History of the Central Resource Library

Library Origins

In the early 1950s, the libraries of Johnson County were run by community volunteers. Some housed small libraries in their homes, some worked out of local buildings – barbershops, schoolhouses, and shopping centers – and others operated traveling bookmobiles. With support from the community, an official Johnson County Library was established in 1953 with funding and a permanent location in Merriam, Kansas. Three years later, the library moved to the location at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Antioch (the current Antioch Library) and designated this the Headquarters Branch.

The exterior of the temporary headquarters for Johnson County Library in Merriam, Kansas. Signs hang outside promoting the open house on February 5-6th, 1956. Source: JoCo History

In 1968, a Central Reference Department was created at Headquarters to provide reference services to the county. Two years later, the Kansas Room opened and the library gained a Local History and Genealogy collection at this location. The Johnson County Genealogical Society agreed to house its collection at Headquarters in 1973, further expanding the collection of historical reference materials. Online resources were introduced in 1976 and the library gained a Business Specialist. In 1979, as the Central Reference Department expanded, the decision to combine the public library branch services of Headquarters with the Central Reference Department was made, and the location was renamed the Resource Library – a library location designed to provide access to specialized reference and advanced research collections.

Exterior of the Antioch Library, new headquarters of the Johnson County Library. Source: JoCo History

Building a New Central Library

Preliminary planning for a larger building began in 1985 under the direction of County Librarian Roy Fox. The Resource Library was renamed the Central Resource Library and negotiations began to construct a building at College Boulevard and Quivira, on property owned by the Johnson County Community College. After Fox’s retirement in 1988, newly appointed County Librarian Mona Carmack hired Lawrence-based architecture firm Gould Evans Architects, Inc. to design a building at this site. Negotiations soon faltered and a new site at College Boulevard and US-69 was selected. These plans were redirected in 1992 toward a location at 9875 W. 87th St., in the former Best Products retail building. On November 3, 1992, a $12 million bond issue for the purchase and renovation of the Best Products building was passed by 72% of county voters (100,475 – 39,928). Gould Evans Architects, Inc. developed the plans for the renovation. The building was purchased in 1993 and the groundbreaking occurred in 1994.


Central Resource Library pre-1994. Source: Johnson County Library

Relocation and Opening

Hallett and Sons Expert Movers of Chicago and Seaton Van Lines of Olathe were chosen to move collections and office space from the Antioch location to the new library at 87th and Farley. Antioch closed its doors in early August and the move was carried out from August 11th – 17th.  August 29, 1995, the Central Resource Library opened its doors to the public. The final cost for the Central Resource Library was $12,719,000, funded by 12 million from the bond, $450,000 of allocated funds, and $269,000 in interest income. Building renovation costs were $2 million less than previous ground-up construction plans.  

Housing over 500,000 materials, the library constituted the bulk of the Johnson County Library’s nearly 750,000 materials. Many behind-the-scenes departments, including Administration, the Business Office, Technical Services, Collections, Acquisitions, and Library Information Technology joined public service staff in the new building.

More than 750 people visited the library in its first four hours on opening day and circulation shattered previous records when 7,396 items circulated. In its first month, an average of 1,000 people a day visited the new facility asking nearly 1,110 reference questions. The highest number prior was a 5,439 record established at Antioch Library on July 6, 1993. Statistics reported 75% more user visits, 34% more circulations, and library card registrations increased by 165% with the opening of the new facility.

The Circulation Desk at the Central Resource Library ca. 1995. Source: Johnson County Library

Today’s Central Resource Library

Since its opening, the Central Resource Library has continuously been re-envisioned by library staff. In its first 25 years, it has seen the creation of an art gallery, children and teen services space, and the addition of more than 100 public use PCs. In 2008, the large meeting room was named the Carmack Room in honor of the Johnson County Library’s fourth County Librarian Mona Carmack. In 2016, the Black and Veatch Makerspace was added, granting patrons access to 3D printers, laser cutters, a sound booth, and more. The latest remodel includes a new children’s area, more conference rooms, and a brand new dedicated teen space. Even with all these changes, specialized librarians continue to provide the same expert services they did in 1968, and public services staff are always on hand to answer questions and help locate materials.  

We look forward to welcoming everyone back February 22, 2022!

The new drive-thru window at the Central Resource Library. Source: Johnson County Library

By the numbers (2018)

Visitors: 453,750

Items circulated: 736,977

Square footage: 90,547

-Johnson County Library Staff

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Fashion Lights Up the All-Electric House: Holiday Style

The Johnson County Museum and Johnson County Community College Fashion Department have joined forces to create a Midcentury Modern holiday party-themed exhibit in the All-Electric House. The exhibit features 1950s-era women’s fashion from the JCCC Historical Fashion Collection that highlight what Johnson County women wore to holiday events of the era. Accessories are featured in the pop-up exhibit space outside of the home. JCCC students are curating the exhibit, which will run November 20, 2021 through January 8, 2022.                 

A selection of elegant overcoats—light pink silk satin by Scassi, red heavy silk satin without designer label, and cream or gold demask by designer Pierre Cardin for Neiman Marcus stores.
A selection of elegant overcoats—light pink silk satin by Scassi, red heavy silk satin without designer label, and cream or gold demask by designer Pierre Cardin for Neiman Marcus stores. From the JCCC Historical Fashion Collection.

After World War II, many white American families purchased homes in the suburbs. Johnson County’s population exploded during this period. More houses were constructed between 1946 and 1951 than had been built in the previous 120 years of Johnson County history. The nuclear family home was a centerpiece for postwar domestic and social life.  

The 1954 All-Electric House, the Johnson County Museum's largest artifact and home to the collaborative exhibit with JCCC Fashion Design Program from Nov. 20, 2021 to Jan. 8, 2022.  Credit: Courtesy Bob Greenspan Photography.
The 1954 All-Electric House, the Johnson County Museum’s largest artifact and home to the collaborative exhibit with JCCC Fashion Design Program from Nov. 20, 2021 to Jan. 8, 2022. Credit: Courtesy Bob Greenspan Photography.

Cocktail parties were common in suburban homes. Housewives carefully curated guest lists and sent invitations via the mail. Guests donned their best attire for these often-formal soirées, including fashionable coats and coordinating cocktail jewelry.

Party dresses were special event attire for women in the 1950s. The dresses frequently came down to the knee and were often made of silks, taffeta, lace, and rich jacquards featuring embellishments like beads, bows, and embroideries. Mid-Century coats were meticulously constructed and coordinated with the rest of a woman’s ensemble. These coats were often accented with decorative buttons, belts, or fur accents to add a glamour to an otherwise simple silhouette. Whether worn for a Christmas cocktail party, a formal Hanukkah gathering, or a New Year’s Eve celebration, the incredible pieces in this exhibit were sure to make a splash.

This bright green silk satin jacquard with white fur ermine cuffs was designed by Helga for the Swanson’s department store in Kansas City. From JCCC Historical Fashion Collection.
This bright green silk satin jacquard with white fur ermine cuffs was designed by Helga for the Swanson’s department store in Kansas City. From JCCC Historical Fashion Collection.

“This is an exciting opportunity to showcase our Historical Fashion Collection,” said Britt Benjamin, Associate Director of JCCC’s Merchandising & Design Department. The JCCC Historical Fashion Collection tells a story of fashion history, Kansas City women, and the artistry of apparel design. The collection houses 1,600 apparel pieces dating back to the 1850s. It includes notable American designers like Adrian, Irene, Norman Norell, Pauline Trigerie, Geoffrey Beene, and Bill Blass. French fashions can be found with exquisite designs from Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and Pierre Cardin. The collection advances the understanding of history through a lens of fashion and serves as a valuable resource to students in the Fashion Merchandising and Design Department. 

“Partnerships are important to the work we do at the Johnson County Museum,” said Johnson County Museum Director Mary McMurray. “Not only do partnerships help build community, they also help us interpret the museum’s largest artifact in new ways. I can’t wait to see the fashion and history JCCC’s Fashion Merchandising and Design Department faculty and students bring to the All-Electric House!”

