This post comes from an article originally written in honor of Johnson County Library’s 25th anniversary in 1976. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Twenty-five years ago the 1951-52 Prairie School PTA Library Committee met to determine its project for the school year. According to Kay Robeson, chairman of the committee, a letter was read from the State Librarian urging all PTA groups to cooperate with their local public libraries. But these women lived in Johnson County, a fast-growing community with a population of 60,000 people and no public library facilities with the exception of the Olathe Public Library. Without a public library, how could they cooperate? The challenge was there!
The idea of starting a public library caught fire. Jean Moore, Prairie School Librarian, advised the group and assured administrators the project was sound. Zelia French of the Kansas Traveling Libraries Commission was contacted for her help. She attended meetings and sponsored two workshops at the University of Kansas and Emporia for the committee. Support, much of it unsolicited, came from the Directors of the Kansas City, MO; St. Louis; Denver; and Linda Hall libraries, from the Kansas City Star and J.C. Nichols Company, and from many individuals. The committee discovered a Kansas law that stated a majority vote could establish a county library maintained by tax support of a 1 1/2 mill levy. They talked with community leaders and planned strategy. Although most teachers were enthusiastic, including Dorothy Dent, the wife of the Prairie School District Superintendent, the committee had to overcome the opposition of the president of the area teachers organization, who said the library would take tax money away from the schools. It is to the credit of these energetic, visionary women that they set high goals: they would start a library to serve all the county, not just their immediate neighborhood.
In the spring they enlarged their group to almost 30 members and organized as the Johnson County Citizens Library Committee. The County Commissioners worked with them and had the County Attorney, John Anderson, Jr., draw up petitions for the women to circulate to get the library proposition on the November ballot. They would need 1,753 signatures; some 400 women circulated petitions during the summer and proudly presented 5,102 names to the County Commissioners.
This committee, headed by Robeson, then organized to promote the passage of the library proposition. With initial working capital of $80.00 given by the PTA groups at Prairie and Porter schools and $1.00 donations given by enthusiastic residents, the group organized a speakers bureau, distributed 10,000 handbills, posters, and 1,000 car stickers, arranged for radio and newspaper publicity, toured the area with a bookmobile borrowed from Topeka, made personal calls, and held rallies. On November 4, 1952, 200 women handed out yellow handbills at the polls. When the final result of the vote was known, Johnson County residents had voted 4 to 1 in favor of the question, “Shall Johnson County establish a county library?”
Johnson County would have a library! All the county would be included in this library district except the city of Olathe with its own established city library. The women’s committee reorganized as a supportive group, Johnson County Library Committee (JCLC), headed by Robeson. In March 1953, the County Commissioners appointed the first Library Board: Tom Parrish, Reverend Ira J. Bailes, Dorothy Hoff, Kay Robeson, and Dorothy Snyder. Eva Bayne replaced Robeson as president of the JCLC. The Library Board went right to work. Parrish and Bailes visited the St. Louis County Library to observe a system similar to the one the Board wanted. The immediate need for the library, according to Parrish, was “a building of approximately 5,000 square feet floor space, conveniently located, and suitable for storing books and housing one or more bookmobiles.”
A county population of 90,000 eagerly awaited the establishment of a library system, but hopes were shattered. The County Commissioners said it would bankrupt the county if they budgeted money for the library. The law permitting a 1 1/2 mill levy for the county library designated that the levy had to come out of the 4 mill county aggregate, the total mills that could be assessed by the county. All the tax money the county received was needed to fund existing county services. “Taking any sizeable amount from the aggregate would put us out of business,” said Martin J. Ziegler, commissioner from Mission Township. The women were furious; they took their young children with them and camped in the waiting room of the County Courthouse, waiting for the Commissioners to see them and help the library, but their protests were unheeded. With no money, there could be no county library.
The Johnson County Library Committee again accepted a challenge. The women would start a volunteer library service for the county.
The Committee opened its first library at the old Dunbar School in Shawnee on June 2, 1955, with over 1,000 donated books. The Shawnee School Board donated the use of the building, and the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce paid utilities and maintained the building and grounds. Curtains were made by the Ideal Home Makers home demonstration unit of the Farm Bureau organization. The Committee collected books and prepared them for circulation, while their husbands built and painted shelves. The home of Edith Daley served as collection depot for book donations and also was open for library service on Thursdays. By July 9th the group had collected 4,500 books. Volunteers manned the libraries, prepared books for circulation, and rotated collections. Donated money was used to purchase book pockets, cards, and paste and to buy a limited number of reference books. Numerous book drives were held to collect volumes for the libraries.
In July 1953, the Prairie Village branch opened in Jay’s Men’s and Boy’s Wear. In August branch libraries were established at Ocheltree (post office-Laux General Store) and self-service libraries at Stanley (Blehm’s Grocery) and Gardner (Poisel Variety Store).
In September Tom Parrish, Library Board Chairman, found a special Kansas law applying to counties “adjoining” a military reservation. Since the Olathe Naval Air Base was a military reservation, Harold Fatzer, Kansas Attorney General, gave the opinion that the Johnson County Commissioners had a right to levy a 6 mill aggregate. However, the Commissioners had already published their budget and allocated tax funds for the coming year so they said it was too late to do anything to help the library.
In the fall of 1953, the Committee opened self-service branches in Edgerton (McCluskey’s Grocery) and Spring Hill (Bruce Furniture Store) and the Mission Library in the Mission Mart in space donated by Klok Craftsman Guild, beneath the Kroger Store. In November the Prairie Village City Council voted $250.00 to the Prairie Village Library, the first of several regular donations. By this time the Committee had 6,000 books, and more were urgently needed.
There were many book drives in the spring of 1954; help came from the Shawnee Mission PTA, the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce, and the Boy Scouts. The Community Garden Club donated gardening books. Girl Scouts and Horizon Club girls assisted as library helpers. A self-service library was added in De Soto (Ross Electric and Plumbing Company). On May 2 the Committee sponsored a tour of five of its libraries – De Soto, Shawnee, Mission, Merriam, and Prairie Village.
By the fall of 1954, welcome news came from the County Commissioners; $38,000 for libraries had been included in the County budget for 1955. The eleventh library was opened in the old Lenexa grade school, 134 W 94th Street. For its “outstanding citizen action resulting in community improvement,” Johnson County was honored as one of 22 finalists in the 1954 National All-American Cities Competition sponsored by Look Magazine and the National Municipal League. The Johnson County Library movement was the basis for the selection of the county both for the library vote drive and the establishment of 11 volunteer libraries. The case was presented by Betty Wilson, and the county received Honorable Mention. Citizens had contributed 16,000 books, 250 workers contributed volunteer time, and merchants provided free space for libraries.
The population of Johnson County had grow to 105,345 by 1955. In January, Rep. Clark Kuppinger and Senator John Anderson, Jr., introduced special state legislation to take the first mill of the library levy out of the county 4 mill aggregate. The legislation passed.
The Library Board was informed that $32,000 would be received on October 1, 1955. The Board hired its first professional Librarian, Shirley Brother, and made its first budget for October through December 31. Included was $3,600 for salaries, $14,000 for library books and materials, $2,900 for operating expenses, and $11,500 for capital outlay, to include rent, utilities, and the cost of one bookmobile (ordered December 1955).
With a monumental task awaiting her, Brother officially became the first Director of the Johnson County Library on October 1, 1955. She set up a temporary office in a room of the Merriam Christian Church. As soon as a contract could be signed, she moved to the old post office building on Merriam Drive. She borrowed a chair from the church, placed a card table in the room, had a telephone installed, and began her work. The volunteer committee turned over its 16,000 books to the new Library system and agreed to staff its volunteer libraries until January. On February 5, 1956, the Headquarters Merriam Branch Library was officially opened.
In February 1956 the Board approved plans for a new Headquarters building at 50 Highway and Antioch in Merriam to be built-for-lease by Russell Winter and G.F. Moyer. The building was completed in November 1956, and contained 7,200 square feet with an annual rental of $13,200. The staff took over library services in January and February in Mission (Muntzel-Keach Building), Shawnee (11214 Johnson Drive), Lenexa (old Lenexa school), and Prairie Village (the Concourse). The bookmobile made its first run on June 11, starting a schedule of 36 stops in rural areas only. In November the Johnson County Library Committee, headed by Sally May, reorganized as the Friends of the Library of Johnson County. Following a membership drive, the new group had 153 charter members, composed of individuals and organizations.
In 1957 a second bookmobile was purchased and routed to Fairway, Westwood, Leawood, Meadowlake, Nall Hills, and Overland Park. The first bookmobile still went to the “larger communities, such as De Soto and Gardner.” The second van enabled the Library to service a total of 67 stops every two weeks. At the suggestion of Brother, the Friends started collecting historical material dealing with the history of Kansas, especially Johnson County. The women also served as story-tellers and Library aides and provided flowers for the Library. Brother resigned in September 1959 and was succeeded by Mary Moore as Library Director in October 1959.
The Johnson County Genealogical Society (JCGS) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. As a special 50th anniversary project the JCGS in cooperation with the Johnson County Library has established a free Memory Lab at the Central Resource Library in the genealogy area. JCGS is providing equipment and assistance to help patrons digitize family photos, negatives, slides, 8 mm movies and documents so they may be kept for future generations and easily shared with other family members. This service was seen as a priority since so many older media formats are fragile, degrading or obsolete and require considerable space to store. Those wishing to use the equipment may reserve a 2 ½ hour appointment through the JCGS website to bring in their materials and transfer to USB or other digital media. Detailed instructions will be provided on how to prepare materials prior to the visit, how to use the equipment and save to a digital file. JCGS volunteers will be present at each session to help the users get started.
Equipment at this time includes:
Epson FastFoto: Scans multiple photos or documents in an automatic feeder. The capacity is 36 photos. Size range from 3″ x 5″ to 8″ x 20″ including, Polaroid photos. This machine is not for fragile or curled photos.
Epson V39 Flatbed Scanner: Perfect for fragile or curled photos. Also good for odd-sized photos and documents. Up to 8.5″ x 17″ photos or documents.
Large flatbed scanner: Can scan up to 11″ x 17″ documents or photos.
