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.
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.
Johnson County runs counter to the narrative of Kansas as a unanimously anti-slavery state and was a vital voice in pro-slavery activism in the 1850s. Johnson County’s namesake, Reverend Thomas Johnson, helped legalize slavery in Kansas Territory in 1855, after having illegally enslaved people in the Shawnee Mission area since the 1830s. He served as president over what is now commonly referred to as “The Bogus Legislature” because it was fraudulently elected by pro-slavery Missourians crossing the border to cast illegal ballots. After legalizing slavery, the legislature passed “An Act to Punish Offenses Against Slave Property” which called for the death penalty for any free person who helped enslaved people escape from, or revolt against, their enslavers.
Under this statute, expressing certain anti-slavery beliefs became a felony, punishable by “imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.” This, being a blatant violation of the first amendment, contributed to the outrage among the free state population. However, no one was ever prosecuted for the crimes laid out in this section, and the act was repealed in October of 1857 with the first elected free-state legislature.
Most enslavers on the Kansas-Missouri border operated on a small scale, enslaving fewer than twenty people. Despite operating on a small scale, enslavers in this region still enjoyed a heightened status, holding a disproportionate amount of wealth and political power. On the other hand, small-scale slaveholding presented extra hazards for the enslaved people. Those enslaved on smaller holdings were subjected to longer work hours and an increased likelihood of experiencing physical or sexual violence. They also struggled to form or access a community of their peers. Each enslaved community was an important source of physical and psychological support. To counter familial disruption caused by the slave trade and high mortality rates, enslaved people were known to informally adopt children who needed caretakers. When a community member was at risk of being punished due to decreased working speed, especially when this decrease was due to illness or pregnancy, their peers might secretly take on some of their work in an effort to protect them. The community preserved and created cultural practices that helped enslaved people cope with the violence and exploitation endemic to their condition. The enslaved community also planned and executed acts of resistance. Those who lacked consistent access to a supportive community were particularly vulnerable.
Small slave holdings also created separation between married couples. Most marriages between enslaved people in this region were “abroad,” meaning the husband was enslaved by a different person than the wife. Typically, the husband would get permission to spend Saturday evening and Sunday at his wife’s residence, though this privilege was always under threat of being revoked. The practice of “hiring out”—in which an enslaver contracted out the labor of an enslaved person to a third party— created familial and communal separations as well. But both arrangements also contributed to the silver lining of small-scale slaveholding for enslaved people: increased mobility. Enslaved people’s knowledge of the surrounding area, including knowledge of Kansas settlements with abolitionist leanings, aided enslaved people in their attempts to reach freedom.
The end of slavery in Kansas came with its admission to the union as a free state in 1861. By this time, Thomas Johnson and most other Kansas enslavers had already retreated to Missouri. However, Kansas’s proximity to Missouri gave the state a role to play in the story of emancipation throughout the Civil War. Just as pro-slavery activists had feared, Kansas becoming a free state emboldened enslaved Missourians, who had already been fleeing across the state line for years. Enslaved people, in this region and across the country, took advantage of the wartime chaos to make their bids for freedom, wherever they might find it.
The mobility that characterized this region continued to be vital after the end of the war. Slavery was abolished with the intent that freed people would stay with those who had enslaved them, now as paid employees. This was problematic for several reasons, the most pressing of which being that it called for freed people to remain economically dependent on those who had enacted endless amounts of physical, sexual, and psychological violence against them. It expected them to stay with people who may have sold away their loved ones, with people whose callousness and greed made the child mortality rate for enslaved children double that of their non-enslaved counterparts. Former enslavers constructed systems of debt-peonage that aimed to continue their exploitation, despite the abolishment of slavery. Under these circumstances, having the resources to leave former enslavers could make all the difference.
Between 1860 and 1870, Missouri’s western counties lost a fourth of their Black population. Most of those coming to Kansas were seeking homesteading farmland, and by the 1880s Johnson County had more than 900 Black residents. Some, like Olathe small business owner David Page, were able to find success despite a former status of enslavement. While migrating to Kansas may have spared a freed person the common and disheartening fate of being trapped with their former enslaver, it was not a guarantee of economic prosperity. Freed people who managed to escape the agricultural industry still risked being pushed into occupations that paid subsistence wages. The majority of Black Johnson Countians during this era worked in the service industry. Free state views did not directly translate into a desire to treat Black people as equals. The woefully underfunded Freedmen’s Bureau was not equipped to meet the needs of the newly freed population. The threat of racial violence was omnipresent. Freed people looking to heal from the brutality of slavery and create a new life for themselves found no shortage of obstacles stacked in their way.