In concert with this display, the Museum and JCCC are joining forces for “Mid-Century Holiday Party Fashion,” an evening program on Thursday, December 2, 2021. Guests will learn about the Mid-Century cocktail dresses and winter coats in JCCC’s Historical Fashion Collection from students in JCCC Fashion Merchandising & Design. This program is for adults 21 and up. Registration is $6 and includes beer and snacks. Reservations can be made by calling 913-831-3359 or registering online here.

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Kansas at the Chicago World’s Fair 

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was an international exposition that brought millions of visitors from all over the world to Chicago, Illinois, for a six month fair designed to show the very best that each nation had to offer. Formally titled the World’s Columbian Exposition, it commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first expedition to the Americas. It was in this spirit of discovery, of a foray into the unknown, that nations came together to share their progress and their optimism for the future. Many American cities were considered to host the fair, but the honor was won by Chicago, eager to create a triumphant comeback after its Great Fire of 1871. The fairgrounds stretched across nearly 700 acres of Jackson Park, located on the coast of Lake Michigan near the city center. Nicknamed “The White City” for its sea of uniform white neoclassical buildings surrounded by sleepy lagoons, it was meant to represent the ideal city, something unearthly, where exotic novelties from all over the world would be brought before the public. As host, America was the focal point, and much of the grounds were dedicated to individual buildings where each state could show off their most impressive accomplishments.

Photograph of the World’s Columbian Exposition seen from the main canal, 1893. Library of Congress
Illustration of bird’s-eye view of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Library of Congress

Planning for Kansas exhibitions began in 1891 when a convention of delegates met to determine which products and resources would represent Kansas best. It was decided that a sum of $100,000 (somewhere around $3 million in today’s money) would be needed, with a significant portion of that money raised from the state’s citizens. An official Board of Managers was formed by delegating a representative from each congressional district. While scouting county fairs to secure the best samples of Kansas cattle, dairy, and crops, Board Managers were given the additional responsibility of visiting each county within their district to rally enthusiasm for the project. Inspiring rural Kansans proved more challenging than anticipated, and after six months it was discovered that very little money or interest had been raised. The Board doubled efforts and established 76 Columbian Associations throughout the state, with the express purpose of gathering both funds and materials to exhibit. Of these 76, only 50 successfully contributed money, and it was a much lower sum than expected. After all was said and done, Kansas had less than half the budget originally requested.  

Souvenir Map of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893. Library of Congress

Undeterred, the Kansas Board pressed on, securing a plot that was third largest in the states area and positioned favorably near a major entrance. To drum up interest in the plans, hopeful architects from all over the state entered into a competition for the best building design — ultimately won by Seymour Davis of Fellows & Vansant of Topeka. Grandiose and imposing from the outside, Davis’ plans allowed for an airy interior with numerous windows and a massive domed cupola that illuminated the two-story structure with natural light. In late October of 1892, six months before the fair’s opening, the Kansas Building became the first completed state building on the grounds. The following months saw thousands of items shipped from Kansas to fill the exhibit, and the fair officially opened to the public on May 1st, 1893. 

Exterior of the Kansas Building, Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893. 
View of the main entrance, Kansas Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893. 

The phrase “Welcome to All States and Nations” in bold black and gold letters met guests as they approached the stone archway over the main entrance of the Kansas Building. A preview of what was to come, the lettering consisted entirely of meticulously arranged dried corn and grains. Mounted next to these words was a large stucco seal of the state overlooking a detailed limestone fountain made in the shape of a partially shucked ear of corn. Tall pyramids of coal flanked the side entrances. Through the archway, elaborate decorations made from locally sourced grains, grasses, and seeds in dyed hues of gold, crimson, white, and blue covered each wall of the interior. Pyramids of wheat and grasses displayed the state’s major exports. This thematic décor continued throughout the building, guiding onlookers to a variety of exhibits designed to show the very best of Kansas.  

Grain decorations, Kansas Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893. 
Grain decorations, Kansas Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893.

Beyond its great swaths of grains, the main floor housed displays of manuscripts, samples of dissections, illustrations of botany, and mounted skeletons from the State Normal School — a now defunct institution meant for aspiring teachers. The State Agricultural College provided samples of student work from all areas of study. Olathe’s Kansas School for the Deaf, then known as the Kansas Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb, created an impressive exhibit of traditional classwork alongside student-made industrial pieces, woodworks, buggy harnesses, clothing, and art. 

Fruit Exhibit, Kansas Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893. 

Spread across 18 tables, the Horticultural Exhibit displayed hundreds of Kansas apples. To this display, Johnson County was said to have contributed only disappointing samples, but its neighboring counties fared better. Fruit rot, vermin, and the habit of some visitors to linger “suspiciously long” at these tables, created the need for an ever new supply.  

View of vestibule from upper gallery, Kansas Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893.

Two great stairways led to the upper galleries. Recognizing that fair attendance during this period was quite grueling work, organizers arranged a straw basket with sewing supplies at the top of the stairs — giving guests the opportunity to replace mislaid buttons and busted seams. Artistic recreations of train routes made from dried corn and grains lined the walls of the upper floor, leading visitors to the Gentlemen’s Parlor, the Reading Room, and the Educational Exhibit. Across from these rooms were the Lady’s Parlor, Historical Room, and Woman’s Art Room. Here were artworks from all across the state and objects of interest, such as a battle flag from the War of 1812 provided by an Olathe man, and a straight-backed wooden chair brought to America on the Mayflower. Patents for household items were on display in this area — notably a newly invented gas-powered clothing iron, meant to prevent burns so commonly experienced by users of the traditional cast iron version. Gardner local A. Cone displayed plans for modern washing  machines and churns.  

North American Mammals display, Kansas Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893.

Under the natural lighting provided by the immense cupola, a taxidermy display of over 100 North American mammals, created by L. L. Dyche of the University of Kansas, was arranged in a vast panorama of nature scenes. Much fanfare arose around the exhibit, garnering notice in more than 50 newspaper articles at the time – though some detractors felt it took up more space than was warranted. Much of this groundbreaking display still remains on view at the KU Natural History Museum.   

Towers of lead and lead ore, Mining Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893. 

While most states were allotted their own building to display goods, many exhibits were replicated in buildings throughout the fair designated for particular industries. In the Forestry Building, Kansas provided a 15-foot walnut log, 78 inches in diameter, dating back to 1452. Huge pyramids of rock salt, lead ore, and zinc were arranged in the Mining Building. Once again, Johnson County’s contributions did not impress, providing only samples of “good, but not especially noteworthy” limestone. Not well-known for quality dairy at this time, Kansans were eager to prove they could produce butters, creams, and cheeses to rival other states. While other Dairy Exhibit entries garnered high marks, tragedy befell the cheese when someone forgot to turn on the refrigeration unit.  

Illustration of the Horticultural Building, 1893. Library of Congress 

Damaged crops and a lackluster fruit harvest created a challenge in providing a creditable display within the Horticultural Building. Women’s clubs throughout the state came up with a clever solution by displaying hundreds of local jams, jellies, and preserves. Their plan was to erect an elaborate wire replica of the University of Kansas, lit by electricity from within and filled with hundreds of illuminated jars of jam. Due to a lack of funds and interest by the legislature, this ambitious plan never reached fruition, but the jars were displayed all the same on simple wooden shelving. 

Kansas Jelly Exhibit, Horticultural Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893.

Throughout the sixth month run of the fair, the Kansas Building welcomed an average of 10-12 thousand daily visitors. These numbers nearly doubled during Kansas Week — a mid-September event honoring the state with special concerts, speeches, and assemblies — which was said to be “crowded to suffocation”. At the fair’s close in October of 1893, the great White City was to be destroyed and the park returned to its former state. Bidding opened on site deconstruction, with interested parties hoping to scavenge useful lumber and other building materials. The highest offer for the Kansas Building, tens of thousands of dollars in the making, was for $200. All non-perishable items were shipped back to Kansas by train. The state had hoped to reclaim the emblematic grain and grass décor that had awed so many, but these hopes were dashed when it was discovered that the majority of the building was infested with weevils.  

