Category Archives: Government

Johnson County’s Poor Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sam S., Johnson County Library

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Flights and Phantoms, Part 2: Lives Lost

January 3, 1949, was like any other cold January day when 1st Lt. Neal R. Webster started his navigation training flight from Omaha to Tulsa and then back again.  But on the return trip, his luck did not hold.  He was cleared to fly from Tulsa to Topeka, but during the flight, the fog thickened, and because of zero visibility the Topeka airfield was forced to close.  So Webster had to change route, and Lowry Air Force Base, the technical training base in Denver, notified the next closest airfield, Olathe Naval Air Station.  With only 150 yards of visibility, they readied for the possibility of a rough landing.  Just the  previous week crews in Washington, D.C.,  had faced a similar situation when they had to guide President Truman’s plane during low-visibility conditions. They were successful, and the Olathe airfield used the same techniques to prepare for Webster’s landing, but with more tragic results.

Aerial view of New Century AirCenter

Aerial view of New Century AirCenter, site of the former Olathe Naval Air Station.

Low on fuel, Webster was in constant communication with the Olathe tower.  Those in the tower were steering him in, but because of the limited visibility the building came upon him all too soon.  He flew right into the side of the Administration Building, just past Hangar 43.  The engine shot from the plane and sailed into the air knocking a hole in the building’s roof. The plane was instantly engulfed in flames, rising higher than the roof of the building.  Because of the fog these flames were hardly discernible.  Bricks were strewn everywhere, even breaking the plate glass windows on the south wing.  Damage included a bulge in one office’s ceiling and the side wall suffered extreme damage.  A deep furrow was created along the length of the building, and later parts of the plane would be found as far as 200 yards away.

Administration Building of the Olathe Naval Air Station, circa 1945

Administration Building of the Olathe Naval Air Station, circa 1945

The ground crew rushed to assist and immediately extinguished the fire. Since the front of the plane was completely demolished, they were forced to pry the pilot and an unexpected passenger from the underbelly of the wreckage.  Webster was pronounced dead at the scene, but the unknown passenger was alive and rushed to the base hospital.  He regained consciousness but died six hours later.  Initially the only trace of this person’s identity was an illegible signature on the flight forms.  His baggage later revealed he was Pvt. Thomas Ruse from Lowry Air Force Base.

A man in uniform stands before a Naval Air Transport plane, circa 1945

A man in uniform stands before a Naval Air Transport plane, circa 1945

Immediately following the accident strange occurrences started happening.  One eye-witness claimed that someone walked from the plane crash, but that person was never found.  Witnesses started claiming to hear whistles, footsteps, voices, locks refusing to lock and doors opening unaided.  More than once people have claimed to see a man in all white on Hangar 43’s catwalk.  Dubbed the “Commander,” his purported sightings have caused some to question whether or not Webster still walks at the site of the Olathe Naval Air Station.

The Naval Air Park at New Century AirCenter

The Naval Air Park at New Century AirCenter

While the Olathe Naval Air Station was officially decommissioned in 1969, Johnson County acquired the property in 1973.  New Century AirCenter, as it is now titled, includes a business park with over 64 companies, a rail center and the airport. Also onsite is the Naval Air Park, a small park honoring 16 Navy and Marine service members who trained at the station but “did not return from deployment.” Along a winding path are street signs commemorating the names of these 16 aviators.  All lives lost continue to be honored in memory and encapsulated in lore through the present day and beyond.

See more photos and learn more about the history of the Olathe Naval Air Station from at

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library

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Flights and Phantoms, Part 1: Olathe Naval Air Station is Constructed

As a result of the United States’ involvement in World War II, the Navy felt an additional Kansas station was needed to train young flyers. So in 1941, the Olathe Naval Air Station was established. The original 640 acres included a county airport and land that had been established for the rich and elite. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, only two homes were built. Being the perfect location, papers were signed, and the land was sold.