Under slavery, the threat of being separated from loved ones was pervasive and all-consuming. Enslaved people could be sold, or even given away as gifts for any reason. This was typically done without warning, because the threat of sale was one of the most common reasons enslaved people cited for attempting to run away. Enslaved people were at the mercy of their enslavers– many of whom claimed to believe separating enslaved families was no different than separating families of livestock. Even enslavers who expressed distaste at the idea of separating loved ones often chose their economic interests over any moral concerns. With the end of the Civil War came new hope for those who had lost family to the domestic slave trade. Freed people began to look for their missing loved ones, and newspaper advertisements became a common way to search for information. The following is one such ad from Johnson County Resident Braxton Mitchell, published in 1902, thirty-seven years after end of the civil war:
Braxton’s inability to recollect all his siblings by name alludes to the effects of familial disruption and reproductive exploitation on the enslaved family. This next advertisement, placed by Lawrence resident Cynthia Scruggs in 1878 gives us a personal glimpse into the legacy of Reverend Thomas Johnson.
Cynthia Scruggs knew the name of the man who had taken her children from her. She even knew that he was dead— but she, and others like her, typically had no way to know whether their own absent loved ones were still alive. Cynthia’s attempt to find her daughters after over seventeen years of separation shows not only her love, but also her ability to maintain some degree of hope in the face of lifelong trauma. Regrettably, the dismemberment of the domestic slave trade was often too extensive to be mitigated by the actions of individuals. It can be assumed that the vast majority of these ads, and the other attempts freed people made to reunite, were unsuccessful. These advertisements created a record of what was taken from the enslaved. They reasserted freed people’s humanity and the value of their familial bonds. But most of the time, they did not serve their original purpose. Offices of the Freedmen’s Bureau were overwhelmed with letters from people seeking information about their loved ones. There was clearly a demand for more government resources to be allocated to the task of reuniting families, but those resources were never provided. Some newspapers allowed freed people to place these ads for free, but the success of a newspaper ad was reliant upon extraordinary luck.
Slavery, while universally abhorrent, varied in the characteristics of its brutality across region, time period, and each individual’s unique circumstances. The story of emancipation on the Kansas-Missouri border is quite different from the experiences of those in Texas, as described in Juneteenth’s origin story. It is important not to fixate solely on that one image of a Union General in Galveston, standing on a balcony and announcing to the crowd below that the government had decided to grant them freedom. It is equally important not to think only of those, like the individuals who fled to Kansas, who were able to free themselves. The end of slavery was not one announcement, or one decision to run. It exists in countless different versions, in the testimonies recorded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, in oral histories, in written accounts.
The abolishment of slavery was followed by a flood of weddings in the Black community. To fully appreciate what that fact means, we must first think about the reality of marriage under slavery– that it came with no legal protection or acknowledgement and was subject to the enslaver’s will alone. We must think about those who were married off against their will, of those who risked punishment by continuing to see the partner of their choosing against their enslaver’s wishes, of those loving couples who did get permission to marry and then lived with the fear that their partner could be taken away at any moment. After doing so, we can return to the initial statement with a deeper understanding. The abolishment of slavery was followed by a flood of marriages in the Black community. A marriage certificate documented and symbolically legitimized the bonds between freed people, who previously lived with constant uncertainty. In appreciating their burdens, we appreciate the complex emotions they must have felt when those burdens finally began to be lifted.
Driving around Shawnee, you may find yourself near the corner of 60th and Neiman. If you look East around that corner, you might see a two-story house with pyramidal roof about halfway down the block. This humble building once served as the Territorial Governor’s Mansion for one of the most controversial leaders in Kansas’s early years. I am writing of the first Territorial Governor, Andrew Horatio Reeder.
When the Territory of Kansas was created by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the bill gave the duty of appointing the Territorial Governor to President Franklin Pierce. A Democrat from New Hampshire and staunch anti-abolitionist, his choice of Governor was Andrew Reeder. A fellow northern Democrat and supporter of state sovereignty, Reeder was the safe pick for a president trying to keep the country together against a growing tension by keeping a balance of slave and free states.
Arriving in Kansas Territory in October 1854, Reeder’s first test as Governor came the following spring with the election of a Territorial Legislature. As results came in from the March 30 election, it was clear that some of the districts had been the target of ballot box stuffing by pro-slavery Missourians. Angered by the infringement on the sovereignty of his territory, Reeder chose to throw out the results from those districts and have their citizens re-vote on May 22, 1855. Although he faced some backlash over the decision, the worst was yet to come.