Wyandotte Exhibit, Kansas Building. Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893. 

The Chicago World’s Fair proved an overwhelming success for the country. Organizers went away confident that they had represented not only how far the country had come since its founding, but the limitless potential of its future. Reflecting on the accomplishments of the state in its relatively short 32-year existence, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kansas, Albert H. Horton, declared in his dedication speech:  

“Kansas is here, because she has not been disobedient to the heavenly vision; because she believes, as she has always believed, in her own motto. Difficulties she knows, difficulties she expects; but through them all she pursues her way to the stars.” 

All information obtained from the Report of the Kansas Board of World’s Fair Managers, 1893, available through the Library of Congress. 

-Sam S., Johnson County Library

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Latinos and the Railroads in Johnson County

Latinos have a long history in Johnson County, Kansas. From the early 1800s on, Latinos have had a presence on the county’s landscape. What brought Latinos, especially Mexican immigrants, to the area? The Johnson County Museum’s Emerging Museum Professional, Ryanne Pritchard, an intern through UMKC’s Public History program, has researched to uncover more of the story for National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15 annually).

Trails and Rails

In the early 1800s, cattle drivers, traders, and wagoners from México and Texas regularly traveled through Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail. Between the summer of 1910 and spring of 1920, political opponents of Porfirio Díaz confronted the political leaders of México and Mexican citizens in a violent revolution against Díaz’s dictatorship. More than one million civilians died. This revolution spurred many Mexican families to flee to the United States. The immigrants sought to escape political persecution and sought refuge from the war. The United States was desirable because of its proximity to México and because of the booming agricultural, mining, and railroad industries, which almost guaranteed labor opportunities to the Mexican immigrants.

Mexican laborers played an integral role in the agricultural and railroad history in the United States. The United States government – aware of the importance of Mexican labor in the development of key industries – protected the rights of Mexican immigrants through the 1924 Immigration Act. Also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, the 1924 Immigration Act included strict restrictions on the number of immigrants from each country. Asian immigrants, for example, were not able to legally immigrate to the United States. Mexican immigration, however, was not restricted. The lack of restrictions demonstrates the importance of Mexican labor in the development of key industries in the United States.   

This photo from the 1930s shows a railroad section crew working on tracks near Lenexa. Courtesy Lenexa Historical Society.
This photo from the 1930s shows a railroad section crew working on tracks near Lenexa. Courtesy Lenexa Historical Society.

Working on the Railroad

Between 1900 and 1930, many Mexican immigrants traveled to Kansas to work in the booming railroad industry in the Midwest, especially along the Santa Fe Trail corridor. As section hands, or traqueros, for the Santa Fe Railroad, Mexican laborers were responsible for constructing and maintaining the rail lines. The work was backbreaking, and the living conditions ranged from company-built section housing to literal boxcars on track sidings.

Twentieth century United States Census records reveal that the majority of Mexican families in Johnson County, Kansas made their homes in five of the eight townships – including the present-day cities of Gardner, Edgerton, Olathe, Desoto, Shawnee, and Mission. Following the Great Depression, Mexicans continued working for the railroad industry and found other labor opportunities throughout Johnson County in farming and construction.

The Ayala Family

Ramón Ayala, his father José Macedonio del Refugio, and his mother Domitila (Contreras) Ayala were one of the many families to immigrate into Johnson County. Born in Ciudad Juárez, México in 1919, Ramón became a traqueros for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF). The AT&SF was one of the largest railways in the country and extended across the Midwest to the West Coast. The railway was vital for transporting people, grain, and coal across the United States and, ultimately, transformed life in Johnson County.

Clare rail depot and schoolhouse are identified on this 1922 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas.
Clare rail depot and schoolhouse are identified on this 1922 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas. JCM.

The Ayala family established themselves in Clare, a small town located between Gardner and Olathe. Clare was a railroad community that had a post office, one-room schoolhouse, and train depot. Ramón and his siblings attended Clare School with their white classmates from first to eighth grade. After graduating from Gardner High School in 1938, Ramón enlisted in the United States military and was stationed at the Marshall Islands during World War II. After the war, Ramón married Guadalupe Juarez and settled in Kansas City. There, Ramón worked in the printing industry and developed an effective way to engrave graduation cards, which his employer patented. In 2016, at 96 years old, Ramón Ayala died in Kansas City, Missouri. Ramón’s story is like many others from Johnson County’s history—people moving here to seek a better life.

JoCoMuseum’s Latino Collecting Initiative

Today the Latino community is the fastest growing population in Johnson County. Recognizing that Latinos are underrepresented in its exhibits and collections, the Museum launched the Latino Collecting Initiative in 2019 and has been working to make long-lasting relationships in the wider Latino community. In addition to the artifacts, documents, photographs, and stories that the Museum has collected from its new community connections, the Museum has also uncovered Latinos hidden in its existing collections.  

This 1940-41 class photo from the Clare School shows Amparo and Critobol Ayala, the last two on the back right. This photo has been in the museum’s collection since 1994, but the Ayala children were unidentified.
This 1940-41 class photo from the Clare School shows Amparo and Critobol Ayala, the last two on the back right. This photo has been in the museum’s collection since 1994, but the Ayala children were unidentified. JCM.

The Ayala family story is a perfect example—the school photograph featuring Amparo and Cristobol Ayala has been in the Museum’s collections since 1994. While the white students at the Clare School were identified, there were only tentative identifications for the Ayala children. Similar existing connections in the museum’s collections have been made with the Magana family near Kenneth in southeastern Johnson County, and with the Gomez family, long-time residents near Wilder. The Museum hopes to continue to make new connections and additions to its collections, as well as uncover existing Latino history such as the Ayalas.  

The Johnson County Museum needs your help to make its exhibits and collections more representative of the county’s population and history! Share your story at jcmuseum@jocogov.org to make a connection!

About the Author
Ryanne Pritchard is a second-year graduate student in UMKC’s Public History Program. Her research focuses on African-American/Black history of the Kansas City Metro region, including both sides of the state line. Ryanne served as the Johnson County Museum’s inaugural Emerging Museum Professional Intern. This program was designed to create pathways to the museum profession for people from underrepresented communities. This paid internship was launched with support from JE Dunn Construction and is made possible through the ongoing support of the Johnson County Museum Foundation.


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Pausing to Remember

As patrons visit their local Johnson County Branch during the month of September, they may come across an interactive display as they explore the building. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, patrons are invited to share their experience of where they were that day.

Photo credit Courtney S.

Interactive displays are not new to the library. In the past, patrons have been invited to respond to the first moon landing in July of 1969 and the Y2K pandemonium of 2000. Patrons have the opportunity to share a memory or story, hear from others, and explore material related to the topic. The goal is to allow patrons to share community experiences in a safe setting.

The Kansas City Star headlines from September 12, 2001.

At 8:46 in the morning on September 11, 2001, the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City was hit by American Airlines Flight 11. Less than one hour later, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Thirty minutes later, a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A final tally reported that 2,977 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks, to this day still the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil. As we approach twenty years of remembering, reminiscing, or mourning, many individuals continue to seek meaning and rebuild after the events. In 2014, the 9/11 Memorial Museum, opened to the public, only a two-minute walk from the World Trade Center. The museum ‘tells the story of 9/11 through media, narratives, and a collection of monumental and authentic artifacts, presenting visitors with personal stories of loss, recovery, and hope’. Through a partnership with The National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association, a digital poster exhibition has been released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the events. This exhibition is broken up into dissecting the events of the day, life pre and post 9/11 and the ramifications of the event twenty years later. (Editor’s note: the digital poster exhibit contains graphic depictions of the events of 9/11 and may not be suitable for all audiences.)

An excerpt from the 9/11 poster exhibition, courtesy of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

Another resource from the museum is their timeline of the day, which begins at 5:45 in the morning, when hijackers passed through security in Maine, to 10:30 that night, when rescue workers were able to rescue a final individual from the Port Authority Police Department. The museum is traditionally open year round, with virtual resources for individuals to learn more about the event and how it continues to impact our lives.

