll share your history with us.  


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A Great History of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Part Six: Attention Shoppers, The Mall Will Be Closing In Fifteen Years (2000 to 2008)

This is the sixth of a seven part series on the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Click here to read parts one, two, three, four, and five.


An aerial view of the Great Mall of the Great Plains surrounded by green space and other buildings.

An aerial view of the mall in its later years. (Photo from Google Maps 2015)

The year 2000 was a mixed year for the Great Mall.

Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet opened a 22,000 square-foot store in April, bringing a hot new retailer to the area.

In May, according to reporting in Columbus Business First, Glimcher Realty bought out its partner in the Great Mall, Great Plains Metro Mall LLC, which I think must have been the name of Jordon Perlmutter & Co.’s interest in the mall.

Throughout the year, the Great Mall vied for a Bass Pro Shops store that was looking to open in the Kansas City area. Kansas City, Missouri, offered Bass Pro tax breaks to open near Bannister Mall before the retailer had even submitted a plan to them (highly unusual), and there was also talk that Bass Pro, that belle of the ball, would choose a spot in Kansas City, Kansas out by the Speedway that was set to open in 2001. The store wound up opening in November of 2006 in Olathe, but not in the Great Mall. It landed thirty blocks north at 119th and I-35.

Repair work on the shifted abutments supporting the 151st Street overpass ran from April to November, making it a little harder for some people to get to the mall for most of the year. The final cost of the repairs was reported to be $3.8 million, which is almost what the bridge had cost in the first place. An investigation by a third party determined the engineering company TranSystems Corp. was responsible for $2.3 million of the repair costs because parts of the bridge were designed poorly and inappropriate soils were used in the embankments built for the abutments. The rest of the responsibility/cost was divided up between APAC Kansas Inc. (the contractor, $394,000), GeoStystems Engineering Inc. (the soil tester, $12,500), and the Kansas Department of Transportation ($500,000) for failing to catch design problems. Olathe, which was not deemed at fault in any way, paid for $550,000 of the repair costs.

The brightest spot for the mall in the year 2000 appears to have been the Fourth of July. Olathe’s Fourth of July celebration moved from Frontier Park to the Great Mall to accommodate the growing crowds. It featured bands, a climbing wall, kite flying, face painting, and, of course, fireworks. The event was held in the grassy area southwest of the mall close to the theaters.

Speaking of the theaters, that fall Dickinson Theatres filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. They asked the court to allow it to reject “money-draining” leases on four of their theaters, one of which was the Great Mall 16. They were able to renegotiate their lease with the mall – which forgave $1 million in back rent – and pulled out of bankruptcy early the next year.

Last year when I wrote a history of Dickinson Theatres for this blog, a former Dickinson employee named Josh reached out to me. He worked in the Great Mall 16, mostly as a projectionist from 1999 to 2003, and even met his wife at the theater. I contacted him again while working on this history to see if there was any extra detail on the theater I could include. Josh told me that upstairs at the theater there was “a huge room full of concession inventory” and “a big storage area up there full of stuff from old theaters, and spare parts and stuff, that was always locked.” He continued, “The [projection] booth had its own office, so there was a long hallway of projectors, then off to one side a huge room with a desk, trailer cabinet, build-up tables. It was nice.”

A view of the Dickinson Theatre's box office and snack bar inside the Great Mall of the Great Plains.

A view of the movie theater from inside the mall, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

Josh also mentioned that most of the stores in the mall closed much earlier than the theater, which meant that the “donut”/racetrack/indoor hallway closed down too. “We’d have all these people enjoying the last movie, it gets out at like 2, and they leave to try to get to their car and find mall security has put gates up across the hallway in both directions, so people could only use the exit right by the theater.”

A square of geometrically patterned carpet.

Josh also included a photograph of this carpet salvaged from the mall’s theater.

In November, the mall added Casual Corner and Bath and Body Works to its tenant list. However, they lost Johnny Rockets, a memorable 1950s-style diner which was near where the Phase II addition was supposed to have gone.

An empty Johnny Rockets store.

The former Johnny Rockets on the left and the place where the Phase II addition would have gone on the right. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

A long piece by Mark Couch and Joyce Smith ran in the KC Star on November 26th describing the local mall scene. It pointed out that in 1995 there were 37.3 million square-feet of retail space in the Kansas City area. Five years later, there were 44.6 million square-feet. The national average was 20 square-feet of retail space per person, and by 2000, the Kansas City area had more than 30 square-feet per person. The area appeared to be overbuilt, yet there were plans for even more malls – notably around 135th and Antioch, and out by the Speedway. Internet sales were also mentioned as a looming threat to the many area shopping centers.

The article pointed to Country Club Plaza, Oak Park Mall, Independence Center, and Town Center Plaza as thriving. Bannister Mall, Indian Springs, and Metcalf South were struggling. And for whatever reason it didn’t even mention the Great Mall of the Great Plains.