Fearing further pressure from Missouri, Reeder established the territorial capital in Pawnee, a town 100 miles west of the border. This also earned him criticism, as Reeder owned a great deal of land in Pawnee, and the move was seen by some as a blatant maneuver to line his own pockets through land speculation. This debate over the real reason for moving the capital is unsettled, but in either case Pawnee’s status as the capital was short lived.
When legislators arrived on July 2, 1855, there was immediate conflict between those elected in May and those from March, the latter showing up claiming to be the rightfully elected representatives despite the evidence of voter fraud. The pro-slavery slate of legislators forced off the free-staters, and their first act was a vote to move the capital to Shawnee Mission. Reeder attempted a veto but was overridden and after only 5 days as the territorial capital, Pawnee was abandoned by the legislature.
Reconvening on July 17, the legislature and the governor found themselves again at odds. Reeder had lost all patience for what history now calls the “Bogus Legislature.” When word traveled back to President Pierce that his appointed Governor for the territory was actively opposing the legislature, he removed Reeder from office. Having made a number of enemies in the territory and the neighboring Missouri, Reeder spent a year in hiding with free-state allies in Lawrence. In 1856, the former governor fled back to his home in Pennsylvania disguised as a woodcutter.
Reeder’s time in Kansas seems to have changed his political leanings. On his return to Pennsylvania, he became an active member of the new Republican party, reaching notoriety as a nominee for the vice-president in the 1860 presidential election. Reeder passed away on July 5, 1864 in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Spring is a busy season for many as they cultivate their gardens with the hope of seeing blooming dividends. One organization dedicated to the pursuit of gardening is the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs. At one time, more than seventy-five individual garden clubs belonged to the KAGC.
In 1926, a garden club in Emporia, Kansas was formed and became the founding member of the Kansas Association Garden Clubs. Six years later, the Emporia group joined the National Garden Club, Inc. In the next several decades, several groups throughout the Midwest joined the KAGC. The Kansas groups were broken into districts based on their location: East Central, Mid East, North Central, Northeast, Northwest, South Central, Southeast, and Southwest.
One of the many highlights from the KAGC is the annual garden shows that take place among the various groups. The Johnson County Museum houses several artifacts and photographs from various garden shows, particularly those of the East Central District. I was able to speak with KAGC historian Sheila Miller on the history of garden clubs in Kansas and several of their traditions.
Sheila Miller has spent decades with the Kansas Garden Clubs and belongs to the Bonner Springs Group. The group in Bonner Springs joined the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs in 1960, and Sheila joined in 1964 after getting a recommendation from a friend. Being new to the community at the time, she saw joining the group as an opportunity to get to know her fellow gardeners. For the past seven years, Sheila has worked diligently as the historian for the KAGC, preserving official documents, memorabilia, and general history of the organization. These include yearbooks from the different Kansas clubs, which can provide inspiration for club members. Some of the fond memories include working together on projects, visiting nursing homes, planting flowers at Kelly Murphy Park, and other gardening events (like the yearly garden shows).
The annual garden shows are intended to educate the members and community about various gardening techniques and showcase the plants and flowers that are on display. Members have the opportunity to show off ‘the very best of their garden’. It takes a great deal of careful planning and preparation to be able to enter the show.
The majority of the flower shows are open to the public, with family and friends of the members coming to show their support and learn a little bit about gardening in the process.
While there may not be monetary prizes involved with winning at a local garden show, there is a great deal of pride and honor that goes with the title. Ribbons are given out to the winner in each group. The JoCoHistory Collection houses over 40,000 historical photographs and maps, including many garden exhibits and flower gardens.
The Kansas Associated Garden Clubs has gone through many changes over the past several years. There are currently nine local Kansas gardening clubs that fit under the KAGC banner, and the impact of the 2020 pandemic has forced groups to meet virtually for the time being. The Bonner Springs Garden Club is one of the nine that continue to meet and discuss various garden topics including horticulture, health and environmental issues, and participation in projects for the benefit of the local community. Though the club may seem different, their goal of beautification and education remains the same.
-Heather McCartin, Johnson County Library
Author note: The author offers her deepest gratitude to historian Sheila Miller for her cooperation and knowledge of the Kansas Associated Garden Clubs.