-Heather McCartin, Johnson County Library

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Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial

This September is the 200th anniversary of the first organized wagon train down the Santa Fe Trail. The route between Independence, Missouri (and later Westport, Missouri) to Santa Fe, México (New Mexico, today) was a vital economic generator and captured the American imagination then as now. Between 1821 and the 1880s, several other trails—besides the Santa Fe, the Oregon and California Trails—all crisscrossed the county and led many thousands of people to what is now the wider American West. Johnson County’s proximity to the Missouri “jumping off” points meant this rich history played out across its landscape for more than a half century.

This 1874 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas shows a rough approximation of the old Santa Fe Trail route across the county.
This 1874 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas shows a rough approximation of the old Santa Fe Trail route across the county. JoCoHistory.

Forging the Westward Trails

Becknell’s expedition in 1821 was certainly not the first group to traverse the ground from the edge of the United States to the edge of México. But what started with a small party leaving Franklin, Missouri late in the summer season rapidly turned into a deluge of people, livestock, trade goods, and coins moving across the state of Kansas. México, newly independent from Spain, had its boundaries near Dodge City, Kansas and westward along the Arkansas River. Santa Fe was located on a major north-south trade route within México (called the Camino Real, or royal road), and the Santa Fe Trail would deeply connect the American economy to that of México for decades. Merchants and traders from the United States drove west into México and their Mexican counterparts drove east to the U.S.

Johnson County was the natural location for the first night on the trail for those who left from Westport. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of travelers crossed its landscape over the dozens of official trails, unofficial trails, cutoffs, and re-routes. With camp names like Lone Elm, Sapling Grove, and Elm Grove, the landscape of wooded creeks and short-grass prairie was a relatively easy entrance to the tougher western landscape. Throughout the pre-Kansas Territory era, seven years as a Territory, the American Civil War, and the prosperous decade that followed, the Santa Fe Trail (and after the 1840s, the California and Oregon Trails) brought economic prosperity to Independence, Westport, and eventually early Kansas City, Missouri. Traders and farmers in Johnson County also prospered from the trails, especially those who rented out grazing lands to the oxen who pulled the wagon trains. But by the 1870s, railroads had largely replaced the westward trails, connecting far-flung places in less time than wagons on rutted roads.

Courtesy of the Kansas City Star, an article from April 1905 announcing DAR’s efforts to commemorate the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas.
Courtesy of the Kansas City Star, an article from April 1905 announcing DAR’s efforts to commemorate the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas.

Commemorating the Journey

In 1902, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) sought to commemorate the incredible bravery, tenacity, and entrepreneurial spirit of those Americans and immigrants who drove west. The Kansas DAR chapter raised enough money for 86 red granite markers to place strategically to identify locations of importance on the Santa Fe Trail across the state. Chapters in Missouri, Colorado, and New Mexico followed suit and marked the trail in their own states, and local chapters of Old Settlers groups often aided in the fundraising or placed their own markers.

This Santa Fe Trail marker on the grounds of the 1893 Johnson County Courthouse was placed by the Old Settler’s group. It was common for local organizations to fundraise and place markers in conjunction with DAR’s efforts.
This Santa Fe Trail marker on the grounds of the 1893 Johnson County Courthouse was placed by the Old Settler’s group. It was common for local organizations to fundraise and place markers in conjunction with DAR’s efforts. JoCoHistory.

DAR placed five markers across Johnson County in 1906. One was located in Overland Park. Another “one and a quarter miles south” of Lenexa. A third was placed on the courthouse grounds in Olathe. A fourth was installed at the Sunflower School, located mid-way between Olathe and Gardner. The last was placed at Lanesfield School, two and a half miles northeast of Edgerton. Over the years, additional markers from various groups have been placed at locations across the county (including two more by DAR: one at Mahaffie Farmstead & Stagecoach Stop and another at Lone Elm campground), and more recently, brown roadside signs help alert motorists to the history with which they are intersecting.

Trail History in Johnson County: Lanesfield Historic Site

The marker erected in 1906 still stands near the Lanesfield Visitor’s Center today. Lanesfield was a short-lived abolitionist town not far from Edgerton and Gardner. Although the town dissolved (literally, moved brick by brick) after the railroad bypassed it in the 1870s, the school remained and its early students recalled seeing wagons rolling west across the nearby landscape.

The 1906 DAR Santa Fe Trail marker at the Lanesfield Historic Site today.
The 1906 DAR Santa Fe Trail marker at the Lanesfield Historic Site today.

If you visit Lanesfield, you can read more about the history of the trails, the school, and the old town on interpretive markers located throughout the site. Nearby, Gardner Junction Park provides information about the point at which the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon and California Trails diverged. The Gardner Museum also relates the early history of the area and the town’s connection to the trail economy. For more information about the DAR Trail markers, see: https://santafetrailcenter.org/dar-markers/

Lanesfield Historic Site is open without charge every second Saturday through the fall. Visit Saturday, September 11 and October 9 between 10am and 4pm. The annual Lanesfield Fall Open House is scheduled for Saturday, October 30 from 11am – 4pm. In connection with the Santa Fe Trail Bicentennial, the Johnson County Museum will offer a program by Dr. Gene Chavez titled “Latinos on the Santa Fe Trail” on October 7 at 6:00pm. To register: https://anc.apm.activecommunities.com/jcprd/activity/search/detail/8756?onlineSiteId=0&from_original_cui=true&locale=en-US

For more information about Johnson County’s Santa Fe Trail history, check out the resources on the JoCoHistory website: https://jocohistory.org/digital/search/searchterm/Santa%20Fe%20Trail

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The Creation of Leawood City Park: An Interview with Jean Wise

When you’re a kid, summer means swimming, and when I was growing up in Leawood I did most of my swimming at the Leawood City Park’s pool. I also spent a lot of time on the playground where Lee Boulevard and I-435 meet. Both the pool and playground were thoroughly remodeled in 1997, when I was eleven, and the original playground has long lingered in my memory as a lost paradise – a Shangri-Leawood, if you will. I liked the remodel quite a bit, but once I became an adult I found that every time summer rolled around I started thinking back to the city park as I originally knew it.

I remembered sand pits separated by concrete slabs connecting them that had tunnels big enough to crawl through. I remembered a small, stepped hill-sized structure with evergreen bushes on it. One could climb the steps to the top, and then crawl down a ladder into an open-ended sewer kind of thing. I even remembered getting stung by a bee that flew out of one of those bushes.

For a long time I assumed my memory was distorted. The park I remembered seemed too wild to have really existed. I knew playgrounds from the 1970s – with their searing hot metal slides, rain-filled tire swings, and rusty roundabout spinners that could send you flying off into orbit – were much less forgiving than the more safety-minded ones that started springing up in the 1990s, but I couldn’t quite believe my memory of the Leawood City Park’s playground. Surely, I thought, if it was like the park I remembered, I would have seen some other park in my life that was like it. Yet I never have.

Years ago, I set off to find a picture of the place, starting with an internet search and eventually contacting Leawood Parks and Recreation. People remembered the park as I did, but nobody had pictures. Eventually my quest to know more about the history of the park took me to the house of former Leawood Mayor Jean Wise, where one afternoon in March of 2021, I sat down with Jean, another former Leawood Mayor Marica Rinehart, April Bishop, and Janet O’Neal – Chair and Vice-Chair of the Leawood Historic Commission respectively – for snacks and a trip down memory lane. I learned all about the history of the park, and I finally got my pictures.

The Climbing Mound and sand pits. Provided by Jean Wise.

Jean Wise moved to Leawood in 1971, when Leawood was still a relatively small community with a population around 10,000.  “The only city building at that time was that little city hall,” Jean told me. “I mean, there was a fire department and police department, but the only city hall was that little building up on Lee Boulevard.” She had three children under the age of five, and “when the dust settled [from her move], I realized there was no park in the city. There was no swimming pool, and at that time you could not get a non-resident permit from Overland Park or Prairie Village. I mean, you were kind of stuck, unless you joined the Leawood Country Club, which is what I did.”