In 2001, Jeff Leicht, the mall’s general manager resigned to pursue other endeavors. Several new stores opened in the mall, such as Deb and a Nautica outlet. Old Navy converted into an Old Navy Outlet. And Dillard’s Clearance Center closed, but was quickly replaced by a VF Factory Outlet.

A mall hallway with various signs hanging from the ceiling.

The sign for Deb, 2014. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

The Fourth of July was held at the Great Mall again, and it sounded even bigger and better than the year before (with one small exception). This time, along with the bands and kite flying and face painting, there was also a moonwalk and a bike parade. The City Council even approved an exception to the city’s liquor laws that allowed for alcohol to be sold at the mall (previously a no-go because of the Olathe School District’s presence inside the mall, but hey, it’s summer and school is out). 30,000 people came out to celebrate.

The only problem was that the $15,000 city-sponsored fireworks display started with a big bang, and was over in 38 seconds. A malfunction caused the fireworks to all launch at once. A few fires had to be put out on the trailers that launched the fireworks, but thankfully nobody was injured. The City of Olathe struck a deal with Austin Pyrotechnics (which was apologetic in the KC Star) where they wound up paying nothing for the 2001 show, and got a $20,000 show in 2002 for free.

The Great Mall closed early on September 11th, 2001 during the attacks on the United States, but, like most area malls, they reopened on the 12th. A late November article in the Kansas City Business Journal with the headline “Tryptophan, terrorism don’t deter KC shoppers” observed that business seemed to be strong at area malls, including the Great Mall. However, in December other articles pointed to weaker-than-expected sales nationwide during the holiday season, caused by the ongoing recession and rising unemployment. This seems to have worked out okay for the Great Mall, as it was a discount center. Robert Kreicbergs, the mall’s marketing director, told the KC Star that they didn’t have sales numbers, but that traffic was up about 9% compared to the previous year.

In January of 2002, Glimcher asked Olathe to continue its 50% property tax abatement on the Great Mall, which was set to decrease because the mall had not brought in the agreed-upon revenue. The original deal said that the mall needed to bring in $42.3 million in sales tax over its first four years, otherwise its 50% property tax abatement would be reduced to a 33.3% abatement. By 2002, the mall had only brought in $28.2 million, putting it at about 66% of where it needed to be. Glimcher said decreasing their abatement would cost them an extra $550,000 per year in property taxes.

The Great Mall’s new general manager, Brad Cornell, said that part of why the mall had not met the required revenue was because the original figures were set with the expectation that the still-unbuilt Phase II of the mall would be open within that first four years. Without it, the figures were not realistic. He added that the mall was still actively looking for the right tenant for that addition to the mall.

The next month, the Olathe City Council voted 5-to-1 to continue the 50% abatement, citing the fact that while the mall had not fully delivered, it was still bringing in a lot of revenue and contributing to the quality of life in Olathe. It was also noted that when the original abatement deal was made, it was with another developer, and Glimcher had not yet joined the project.

A mall hallway with purple carpet and seating and planters down the center.

Mall hallway, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

That summer, the Fourth of July celebration went off without a hitch, and in August the Great Mall hosted the Great Plains Robot Showdown, a robot fighting tournament. Around 20 remote-controlled robots designed by members of the Mid U.S. Robotics Club fought each other in an enclosed arena for the amusement of their flesh-having masters.

Also of note: 2002 was the first year the mall hosted SummerFest. This was an event for junior high and high school students, where they could get together and celebrate the end of summer. It was held in and around the Great Mall 16, and featured performances by high school bands, movies, karaoke, games, dancing, and free food and drinks.

2003 started off with the announcement that the Great Mall would be losing another anchor: Oshman’s SuperSports USA. The Old Navy Outlet also closed by the end of January, joining the recently closed The Paper Factory, Black and Decker Outlet, and Tools and More. Generally new stores would replace them, but not always, and rarely with the same name recognition. Although, in late 2002 the mall had added a Brooks Brothers Outlet, which was a nice score.

In 2003, development in western Wyandotte County around the new Kansas Speedway was beginning to shape up, and it looked like the area (only 25 miles from the Great Mall) could be a formidable opponent for the Great Mall and other Johnson County retailers. A Cabela’s, Nebraska Furniture Mart, and Great Wolf Lodge were all on the horizon, along with the T-Bones minor league ballpark and the Legends shopping center.

A mall hallway with kiosks down the center aisle.

A hallway in the mall, 2013. (Photo by Shanna A onFoursquare)

That year’s Fourth of July celebration at the Great Mall drew in approximately 35,000 people, and added a fashion show, clowns, balloon artists, and Christian youth theater to the list of activities. Many of the activities were apparently held inside the mall to allow attendees to beat the heat (and possibly do a little shopping).