If you’ve lived in the Kansas City area at any point in the last forty years, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard Roberta Solomon’s voice. She has had a prolific radio, news, and voiceover career, and has long been the sponsorship voice of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network. I spoke with her on the phone in July, and when she switched into character and said, “This Chiefs broadcast is brought to you by…” I instantly recognized her.
However, there is one role of Roberta’s that is perhaps even more iconic than that, especially if you were here in the 1980s and liked staying up past your bedtime. From late 1982 to early 1990, Roberta played Crematia Mortem, the “Ghostess with the Mostess” hostess of KSHB-TV 41’s “Creature Feature.” Every week, late at night on Saturday (or Friday, for a while), Crematia and her cohorts would welcome viewers into her spooky mansion’s living room, decorated with spiderwebs, skulls, and half-spent candelabras. She would emerge from her coffin in classic vampy makeup and attire (think Vampira or Morticia Addams), and take a seat in her massive wicker throne while cracking jokes and setting up the night’s film selection. A classic horror or science-fiction film would play, and Crematia would pop back in around the commercial breaks with a little film commentary or other antics.
It’s all from an era of television that seems very distant, quaint, and practically inexplicable to a person only familiar with today’s entertainment landscape, but it’s not at all forgotten. Here’s how it happened.
“I started out on the radio in Kansas City in 1979,” Roberta told me. She began her showbiz career with a short stint on KCUR 89.3 FM, an NPR station. Soon after, she was hired as the evening announcer working from seven to midnight on KMBR 99.7 FM, which was an old-style easy listening station at the time. While there, she worked across the hall from Walt Bodine – a Kansas City broadcasting legend who was doing the “Walt Bodine Show” on KMBZ 980 AM and was known as “The Dean of Kansas City Radio.”
Rob Forsythe was the Creative Services Manager at KSHB-TV 41, an independent channel that had recently been bought by Scripps-Howard Broadcasting. The channel was mostly airing sitcom reruns, movies, sports, and some local programming. One of their local shows featured Walt traveling around Kansas City and exploring items of interest, and through their work together on that show Walt and Rob had become good friends.
“In early 1982,” Roberta recalled, “Rob dropped by the station one night to hang with Walt, and popped into the KMBR studio to say, ‘Hi.’ At that time, I was completing my degree in Communications Studies at UMKC, and Rob suggested that I come in to audition for ‘All Night Live.’ I had no experience on camera other than what I’d done in my TV classes at UMKC. But just for the sake of the experience, I said yes.”
“All Night Live” was a popular, long-running show on KSHB hosted by Ed “Uncle Ed” Muscare that aired from 10 PM to about 1 AM on weeknights. Each night, Ed (along with his cat, Caffeina) would host his way through a variety of sitcoms and westerns or episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and then play a movie. He started his show with the All Night Live creed and some jokes and banter, and then came back in around commercial breaks doing running bits or talking to characters (that he voiced) on his “bananaphone” (a plastic banana).
It was low-budget fun, and it was a hit with Kansas City viewers. The show was such a success that KSHB wanted to add in Saturday, expanding it to six nights a week. “But Ed didn’t want to host the show six nights a week,” says Roberta, “so KSHB announced they were going to hold auditions.”
“I decided that since Ed voiced all these oddball characters during the week, I’d carry that theme into the weekend show with a strange little circus of my own,” Roberta explained. “But instead of just voicing them, I’d appear on camera as the characters. One of the characters I created was this Country Western singer named Minnie, modeled vaguely after Dolly Parton. When I went to audition for All Night Live, I showed up at the studio in a big blonde wig dressed as Minnie. The setup was that Minnie was there to audition for a TV talent show, but had inadvertently wandered into the wrong studio. I sat down on the set, looked into the camera, introduced myself, and started babbling about my boyfriend Duane Lee, and the restaurant I worked at ‘that used to be a garage and had this salad bar made out of a hollered-out ’57 Chevy.’ Then I sang a song I wrote about truck drivers, and at the end of the bit, pulled my wig off and said ‘I’m Roberta Solomon, and Minnie is just one of the characters I’ll be playing on Saturday’s “All Night Live.”’ I could hear the TV crew laughing in the booth, and I was absolutely mortified because I thought I’d just made a complete fool out of myself.” However, “The next day, they called to tell me I got the job.”