“I was very mad,” Jean said pleasantly. “I lived in an area where there were a lot of young families, so I went out, I was asking my neighbors who were all young, you know, and they were mad about the lack of a park. A bunch of us were standing around [complaining] about it…” Jean paused and chuckled. “And [a neighbor] looked at me and she said, ‘Well, you’re a loudmouth! Why don’t you go take care of it?!’”

Now, I should interrupt here to mention that technically Leawood did have a park at this point in time, but it wasn’t much of one. The Leawood City Park was formally dedicated in October of 1968 by Mayor Al T. Luxford. It was 56 acres of floodplain land leased by the city from Kroh Brothers (a development and real estate company) for $1.00 per year plus taxes, with an option to purchase. The Kansas City Star described it as having two shelter houses (one built by the city, another donated by the Leawood Lions Club), two baseball diamonds, a football field, a soccer field, and three picnic areas.

However, Jean told me that the original park was not so much a park as it was a strategy some residents conceived when I-435 was being developed. Apparently, a local architect – who was no fan of parks – wanted to have the ability to extend Lee Boulevard further south eventually for development and so forth. “It [later] turned out it was too hard. The terrain was too rocky. But anyway, he cooked up this idea. He went to the Lions Club, and he got them to donate a ton of sand. And so this was just an ugly piece of ground. It was flat. There were no trees. It had potholes all over it. Nobody really maintained it. And people played ball on it, but it was dangerous.”

“And then [the architect] went to the [Federal government employees developing the interstate] and he said, ‘Look at our beautiful park! If you cut us off from our beautiful park we won’t have any access!’ So that’s how the city got the [Lee Boulevard] overpass. And without the overpass, we couldn’t have built the park.”

This clipping from a 1969 Kansas City Star testifies to the low level of “park” upkeep at the time.

And now back to our main program.

“Well, I went up to City Hall, I was 29 years old, I was just madder than hell. And the city hall is one big room and there’s [practically] no city staff… there was one city clerk and a secretary. There might have been another secretary that I didn’t see. But anyway, so I barge in there and I say, ‘Why isn’t there a park in Leawood?!’ And the city clerk – very arrogant – looks at me, and she says, ‘Everyone in Leawood is old and rich, and they have big yards and they don’t need a park.’ And I said, ‘That’s ridiculous! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! I want to talk to somebody on the park board!’ She said, ‘The park board is not authorized to develop parks. The park board is authorized to maintain parks of which we have none.’”

“And she’s a nice person. But you know, I was not particularly… I was not in a friendly mood. Anyway, she says the park board can’t do it. And I just was mad. I looked around the room and in the back right corner, there was a set of [Kansas] statute books. I was not a lawyer at the time, but I figured, well, it has an index. So I said, ‘Okay, I want to see where it says that.’ So I go there, and I grab the index, and I look under P for Parks. And sure enough, it says, you know, ‘the park board can maintain parks.’ So I don’t know what made me do it, but I looked in the index under R for Recreation, and I found there was this little statute, I can still see it on the page, it was about an inch long, and it spelled out the initial procedure for getting a recreation commission [which could develop parks] in your city.”

“It said that any citizen could turn in a petition to get a recreation commission. The reason it had to be done by petition was that the recreation commission would have taxing authority of one mill, which at the time was equivalent to $35,000, which was enough to hire professional, you know, an architect, an engineer to get you started. So, it said that you needed signatures equal to at least 5% of the number of voters that had voted in the last city election. This was like ’71, the last city election had been that spring and there were not many people in this city. Well, it turned out 1000 people had voted in the last city election, so you needed 50 signatures. So I said thank you very much. I laughed and I went running home and I called up all my friends in the subdivision. I said, ‘Come over Sunday, bring your kids and, you know, sign the petition with us.’ Anyway, they all came over and they signed the petition and turned it in. And the city had to put it on the ballot at the next election. Well, the next election was the presidential election of 1972, and no one was paying any attention because it was a presidential election. So it passed.”

Now that they had their recreation commission, it was time to develop the park.

“We decided we were gonna go for broke,” Jean said. “We really got going in the fall or the winter of 1973.” Drawing inspiration from the Prairie Village complex at 79th and Mission, which had a pool, a children’s playground, and tennis courts, “we hired an architect who had done a very innovative park in Grandview named Tom Nelson. And we hired an engineer named Wally Beasley who had done a bunch of swimming pools. They drew up plans and in the spring – in April I believe, of 1974 – we went to the city council to make a presentation.”

A sketch of the plans for the park that the commission created. Provided by Jean Wise.

“And I mean, I will never forget this as long as I live. In my mind’s eye: There are nine middle aged men, there’s a mayor, there’s no women. And they’re all sitting there in dark suits, frowning with their arms crossed like this.” Jean folded her arms with a pout. “And there were three women and two men on the recreation commission. One of them was a guy named Charlie Russ, who was very a wonderful speaker, but I don’t know, he decided that he might piss off the men, so he wanted me to [give the presentation]. So I got up, and I wasn’t the most polished speaker in the world at that time. But I got up and said, ‘You know, this is what we want to do.’ Then the architect and the engineer presented it. And [the city council] were just, I mean, they were just so condescending it was unbelievable.”

“They said, well, ‘You women, you don’t understand anything about fiscal responsibility.’ One of them said, ‘Well, we’re not going to turn you down. We’re gonna let the voters turn you down.’ I mean, they just thought it was a joke. You know, and they all said, ‘Let the voters turn them down. We don’t want to be the bad guy.’ Yeah, what they really wanted to say is, ‘We don’t want make you cry.’ But they didn’t say that.”

Jean explained that the Leawood mentality at the time was that the city should be like a rural community for rich people, where there were no community facilities and everybody belonged to country clubs.

“Plus,” she said of their plan, “it was gonna cost money. We could build six lighted tennis courts, a large swimming pool complex, complete with a diving area – a 50-meter pool – a locker room building to go with it. We regraded all the ball fields. We built a very innovative children’s playground that they later had to take down. We could do all that for under a million dollars. We came up with $925,000 just out of nothing. And out of that we had to buy the land from Kroh Brothers.”

“Leawood had no bonded indebtedness at all, and we were proposing a two mill levy, for 30 years or 20 years, whatever it was, and they were just outraged, you know? ‘You women, you don’t understand fiscal responsibility! This is a terrible idea!’”

Marcia Rinehart pointed out that part of the mindset at the time was also the post-Depression, post-World War II mindset of “save your money and then spend it.” However, since the city didn’t have (or want) any businesses, that wasn’t going to happen for a park.

“So anyway,” Jean said, “they just sort of laughed and said, ‘Well, go ahead.’ And so we said thank you and we left. We looked around for somebody in the community to run an election, but nobody was going to do it. Charlie Russ and I got together. He was a lawyer. He was an older man, you know, he was 45. He was quite a character. He was a just an irrepressible Irishman, who was just a big ham. But he had been a ward politician in Chicago before they moved here. I recruited 200 women, and he trained ‘em. It was it was an incredible job.”

“At the time, you had a phone in the wall with a long cord. I mean, I lived on my phone for about a month. The funniest representation of how neglected my kids were, is that I have an old teddy bear of Roger’s, my son Roger who was like three at the time. He came running in when I was on the phone giving this spiel to people, and he was crying because his teddy bear’s head had come off. So while I was giving this spiel, I just absent-mindedly sewed the head back on, but I sewed it on backwards.” Jean laughed. “So that’s a good example of how neglected my children were.”

Jean said that it wasn’t hard to get people to work on the park campaign, but it was difficult to train them all on the issue. That’s where Charlie came in.

“We got all these women and we herded them into the Cure of Ars cafeteria one night. Charlie got up and he taught everybody how to run a ward style election in Leawood.” She laughed. “He’s just a real ham. And the more people that listen to him, the more he shines. All these women agreed to go out in the heat of the summer. This is a special election on June 25th, 1974, and people volunteered to go out in June.”