Wolverine Titan Slide and Film Scanner: 35mm slides and 35mm, 127, 127, 110, and APS negatives.
Epson V600 Flatbed Scanner: Converts 35mm slides and 35mm, 120 and 620 negatives. Up to 8.5″ x 17″ photos or documents.
Wolverine Movie Maker Pro: 8mm and Super 8 Film on reels up to 7 inches. Silent only.
Funding for the Memory Lab was provided by a grant from the Johnson County Library Foundation. Phase 2 of the project will include digitization equipment for VHS and audio cassette tapes.
For more information on the Johnson County Genealogical Society or the Memory Lab, visit jcgsks.org or email email@example.com.
Johnson County Genealogical Society Turns 50
The Society was formed in December 1972 with 98 charter members as an outgrowth of a genealogical workshop with representatives from the Johnson County Library, Johnson County Community College and volunteers interested in genealogy. The society’s first regular meeting was held in 1973 at the Johnson County Library headquarters, now known as the Antioch branch. From that meeting the organization began to collect materials of genealogical interest from the public, hold programs and staff the Kansas Room with volunteers who began to help patrons with their family histories.
Today the JCGS has 250 members, conducts monthly public programs, beginner classes and skill building sessions, hosts the Genealogy Day Open House and Resource Fair, and provides volunteers for the Genealogy Desk at the Central Resource Library, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to assist patrons with their family histories. The society has six special interest groups which meet monthly: FamilySearch, Family Tree Maker, Roots Magic, and Legacy users groups as well as the Writing Group and Digital Scrapbooking. The Society also offers one-on-one help for patrons who have questions relating to their research or DNA and genetic genealogy. JCGS also supports the Library by providing information for patrons around the world requesting local obituary information.
The Johnson County Genealogical Society has a collection or more than 7,000 items that are housed at the Central Resource Library and are made available to the public for reference. The titles are listed in the Library’s online catalog. The materials relate to genealogy topics from many geographic regions, ethnic, religious, military to specific families. Books, periodicals, written family histories and microfilm are all available for use within the library in additional to many online genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.
Membership in JCGS is open to anyone who has an interest in genealogy. Annual dues are $25 for individuals and $30 for a family membership. Most people join to benefit from the network of genealogists helping each other with research and breaking down those brick walls they have encountered in their searches. Monthly programs, workshops and other educational opportunities are very popular and well attended.
The JCGS website provides information about the society, meetings and events, plus some essential genealogy resources and forms such as ancestor charts, census, worksheets, timelines, finding aids and checklists that can be downloaded and filled in as research progresses.
-Marsha Bennett, Johnson County Genealogical Society
Each year the Johnson County Library hosts a ‘Kansas Day’ event in January to celebrate the anniversary of Kansas’ statehood (January 29, 1861). Pre-pandemic, the library would host two or three Kansas Day events throughout the month (spread across the Johnson County Library system). For the last two years, the library hosted a Past is Prologue event (online) in lieu of a traditional in person celebration. This made the January 21st Kansas Day all the more special. That Saturday was a come-and-go celebration for the public, held at the Central Resource Library. There was music, games, prizes, informational material, and of course cake. Check out some of the highlights below.
Let them eat cake
Cake is a very important staple of the Kansas Day Celebrations at the Johnson County Public Library. This year’s cake was a vanilla sheet cake proudly displaying the state flower in the middle. Patrons loved indulging in a sweet treat – the dessert was demolished in two hours!
Music and Merriment
In previous years, the library has incorporated a speaker to come in and speak about a topic relevant to Kansas history. This year, the library hosted two musician groups to entertain patrons in the Carmack Community Room. Guitarist Matt Hopper kicked off the festivities and was followed by a quartet group led by bass player Jeff Harshbarger.
The Carmack Community Room also hosted an array of coloring pages for all ages, courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society. In addition to cake, coloring has been a must-have at our Kansas Day celebrations. Each page features a specific Kansas symbol – fun and educational!
The Johnson County Library mission is to ‘provide access to ideas, information, experiences and materials that support and enrich people’s lives. Book displays, postcards, and information packets have become another Kansas Day staple. Located right outside of the Carmack Community Room, patrons could find a table filled with books (primarily non-fiction) centered on Kansas History. Additional information was provided by the Johnson County Genealogical Society. With spring on the horizon, information sheets on gardening and native Kansas plants were also distributed. For more booklists and additional resources, visit the JoCo History profile page.
Fun and Games for All Ages
The Johnson County Library always looks to promote learning through fun, hands-on experiences. To that note, there were a variety of games and activities for the young and young at heart. Patrons had the opportunity to try their hand at some Kansas trivia and see just how much they knew about their state. Featured prizes included pens and notebooks – all participants were winners!
Central’s newly renovated youth area featured even more games and fun times, starting with a scavenger hunt featuring some local symbols.
To play, each patron was given the opportunity to see Topeka on the on the large poster board map. Patrons were then instructed to take a colored sticker, close their eyes and turn around three times (five times for grown ups!). After that, patrons were told to keep their eyes as closed as possible and try to put the sticker as close to the capital as they could.
There were nearly half a dozen other games for patrons to sample during the wintry Saturday. Folks could choose from card games (Uno or traditional playing deck), checkers, chess, Jenga, Mancala, or dominos.
We sure hope everyone had a wonderful time, and we can’t wait to see you all again next year.
Johnson County Library’s Corinth branch, at 8100 Mission Road, is popular with patrons from Prairie Village and beyond. It opened Feb. 24, 1963, so 2023 will mark its 60th anniversary milestone.
In the 1950s, before the Johnson County Library had funding, volunteer run libraries were spread through the county. In 1953, a branch was opened in the Prairie Village Shopping Center. It was located in the basement of one of the shops. When funding was available in 1956, the library moved upstairs to a rented space on the Concourse.
In 1961, voters approved a bond issue that allowed for the site purchase and build of a library in Prairie Village. Corinth opened its doors on February 24, 1963. The branch site and that of the adjacent Corinth Shopping Center were already famous in Kansas City history. The clothier Herbert Woolf built Woolford Farm on 200 acres and raised thoroughbred racing horses. He hosted lavish parties whose guests included Theodore Roosevelt and many other notables. In 1938 his horse Lawrin won the Kentucky Derby. Lawrin is buried on the top of the hill just west of the library.
In 1967 Corinth expanded on both the north and south sides to reach its current size of 20,475 square feet. In 1988 it had an interior renovation, with the addition of an elevator and east side windows.
The building has had some major maintenance in recent years, including a new roof and updated electrical and heating/cooling work. It has a well-stocked children’s section and a spacious computer area and remains a favorite Library destination for young families and adults.
“We are quite busy. We are well loved,” says Amy Barclay, who has been branch manager since January 2019. “Corinth is known for being a place for families to come and meet and connect. We have tutors here all the time. We often rank quite high on customer service.”
But there’s also a recognition that the community could use a more modern facility. The current land-locked location is not conducive to expansion. The 2015 Comprehensive Library Master Plan identified the need to replace Corinth with a new building, but no timeframe was specified.
The Library Board has been weighing how to prioritize the timing of new construction for Corinth and the best way to work with Prairie Village city officials.
Very preliminary talks began in 2019 between the Library and Prairie Village leaders over possibly collaborating on a civic campus that could include a new community center and Library, in proximity to Harmon Park. Survey results in December 2019 showed strong support for the Library in Prairie Village overall, and support for the Library being included in a shared campus. Talks were then put on hold due to COVID-19.
Stakeholders from the Library and city of Prairie Village resumed conversations earlier this year and indicated a willingness to keep working together.
Barclay and other Library leaders would love to see a new Corinth branch with a convenient drive-thru, larger meeting rooms, better accessibility for people with disabilities, and other amenities found in the newest branches — Monticello and Lenexa City Center — and in the renovated Central Resource Library.
The Prairie Village City Council is beginning to explore the feasibility of building the community/civic center, but this remains very tentative. On Oct. 3, the City Council debated whether to conduct a survey to gauge citizen support for the project, but postponed a decision. At their November meeting, the City’s ad hoc civic center committee elected to send an updated version of the survey to residents. If citizen support exists, the city would still need to figure out a location, conceptual design and how to pay for it.
The Library, which has its own dedicated funding source, will also pursue its own areas of inquiry, including programming and how much space will be needed; site feasibility including traffic flow, parking and potential phasing; and cost estimating.
In the meantime, Barclay says Corinth is doing well and enjoying the return to in-person programming, with its popular Storytimes, book groups and Legislative coffees.
“It is really refreshing to be in a branch where the community is so invested in this building,” Barclay said. “I do still think the community pretty much loves this branch. We’re not losing patrons to the prettier branches. There’s a lot of loyalty to Corinth and to Prairie Village.”
-Lynn Horsley, freelance journalist for Johnson County Library -Johnson County Library staff
Holiday lights are a seasonal favorite pastime for many residents in Johnson County. One local offering, the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this December. Since its inception in 2013, this seasonal sensation has hosted over 1,000,000 people. Starting November 25th and running through January 7th, individuals can visit the farmstead at 13800 Switzer and treat themselves to a 45-minute spectacle of lights and music.
This treat is the brainchild of Mark Callegari, Johnson County resident, and technology enthusiast. Decades before Deanna Rose hosted the event, Mark coordinated a scaled down version of what would become Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane. With a background and passion for computerized lighting and animation (he double majored in Business Administration and Computer Sciences at Rockhurst University), Callegari put his hobby to use and created a light show at his home in Deer Creek. From an early age, Mark appreciated the majestic beauty of holiday lights and made it his mission to make the holiday season special for those around him. He finds a strong sense of joy in spreading holiday cheer, choosing not to do these things for himself but for the community. His extensive experience with lighting (having founded several companies including Innovative Software, Visual Components and LightWild) have enabled him to explore and pioneer new innovations with holiday lighting.