Aerial view of the Olathe Naval Air Station Administration Building, circa 1945

Aerial view of the Olathe Naval Air Station Administration Building, circa 1945

In 1942, the first cadets entered the basic training program. Among them was John Glenn, who would later be one of NASA’s first astronauts and a celebrated American icon. He took his first solo flight in a military plane from the Olathe base. In John Glenn: A Memoir, he mentioned his first days, “Walking around on duckboards while the construction crews finished pouring concrete for the sidewalks. … The paint was still drying in the barracks.” By November 17, 1942, Glenn and the first group of cadets left for advanced training elsewhere.

View from inside an Olathe Naval Air Station hangar in 1949.

View from inside an Olathe Naval Air Station hangar in 1949.

At first, the base only operated out of a few structures on the premise, but by 1948, it had expanded to 19 buildings. Those included were the main Administration Building and three gigantic hangars, including the infamous Hangar 43. Throughout the years there have been many testimonies of paranormal activity connected to this hangar. While numerous deaths have occurred on site, the one usually associated with hauntings  is that of a young Air Force pilot who crashed in 1949.

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library


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A Look into the Johnson County Park and Recreation District

In the early 1950s, Johnson County’s population of approximately 65,000 was concentrated in the small suburban cities in the northeast portion of the county. With an abundance of room to grow south and west, the county was primed to become one of the principal areas of growth in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Led by members of the Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club, a group of far-sighted community leaders took steps at that time to allow for the acquisition and development of park land to meet our community’s growing and future open space needs.

Realizing the importance of acquiring public park sites in advance of rapidly increasing land values and the spread of homes, apartments and commercial areas, the group approached the Kansas state legislature to create a special park district in Johnson County. As a result of their efforts, enabling legislation was passed in 1953 which would allow a district to be formed upon petition to the county by 5,000 fully qualified electors.

Observation Tower%2c Shawnee Mission Park (2)

Observation Tower at Shawnee Mission Park, circa 1980.

With the help of several parent-teacher groups and other civic minded organizations, the Sertoma Club presented 7,309 signatures on petitions to the Board of County Commissioners in November, 1954. Concurrently, special legislation was obtained from the Kansas state legislature for a ¾ mill levy for park operation and maintenance.

On January 12, 1955, the county commissioners formally created the Shawnee Mission Park District. A few weeks later, on February 7, the commissioners appointed a seven member park board to govern the district. The following year, a bond issue of $1,100,000 for land purchase and development was passed.

Fort Dodge (2)

Fort Dodge at Antioch Park, circa 1980.

The lands for Antioch Park and Shawnee Mission Park were subsequently purchased, and Antioch Park, the first to be fully developed, was dedicated on May 25, 1958. That same year a contract was let for the dam at Shawnee Mission Park, and in the summer of 1960 the park was opened to picnickers. Three years later the lake had filled and had been stocked with fish, and fishermen came by the droves when the lake was opened for fishing in the spring of 1963. The park was formally dedicated for full use in May, 1964.

One of the most important community leaders in the development of the Shawnee Mission Park District was John Barkley. A Congressional Medal of Honor winner for his services during World War I, Barkley was the first superintendent of the Shawnee Mission Park District. He served the district from its inception in 1956 until his retirement in 1963.


Portrait of John Barkley, circa 1920.

As a farmer and land owner living in Mission, Barkley had a deep love for nature and a strong desire to preserve a part of Johnson County’s open area for public use. He was responsible for touring the undeveloped countryside in search of park land, and he personally negotiated the acquisition of the 1,250 acres in Shawnee and Lenexa he helped transform into Shawnee Mission Park.

Thanks in large part to his vision and dedication, the citizens of Johnson County have one of the premier regional parks in the United States for their outdoor recreation enjoyment. Fittingly, the visitor center at the park’s entrance is named in his honor.

The Shawnee Mission Park District’s name was changed to Johnson County Park and Recreation District in 1969, and to this day it remains the only special park district in Kansas. Over the next several months you will be invited to join our current board and staff in a variety of ways as we celebrate that unique distinction and the many benefits our community enjoys because of it.