“So Charlie says, ‘Look, you got your people. Now you go door to door and you find out if they’re for the park or against it. And if they’re against it, you just say thank you very much. You don’t try to convince them. Just walk away and hope they forget to vote. But if they’re for it, then you get all their information and you bug them until they go vote.’” Jean laughed again. “The last thing Charlie said is, ‘The morning of the election, you call your people early, and you say, “Please vote early, so I don’t have to keep calling you back.”’”

A pamphlet handed out to voters by the campaign. Provided by Jean Wise.

“The amazing thing was that it passed over two to one. I mean, nobody thought that anybody wanted it, but it was actually a very popular issue. The people that were against it were very vocal, but they were in the minority. And nobody organized – there was no organized opposition to it. And when we went door to door a lot of the older people said, ‘Well, that sounds great. I wish it had been here for my children.’ So it passed in ‘74. […] We were giddy with excitement when we got this passed.”

“Once the park started being constructed, I was at every [city council] meeting, because [the recreation commission] didn’t have the authority to change contracts or spend money or do anything. It was all the governing body. So I was at every meeting and I was saying, ‘Would you approve this change order?’ I mean, the city council when this passed, they went into denial, it was like, ‘If we don’t think about this, it’ll go away.’ And I was at every meeting.”

“The one thing I did – since I had now become an expert in running elections – is I helped a guy named Bill Eddy get elected [mayor]. Bill Eddy was a city councilman, he was about the most uncharismatic…” Jean chuckled, “He was an engineer. But I was worried because, you know, I had never built an outhouse, and we have this huge project. Bill Eddy was a civil engineer. He went all over Kansas building roads. And I thought, ‘We need somebody that knows something besides the people we’re hiring!’”

“It was a really tough election. But anyway, we got Bill Eddy elected. He really was very helpful. The way mayors had to operate at the time… there’s no city staff, and Bill Eddy traveled all over the place, building roads. When he was home, every night he was at city hall working on stuff. That was like a second job. And I would go up there, and I would show him the plans, and he would take out a red pen, and he would just mark it up, he’d find all kinds of stuff. I mean, it was very useful. And I’d say, ‘Well, thank you!’ And he’d say, ‘Well, this is nothing. This is just a little project.’”

“After a while, I thought, ‘You know, if I’m gonna be in every meeting I might as well have a vote [on the city council].’ Well, the last thing these guys wanted was some mouthy young woman in their club. So they told me, ‘You can’t be on the city council if you’re chairman of the recreation commission.’ And they told me that, even Bill Eddy, even after I helped to run for mayor, he didn’t want me there any more than they did! So I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to show me where it says that in the statute book because I can’t find it.’ It obviously wasn’t there. But they actually asked the city attorney for an opinion on whether I could run.”

“I did run, and another woman in south Leawood ran against me. Anyway, we chased each other around the ward and I got more votes than she did. I got on the city council and, you know, once I got on the city council, it was fine.”

The Leawood City Council in 1976. Provided by Jean Wise.

Speaking of her time on the city council, Jean said, “There was so much work to do. I mean, with no city staff, when you were head of a department you were like an employee, almost. I mean, in 1978, just to give you an example, with no background in accounting, I did the city budget at my dining room table with an adding machine. But you know, there was just so much to do. And what I realized, I mean, these guys when I first got on, it was kind of antagonistic because they hadn’t wanted me, and they were rude, and they were condescending. But when I got on the council, you could see these guys… they had big jobs. They were CEOs and CFOs and lawyers and accountants, and they had families and they traveled and you’d look at them, and they just looked exhausted all the time. And here I was, this was the most exciting thing I had to do all week. I got to put on good clothes, and go be with big people and dump the kids on my husband. It was great. And everything that came up that needed to be done, I’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll do it!’ So it was a good working relationship.”

“Everybody admired you so much for getting those budgets together,” Marcia Rinehart added.

“The thing I remember about doing that is that at that point there were not personal computers. We had a bookkeeper. All the finances of the city were kept by this bookkeeper named Dorothy. Just a nice woman. But I thought, ‘If Dorothy gets hit by a truck, we’re out of business!’”

Marcia laughed and nodded. “I remember you said that.”

“So I got the city on a computer,” Jean concluded.

Getting back to the story of the park, Jean explained to me how Leawood came to own the land. The city was still leasing it inexpensively from Kroh Brothers, but since they were developing an expensive park project on it, that wasn’t going to be good enough. They had an option to purchase the land for $1,500 per acre, but thought they could do better. Jean took good old Charlie Russ to meet with George and Jack Kroh.

“Charlie, who was just an absolutely silver-tongued orator, gave this pitch to George and Jack Kroh to donate the ground. I remember George Kroh sitting there and smirking and saying, ‘You’re good, Charlie. You’re really good.’” The brothers donated the ground, saving the city about $60,000. Additional land donations came from the Hall (as in Hallmark) family.

“The park actually opened in the fall of ‘75. But the swimming pool opened in ‘76. That coincided with the bicentennial.”

A map of the park when it was dedicated in 1976. Provided by Jean Wise.

By the time it was complete, Leawood City Park – then known as the Leawood Recreation Complex – was 64 acres in size and had a 50-meter swimming pool along with a training pool and wading pool, a concession stand for pool and park guests alike, eight lighted tennis courts, two baseball diamonds, two softball diamonds, one football field, three soccer fields, a basketball court, picnic areas, two shelter houses, a Bicentennial Flag Plaza (including a time capsule to be unearthed in 2076), and one very unique playground.

So there it is. The playground that I vaguely remembered from childhood. Pretty cool, no?

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at the rest of the park.

For readers who have been to the Leawood City Park, you know that one of the most noteworthy things about the park is its attached trails. Jean also told me how that came to be.

“The architect [Tom Nelson] came to us right after [the recreation-center-funding bond issue] passed, and they were starting construction. He told us about the concept of ‘linear parks,’ which are now called bike trails. They said, ‘This is a new concept. It’s in Denver, and it’s a concept that you have strips of land going out from the main park.’ There was federal funding available… we didn’t realize this was a window of opportunity that wasn’t going to always be there, but the federal government would put up half of the cost. What I specifically remember is the architect agreed to do a plan for bike trails along both creeks and Leawood – a very comprehensive plan – for $5,000.”

Once Jean was on the city council, she brought up a motion to approve the $5,000 for bike trails. She said there was some resistance from the rest of the council, but she convinced some landowners to give the city the land for the trails since it was along the creek and they weren’t able to develop it anyways. They were then able to put that up as their matching funds, and the Federal Government’s half would cover the cost of construction, so there was truly no reason for the council not to go along. “So all the bike trails were done with no cost to the city.”

Construction on the trails began in late 1982 and wrapped in 1983. Throughout the decade it was connected to other trail systems in the area.

The park is also known for being the center of Leawood’s Fourth of July celebrations every year. Jean told me that was a tradition that began in 1976. “The police department really organized a lot of it, because a lot of it was logistics – where do you park, and so on. And the fire department was in charge of fireworks.”

Retired Police Chief Steve Cox told me that the Fourth of July celebrations started off as something the Leawood Country Club (around 89th and Lee Boulevard) hosted, but gradually the torch was passed to Leawood City Park. He said that a parade started around 87th and Lee, and marched into the park. There were games and activities throughout the day, and once it was dark the fireworks began. He remembers the holiday celebrations fondly and said that the officers held a cookout every year before the festivities kicked off. As chief, he introduced a “Fourth of July uniform” for the officers: A white shirt with blue shorts to beat the heat.

A photo of the Fourth of July parade in 1991. Provided by Marcia Rinehart.

Jean said that the turnouts were enormous and often caused quite a traffic jam, especially before they had the second access road off of Mission Road. For the longest time, “there was no access from Mission Road. There was a guy that was head of the sewer department who did not think it was appropriate for the public to go past the sewer plant, so he would not okay access for Mission Road.”