As technological advances with LED (light emitting devices) lighting continued, Mark developed his platform into a 30-minute show that featured nearly a dozen holiday songs. The elaborate LED patterns and movement were synchronized to a symphony of sound, which residents could listen to on an FM radio signal while parked in front of the Callegari home. His efforts did not go unnoticed or unseen; he achieved national acclaim on HGTV’s series All Out Christmas in 2008. As the popularity of the light show continued, it became clear that the nightly crowds were becoming too big for his neighborhood to accommodate each night. A search began for a new venue to host the holiday extravaganza, one with plenty of room to grow. Investigating several locations, Callegari was introduced to the people at the Deanna Rose Farmstead in Overland Park, Kansas. There was great potential to be found in this location due to it being closed in the winter, ample parking accommodations for holiday onlookers, and most importantly a friendly and welcoming farmstead team. A partnership was made in 2013 for the very first holiday light show at Deanna Rose.
The very first year at the farmstead saw over 37,000 people attending the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane. Kathi Limbocker, Educational Program Supervisor at the Deanna Rose Farmstead, reports that the average car will have four people inside. Attendance is counted by counting the number of cars that enter the farmstead parking lot. Their numbers do not include visitors that may view the show from the Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex just north of the farmstead. The 2013 show was very similar to the offering at the Callegari home in Overland Park with the 20’ LED Christmas tree moved from the Overland Park address to the front of the barn area.
The following year saw an important addition to the farmstead spectacle: the technicolor grid on the façade of the famous barn. The canvas is 140’ wide and 40’ high and decorated with tens of thousands of pixel lights. To accompany the new grid were large animals that adorned the roof, paying tribute to the farmstead roots.
The following years were marked by a variety of changes to the scenic design, music selection, and length of the production. In 2015, two large pyramid of spheres were added to the mix.
2018 saw a slew of changes and alterations to Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane. Two giant round ornaments were added to the left and right of the display area. At 20’ tall, thousands of pixels are utilized to keep the lights bright during the holiday season.
The entrance sign at the front of the light show was also added in 2018. You’ll find two Nutcrackers standing at attention and keeping a close watch on holiday proceedings. The entrance includes important instructions for the best possible viewing experience. These include: headlights off, tune to 90.5 FM, and most importantly – watch for kids.
Also new to the scene in 2018 is the famous ‘Gridzilla.’ Gridzilla functions to provides background information about the event and displays additional lighting effects and images.
The final new feature in the 2018 year was the Naughty or Nice Santa Clause. Each visiting car can get an individualized ‘naughty or nice’ reading (for best results drive slow!). On the way out of the farmstead, you may come across the one and only Mr. Grinch
2019 saw the most recent major display enhancements. Fourteen-pixel snowflakes adorn the farmstead roof, adding extra festive cheer. More roof magic took place this year with sixteen moving light beams on the rooftop, shining proudly for all to see.
The show is currently 45 minutes long, and the music can be accessed on the FM station 90.5. Careful consideration is given to the song selection list (around thirteen tunes, all perfectly matched to the lighting patterns). Callegari notes with pride that each minute of song requires at least five hours of time to create the lighting effects so that they are properly synchronized. A standard three-minute song may take up to fifteen hours of preparation time in order to get it ready for the event. The current set list includes thirteen songs that stretch a wide gamut of entertainment (classic holiday artists, orchestral suites, current artists, and movie themes that include Star Wars, Frozen, and Harry Potter). Over the past ten years, one or two new songs have been worked into the rotation, and previous songs have been reworked and workshopped back into the program.
Callegari takes pride in referring to the farmstead event as a ‘visual concert’ or a ‘concert of lights’, going beyond the traditional lighting display to include music and synchronous movement. The work on the event traditionally begins in June of each year in order to get everything ready by the Christmas season. In the summer months, display items are refurbished and polished, and new items are added to the mix. In October, the lighting items are put in place for the holiday season. There are around half a dozen individuals including Chris Maloney, Blake Steward, and Mark’s brother Chris, that work diligently in the fall season to prepare this festive show for families around the Johnson County area. Callegari estimates around 1,600 hours of work from the group members to make the lighting event a success each year.
In addition to the hard work of volunteers, several local companies have contributed equipment, storage space, and time to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Foley Equipment Rentals donates lifts that allow the team to install and maintain the lights from October-February each year. Steve Bullard, another perennial volunteer, delicately positions huge holiday pieces utilizing a boom truck Twice each year, Enerfab arrives – once to install the large items and again to take them down at the end of the run. Without the assistance of volunteers and company donations, the event would not take place.
The Deanna Rose Farmstead partners with Callegari in other ways throughout the year. In October, the holiday lighting display is also utilized for the Night of the Living Farmevent.
Callegari also hosts a patriotic Veterans Day show, honoring veterans that have served their country in early November. In late January, there is a display honoring police officer Deanna Hummel Rose, the first Overland Park police officer (and first female officer in Kansas) to be killed in the line of duty.
Additional lighting opportunities take place February. One is to honor the Kansas City Chiefs (if they happen to make it to the playoffs that year), and the other is to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
The contributions of Mark Callegari and his team of volunteers have not gone unnoticed by the city of Overland Park. In 2017, the display at Deanna Rose was named of the of the top three displays in the Kansas City metro area. In 2018, Mayor Carl Gerlach designated February 19th as ‘Mark Callegari Day’ to recognize the decades of entertaining citizens over the years both at his home and at Deanna Rose. Callegari and the volunteers continue to find joy and fulfillment in spreading holiday cheer for others.
If you are wanting to check out the festive scene this holiday season, the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane runs from November 25 to January 7, 2023. Additional details can be found at the farmstead website. Visit the Holiday Lights Facebook page for additional winter season cheer. Visitors are encouraged to utilize the farmstead parking lot for viewing the festivities. If the parking lot happens to be full, an alternative is the Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex. Whichever way you choose to view, have a safe winter season!
Author note: I send my deepest gratitude to Mark Callegari and Kathi Limbocker for their vast knowledge and willingness to share the history of the Holiday Lights on Farmstead Lane.
It’s hard to describe the video store phenomenon to somebody who missed it. To tell the story in the most boring possible way: There were so few places to rent movies in the Kansas City area in early 1980 that they didn’t even have their own section in the phonebook. By 1985, I counted about 50 to 70 locations in the yellow pages. By 1999, I counted well over 100 stores in the Kansas City area that rented videos.
Today, however, in late 2022, there are zero. There are still a few places where you can rent movies in Johnson County, but with the closing of two Family Video stores in 2021, there are now zero dedicated video rental stores in Johnson County.
Now, kids, if you want me to explain the phonebook, I’ll save that for another post. This post will simply be a history of video stores in Johnson County, Kansas, for the enjoyment and edification of those who were there and those who weren’t. It’s not a complete history, because that would be a task far too big for this blog. We’ll focus on one particular store for the most part, but hopefully it’s enough to give readers a sense of the wild wave that was the rise and fall of the video store era in one humble Kansas county.
The first record I could find of any place in the Kansas City area renting videos was an ad in the Kansas City Star classifieds from 1979 for “Video Exchange Club.” It was located in Kansas City, Missouri, but does not appear to have been a physical storefront. According to their ad, you would contact them to get a catalog, and if you were interested in renting tapes, you could pay $299 per year (approximately $1,200 in 2022 dollars) to rent regular and/or adult films on VHS or Beta, which – I believe – were sent to you in the mail.
In late April of 1980, Antin House of Video – which was primarily an electronics store and was located around 81st and Santa Fe in Overland Park – advertised that they now had a “movie club,” where you could pay to become a member, and then rent tapes from a selection of 800 (tapes, not titles) for $5 for five days. That’s about $18 for a five-day rental in 2022 money.
So in early 1980, VCR-owning Johnson Countians had those two options, but neither of those were truly “video stores” as we came to know them. No, the first true video store in Johnson County was none other than Hollywood at Home at 9063 Metcalf.
Richard Rostenberg graduated from the University of Missouri in 1972 with a degree in Accounting. He got a job at a small accounting firm and got a CPA, but his heart wasn’t really in the work – partially because he just didn’t like sitting down all day. A boss recommended that he try retail, and he ended up taking a job at Macy’s as an assistant buyer. He rose to buyer quickly, and loved the work. He traveled a lot for the job and – best of all – rarely had to sit down.
He worked at the Macy’s in the now-demolished Mission Shopping Center at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue and was in charge of all the soft goods as well as the TV and stereo department. Rostenberg told his boss, “I don’t know anything about TVs and stereos. Please don’t make me do that.” He chuckled. “And [my boss] said, ‘Well your office is next to there, so you’re going to do that.’”
Throughout 1979, Rostenberg watched the TV and stereo business, and one phenomenon in particular caught his eye. “For every fifteen TVs, basically, we were selling one VCR.” Customers would come in and pay $300 for a TV, and up to $1,500 for a VCR. He saw that people were very interested in “time-shifting,” where they could record a show while they were out and about and then watch it later. At the time, recording television was essentially the only reason people bought VCRs. “Dallas” was one show in particular that was popular with time-shifters, as it was must-see-TV yet it aired on Fridays when people wanted to go out. They got a VCR and their problem was solved.
Rostenberg sensed big potential in this VCR-owning demographic and booked a ticket to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. He returned determined to start a video store.
He thought about doing the store inside of an electronics store like Antin’s. He even talked to Sidney Antin at one point, but they both decided there was no reason to split the money when they could each just go into business on their own. Rostenberg didn’t want to be working for anybody anyways, so he and his wife Linda decided to open up their own store. They suspected that a location in relatively wealthy Johnson County would have a higher concentration of VCR-owners, and picked an 800 square-foot spot in the brand-new Loehmann’s Plaza on Metcalf.
They opened for business on April 26, 1980, with an estimated 300 to 350 titles to rent out, and… there was basically no business. Rostenberg recalled that most people hardly knew what a VCR or VHS tape were (only 2-percent of US homes had a VCR in 1980), and even VCR-owners didn’t really have an idea that you could go out and rent movies.
“We had ‘zero days,’ days when it was just nothing… very depressing.”
It was him, his wife, and one employee, and he wasn’t sure how long they could hold out with as little business as they were getting. Then something wonderful happened. On July 4th, the temperature rose to 100 degrees and stayed there. Summer kicked into gear, and Overland Park had two solid weeks of 100-degree days. All of the sudden, people discovered video rentals. Hollywood at Home made their break-even in July and August, and soon Rostenberg was confident he was going to be in business for a long time.
And that’s how Hollywood at Home became the first video store in the Kansas City area. No club to join, just come on in out of the heat and rent your tape.