Starting in March of 1982, Roberta hosted Saturday’s “All Night Live” under the name Sally Roberts. She was using her real name on her radio show, and chose a pseudonym for KSHB just to avoid any potential conflicts. (“Roberta Solomon” was listed as a producer, however.) On “All Night Live” she appeared as many different characters such as her own mother, Minnie, and a roller derby queen named Wheels Butcherelli. She hosted episodes of Tarzan, some sitcoms, and a monster movie each week. Sometimes she took calls from viewers, but other times she would just do any kind of shtick related to the night’s programming. She remembers the show going from about 10:30 or 11 PM until 1:30 or 2 AM.
“After about eight months, the director called me into her office and said, ‘We like the comedy bits you’re doing, but they don’t have anything to do with the movies we’re showing. We’d like to retool the show and turn it into a ‘Creature Feature.’ Would you like to create a new character to host the show?’ I said yes, and decided immediately to call her Crematia. Walt Bodine came up with her last name, Mortem.”
Horror hosting on television begins with Maila Nurmi’s short-lived but tremendously influential “The Vampira Show” (1954-1955), which only ever aired in the Los Angeles area. Every week, the spooky and sensually severe-looking Vampira would greet viewers from her macabre abode, make some gloomy jokes, and introduce a horror film. Vampira was a hit and she briefly became a huge national celebrity, but unfortunately her show ended after less than a year due to clashes between Nurmi and the station.
Nevertheless, similar horror hosts began popping up on stations all over the country. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (and some even after that), there were dozens if not hundreds of locally made TV shows broadcast on stations all over the country where a host would introduce a horror or sci-fi movie, sometimes also popping in at the commercial breaks or at the end of the film. The movie selection generally revolved around classic horror (like the Universal monster movies of the 1930s-50s), lesser-known and/or international horror from that same era, 1950s science fiction films, and Japanese “kaiju” films (their classic giant monster movies).
Roberta is originally from the St. Louis area, and doesn’t remember watching any local horror hosts as a kid, but she did regularly enjoy sci-fi movies like “The Day of the Triffids” and “Mothra” on St. Louis’s first UHF channel, KDNL-TV 30. She says that she wasn’t much of a horror fan until she got into her own Creature Feature years as Crematia and wound up watching them every week, however she does remember spending time one summer making audio-only monster movies onto a cassette with a friend.
Rob Forsythe, on the other hand, was a Kansas City native and was more familiar with the local horror host tradition Crematia carried on. He cites Gregory Grave (played by Harvey Brunswick), the host of “Shock!” on KMBC-TV 9, as a particularly great local host. “When I was a little kid in grade school, he was fantastic. He would mug for the camera in the best way possible. Think of Ernie Kovacs, if you know anything about Ernie Kovacs. Gregory Grave could pull that stuff off, and they had a great crew over at Channel 9, and I just loved watching those shows. Even if it was too darn late for me to stay up, I stayed up anyway.”
Grave opened every show with, “Good evening, fright fiends,” and made jokes and sometimes interacted with puppets before introducing the movies. In her book “Television Horror Movie Hosts,” Elena Watson describes Grave as “a zombielike fiend with disheveled hair and large black rings around his eyes.” From what I could find in the Kansas City Star, Brunswick appears to have played the character for about four years from the late 1950s into the early-or-mid-1960s, both on “Shock!” and, later, “Chiller” before eventually moving onto a career in retail at Metcalf South Mall.
Watson’s book also mentions Kansas City’s other earliest horror host, Marilyn the Witch (played by local theater actress Dolores “Dodo” Denny), who hosted “The Witching Hour” on KCMO-TV 5. “Marilyn seems to have been a rather traditional-looking witch caricature, sporting long gray hair, a sharp pointed chin, and a black cape and peaked hat.” From what I could gather, “The Witching Hour” was a five-minute show that played at 12:30 AM following a late-night movie several nights each week. It preceded a five-minute news update and then another movie. “The Witching Hour” appears to have only lasted for a year or a year-and-a-half between 1958 and 1959.
In the mid-1960s, Penny Dreadful (Rose Marie Earp) hosted “Son of Chiller” for a few years on KMBC-TV 9. Roberta mentioned that they actually reached out to Earp during the 1980s to see if she wanted to do a guest appearance on Creature Feature, but she was not interested.
At various points in the 1970s and early 1980s, local viewers looking for something spooky could catch “Murphy’s Monstrous Movies” or “Friday Fright Night” on KCMO-TV 5, hosted respectively by Mike “Murphy” Hervey and Hugh “Hughy the Ghoul” Bowen. Around that same time, the aforementioned Ed Muscare of “All Night Live” would occasionally put on some makeup and become The Creeper, Edmus Scary, or Mr. Mummy on KSHB-TV 41 for a particularly spooky film. Which brings us back to Crematia.
