In the early 1950s, Johnson County’s population of approximately 65,000 was concentrated in the small suburban cities in the northeast portion of the county. With an abundance of room to grow south and west, the county was primed to become one of the principal areas of growth in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Led by members of the Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club, a group of far-sighted community leaders took steps at that time to allow for the acquisition and development of park land to meet our community’s growing and future open space needs.
Realizing the importance of acquiring public park sites in advance of rapidly increasing land values and the spread of homes, apartments and commercial areas, the group approached the Kansas state legislature to create a special park district in Johnson County. As a result of their efforts, enabling legislation was passed in 1953 which would allow a district to be formed upon petition to the county by 5,000 fully qualified electors.
With the help of several parent-teacher groups and other civic minded organizations, the Sertoma Club presented 7,309 signatures on petitions to the Board of County Commissioners in November, 1954. Concurrently, special legislation was obtained from the Kansas state legislature for a ¾ mill levy for park operation and maintenance.
On January 12, 1955, the county commissioners formally created the Shawnee Mission Park District. A few weeks later, on February 7, the commissioners appointed a seven member park board to govern the district. The following year, a bond issue of $1,100,000 for land purchase and development was passed.
The lands for Antioch Park and Shawnee Mission Park were subsequently purchased, and Antioch Park, the first to be fully developed, was dedicated on May 25, 1958. That same year a contract was let for the dam at Shawnee Mission Park, and in the summer of 1960 the park was opened to picnickers. Three years later the lake had filled and had been stocked with fish, and fishermen came by the droves when the lake was opened for fishing in the spring of 1963. The park was formally dedicated for full use in May, 1964.
One of the most important community leaders in the development of the Shawnee Mission Park District was John Barkley. A Congressional Medal of Honor winner for his services during World War I, Barkley was the first superintendent of the Shawnee Mission Park District. He served the district from its inception in 1956 until his retirement in 1963.
As a farmer and land owner living in Mission, Barkley had a deep love for nature and a strong desire to preserve a part of Johnson County’s open area for public use. He was responsible for touring the undeveloped countryside in search of park land, and he personally negotiated the acquisition of the 1,250 acres in Shawnee and Lenexa he helped transform into Shawnee Mission Park.
Thanks in large part to his vision and dedication, the citizens of Johnson County have one of the premier regional parks in the United States for their outdoor recreation enjoyment. Fittingly, the visitor center at the park’s entrance is named in his honor.
The Shawnee Mission Park District’s name was changed to Johnson County Park and Recreation District in 1969, and to this day it remains the only special park district in Kansas. Over the next several months you will be invited to join our current board and staff in a variety of ways as we celebrate that unique distinction and the many benefits our community enjoys because of it.
Re-printed with permission from the Johnson County Park and Recreation District website.