By May, the Kansas City Star reported that there were six places to rent videos in Johnson County, with another set to open in June. Along with Hollywood at Home and Antin, Master Video, The Video Shop, and Continental Video Center (which claimed to have sold the Kansas City area’s first VCR in April of 1976) were all among the first, though some of those – if not all of them – appear to have been mainly electronics stores like Antin. The practice of renting tapes was so novel at the time that the reporter, Linda Rosewicz, actually consulted with the FBI to confirm that it was legal.
When I asked Rostenberg how he selected movies early on, he smiled and said, “Let’s just say that my big claim to fame – in my mind – is we had ten copies of ’10.’” (If you’ve seen the cover with Bo Derek running on the beach, you can guess why that would have been a hit.) He said that “Superman” was another big title in the early days, and that tracking the box office was generally a good indicator of what people would be wanting to rent six months down the road.
Hollywood at Home started with Beta and VHS, but quickly moved away from Beta. Rostenberg said that Beta customers were strangely picky and would come in looking for one specific title, and if you didn’t have it, they would just leave. VHS customers were more likely to browse and rent whatever was available.
The Kansas City Star reported that the area’s most commonly rented film by far was “10.” After that, “Superman,” “Norma Rae,” “The Muppet Movie,” “Tunnelvision,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Jaws,” “The Godfather,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “The Groove Tube” led the race, along with many X-rated movies. The cassettes cost the stores anywhere between $35 to $100, and it seems $5 was the average cost of a rental at most places.
Along with renting and selling tapes, Hollywood at Home also rented out VCRs for $35 to customers who didn’t yet own one but wanted to watch films at home. Another option was to have a “screen party” at the store for $50 where you could invite your friends and watch a movie or two in the store while Rostenberg and his wife Linda played host. It was common for stores to rent out VCRs, but Hollywood at Home was the only store I saw advertise anything like screen parties.
After a somewhat slow start in 1980, the Johnson County video rental industry really started to take off over the next few years. I found an article from 1981 that described “slow-motion” and “fast-forward” features to readers presumably unfamiliar with such exotic things, only to see an article from late 1984 saying that 16 million American households now had VCRs and at least 10,000 video retailers had opened across the United States. Sales of pre-recorded cassettes leapt from $200 million in 1982 to almost $2 billion in 1985.
Something to note is that by and large, the rental stores were the ones doing the buying in the 1980s. Early on, movie studios were very leery of putting their films on tape and selling them. They were afraid home video and the rental market would kill off the theatrical market, which was essentially their entire business back then. However, a few of the studios – 20th Century Fox in particular – were very eager to find new streams of revenue in the late 1970s. They started putting out a very limited selection of new and old titles on tape, but priced them very high ($85 in the early 1980s would be about $300 today) so that it wouldn’t eat into their theatrical business.
The high prices of the tapes created the reason for rental stores to exist, and some studios were less than thrilled about this work-around. Different studios tried different techniques of combatting the rental stores, and some got litigious. However, the first-sale doctrine within American copyright law (which allows for people to sell or rent copywritten materials that they have purchased like books, records, tapes, etc.) kept any lawsuits from moving forward successfully. This eventually led the frustrated studios to lobby for some legislation that would prevent people from renting out tapes, but even that was not to be, and Rostenberg tells me that this is where Johnson County video store owners played a pivotal role in the video rental industry on a national level.
Rostenberg said that when this legislation was up for discussion, a handful of people from the local chapter of the Video Software Dealers Association (a then-fledgling association that had grown out of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers and was comprised of video store owners around the country, and would eventually become a massive force in the entertainment industry) went to Kansas Senator Bob Dole’s office and made their pro-video-store case. Dole happened to be on the relevant Senate committee that was considering the law, and when it came up for a hearing, Dole didn’t show up. The legislation was tabled indefinitely.
“I believe that Johnson County video dealers have everything in the world to do with [tabling that legislation].” He says with pride. “That could have killed the whole thing, or made it very different at least.”
The studios came to terms with their defeat pretty quickly however. They weren’t making money every single time somebody watched a tape, but they were still making a lot of money.
Another angle to this story is that to some degree studios miscalculated audiences’ interest in watching the same movies repeatedly. To the extent that the prohibitively high prices for tapes was a strategy and not a mistake, it almost made sense for rental stores to exist because in the early 1980s the idea of a person buying any given movie to watch over and over and over again probably seemed unlikely. Price the tapes at $85, let rental stores buy them (often with a wholesale discount) and gradually make their money back, and everybody wins to varying degrees. But as VCRs popped up in more homes, the studios began to shift their thinking.
By the late 1980s, VCRs were in over two-thirds of American homes, and studios began to experiment with lower prices for titles they thought might be worth it. They were gambling, but their question was: Will it be better to keep the price of this tape high, and have it be a rental for most people, or is this a title that we should price lower to encourage direct-to-consumer purchasing? Titles like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Top Gun,” and – most notably – “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” all launched with lower-than-average prices to encourage people to buy them instead of renting them. When “Batman” came out on video in November of 1989, it could be had for anywhere from $16 to $25 at area retailers, and Warner Brothers shipped an initial 15 million copies. This all had the potential to put a bit of a squeeze on video rental stores, but Rostenberg wasn’t too worried. He told me that when “Raiders” launched, they sold between 800 to 1,000 copies for $40 each.
Video stores popped up all throughout Johnson County and thrived through the mid-1980s. However, as early as 1986 the Kansas City Star was reporting that – while still healthy – the industry appeared to be approaching a “glut.” Individual stores weren’t making as much money, and some of the smaller stores started closing down because of increased competition. The industry went from a point where – as Don Cahail, the owner of almost two dozen local Applause Video stores, told the Kansas City Star – “if you could walk and chew bubblegum at the same time, you could run a video store and make money” in the mid-1980s, to an extremely competitive industry by the decade’s end. That had more than a little to do with the arrival of Johnson County’s first Blockbuster in March of 1988, but first, the elephant in the room: Pornography!
In 1985, pornographic films accounted for about 13-percent of the video market (sales and rentals) nationwide according to the VSDA. Going by genre, only Adventure films and Science-Fiction films were more popular. Regular video stores (the ones that weren’t exclusively “adult”) generally had their adult films on display on higher shelves or off in nooks that were less likely to be seen by younger customers, and some had entirely separate rooms. My childhood video store (Polo Video in Leawood) had a doorless room in the back corner that you couldn’t see into because of the way a little makeshift hallway blocked your view. The felt letter board reading “ADULTS ONLY 21 & OVER” did catch my attention whenever I was there, but as a kid I was always too blissfully browsing through new releases and video games to care at all about what “adults only” were up to.
Hollywood at Home had a little raised room in the back that had some signs around it warning the underaged to stay out. Employees affectionately referred to it as the “smut hut,” and it was an important source of revenue over the years. Customers came and went and virtually nobody ever had a problem with it, until one fateful day in 1987 when the National Coalition Against Pornography (NCAP) came to town.
The NCAP was based in Cincinnati, funded by donations, and was focused on getting laws against obscene material (material that is not protected by the First Amendment because it has been found to be in special violation of community standards) enforced in various states and municipalities. They would look for places with favorable obscenity statutes already on the books and get to work. An article from 1991 described the success they’d had getting porn almost completely banned from St. Louis. Over several years, seized films were screened by various juries with no success until, finally, in 1989 they won a guilty verdict on nine obscenity charges in one case. Since the lines for obscenity aren’t clear, this verdict was apparently enough to drive pornography vendors out of business or out of city limits, and got other vendors to pull any potentially offending material off their shelves. In one case, a store-owner had tried to fight the group in court but gave up once the legal fees got too high ($400,000 in his case).
Locally, it started when several video stores in Kansas City, Missouri, received a letter from the Kansas City police chief asking them to review their shelves and ensure that they didn’t have any adult videos that were in violation of Missouri statutes. It wasn’t clear exactly where the official pressure was coming from, but on the citizen-side it was coming from the Kansas City chapter of the NCAP (KCCAP), which reportedly spent almost half a million dollars on a media campaign (“STOP: Stand Together Opposing Pornography”) in the area in 1987.
The leader of the KCCAP, Chris Cooper, wrote an editorial in the paper criticizing the availability of pornography and stated the main aim of the group’s STOP campaign was to have existing laws in Kansas and Missouri enforced. He claimed that (the Missouri laws, at least) were “approved by the US Supreme Court as being constitutionally valid.”
For their part, the Kansas City police didn’t seem very excited. They told the Kansas City Star that there were certain types of pornography that were already illegal, and they believed it would be tough to prosecute obscenity charges against other types of pornography without violating anybody’s constitutional rights.
Rostenberg countered KCCAP in two ways. First by forming People Against Obscenity (PAO), a group of video store owners who believed self-policing was the best way to go and created guidelines video stores could follow to ensure their stores were within community standards. The basic guidance was: don’t rent or sell illegal pornography, don’t let minors enter restricted sections of stores, prohibit employees who are minors from selling or renting adult films, and see that the majority of the films in your store are non-adult. This was already the common practice of virtually every store, but having it codified showed that the store owners were perfectly happy to stay within the law and community standards. Plus, stores in compliance received a nice little sticker to display in their shops.
Second, Rostenberg wrote an editorial rebutting Cooper’s. He said he valued his clients and community, and sincerely viewed his store as video store for the entire family, which meant providing entertainment for children and for adults. Hollywood at Home, he said, had a section for adults 21 and over, and that the age limit was strictly enforced. They possessed no illegal material, and they were discerning about any violent or pornographic material they did stock. They even honored the wishes of any parents who didn’t want their children renting violent tapes.
His piece made it clear that neither he nor his store were the wicked caricatures the coalition was trying to drive out of business, and he ended with what I consider to be a pretty bold throwing of the gauntlet, especially considering how these people fully intended to shut down his store: “Movies that have not been judged obscene by the courts are entitled to First Amendment protection. If others want to take exception to that they have to prosecute, movie title by movie title.” Or, in words I’ll borrow from a movie that would have been sitting on a shelf at any self-respecting video store: “Go ahead. Make my day.”