August brought a second SummerFest, and September brought a church to the mall. In 2003, Faith Journey Church began services in the Great Mall 16 theater, where it remained until 2007 when it got its own space in the mall. From 2007, it gradually expanded into neighboring storefronts, providing – among other things – free babysitting for mall employees and a large indoor children’s playground open to the public. (The church currently exists in downtown Olathe.)

In October an article appeared about a seasonal Halloween shop in the mall called Halloween Madness. The store’s owner, Robin Hodges, had found the seasonal business to be so good that he took out a full-time lease and named the store Party Madness. Also, 2003 appears to have been the first year the Great Mall sponsored trick-or-treating inside the mall, but I’m not completely sure about that.

Black Friday (which was a new enough thing in 2003 that the KC Star defined it for unfamiliar readers) was reported to be a good one for the Great Mall that year. And thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs’ strong season, December brought many shoppers looking for Chiefs merchandise. The Great Mall’s Just Sports reported not being able to keep anything with a Chiefs logo on the shelves: “jerseys, silly slammers, toy monster trucks, pennants, flags, license-plate frames, baby bibs, whatever.”

In January of 2004, KB Toys filed for bankruptcy, closing 356 stores across the United States, including their Great Mall location. In February, Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet closed.

In November of 2004 it was reported that in 2003 the Great Mall had suffered a 13% drop in sales. Due to the drop, sales tax revenue had come up shorter than expected again, and in July the mall’s property tax abatement had been changed from 50% to 45.4%. General Manager Brad Cornell attributed the drop to the loss of Old Navy and Oshman’s, and said that 2004 looked like it was going to be brighter. He said that the mall was still about 90% leased, which is where it had hovered for most of its years, and also pointed out that the food court was scheduled to get a new play area. Tim McKee, vice president of economic development with the Olathe Chamber of Commerce, told the KC Star that the mall was in the process of transitioning from an outlet center into a more traditional mall. He was optimistic that a big anchor store would come in and revitalize the mall.

The KC Star reported that the Great Mall’s peak sales were in its first full year: $104 million in 1998. In 1999 sales dropped to $101 million and held fairly steady around there until 2003, when sales dropped to $86.2 million.

Brooks Brothers, Bass, and Van Heusen announced that they would be leaving at the end of 2004.

Store entrance to Steve & Barry's

The entrance to Steve & Barry’s. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

2005, 2006, and 2007 saw the coming and/or going of many retailers. It would be tedious to keep track of it all, so I’ll just detail the anchors:

By the end of 2004, the remaining anchors were listed as Burlington Coat Factory, Dickinson Theatres, Foozles, Group USA, Jeepers!, and Marshalls (all there from the beginning), along with the relative newcomer VF Factory Outlet. In June of 2005, Steve & Barry’s University Sportswear moved into Oshman’s old anchor spot, but the mall lost Linens N Things soon after. Jeepers closed in early 2006, and Marshalls left after that for the new Olathe Pointe shopping center at 119th and Black Bob. Zonkers replaced Jeepers. Foozles closed that fall. And by the end of 2006, Cosmic Mini-Golf was listed as an anchor. It was a very homemade, blacklight-lit, neon-painted mini-golf course, and although it was one of my favorite activities in the mall, it’s not exactly what one thinks of as an anchor.

You got all that? There will be a test at the end, so I sure hope so.

Blacklit minigolf course with space themed decorations.

A picture from inside Cosmic Mini Golf, 2014. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

Actually, since I’ve got you here, let me just give you a sampling of the stores that came and/or went in that time: Aquariums Wholesale, Aquatic 101 (seller of tropical fish), Big Dog Sportswear, Braxton’s Formalwear, Casual Corner, Casual Male Big & Tall, Country Cottage, Designer Shoe Warehouse (gone for real this time), Everything For A Dollar, Game Zone, Girlfriends, Hibbett Sports, Lane Bryant Outlet, Movie Wise, Mr. Bear’s Workshop, Mystic Asia, National Jewelry Outlet, Nextel, Noah’s Ark, Perfume Palace of Kansas, Santa Fe Trader (handmade furniture and pottery from Mexico), Snyder’s Spas & Pools, Sportibles, Thoughtful Throws, Totes Sunglass World, Wisdom Imaging Tek (personalized photo gift items).

Mall store entrance to Perfume Plaza

Perfume Palace, 2014. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

My co-worker, Ian, told me of some temp work he did for Movie Wise (a market research company) around that time, and I thought it was both funny and an insight into what the mall was like at the time. “One day [the temp agency] sent me out to the mall to do some actual market research and it was the most miserable eight hours of my life. They had leased a vacant space next to the Hot Topic (nestled behind the Johnny Rockets), and our job was to convince shoppers to watch trailers for upcoming movies. This was a 20-minute process and there was absolutely no compensation for the shoppers. Not even free movie passes or passes to an upcoming advance screening! So I’m a total introvert, and talking to random people was agonizing enough, but asking them to waste their time made it so much worse. I got approximately zero people to watch the trailers. Meanwhile this older guy I worked with was getting people left and right.”