Re-printed with permission from the Johnson County Park and Recreation District website.

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90 Years of Service: The Shawnee Fire Department

Times have changed since the early days of the Shawnee Fire Department, when in 1924 a group of businessmen gathered donations from local residents to buy a truck for fire protection.  Ninety years ago, the force consisted of 20 volunteers and the truck that residents pitched in and purchased for them.  A siren on top of the station on Barton Drive in downtown Shawnee would alert the all-volunteer fire department to emergency calls.

In fact, Shawnee’s entire fire department remained an all-volunteer effort until the 1970s, when the first paid member was hired.  The volunteer program remained an important aspect of the Shawnee Fire Department until it was discontinued in 2009 due to budget cuts.

Shawnee firefighters in 1967.

The Shawnee Fire Department was still an all-volunteer force when this photo was taken in 1967.

Today the force consists of 58 firefighters and two civilian administration employees spread out across three stations.  Shawnee firefighters work what is known as the Berkeley Schedule; 24 hours on, 24 hours off in nine day rotations.  The firefighters are usually incredibly busy.  In 2013, the department responded to approximately 5,200 calls, an average of more than 14 each day.


Shawnee firefighters Mark Gomez and Brett Jensen in September 2014.

Firefighting is an extremely dangerous profession, and the men and women who serve put their lives on the line every day.  Tragically, the Shawnee Fire Department suffered the only fatality in its history in 2010 when John Glaser, a six-year veteran, died in a house fire.  Glaser’s equipment still hangs in his locker at Station 71, a tribute to a fallen comrade, and a reminder of the dangers and risks that firefighters face every day on the job.

– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum

John Glaser's locker at Station 71.

John Glaser’s locker at Station 71.

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Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant Portrait: Gayla Frazier

Working at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in northwest Johnson County was truly a family affair.  Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters all worked at the plant together.  Even those who were not related by blood talked about the family atmosphere at Sunflower throughout the years.  Gayla Frazier represents the third generation of her family who worked at Sunflower.  The Gardner native worked at Sunflower from 1965-1973, and from 1975-2002.  Frazier started out as a clerk typist and rose to become the only female plant manager in Sunflower history.  Frazier held that position for four years until she retired.

Gayla Frazier in 1972.

Gayla Frazier in 1972.

Frazier’s grandfather worked as a laborer and helped build Sunflower during World War II.  She said her grandfather told great stories about building the plant, and the thing he remembered most was the mud; “rain or shine they would be out working.”  As the war progressed, the rocket powder produced at Sunflower became a crucial element in the Allied war strategy.  Construction continued throughout the war, and Sunflower workers played an important role and helped the Allied forces win World War II.

Construction at Sunflower in January 1944.

Construction at Sunflower, January 1944.

Frazier’s father, Elden Lovelett, worked at the plant from 1951-1986 and in his later years served as Chief of the Sunflower Fire Department.  Frazier also had two uncles and a great aunt who worked at the plant.  Frazier recounted how her great aunt told her that she used to smuggle matches and cigarettes into Sunflower inside her sandwiches to avoid security measures.  Smoking was strictly prohibited because of the risk of explosion, and cigarettes and matches were considered contraband.

Sunflower Fire Department, 1967.

Sunflower Fire Department, 1967.

Frazier looks back fondly on her time at Sunflower.  Her fondest memory of the plant?  “The people I met.”  She still attends a monthly breakfast with former co-workers and keeps in touch with others by phone and email.  Sunflower produced millions of pounds of rocket powder for nearly five decades, but perhaps more importantly the plant fostered a family atmosphere, literally and figuratively.

The quotes included in this article are part of a formal oral history collected by the Johnson County Museum that is accessible in our archives.  The Museum conducts oral history interviews with local residents in an effort to capture firsthand accounts and stories from the past.  Gayla Frazier’s interview was one of more than a dozen conducted by Museum staff in 2013 to gain more information about the history of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.  The material was used to inform an exhibit created for the Museum entitled “Citizen Soldiers on the Prairie.”  The exhibit is on display until August 23.

– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum

Sunflower workers in 1954.

Sunflower workers, 1954.

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Read the (old) news at JoCoHistory

We’ve been adding substantially to JoCoHistory’s online collections, particularly in the Johnson County Museum collection. Our newest additions are newspapers from Shawnee and Merriam, dating back as early as 1955.

Newspapers available at JoCoHistory

Newspapers available at JoCoHistory

The Shawnee Crier was a short-lived newspaper first published in February 1977. We’ve added two digitized issues which feature election coverage and announcements of an upcoming Old Shawnee Days celebration.

The Shawnee Crier - June 1, 1977. Vol 1, No 5

The Shawnee Crier – June 1, 1977. Vol 1, No 5

The Johnson County Leader was primarily a Merriam newspaper and had a considerable focus on local political issues. There are currently 20 issues available to browse online, covering July 1955 to May 1958.

Johnson County Leader - Nov 1, 1956. Vol 2, No 11

Johnson County Leader – Nov 1, 1956. Vol 2, No 11

Johnson County Leader - Aug 5, 1955. Vol 1, No 4

Johnson County Leader – Aug 5, 1955. Vol 1, No 4

The newspapers were scanned and uploaded at full resolution, so even the tiniest newsprint can be read online.

Johnson County Leader - July 1, 1955. Vol 1, No 2

Johnson County Leader – July 1, 1955. Vol 1, No 2

Take a look at all of the new/old news at

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The Squire: Local Politics, Events, Fashion & Advertising in the 60s & 70s

Did you know that JoCoHistory has several years’ worth of digitized local newspapers? The Squire, also published as The Village Squire and The Country Squire, covered stories of interest to residents of “new southwest Kansas City”, including Johnson County. It’s a wonderful glimpse into local politics, community events, fashion and advertising in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some of our favorite images from various issues of The Squire:

“What the Experts Think About This Leash Law Thing”, front page of The Country Squire, Aug. 24, 1961

“Happiness is going to kindergarten…” front page of The Country Squire, Oct. 7, 1965

“It’s Football Time at Center High” front page of The Country Squire, Sept. 9, 1965

Montgomery Ward’s Department Store Father’s Day advertisement, The Village Squire, page 11, June 13, 1963

“Improbable Predictions” page 8 of The Country Squire, Jan. 23, 1969

Movie advertisements in The Country Squire, page 38, Oct. 31, 1968

Movie advertisements in The Country Squire, page 9, Sept. 9, 1971

We’d love to hear if you’ve ever come across an article or image that’s caught your eye in The Squire!  All of the issues can be found at

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De Soto: 1942 Boom Town

When construction began on the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in 1942, workers from all over the Midwest flocked to Johnson County to work at the plant.  The town of De Soto changed dramatically.  Trailers and tents popped up all over town due to a housing shortage.

De Soto residents rented out spare rooms, garages, and even chicken coops to Sunflower workers.  De Soto’s population grew over 350% during the 1940s.  The federal government eventually responded to the housing shortage by building Sunflower Village, a housing project located across old Kansas Highway 10 from the plant.  Sunflower Village housed 6,000 workers at its peak.  Today it is known as Clearview City.

The Johnson County Museum’s newest exhibit, “Citizen Soldiers on the Prairie,” explores the history of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant and the impact it had on Johnson County.  The exhibit is on display until August 2014.

– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum

De Soto, November 1942

De Soto, November 1942


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WWII Women’s war poster

Take a look at this compelling image featuring two World War II era women.


This striking photograph was utilized for a poster of some sort, most likely an enticement for women to help with the War effort. A close inspection of the seated woman reveals the last name “Herndon” and possibly the first initial “N.” The photograph’s donor was Commander of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.

If you have more information about this photo, leave a comment below.

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