At the start, most store owners reported nervousness and confusion. An employee at one Applause Video said he had seen coalition members looking through his store for offending tapes. By October some area retailers said they had removed various sexually explicit tapes from their shelves. Even Rostenberg told the Kansas City Star that he reviewed Hollywood at Home’s collection and removed about 30 titles, “the ones I wouldn’t feel comfortable defending in court.” He also said he would like to be arrested so he could clear himself and fellow video dealers of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, KCCAP sponsored a two-hour program about the dangers of pornography that aired on KSHB Channel 41, and Cooper said Rostenberg’s PAO was “a deception” meant to undermine the anti-pornography campaign. Rostenberg responded in another editorial accusing the Cincinnati group of using the Kansas City area as a test to see if they could ban all adult material, which he described as a “goal that is beyond the nation’s laws.” He said he had discussed the laws with Johnson County District Attorney Dennis Moore and also consulted with attorneys at the ACLU.
At one point, the KCCAP sent “cookie ladies” to Hollywood at Home to stand outside the store distributing cookies while encouraging men to eat cookies instead of looking at pornography. I asked Rostenberg, “Was that legal? Could you have asked them to leave?” He shrugged and, with a laugh, said, “It’s a cookie! I ate their cookies.”
Things went quiet for a little bit. A Kansas City Star follow-up at the end of 1988 said the anti-porn movement had mostly fizzled. Adult tapes were still available and still made up about 10-percent of the video store marketplace. Rostenberg told the paper he had removed a few other hyper-violent tapes, demonstrating his sincerity about wanting to fit into the community.
Then news surfaced that NCAP was still at it. After a failed attempt in February of 1989, the first grand jury in Johnson County in nearly twenty years convened on May 22, 1989. It was called in response to petitions filed by NCAP, which sought a decision on whether X-rated films in video stores were in violation of Kansas obscenity laws.
In Kansas, if you get enough signatures, you can summon a grand jury of fifteen randomly selected private citizens to investigate for criminal activities with the assistance of the district attorney and determine if there is enough evidence of a crime to hold a person for trial. They usually meet for three to six months, and can subpoena witnesses to testify at their closed-to-the-public meetings. By the end, at least twelve of the fifteen have to vote in favor of an indictment for it to lead to an arrest and trial.
At the start of the 1989 grand jury, Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison was quoted as saying that under the law, something is obscene when it depicts patently offensive, explicit sex acts and appeals to prurient interest, and also if a reasonable person would say that the material is without serious artistic, political, scientific, or educational value. He said that in this case the decision went to a grand jury because Johnson County government officials didn’t want to be the arbiters of what was and was not obscene and instead wanted guidance from the community.
Fun Fact: One of the judges working for Johnson County at the time was Judge Herbert W. Walton, who had been involved in the 1969 ruling that the Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow)” was obscene. It had played in an Overland Park theater and been challenged. After a trial, Judge Walton ordered that the print of the film be destroyed and forbid the movie from being screened again in Johnson County.
The 1989 grand jury was much more merciful. They met for 16 days and listened to testimony from law enforcement and human sexuality experts, and also watched portions of sexually explicit films. At the end of it all, they didn’t indict any video dealers for obscenity, but they did recommend that vendors permanently remove pornographic films “dealing with incest, sexual conduct with minors, bondage, torture, bestiality, rape, fetishes and those lacking significant storylines or plots.”
The attorney representing the local video dealers said that the recommendations would only result in about a 5-percent reduction in the X-rated inventory of most stores, and that they were pleased overall with the outcome. Cooper also told the press he was pleased with the outcome, but claimed the recommendation knocked out 95-percent of the stores’ adult inventories. He may have been trying to play up the win for his followers, but my good-faith assumption is that he felt the “lacking significant storylines or plots” guideline would wipe out most of the films. It did not.
Morrison said the next step was for law enforcement to send out letters to video stores that handled X-rated tapes and inform them about the ruling. Then they would have a grace period to remove offending tapes before violations would become criminal. First offenses could result in a misdemeanor charge with a maximum punishment of $2,500 and one year in jail, and repeat offenses escalated to felonies with maximum fines of $5,000 and five years in a state penitentiary.
This chapter of the Johnson County video store saga closed with an article in October of 1989 that followed a detective in the criminal intelligence unit of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department. He was the lone detective assigned to the video store beat, and twice made it clear to the reporter that this was just one of the many things he did for his job. He told the reporter that he generally only went to a video shop when there was a specific complaint, and that since June they only had two – both dealing more with how videos were displayed than with the content of the videos. He said that on the rare random check-in, he would examine the collections for films that either in title or in description appeared to violate the rules. If he found one, he would rent it and examine it, but so far that hadn’t been necessary. A brief epilogue: Rostenberg told me he really took the NCAP seriously and even went to two of their national conventions. In response to the wave of threats to free speech in the Kansas City area at the time, Rostenberg and a friend started the Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, which later became the Free Speech Coalition. Throughout the 1990s they had an annual Culture Under Fire event, which showcased provocative films, music, poetry, and so forth. It gradually wound down, but he said it was a lot of fun while it lasted.
Alright, enough filth! Let’s get back to business!
By 1987, the average video rental in the Kansas City area cost about $2.00 per day. More people than ever were renting videos at more stores than ever, and prices declined as competition increased. If you were in Johnson County and you wanted to rent a movie, you could go to Antin House of Video, Applause Video, Continental Video Center, Hollywood at Home, Master Video, Movies at Home, The Movie House, National Video, Peaches Video, Video Biz, Video Corner, Video Exchange, Video Library, Videolane, most grocery stores, most drug stores, some gas stations… or any number of other places. Then Blockbuster Video stepped into the Johnson County scene, and things really heated up.
In 1988, Blockbuster was an aggressively expanding national chain that aimed to be the McDonald’s of the video rental industry. It started in Dallas in 1985 and thanks to some big investors quickly took the country by storm. The store would eventually have near-universal brand recognition and – at its peak in 2004 – almost 9,000 stores around the world.
The area’s first Blockbuster was at 8701 Metcalf Ave, and it opened in March of 1988 with about 10,000 tapes (not titles). It was half a mile down the street from Hollywood at Home, which by then had 10,200 tapes (between 6,000 to 8,000 titles). I have to imagine somebody at Blockbuster corporate had done their research and put a target on Hollywood at Home.
In describing the new Blockbuster store, one article said Blockbuster was different because, among other things, they had all of their videotapes on display on the floor. Customers would pick up their tape, housed in its own Blockbuster case, and bring it to the counter to rent. Many stores practiced what Rostenberg described a “closed system,” where the video cases or clear plastic slips with the collapsed or altered video case art were out on the floor, but all of the tapes were behind the counter or in a back room (or anywhere they would fit). Presumably this prevented theft or damage to the tapes and was easier to keep organized. Very early on, a lot of stores simply had catalogs customers could browse, then pick their film and rent it, but by 1982 or 1983 that was pretty rare. Anyhow, Hollywood at Home utilized the closed system, and plenty of stores I visited over the years did too, but I was told Video Library in Lenexa opened in 1985 with the tapes out on the shelves, and possibly even pioneered this technique, so I suspect this was marketing bluster from Blockbuster and no real claim to fame.
By the end of 1988, Blockbuster had nine metro area stores, 235 stores total across 33 states, and was opening four or five per week. Most of their growth at that time was the acquisition of existing stores and small, city-wide or regional chains. They were a force to be reckoned with, but when I asked Rostenberg about the competition he said that when Blockbuster opened up, his store really didn’t see much of a dip in business, and when they closed many years later, Hollywood at Home didn’t see much of an uptick. By 1988, Hollywood at Home had a much deeper collection of films and video games than Blockbuster would ever have, as well as adult films (which Blockbuster never carried), and thankfully there were enough VCRs in the area by then to keep everybody afloat.
As competitive as things were by the end of the 1980s, 90% of stores nationwide were still independent (as opposed to franchises or chains), and business was good for most of them. Industry research reported that tapes were breaking even more quickly than in previous years, and individual tapes were getting more rentals before being trashed or sold-as-used than ever before. By 1990, the VSDA estimated video sales and rentals were a $10.5 billion per year business and said 68% of US households had VCRs. That year brought two significant acquisitions that changed the Johnson County video store landscape. In May, the local chain Movies at Home sold their 10 VHS rental stores and one all-Beta store to a Belgium-based retailer called Super Club (which was purchased by – you guessed it – Blockbuster in 1993). The former owners said they didn’t expect to change their stores and would continue to be involved in running them. They said they made the sale with the hopes of having a partner with deeper pockets that would help them expand the business further.
Then in July, Blockbuster purchased Applause Video, then the Kansas City area’s largest chain with 22 stores. This took Blockbuster to 36 stores in the Kansas City area. At the time of the deal, the unflappable Richard Rostenberg told the Kansas City Star that he was happy about it. “Instead of competing against two, we’re only competing against one now.” He added that Hollywood at Home was having its best year yet.
Another competitor that was ruffling the feathers of at least some video dealers was Phar-Mor. They sold tapes for $10-12 below suggested retail and rented tapes for as much as $2 less than the average rental store: 69 cents per night. Nobody could figure out how they were staying afloat. Their margins were way too thin for any video store to be able to compete, but they also appeared to be taking huge losses. The article I read was humorous in retrospect, because Phar-Mor famously collapsed due to shady financial practices in the early 1990s and never recovered, closing their final stores in the early 2000s.
Probably the most significant thing in the history of Johnson County video stores – and possibly even the history of Johnson County itself – occurred on Saturday February 1st, 1992 when Marky Mark of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch appeared at the Movies at Home store at 95th and Antioch for an album signing. Residents still look at that day as the day Johnson County finally made it to the big leagues.
In 1995, Hollywood at Home celebrated their 15th year of business. An interview in the Kansas City Star detailed how they were continuing to thrive with annual sales of $500,000. Tapes were still their bread and butter, but around 1990 the store – which had expanded from 800 square-feet to 2,800 square-feet in the mid-1980s – had added a newsstand that had since grown to 2,000 publications and made up 20-percent of the store’s business. Rostenberg told me that at one point in the 1980s they’d had every Atari game that existed, but by the mid-1990s they had sold those off and were renting Sega and Nintendo titles. (Fun fact: Back in the 1980s, they had a Pac-Man competition at the store and a little kid won $5,000.)