However, in the mid-1990s, the Lee Boulevard bridge had to come down so I-435 could be expanded. This would have cut off all vehicle access to the park for an entire summer, so the city was able to extend a road off of Mission that ran between I-435 and the sewer plant and connected it to the park. The side road was built, the Lee bridge came down, I-435 was expanded, and the Lee bridge went back up, eventually giving the park two access roads.

The park was to see more major changes in the mid-90s, including all new, “safer” playground equipment and a fantastic pool overhaul, but that goes beyond the scope of this post (as do the further renovations in the early 2000s, and the addition of a dog park – Leawoof – in the mid-2010s).

After forming the recreation commission in 1973 and serving on the city council for many years, Jean Wise served as the Mayor of Leawood from 1985 to 1987. After that she went to law school, graduating in 1992. She went into family law, and has been doing that ever since.

From an election brochure. Provided by Jean Wise.

The Leawood City Park is much-changed since its early days, but it’s still a beautiful and bustling place for Leawoodians and non-Leawoodians alike to go and spend some time outside. It’s also a true testament to how much one “loudmouth” – in the words of her neighbor – can accomplish.

Special thanks to Jean Wise, Marcia Rinehart, April Bishop, Janet O’Neal, and Steve Cox for their participation in interviews for this post. Some quotes have been edited for clarity and readability.

-Mike Keller, Johnson County Library

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Women’s Firsts in Johnson County

Last year was the centennial of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This pivotal amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote and helped pave the road forward for equality in other sectors of society. Sadly, the ongoing pandemic overshadowed this important anniversary for the general public. So, this year we’re celebrating the 101st anniversary of the 19th Amendment with this look at groundbreaking women in Johnson County politics.

Graphic created by the Johnson County Museum in 2020 for the 19th Amendment Centennial.
Graphic created by the Johnson County Museum in 2020 for the 19th Amendment Centennial.

First Women Elected to Local Office

The first woman—women, actually—to hold elected municipal office in Johnson County is quite a story! In Kansas, women gained the right to vote in municipal elections in 1887 (they could vote in school district elections beginning in 1861, and there were likely women elected to schoolboard positions early on). In 1890, out of a local squabble over closing restaurants on Sundays, an entire ticket of women candidates ran for town office in Edgerton… and won!  

Edgerton’s citizens elected seven women in total. Margaret Kelly, a 23-year-old mother and wife of the city clerk, W.H. Kelly, was elected mayor. At just 22 years old, Jessie Greer was elected police judge. The female ticket was rounded out with five women who were elected city councilors. The achievement was mocked in the Kansas City Times as a “petticoat government.” On May 1, the newly-elected mayor held the first city meeting – while also holding her baby. Less than three weeks later, the all-female governing body abruptly resigned on May 19 in frustration over restrictions placed on them by the law and by men in the town.

Newspaper article revealing a ticket of all women candidates won city elections in Edgerton in 1890.
Newspaper article revealing a ticket of all women candidates won city elections in Edgerton in 1890.

It took another 81 years for a woman to be elected mayor in Johnson County. Margaret W. Jordan was elected mayor of Leawood in 1971. She also served as District Attorney (10th District) until 1977.

First Women Elected to County and Regional Positions

Following Margaret W. Jordan’s term as mayor, Lenexa voters elected the county’s second woman to serve in the position: Johnna Lingle. Mayor Lingle served three terms in total, from 1973 to 1981. Lingle’s political career did not end there, however. In 1981, Lingle became the first woman elected to the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), serving five consecutive terms. Lingle was also the first female chair of the BOCC in 1982 (with subsequent chair positions in 1987, 1992, and 1997).  

Johnna Lingle served as a county commissioner for several terms, and was the first woman to serve as the chair of the BOCC in 1982.
Johnna Lingle served as a county commissioner for several terms, and was the first woman to serve as the chair of the BOCC in 1982.

During that same era, Johnson County voters elected the first woman to serve in the Kansas House of Representatives, Nancy J. Brown. Starting in 1984 through 1994, Brown represented the Stanley area (around 151st and Metcalf in southern Overland Park today). Brown also served as Executive Director of the Kansas Association of Townships. She died in March 2020.

Although Brown was the first Johnson County woman to serve in the Kansas House of Representatives, she was not the first female Kansan to serve in the position. That honor goes to Minnie Tamar Johnson Grinstead, who was elected to represent Crawford County in 1918, two years before the 19th Amendment was enacted.

Women in National Office

In 1984, Johnson County voters joined voters throughout Kansas’s Third District to elect the first female Kansan to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jan Meyers. Congresswoman Meyers had experience breaking new ground. In 1972 she became the first Johnson County female to serve in the Kansas Senate – 44 years after Miami Countian elected the first female to the Kansas Senate, Patricia Solander. Meyers served in the Kansas Senate for until 1984 when she made her successful bid for Congress. In both the Kansas Senate and the U.S. Congress, Meyers drew on her experience as a member of the Overland Park City Council, on which she served from 1967 until 1972.

Jan Meyers, shown here accepting a Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club award, had two firsts in Johnson County and Kansas history.
Jan Meyers, shown here accepting a Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club award, had two firsts in Johnson County and Kansas history.

Meyers was re-elected five times and served a total of 12 years in the U.S. Congress. During her last term, Meyers chaired the House Small Business Committee, where she was able to aid her growing district, including Overland Park. She chose not to seek reelection in 1998.

Meyers died in June 2019, at age 90, after a lifetime of service to Johnson County. Today, Sharice Davids is the U.S. Congresswoman for the Third District. In addition to being the second woman to serve the Third District, Davids has the distinction of being the first Native American and openly gay member of Congress from Kansas.

Although no woman from Johnson County has been elected to serve Kansas in the U.S. Senate, two female Kansans have served in the legislative body: Nancy Landon Kassebaum, who was elected in 1978, and Sheila Frahm, who was appointed in 1996 to complete Bob Dole’s senate term.

Women and the Justice System

Women’s representation in courts of law is an extension of the access to democracy that the 19th Amendment guaranteed women. In 1908, Mary H. Cooper of Beloit, Kansas became the first U.S. woman to serve as a probate judge when she was appointed to fill the unexpired term as probate judge. She was elected to a second term as probate judge in Mitchell County, after running unopposed.

In 1959, Johnson Countian Carolee Sauder Leek passed the bar. Six years later, she was elected to serve as municipal judge of Mission, Kansas. During the time she held that post (1965-1969), Sauder was one of just a handful of female judges at any level in the country at the time! Leek died in 2017.

Judge Mason is Johnson County’s first Black justice and only the second to serve in Kansas.
Judge Mason is Johnson County’s first Black justice and only the second to serve in Kansas.

In 2016, then-Governor Brownback appointed lawyer Rhonda Mason to the 10th Judicial District of the Kansas Judicial Branch. When she was sworn in in 2017, Mason became the first Black judge to serve Johnson County in this position – and only the second in Kansas. She was also only the fourth female judge to serve the Kansas Judicial Branch. Judge Mason still serves the 10th District today.

Further Steps Toward Equality

While the 19th Amendment stated that the right to vote could not be infringed “on account of sex,” in practice it meant that white women could vote. Black women, Latinas, and other women of color had to wait until the 1965 Voting Rights Act to have their right to vote guaranteed. To learn more about women’s struggle to win the right to vote (suffrage) and the 19th Amendment Centennial, view the Johnson County Museum’s digital exhibit “Women and the Vote:” www.jcprd.com/womenandthevote 

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Kansas Territorial History: Governor Andrew Reeder

Driving around Shawnee, you may find yourself near the corner of 60th and Neiman. If you look East around that corner, you might see a two-story house with pyramidal roof about halfway down the block. This humble building once served as the Territorial Governor’s Mansion for one of the most controversial leaders in Kansas’s early years. I am writing of the first Territorial Governor, Andrew Horatio Reeder.