“On my last night hosting ‘All Night Live’ as Sally Roberts,” Roberta remembers, “I told the audience ‘My time as your host has come to an end. I’ve been let go, and next week you’ll have a new host. I have no idea who she is… I guess they just dug her up somewhere.”
To prepare for the transition into Creature Feature, Roberta and her small team at KSHB-TV 41 took some time to come up with a new logo and some visuals. They went to garage sales and thrift stores with a tiny budget and came back with furniture and décor for the set, including the distinctive wicker chair. Once it was put together, the set took up a small corner of the studio, and although Roberta isn’t completely sure, she thinks it stayed put from week to week and wasn’t taken down or moved much throughout the show’s run. (I liked picturing this little spooky corner of the otherwise normal TV studio just sitting there innocuously on a Wednesday morning.)
Regarding Crematia’s set, for the first few months it did not include her coffin. Then one night Roberta came home and her then-husband told her there was a surprise waiting for her in the living room. She went in to see what it was and found a coffin that he had obtained from a friend, who was the chaplain at the Federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, where they apparently had an extra coffin. They took it over to Channel 41, and the next week the crew chained it up in the corner of the studio, and that was Crematia’s casket, which she came out of for the rest of the show’s run. (Coincidentally, Crematia got a lot of fan mail from Leavenworth over the years.)
Crematia’s look was mostly up to Roberta. “I wanted her to look like she had stepped out of an Edward Gorey drawing,” she says. She bought a long black wig at Wild Woody’s in Independence, a negligee at Macy’s or Kmart, a corset from Frederick’s of Hollywood, and she was set.
One week after Sally Roberts signed off in November of 1982, Creature Feature premiered, beginning a non-stop weekly run that lasted until January of 1990, and introducing Kansas City to Crematia Mortem. Roberta doesn’t remember which film was Crematia’s first, but if old Star TVs from 1982 can be trusted it was either “The Amazing Transparent Man,” “Crypt of the Living Dead,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Wasp Woman,” or “The Death Curse of Tartu.”
“When we first started doing the Creature Feature, the show was taped,” Roberta remembers. “I’d come in on Tuesday afternoon and screen that week’s film on a Moviola. The editors had already cut the film into sections, so I could see what was happening leading up to or after a commercial break. I’d create a general outline of the film and jot down any ideas that popped into mind.”
Then she would sit down with the Creature Feature’s director Steve Fritts and they would map out the show. Rob Forsythe (who I should mention also did the theme song for the show) was generally also in on the planning sessions. The three of them would spend about an hour loosely planning what Crematia was going to do or say around the commercial breaks. Rob said that he remembers a lot of laughing and a lot of coffee drinking during these sessions.
Steve said it was something he looked forward to every week. “Creature Feature was a chance to just have flat out fun with what was going on. And we oddly developed quite a following, which was kind of amazing.”
There were recurring features like Crematia’s Horrorscopes, but mostly it was humorous or light-hearted commentary relating to whatever was going on in the movie at that particular break.
“We had one, for example, where the monster was a crawling hand,” Steve recounted. “So, we got a plastic hand and had a string on it, and it’d be crawling across the set and stuff… and then finally she nailed it to the coffee table so it wouldn’t crawl around. You know, we just tried to work off whatever was going on.”
“Roberta, her character Crematia,” Rob Forsythe said, “would always be a bit confused in regards to what the movie was actually about. She would make assumptions based on the title, or assumptions based on certain scenes, and she would then sort of mistakenly blunder into an associated situation based on the film that they were running.”
In addition to movie-based bits, if there was a holiday coming up or something big going on in the Kansas City area, they would try to work that into the episode. One example of some local humor that Steve remembered came from July of 1983, when George Brett was accused of putting too much pine tar on his bat. That week, Crematia found that she had also put too much pine tar on her bat… of course, her bat was a little different than George’s.
After planning on Tuesdays, and maybe making or preparing some props on Wednesdays, they recorded on Thursdays.
Roberta was still working at the radio station during Creature Feature’s run, but she had switched to the morning show. This meant that on Thursdays she would get to the radio station at 4:30 AM to do the morning and/or the midday show, which took her up until noon. After that, she’d grab some lunch and head to the studio where she usually arrived around 12:30 or 1:00. She took an hour or so to get into costume and do her own makeup in the dressing room, and then the shoot would start around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon and take an hour or more. There were usually six to eight “drop-ins” per movie, and they were all relatively short, but it still took a little time to set up and shoot each one.