Things were so good in 1995, in fact, that Hollywood at Home purchased a computer with “Clair V.” software on it. The program had people fill out a 10-minute survey and then gave them film recommendations. I chuckled reading about this the other day, picturing somebody standing there in 1995 for ten minutes filling out the quiz, but I know that if the computer had still been there when I started visiting the store in the 2000s, I would have used it.
Movie Gallery, another large national chain, entered the Kansas City area in 1996. Like Blockbuster, they were expanding rapidly by building new stores and acquiring old ones at that time. Polo Video in Leawood was among their acquisitions, as were most of the Movie Exchange and Flicks and Discs stores.
Hollywood Video – yet another large national chain – came to town that same year and had eight stores in the area by the end of 1997.
Almost every household (85 to 90-percent) had at least one VCR by the mid-to-late-1990s, and the nation had around 27,000 video stores. Video revenue was almost two-thirds of the movie business’s income, compared to theatrical revenue (which was about a quarter). Yet video hadn’t cannibalized theatrical like the studios feared it would in the early days. Surely it impacted the theatrical business to some extent, but the theatrical business was thriving too.
Unfortunately, the news wasn’t as rosy for video stores. By the end of 1996, sell-through spending was starting to surpass rental spending. The bright side here was that it brought down the average price of tapes quite a bit for video stores, so it was easier to reach a profit by renting them. The downside is that customers were buying most of their movies at places like Wal-Mart, not their video store. Rental stores were still doing very healthy business as a whole, but they were mostly shouldered out of sell-through business, and rental profits were spread very thin over a lot of stores. Then, in 1997, rental revenues fell 4.2-percent, their biggest (and possibly first) drop ever.
The industry brought down rental prices to compete for consumers’ entertainment dollars, and Blockbuster abandoned their one standard nationwide price and began to compete price-wise on a local basis. On top of that, the biggest chain stores began competing with each other by buying tons of copies of the biggest new releases so that customers would have no need to ever go to a competitor to get the newest film they were looking for. That was rough enough to make a profit on for the major chains, but buying 100 to 200 copies of the biggest new movie just wasn’t possible for the littler guys who saw their business further siphoned off by this practice.
That said, it was pretty cool as a customer. For a while, my Blockbuster had a deal where if they didn’t have a title they were “guaranteed” to have, you could get a coupon for a free rental of something else. I remember regularly checking to see if they were out of any of the guaranteed titles just so I could get the occasional free rental. (Don’t worry, they made plenty of money off of me otherwise.)
In July of 1999 Hollywood at Home reported that business was great. By then about half of their business was video-related, while books and magazines were about 35-percent, and cigars, cigarettes, and candy made up the remainder.
20 million VCRs sold that year, but a new format was gaining steam: DVD, which used discs instead of tapes and offered higher-quality picture and sound, plus (usually) some fun bonus features. DVD rentals and sales were starting to pick up as the millennium neared, and the format would lead to one last shot in the arm for rental stores in the early 2000s.
Also in 1999, a company called Netflix – a website, really – introduced monthly subscription plans for renting DVDs through the mail. I’m pretty sure the company quickly disappeared and was never heard from again, but I’ll have to check my notes before I start writing the next section.
Hollywood at Home celebrated its 20th anniversary in April of 2000 with Bo Ling’s cuisine, free nail buffing and chair massages, and of course an autograph signing with local girl and Penthouse “Pet of the Year 1997” Elizabeth Hilden. In an interview with the KC Star, Rostenberg admitted the rental industry was unpredictable, but speculated that the store would be in business for at least another five years.
A few years later, Robert Butler wrote a great piece on the still-thriving video store that had a lot of details that took me right back to the store in the days when I’d first discovered it. New releases were $4, but you got a $1 credit if you brought them back the next day. The older movies were four movies for $4 for four days, which was absolutely perfect for burgeoning movie buffs looking to kill a weekend.
I first found Hollywood at Home in 2003 or 2004, when I was calling every video store in the phonebook searching for a copy of “Confessions of an Opium Eater” starring Vincent Price. (Like everybody, I went through a big Vincent Price phase in high school.) Nobody had it because I don’t think it ever had a VHS release in the US and the DVD wasn’t out yet, but I caught Hollywood at Home’s Eric on the phone and he started talking to me about Hammer Horror and Amicus Productions. It was the first I’d heard about such things, and I had to know more, so I went out to visit the store. I can’t say that I specifically remember the first time I ever entered Hollywood at Home, but I do remember that any time I entered it, it just felt like Home to me. I could and did browse for hours, and always went home with 4-8 movies and maybe a magazine or two. I was there all the time. I brought my friends. I brought my dad. Sometimes the clerk actually knew who I was when I stepped up to the counter to rent. I just loved it.
Butler described how the clerks played movies on the in-store TVs instead of promo reels like the more corporate shops had. He relayed the following anecdote from a customer: “One time I came in here with one of my friends and one of the clerks was on the P.A. system doing a Marlon Brando imitation. I’ve never seen that at Blockbuster.” I never caught a Brando impression, but I do remember always being quite pleased when somebody was watching a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode on the TVs. You really sense you’re a part of something bigger than you when you chuckle at the same Tom Servo riff that gets a smile from the clerk and a snort from another customer.
Butler revealed that the store required all potential employees to take a 50-question movie quiz in 10 minutes and be evaluated for their movie knowledge. (Rostenberg gave me a copy of the quiz and I scored 45/50.) Turnover was extremely low at Hollywood at Home. Butler talked about how the store offered insurance benefits, a pension plan, profit-sharing, and – of course – free rentals. This was virtually unheard of for a video store (except for the free rentals part). “Whenever we go to conventions and Richard brings up the fact that we have a retirement plan and profit-sharing, the other video store owners look at him like he’s some kind of alien,” Steve Wolverton, then-employee, soon-to-be-owner told Butler.
And then there was the collection. I may be wrong, but I believe the only video collection in Johnson County that ever surpassed the depth and variety of Hollywood at Home’s was Video Library’s. Video Library was a massive independent store that had been around since 1985, and they truly had everything. Hollywood at Home had a much smaller space, but being in operation since 1980 and specifically selecting movie maniacs to curate the joint left them with a huge collection full of hard-to-find films. Rostenberg told Butler that they had a few regulars who would drive in from central Missouri or central Kansas, get a hotel room, and spend the weekend with a stack of movies they couldn’t find anywhere else.
After a busy but shaky late-1990s, the early-2000s started off happily enough for video stores. I found conflicting figures, but it appears that the video rental market hit a new height (its peak) in 2001, thanks in large part to a boost from DVD.
DVD launched in 1997 and took a little while to catch on. VHS was still the dominant rental format in 2001 when DVD players were only in about 2 million US households. That year VHS rentals were $7 billion and DVD rentals were $1.4 billion. However, by 2004, DVD players were in more than 50-percent of US households, and the rental figures had just about flipped: DVDs accounted for $5.75 billion in rentals and VHS tapes for $2.3 billion. Total rental revenue was down about $400 million from 2001, but DVD had caught on, and VHS was on its way out.
DVD spurred a rise in overall home video spending (renting combined with purchasing), but it presented a couple of challenges to the brick-and-mortar rental industry. First, with DVD people spent more money buying DVDs than they did renting them. Gone were the days of $80 new release VHS tapes that made it logical to rent films instead of buying them. By the time DVD was the dominant format, it was normal to find big new releases for $20 on release day and $5 bins for older titles at most major retailers. Second, the lightweight discs allowed for things like Netflix (rental discs in the mail) and Redbox (a company that rents disc from a vending machine and was founded in 2002) to be more economically feasible. It’s cheaper and easier to ship a disc than a VHS tape, and as those services caught on, they ate up consumer dollars that would have otherwise gone to video rental stores.
I’ll sum up this final phase of the video store story as succinctly as possible:
In 2005, Netflix had about 4 million subscribers.
In 2010, 18 million.
In 2015, 70 million.
And in 2020, they reported over 200 million subscribers.
The other factors we’ve touched on play a role, but Netflix’s growth is the short answer to, “Whatever happened to video stores?” Remember the “Layla” scene in “Goodfellas”? It was like that.
Anyways, you get the idea. Now for the longer version…
Most video stores, large and small rode out the mid-2000s fairly comfortably, but technology, consumer habits, and a recession had all of them on the ropes by the end of the decade.
To briefly tell the tale of the big dogs, let’s start in 2004. That year Viacom decided to divest itself of its controlling interest in Blockbuster, which had 9,000 stores globally (5,800 in the US) at the time – ultimately their peak. After that, Blockbuster attempted to purchase Hollywood Video (2,000 stores) for $700 million. Movie Gallery (2,700 stores) was mostly hanging out off to the side, and their strategy at the time was to keep the profitable stores they had in metro areas, close the unprofitable ones, and otherwise focus on rural areas that were too small to attract Blockbuster’s attention.
Blockbuster’s purchase of Hollywood Video stalled, partially due to the Federal Trade Commission not immediately approving the acquisition out of monopoly concerns. (The purchase would have given Blockbuster control of over 50-percent of rental stores, after all.) Then Movie Gallery swooped in and bought Hollywood Video in early 2005 for $850 million. At that time, the Kansas City area had 9 Hollywood Videos and 5 Movie Gallery stores.
I don’t quite understand why the chains were so eager to buy each other up, but Blockbuster (after declining to buy Netflix for $50 million in the year 2000) spent the mid-2000s trying to come up with ways to beat Netflix at its own game, first with discs through the mail and then with a variety of stabs at the streaming market (plus lowering prices and announcing “the end of late fees” in 2005). My guess is Blockbuster thought acquiring more storefronts would first eliminate a competitor and secondly better position them as a hybrid brick-and-mortar/discs-in-mail/streaming force that could compete with Netflix, but it was never completely clear to me what they were thinking long-term as I read contemporary articles and post-mortem histories of the company.
Anyhow, in 2006, Blockbuster floated out purchasing the struggling Movie Gallery, but didn’t end up doing it. In 2007, Movie Gallery closed its last two Kansas City area stores and went into bankruptcy restructuring in 2008. They emerged only to wind down the company in 2010 and sell their remaining Movie Gallery, Hollywood Video, and GameCrazy brands. I believe some stores survived for some time afterward, but as independent entities. To my knowledge, there are none that remain open anywhere.