Territorial Governor’s Mansion (courthouselover on flickr)

When the Territory of Kansas was created by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the bill gave the duty of appointing the Territorial Governor to President Franklin Pierce. A Democrat from New Hampshire and staunch anti-abolitionist, his choice of Governor was Andrew Reeder. A fellow northern Democrat and supporter of state sovereignty, Reeder was the safe pick for a president trying to keep the country together against a growing tension by keeping a balance of slave and free states.

Governor Andrew Reader (Kansas Memory)

Arriving in Kansas Territory in October 1854, Reeder’s first test as Governor came the following spring with the election of a Territorial Legislature. As results came in from the March 30 election, it was clear that some of the districts had been the target of ballot box stuffing by pro-slavery Missourians. Angered by the infringement on the sovereignty of his territory, Reeder chose to throw out the results from those districts and have their citizens re-vote on May 22, 1855. Although he faced some backlash over the decision, the worst was yet to come.

Territorial Seal of Kansas designed by Governor Reeder (Kansas Memory)

Fearing further pressure from Missouri, Reeder established the territorial capital in Pawnee, a town 100 miles west of the border. This also earned him criticism, as Reeder owned a great deal of land in Pawnee, and the move was seen by some as a blatant maneuver to line his own pockets through land speculation. This debate over the real reason for moving the capital is unsettled, but in either case Pawnee’s status as the capital was short lived.

Advertisement of 1855 sale of lots in Pawnee (Kansas Memory)

When legislators arrived on July 2, 1855, there was immediate conflict between those elected in May and those from March, the latter showing up claiming to be the rightfully elected representatives despite the evidence of voter fraud. The pro-slavery slate of legislators forced off the free-staters, and their first act was a vote to move the capital to Shawnee Mission. Reeder attempted a veto but was overridden and after only 5 days as the territorial capital, Pawnee was abandoned by the legislature.

Pawnee Capital Building (Kansas Memory)

Reconvening on July 17, the legislature and the governor found themselves again at odds. Reeder had lost all patience for what history now calls the “Bogus Legislature.” When word traveled back to President Pierce that his appointed Governor for the territory was actively opposing the legislature, he removed Reeder from office. Having made a number of enemies in the territory and the neighboring Missouri, Reeder spent a year in hiding with free-state allies in Lawrence. In 1856, the former governor fled back to his home in Pennsylvania disguised as a woodcutter.

Portrait of Governor Reeder in disguise (Kansas Memory)

Reeder’s time in Kansas seems to have changed his political leanings. On his return to Pennsylvania, he became an active member of the new Republican party, reaching notoriety as a nominee for the vice-president in the 1860 presidential election. Reeder passed away on July 5, 1864 in Easton, Pennsylvania.

-Charles Hower, Johnson County Library

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George Washington Carver’s Kansas Connections

George Washington Carver is a familiar American hero—a man who refused to be limited by his circumstances and rose to become a genius in his field and an example for generations to come. Most people know Carver as an inventor who discovered hundreds of uses for the peanut, but few are aware of his rigorous, cross-country educational journey. Even fewer know that his journey brought him to Johnson County, Kansas for a brief time.

A 1906 photograph of George Washington Carver, at the height of his career. Library of Congress.
A 1906 photograph of George Washington Carver, at the height of his career. Library of Congress.

Born into Slavery

Carver was born during the Civil War in Diamond, Missouri to a woman named Mary, enslaved by Moses and Susan Carver. The exact date of George Washington Carver’s birth is unknown, but it occurred sometime before Missouri abolished slavery in January 1865. His father, who was enslaved on a neighboring farm, died before he was born. As an infant, Carver and his mother were kidnapped by Bushwhackers, and he was returned to his enslavers as an orphan.

Young George Washington Carver grew up on the white Carvers’ farm, where he received a basic education at home. His aptitude for learning and great interest in the world around him was apparent from an early age. Later, he moved to Neosho, Missouri to pursue formal education at a school for African American students. Teachers quickly realized that Carver’s knowledge was already advanced beyond the simple coursework offered there.

At the young age of 13, Carver set off in search of more challenging academic pursuits in Fort Scott, Kansas. There he attended a more rigorous African American school. In March of 1879, after a year of study, Carver witnessed the lynching of a fellow African American man, Bill Howard that left him greatly unsettled. Carver subsequently fled Fort Scott for Olathe, some 80 miles to the north.

Carver Comes to Olathe

In Olathe, Carver recounted that he “did cooking, washing, ironing, cleaned carpets, and did all kinds of work for a living.” Before long, he became acquainted with Ben and Lucy Seymour, a formerly enslaved couple, whose home was located on Cherry Street between Poplar and Santa Fe. Ben was a well digger. Lucy owned a small laundry business. The Seymours gave Carver a job, took him in as a son, and helped him attend Old Rock School, located near Loula and Water Street. Carver started school in the middle of the semester in 1879 and completed the 4th grade there.

This two-story, four-room stone school was the first public school building in Olathe. Built in 1868, it cost a total of $10,000, and accommodated a total of 4 teachers and 175 pupils. Two years later, Central School was constructed to relieve the overcrowded school.
This two-story, four-room stone school was the first public school building in Olathe. Built in 1868, it cost a total of $10,000, and accommodated a total of 4 teachers and 175 pupils. Two years later, Central School was constructed to relieve the overcrowded school. This illustration is from the 1874 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas. Johnson County Museum.

In 1880, the African American population in Olathe numbered around 200, with a total of 900 black residents county-wide. Most of these individuals lived northwest of the business district in an area called Fairview, west of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad tracks between Santa Fe and Catalpa (Whitney) Street. There were two African American churches in Olathe at the time Carver resided there, and he was active in the Methodist church, teaching Sunday School.

Continuing His Pursuit of Knowledge

In 1880, the Seymours moved west to Minneapolis, Kansas, leaving then 15-year-old Carver to pursue education at the Normal School in Paola, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, Carver followed the Seymours to Minneapolis, where he completed his high school education.

In 1884, Carver enrolled in a small business college in Kansas City, Missouri. During his short stay in the city, he worked as a stenographer at Union Depot, the main train station located in the West Bottoms. Soon his academic accomplishments earned him acceptance to Highland Presbyterian College in Highland, Kansas.

When he arrived at the college, the president discovered that Carver was Black and promptly rejected him. Unable to attend college as planned, Carver homesteaded near Beelerville, Kansas. There he farmed, gaining hands-on experience in agriculture. His love of horticulture was present even then. A local newspaper reported that he had over 500 plant specimens, as well as a large geological collection. Carver also cultivated a love of art during his time in Beelerville, sketching many of the native plants he encountered, including many from Johnson County.

In 1890, Carver left Kansas to once again attempt to pursue higher education. He was accepted into Simpson College in Iowa to study art and piano, and then transferred to Iowa State University to study agriculture. Carver earned Bachelors and Master’s degrees from Iowa State University and later became the first African American on faculty at the school.

This photograph shows Carver in his lab at the Tuskegee Institute in 1936. NARA.
This photograph shows Carver in his lab at the Tuskegee Institute in 1936. National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).

Finding His Calling

Carver’s career took him to the Tuskegee Institute, where Booker T. Washington asked him to lead the agriculture department. Carver remained there for almost 50 years, teaching, experimenting, and discovering ways to help poor Southern farmers make a better living from the earth. He studied and promoted the importance of crop rotation, and invented ways to use surplus crops (including hundreds of uses for the peanut and sweet potato) for profit, among a variety of other achievements. His career brought him academic acclaim. The business world also respected him, with business leaders seeking his advice. Carver, a formerly enslaved man, even met with three U.S. presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt).

Graphic highlighting the career of George Washington Carver, dated 1937. NARA.
“George Washington Carver: One of America’s Great Scientists.” Graphic highlighting George Washington Carver’s career, dated 1937. National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).

George Washington Carver died in 1943. His legacy shows the importance of education, the value of hard work, and the boundless possibilities that come with living a life focused on others. His epitaph reads, “A life that stood out as a gospel of self-forgetting service. He could have added fortune to fame but caring for neither he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”


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