There wasn’t a script, so during the shoot Roberta worked off the notes they had prepared on Tuesday. “Roberta was so doggone good at it,” Rob told me with admiration. He said that even when she made a mistake, she would usually breeze right on through it and turn it into something even funnier than the original idea. He said he always had to stand way in the back of the studio in case he started laughing, just so he wouldn’t ruin a take.
While Roberta performed, Steve was in the control room, directing the camera and audio crew in the studio. The crew was usually about five people who had worked on “AM Live” in the morning and then stayed over into the afternoon to work on Creature Feature. Sometimes the entire crew would become involved with the show in some way, coming up with ideas and bits, or, for example, pulling a hand on a string across the set.
“It was a real cooperative effort,” Steve told me. “Everybody really enjoyed doing the show.”
“Roberta was always a crack-up,” said Larry Rempe, who worked on the engineering team during the time of Creature Feature. “It was always a fun show to work on. Steve and Roberta were always so crafty in it. Her Halloween shows were always big, I can remember that.”
Steve Fritts remembered directing a Halloween special from Epperson House – an allegedly haunted mansion that’s part of UMKC. In it, local celebrities came by to visit Crematia while they were trick-or-treating: Whizzo the Clown (aka Frank Wiziarde), Colonel Billy (aka Bill Dietz, locally famous at the for starring in commercials for Boots Williams Ford and the Rockwood Smorgasbord among others), and even the Marching Cobras (Kansas City’s premiere drill team).
Roberta remembered doing a Halloween special from the Haunted Theater at Worlds of Fun, which included getting the rest of the Mortem family together for – among other things – carving a pumpkin with a chainsaw.
Roberta often tapped some of her radio and theater friends to guest on the show, and for the Worlds of Fun special she invited her good friend Katey McGuckin-Woolam from KYYS 102.1 FM (aka KY102) to play Crematia’s sister Cremora, Steve Bell from KCUR 89.3 FM to play Weird Cousin Henry (“a sort of addled scientist”), and local comedian C. Wayne Owens to play Mom. (Later in the show’s run, Katey’s husband John Woolam would play Mom.) Cremora and Cousin Henry were somewhat regular guests, and Roberta also mentioned that Andy Fogel came on the show several times to play Dr. Pete Moss, a demented inventor.
Katey and Roberta met at King Henry’s Feast, which was an “environmental dinner theater” designed to look like a 16th century English tavern, where there were kings and jesters and wenches. Roberta came in to audition, and Katey and John were so blown away by her performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that they hired her on the spot.
Soon they were good friends, and they both got into radio. At one point, Katey worked a nighttime shift at KY102 at the same time Roberta was working at her radio station, and they would call each other and chat in the down time. Eventually, Roberta became Crematia and occasionally invited Katey on to play her sister Cremora, the “substitute dairy product.”
“I am absolutely terrified of scary movies,” Katey told me. “Have been my whole life.” She could never understand how Roberta could bear to stand in a coffin on her show. Nevertheless, she watched the show every week (“Just like the rest of Kansas City! Wouldn’t miss it! It was hilarious!”), and a couple of times a year, Katey would put on a short wig, makeup, and a costume, and have a blast doing a guest appearance. “It was so much fun! I just can’t tell you how much fun we’d have.”
The duo usually started with a premise and then mostly ad-libbed their bits. Katey said they regularly had to do multiple takes because they made each other laugh so much, and so every episode she was on had to be shot ahead of time. “You couldn’t do it with the two of us without it being pre-taped.”
Describing Cremora’s character, Katey says, “As my sister [Crematia] always had the upper hand on me. I was the bad egg, and she was, of course, the good egg.”
In 1986, Crematia and company crashed a Halloween party at Longview Farm for a Halloween special. Katey was 9 months pregnant. She remembers sitting around in full makeup and flats for much of the night when they weren’t taping. Then, as they were just finishing up, she turned to John and Roberta and said, “I think I’m going into labor.”
After some brief panic and a mad dash home, the contractions subsided, and they decided not to go to the doctor until the next day. The doctor said that she probably had been in labor, and that it had stopped for some reason but there was no need to worry. Long story short, Katey’s son was born two full weeks later. (I assume that once he realized he wouldn’t be in time to make a surprise guest appearance on the show, her son decided to take a little more time to relax in the womb.)
One surviving piece of the show is the Mortem Family Rap, which was part of the Longview Farm Halloween special.