In 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. It was purchased by Dish Network in 2011. Then in 2013, Blockbuster announced plans to close its 300 remaining stores across the US and wound almost all of them down in early 2014. I couldn’t find the exact date that the last Blockbuster in Johnson County closed, but the last one I remember visiting in the area was (I think) the store at 6600 Johnson Drive in Mission. If you know of any that stayed open later, let me know in the comments.
A handful of Blockbusters continued operating independently while licensing the Blockbuster brand throughout the 2010s, and as of 2019 there is one Blockbuster left. It’s in Bend, Oregon, and there is actually a charming little documentary about it.
Whenever video store conversations pop up in various forums, I tend to find two camps of people. There are the people whose only video store experiences were at Blockbuster, and some of them say they miss the store and some of them say they’re glad the store is dead. (The bile of the latter camp isn’t entirely surprising considering that by some reports late fees made up 15-percent or more of Blockbuster’s revenue.) And then there are the people who are annoyed that the soulless corporate behemoth Blockbuster gets so much of the nostalgia spotlight, and they implore people to remember the independent shops and such.
All this to say: There can be a lot of negativity surrounding the memory of Blockbuster, but as somebody who went to chain stores regularly for years, there was plenty of fun to be had at your average Blockbuster (or Movie Gallery or Hollywood Video), and I’d like to conclude our discussion of that particular chain by remembering the store at 8900 W 95th St, where I once purchased a ridiculously sun-bleached used copy of “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.”
I found an article from March of 2000 detailing that Blockbuster’s celebration of the release of “Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace” on home video. They said that the employees there dressed up like characters from the film, putting together their own elaborate costumes and makeup designs. Not only that, but on the Friday night after the tape was released, two employees dressed as Obi-Wan and Darth Maul put on a choreographed lightsaber battle complete with lights and fog.
The article said that in the past, that same group of employees had dressed up as Austin Powers and Felicity Shagwell, and once re-created the bow of the Titanic for when that film came out on VHS. That Blockbuster wasn’t representative of the whole chain by any means, but let us put aside our bitterness and remember what was good.
Around 2004 or 2005, Richard Rostenberg got sick. His illness left him exhausted and unable to work much more than 10 hours a week, and even that was pushing it. He decided it was time to sell, and his general manager Steve Wolverton stepped up to buy the store from him.
And Rostenberg? “Miracle of miracles, I got better after I sold the store,” he told me with a healthy chuckle when I interviewed him in October.
Steve became general manager of Hollywood at Home in 1996 after a several year stint at one of the nation’s most famous video stores. Originally from Excelsior Springs, MO, Steve fell in love with movies by watching them on television as a kid. He particularly loved weird movies, and was a fan of “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film” by Michael Weldon (who he eventually befriended) and the “Psychotronic Video” magazine. There was an ad for Kim’s Video in New York City in the back of each Psychotronic magazine, and when Steve moved there in 1990, he applied for a job at the St Marks and 2nd Avenue location and actually got it, then quickly became a manager.
Kim’s Video was legendary for being one of the best video stores in the nation. It’s where people in the biz (show biz, that is) would go to get their movies if they were researching for a film they were making or something along those lines. It’s also a place where a lot of people who would go on to be famous worked. Among its famous alumni are Alex Ross Perry, Andrew WK, and Todd Phillips. In fact, Steve had to fire Todd Phillips from the store. And if he hadn’t, who knows, maybe we’d be living in some alternate reality where “Old School,” “The Hangover,” and “Joker” never came to be.
Anyways, Steve loved the job and got to know a lot of people in the New York film and video business, but unfortunately he was diagnosed with cancer and had to move home to recuperate. Once he had recovered, he applied to Hollywood at Home and got the job.
“We were more or less minting money… I mean, it was a great business back in the ‘90s,” he told me. The store’s overnight return drop was a slot in the front door where you slid the movie into a bin, and he said it was regularly overflowing with tapes when they arrived at the store in the morning.
Steve remembered the daily operations of the store with surprisingly good detail. They were open from 10am to 11pm seven days a week. Whoever opened the store arrived at 9:30 to get the overnight returns checked in and just generally get things ready for business. And once they opened, business was pretty steady, busier in the evenings and on weekends, and quieter during the weekdays. “You’d have time to watch movies and stuff. And frankly that’s why most of us worked at video stores, because you could watch movies while you were working,” he said with a laugh. “Plus you could take home all these movies for free.”
He told me that a long-time employee named Sue did most of the ordering, but “I’d always put in my two cents for obscure stuff that just came out. Richard would be like, ‘Is anybody going to rent this?’ and I’m like, ‘Maybe not, but we should have it.’”
When I asked him about competition with other stores he said he didn’t remember it being very competitive. He said that if they didn’t have a movie, he’d happily send people to other stores that did, particularly Video Library.
Steve bought the store in 2005, and the business was different from when he’d started in 1996. He estimated that pornographic movies and magazines were about 60-percent of their business by then, regular rentals were 20-percent, and non-adult magazines were the final 20. Everything went pretty smoothly for the first couple of years.
Then, in 2007, the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families delivered petitions to six Kansas City area county courthouses seeking grand jury investigations of 32 businesses for the promotion of obscenity. In Johnson County, Gringo Loco (Olathe), Movie Gallery (Olathe), Priscilla’s (Olathe), Video Library (Lenexa), Hollywood at Home (Overland Park), and a Spirit Halloween store were the targets.
This time the grand jury actually made indictments. Spirit Halloween had displayed adult costumes where minors could view them, and had their charges dropped by moving the costumes to a back section of the store. Gringo Loco was accused of selling an obscene DVD, and had their charges dropped after removing “Babysitter #18” from their shelves. Priscilla’s was accused of intending to sell various obscene devices and an obscene DVD, and I never found out what specifically happened with them or Movie Gallery. Hollywood at Home was accused of “unlawfully and knowingly or recklessly” possessing and intending to sell four obscene DVDs, and pled not guilty.
I couldn’t find any reporting on the outcome of their trial, so I asked Steve what happened. He said they hired a lawyer, it dragged on for six months or a year, and “it ended up costing us a few thousand dollars, but they ended up basically just kind of dropping everything.” He said the lawyer called him one day and said the group was dropping it because they felt like they’d made their point.
Hollywood at Home raised some money at the store to help with legal fees, but other than that and a new curtain to cover the adult section, the obscenity challenges didn’t affect the store much. However, they came at a bad time. 2008 brought the recession, and it was also the year that it became undeniable that Netflix, Redbox, and video-on-demand had caught up with the store. On top of that, the newsstand revenues that had helped them outlast several other area video stores had dropped off, and would continue to fall over the next few years. As Steve put it, “It was death by a thousand cuts.” Steve estimated that in the mid-1990s the store was bringing in roughly $500,000 to $600,000 per year, and that on some Friday nights they would make between $3,000 and $4,000. By 2013, they were bringing in about one quarter of that – enough to keep the store going, and that was it. And so, Steve decided to close the store.
“I probably kept the store open a year or so longer than I should have, but I just couldn’t bring myself to close it,” he said. “And when you’re the owner, you worry about where your employees are going to go. They’re not just employees, they’re friends. […] It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life.”
He said that the one bright spot in closing the store was all of the customers who came out to say farewell.
“We had so many great customers that had been coming there for years and years. They just came to us and said, ‘Oh we’re so sorry you’re closing, is there anything we can do?’ You know? ‘I started coming here when I was 8 years old with my parents, and I’ve been coming here for the last 20 years, and now I’m bringing my kids here.’ You know, it was tough, but it was just so nice, the outpouring of love and everything the last few months we were open.”
He said people came in every day during those final weeks to tell them they would miss the store. “And you know, honestly, I miss them too. I really do.”
Steve told me they had one guy who had been the store’s very first customer back in 1980, and was still coming in regularly in 2013. I’d only been going there for ten years at that point, but I visited several times in the final weeks to rent and buy movies while I still could. I even took home two shelves from the store and used them to display my movies (until they fell apart during a move about five years later). And I stopped in one last time on the night they closed, December 31st, 2013.
I was extremely disappointed to be losing the store, but it also felt like closing the book on one of the happiest parts of an entire era of my life. When I think about video stores, I think about all the movies that were just there for the taking, but I also think about the hours I spent walking the aisles with friends and family, chatting about whatever while trying to choose the evening’s entertainment. I think about the sleepovers that always involved pizza, Dr. Pepper, and a pile of tapes. I think about my parents tricking me into watching “Porky’s” by telling me they’d rented “Amelie.” I think about biking over to my Blockbuster practically every other night during my precious middle school and early high school summers to rent “Boogie Nights,” “IT,” “The Godfather,” “The Ice Cream Man,” or whatever caught my eye. I think about the guy in my driver’s ed class who let me borrow a tape he’d kept out way too long from Fine Arts Video in Mission: “Eraserhead.” I think about going to SRO Video over in Kansas City to see what else was out there in this crazy world of ours.
When the Family Video stores in Shawnee and Olathe closed in 2021, Johnson County was officially without a video store for the first time since Rostenberg had opened Hollywood at Home in 1980. You can still rent movies at Vintage Stock locations, Johnson County Library, and Redbox kiosks, but there aren’t any traditional video stores left. I’m not even aware of any in the Kansas City area. As more and more retail disappears in the Age of the Internet, I often find myself feeling claustrophobic. There just don’t seem to be as many places to go. I miss all the places. But I miss the video stores more than anything. As a film fan, a mediocre video store was a fun time. A good video store was like a well-curated museum that allowed you to take the art home. And a great video store was a work of art itself. It was simultaneously a little shrine to film and a gold mine where you would go and hunt for some undiscovered treasure to take home. Johnson County had a lot of video stores over the years, and Hollywood at Home was a truly great one.
I’d like to thank Richard Rostenberg and Steve Wolverton for participating in interviews for this blog post. I’d also like to thank the fine reporters from the Kansas City Star who made all my research possible. Thanks also to everybody out there who ever started a video store or worked in one.
If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye on this blog in the coming months, as I’m also trying to put together a (much shorter) piece on Lenexa’s Video Library (1985-2007).
I hope you enjoyed reading about Johnson County video stores. Feel free to leave a comment with your own video store memories.