Outside entrance to Zonkers. A purple awning with each letter in Zonkers a different color.

Zonkers, 2012. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik of Dead and Dying Retail)

There was not a lot of other news about the Great Mall in that three-year timespan. In 2005, there was an article about an international shoplifting ring that had targeted the Great Mall and Oak Park. Three individuals from Mexico and in the United States illegally were charged with $31,000 in theft, but quickly posted bail (which is generally low in theft charges) and disappeared. “The probability of their returning is slim,” Overland Park detective Byron Pierce told the KC Star.

In 2006, an Olathe resident requested that the City Council classify Spencer’s (a store in the Great Mall) as an adult business because they sold sex toys. The council didn’t change the classification of the business, but did pass changes to the municipal code to make it illegal to display certain devices and materials to minors, punishable by one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

A mall hallway with green/blue patterned carpet and trees running down the center aisle.

A mall hallway, 2015. (Photo by Bryan Cisler)

By the end of 2006, Olathe officials were no longer speaking about the Great Mall with any optimism. As I mentioned earlier, the mall’s sales had dropped from just under $100 million in 2002 to $86 million in 2003. At the time, mall and city officials held out hope for 2004, but when that year turned in $78 million, optimism about the outlet center transitioning into a more traditional mall no longer made sense. (2004 was the last year that the mall’s revenue had to be reported publicly under their tax abatement agreement, so I’m not sure what the numbers for later years were.) Tim McKee told the KC Star that Glimcher would have to make a substantial investment in the mall if they hoped to change its image.

Olathe city officials even briefly talked about replacing the mall with something else. A developer pitched a plan to build a nearly $800 million Legoland theme park and tourist mecca (including a hotel, a soccer complex, an indoor ski slope, a private aquarium, and retail) in Olathe around K-10 and I-435. Olathe asked them if they would consider the Great Mall’s location. The developer asked for $670 million in incentives, Olathe decided that that was probably not going to work for their city, and that was that.

One positive note from 2006 was that in November, the Johnson County Christmas Bureau began operating out of the former Marshalls. Every year for several years they used the massive retail space to distribute gifts, clothing, and food to more than 2,500 families in need.

The Great Mall’s property tax abatement expired at the start of 2007.

In 2008, Monkey Bizness opened inside the old Linens N Things location, and – perhaps more significantly – Glimcher Realty Trust announced that they were unloading non-strategic properties and wanted to sell the Great Mall. In an assessment in the KC Star that felt a bit like a eulogy, Andy Hyland wrote that in its best year, the mall only ever made half of the $200 million in sales it had once been projected to make. He also observed how right around the time the Great Mall opened, open-air shopping centers like Town Center Plaza, The Legends, and Olathe Pointe were winning favor with area shoppers. The KC Star’s Joyce Smith pointed to the unbuilt Phase II, or “entertainment phase,” as one reason the mall never took off. Tim McKee said that he felt like the mall was built about a decade too early, before the surrounding area had developed enough to support a mall and draw in (and maintain) the anchor stores it needed.

There was also the matter of outlet malls being on the wane by the time the mall opened, and the mall never becoming the tourist hotspot developers had been hoping for. Again, I may be out of touch with what tourists want, but I can’t help but wonder if keeping the prairie theme would have made the mall more of a curiosity for tourists.

Olathe Mayor Mike Copeland said he was willing to work with any type of plan for the area, and pointed out that even with the abatements, the mall had been good for the city from a tax revenue perspective.

That May, the mall’s longtime general manager Brad Cornell left for a job with the Olathe Chamber of Commerce.

But it wasn’t over for the Great Mall yet.

In July, the mall hosted another Fourth. Steve & Barry’s announced that they were filing for bankruptcy and would be liquidating all of their stores. And Glimcher announced that they had a buyer, and hoped to close the deal by the end of the year.


Thank you for reading this history of the Great Mall of the Great Plains. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. I would like to thank all of the journalists at the Kansas City Star, the Kansas City Business Journal, and The Olathe News whose hard work I drew from. I would also like to thank everybody who provided pictures and/or anecdotes. Special thanks to Bryan for research tips and spending countless hours walking malls with me. And finally, thank you to all of the people who made the mall possible, and everybody who worked and shopped there and made it what it was during its all-too-short existence. If you have any memories about the mall you would like to share, please leave us a comment, or shoot me an email at kellerm@jocolibrary.org. Also, if you have any pictures of the mall you’d like to share, please send them my way!

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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