The story from the above 1872 Will Carleton poem “Adversity” was once a common tale for those living with poverty or disability in America. Anyone who could not find self-supporting work – due to age, physical or mental disability, dependent children, or other factors – and who had no family to care for them would find themselves facing the prospect of the poorhouse. Originating in the United Kingdom, poorhouses were institutions designed to employ the poor and disabled in exchange for food, housing, and healthcare. As the British Empire spread, so did its ideologies; Colonial America’s larger cities featured poorhouses and, as the Union formed and expanded, so followed poorhouses or – as was more common in the U.S. – poor farms. County governments in each state oversaw poor farms where residents, then referred to as “inmates”, were expected to complete farm labor and housework for room and board.
By the early 20th century, most Kansas counties had a poor farm. Johnson County’s poor farm was built on a 160-acre plot at the corner of what is now 119th Street and Ridgeview Road in Olathe. While its specific origin date is unclear, it opened in the mid-1860s with 8 residents working the farm. With the assistance of a small staff, they grew corn, oats, black sorghum, hay potatoes, cow peas, and apples. They raised hogs, cows, and chickens. During its tenure, the farm housed an average of 15-40 residents, though times of widespread hardship saw higher numbers.
In 1909, a visiting representative from the Olathe Mirror newspaper described the farm as clean, well-furnished, and comfortable. Of its then twelve residents, it was said: “Some of these are too aged to be of any assistance and three of them are blind, so that as a whole the inmates instead of being a help either on the farm or in the infirmary, must be helped.” This was true for many farms across the country. The circumstances leading people to poor farms often made them unsuitable for the hard labor of farm work. Over time, many county-appointed superintendents found it more financially viable to rent their farmland out, using the proceeds to provide for their residents, rather than rely on them for farm output.
As management for poor farms was largely unregulated, quality of life varied greatly among different counties and states. Some superintendents received salaries while others made only what the farm earnings would allow. Ideologies differed, too, on what poor farms were designed for, with some treating them as purely charitable ventures while others sought high profits – leading many residents to experience mental and physical abuse, overwork, and unclean and inadequate surroundings. Residents of poor farms sometimes shared one razor, toothbrush, and wash basin among themselves. Unsurprisingly, disease spread quickly in these places. To justify such conditions, superintendents would claim they did not want to provide what they saw as luxury items, believing that providing comforts would prevent residents from wanting to leave poor farms – but most never had the ability to leave, regardless of want.
Poor farms were ubiquitous for over a century in the United States, but population and economic changes made the already shaky system untenable in the first half of the 20th century. The 1929 economic crisis that ushered in the Great Depression led to overwhelming need for poor relief. Poor farms lacked funding to care for their already existing residents and were unable to take on further economic burdens. By 1933 almost one-third of all Kansas farmland was tax delinquent, and the country was in crisis. In 1935 Congress created the Social Security Act and, with it, federal financial support for the elderly, disabled, dependent mothers and children, and unemployed. These changes, along with a series of housing reforms, allowed many who would have faced poor farms to live independently. Three years later, nearly a third of all Kansas poor farms had been repurposed or closed entirely.
As methods of social relief changed, so did public opinion. Poor farms were increasingly viewed as inhumane and outdated, and public thought turned toward newer institutions designed to provide for people on an individual level – nursing homes, mental health facilities, and schools for deaf and blind students. Many former Kansas poor farms were converted to nursing homes, community centers, and hospitals. Operating through the end of World War II, the Johnson County Poor Farm became a senior care facility before the land was repurposed for government use. Gone but not entirely forgotten, the plot where the farm once stood still provides services to the county’s many residents; it now houses the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, MED-ACT, and the K-State Research and Extension Office.
Whether you are attending school in person, virtual, or a hybrid of both, check out these in person interviews from The Squire magazine that were published in 1963. Ten individuals from various ages were asked what they were most anxious about when going back to school after a long summer break – Some of their answers may surprise you, others may remind you of yourselves and those around you. The Squire was a local newspaper published in Johnson County by Tom Leathers from 1959 to 2005. The JocoHistory collection has proudly preserved editions from 1961-1972.
Before Europeans arrived in North America, the Shawnee people resided in the Eastern woodlands of what is now the Untied States. In 1793, some Shawnee tribespeople made a treaty with the Spanish for land in Eastern Missouri. In 1825, this group of Shawnee signed a treaty with the United States Government to exchange their land in Missouri for land in present day Eastern Kansas. The remaining tribe in the East signed the Treaty of Fort Meigs in 1817 that granted three areas of land for reservations in Northwest Ohio. However, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 further displaced this group of Shawnee and sent them to join the reservation in Kansas. In that same year, Shawnee Chief Fish requested a missionary to join them on their new reservation. At the behest of the missionary society, Methodist Reverend Thomas Johnson first went to the present-day Turner area of Kansas City, Kansas, and built a two story building to minister to the Shawnee people. He then requested to move to the mission’s present location in Fairway to build a larger school that would serve more tribes, but who’s primary focus would be converting the Native People to Christianity and forcing them to assimilate to European-American culture by giving them Anglo names, forbidding communication in any language other than English, and stripping them of any traditional clothing and objects. During it’s twenty-plus years of operation, up to 200 children aged 5 to 23 were housed at any given time from the Cherokee, Chippewa, Delaware, Gros Ventres, Kaw, Kickapoo, Munsee, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Ottawa, Peoria, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Wea, and Wyandot tribes.
In October 1839, the mission officially opened. That same year, the West building was completed and housed staff living quarters, a dining hall, and a kitchen. The East building followed in 1841 and contained a chapel, classrooms, and living quarters for both teachers and students. The North building completed the primary structures in 1845 that contained classrooms and a girls’ dormitory. The children were taught basic academic subjects alongside training for homemaking, carpentry, blacksmithing, milling and farming. The school employed white settlers from the area and sustained itself with over 2,000 acres of farmland and had its own gristmill, sawmill, blacksmith, and barn.
In 1854, the school ceased the manual labor training it began in the 1830s, but still continued as a mission until the early 1860s. In 1855, the mission became the home of the territorial governor, Andrew Reeder, and what has come to be known as the “bogus legislature” that included Thomas Johnson. This fraudulently elected legislature advocated for Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a slave state and criminalized the acts of those seeking to help enslaved people escape to free territory. By 1856, the territorial capital moved to Lecompton and President Pierce fired Governor Reeder and appointed a new pro-Southern governor. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed on May 30, 1854, opened Johnson County to white settlers seeking to own land once promised to the Shawnee, once again displacing the tribe. Their final move to Oklahoma would be their last forced mass removal as the tribe is still headquartered in Miami, Oklahoma.
Although the story of the Shawnee Indian Mission is a tragic one, a love story did survive. On November 12, 1853, a white laborer on the mission, Samuel Garrett, married a Shawnee woman named Elizabeth Choteau. Garrett was officially adopted into the Shawnee tribe in 1856. The Garretts stayed in Johnson County until 1870 when Elizabeth tragically died. Samuel then took their six children to Miami, Oklahoma, to resume life with the Shawnee. In 1911, their son Frederick returned to Johnson County, building a farm near Wilder.
The Shawnee Indian Mission closed in 1862. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 23, 1968, and three brick buildings still stand. The site is open for tours – click here for more information.
The De Soto Library, at 33145 W. 83rd St., is one of three small community branches on the outskirts of the Johnson County Library system, along with Edgerton and Spring Hill. These branches are seen as vital anchors and gathering spots, integral to the fabric and character of their close-knit towns.
For Lori Ross, a lifelong De Soto resident and system-wide materials handling clerk with Johnson County Library, the branch is an institution and a wonderful resource for northwest Johnson County, west of Shawnee and Lenexa.
“It’s a good staple of the community,” Ross said. “It’s very much a connection to the world.”
For Branch Manager Christian Madrigal, De Soto is special because it’s a small branch where many patrons know each other and get to know the staff, talking about favorite books and developing positive relationships.
Especially before the pandemic, many residents used the branch for access to the entire Johnson County Library collection. In 2019, the branch had 1,735 card holders and a collection of 15,373 materials. It had 30,000 visits that year and a circulation of 37,000 items.
“I think the community really utilized the Holds system there,” Madrigal said. “Lots of people dropped in to use computers for job searching and to stay connected. We still have two regulars who come in every day to get the newspaper and stay current.”
For years, the branch had an active book club whose members hope to resume meeting soon. It remains a popular hub for teens, families and retirees who check out materials and rely on the Library Wi-Fi.
The branch has a storied history, and Lori Ross has an especially meaningful connection to its origins. Her great-grandmother, Edna Ross, started the first De Soto lending library in the mid-1950s, with books on shelves in the family’s store, Ross Electric and Plumbing Shop, on the town’s main street. That lending library lasted until Johnson County Library started providing a weekly bookmobile stop in 1957. By 1966, the bookmobile was so popular that it was parked in town and manned by volunteers.
In 1967, the prominent Coker family built a 1,200-square-foot Library at a convenient downtown location, next to the Post Office, near an elementary school, and just down the street from the Ross family store. The original facility, which opened in October 1967, had 3,000 titles and was leased by Johnson County Library.
De Soto continued to grow in population. By the early 1980s, it was clear the community needed a larger Library. A 3,776-square-foot building was constructed on the same site and opened in June 1982. That’s the Library that Lori Ross visited almost daily as a schoolchild for books and to hang out with friends. This year marks its 40th anniversary.
Ross and her mother Kathy now run the De Soto Historical Society on the upper floor of the old Ross family store, a block from the Library. The proximity is wonderful; people often visit the Historical Society and then head to the Library just as it opens.
Madrigal is excited that Johnson County Library is embarking on a renewal study for its community branches and is holding Listening Sessions to get patron suggestions. Working with Clark & Enersen architects, staff is looking at how to maximize the building for programs, possibly using temporary partitions to create meeting spaces. Other requests are to enhance the Spanish language collection, offer MakerSpace software and expand Library hours.
Madrigal is optimistic about the future, with the renewal study serving as a roadmap. It will be, he says, “an opportunity to provide or extend Library services that can match or be taken into consideration with our staff and patron feedback.”
-Lynn Horsley, Freelance writer for Johnson County Library
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