“It was a really cool time to be doing TV,” Roberta told me. When Creature Feature started, there were only a handful of stations in the Kansas City area: 4, 5, 9, 19, 41, and (by 1983) 62, and cable was in its infancy. Each station had a different “feel,” and KSHB-TV 41 was definitely “fun.”
To definitively prove that KSHB was fun in the 1980s, I will share a short email (possibly the best work email I’ve ever received) in its entirety. Roberta sent this to me after I interviewed her:
“I also just remembered something really fun. Crematia got to be big buds with a bunch of wrestlers who taped the open to their weekly matches in Kansas City at KSHB right before we taped the Creature Feature. So I’d be in the halls in my costume, and would regularly run into Bulldog Bob Brown, Handsome Harley Race, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Bob Geigel, etc. There was also an FBI program taped once a month at the station, so often the wrestlers and I would hang out in the halls with FBI agents. Good times.”
KSHB was one of the first little channels in the area that wasn’t affiliated with a network. It started in 1970, and was actually called KBMA-TV until Scripps-Howard Broadcasting (“SHB”) bought it in 1977.
“When independent television came along, that opened up more jobs to us new kids coming from college with broadcasting degrees,” Rob Forsythe explained. He started at the channel right out of college, a couple of years before Scripps-Howard bought it. At that time, the station wasn’t union, so he could do whatever there was to do, from editing videotape, to editing audio, to running the camera. “I was so happy to be doing that, just television in general at the time. Our careers paralleled a unique time in television, in that we were not locked into doing news at our station. We got to do content and as long as we kept it clean, we could do just about anything we wanted. And so we made up television as we went along.”
He said that at KSHB, the combination of having access to all of this expensive equipment and becoming well-versed in each aspect of making television allowed the employees to reach a point where they could just enjoy it. “We were having fun, and that was the key to the whole damn thing. What you saw on the air was what we were enjoying in the studio.”
“It was akin to having the internet,” he answered, when I asked what it felt like to have those resources in the 1980s, “but making more of a direct contact with the folks in the Kansas City area – and beyond that because of cable. Channel 41 was on cable all over the Midwest.”
Roberta said that because of cable, KSHB fairly quickly became a kind of “mini-superstation” that went out to more than half a dozen Midwestern states, and she thinks that’s why so many people still remember Crematia.
Humorously enough, she wasn’t even fully aware of the reach at the time. Toward the end of Crematia’s run, she went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa because a television station up there was holding auditions for a horror host, and they brought the familiar Crematia Mortem to town to record a month’s worth of bits as a “guest ghost” while they looked for their own host. She says that that’s when she realized, “There are people watching this [Crematia] in Iowa!”
I was unable to find exact ratings for the show, but Elena Watson’s book said that by the late 1980s, Crematia’s audience was usually around 60,000 people in the Kansas City area alone, not counting the cable viewers. Not bad for a late night spookshow!
Still, while KSHB had equipment and a decent-sized viewership, they weren’t exactly rolling in money, and each production was still a low-budget affair.
“Management was happy because [the show] didn’t cost them very much,” Rob Forsythe laughs. “Lord knows it didn’t cost them very much.”
Roberta said that the low-budget inspired them to get creative. As I mentioned before, Roberta pulled her friends in for guest spots when she wanted other characters on the show. On top of that she got station announcer Paul Murphy to do several off-screen characters such as Man in the Wall, Rasputin (her manservant), and Dweeb (her other manservant). Roberta always made up some backstory explaining why we never saw them, and/or why she’d had to wall them up.
They also often utilized the hilarious and talented staff in the promotions department. Along with Steve and Rob, she remembers Lonnie Dale and Martha Tamblyn as part of the “weird little creative team” that formed to throw ideas around. “As long as it didn’t cost anything, we could do them!”
Roberta explained that advertisers preferred prime time, so late night television on small stations was a special kind of a no man’s land – generally full of reruns and movies. In the 1980s, stations still commonly showed films in prime time, but they had to buy the rights to movies in packages. If you wanted a popular movie for prime time, you often wound up with some not-so-popular films packaged along with them that you would air late at night. Some of the movies might not have seemed that appealing on their own, but if you (inexpensively) threw in a charismatic host to spice up a lackluster film, you created a bit of a different experience for the viewer, and you had a good chance of drawing a few more people in, allowing your station to sell more ad time.
“They were all schlocky and I loved every one of them,” Roberta said of the films that were featured on the show, laughing. “The worse the movie was, the better I liked it.”
She particularly liked the Hammer films and the Japanese films they showed, proclaiming “‘Destroy All Monsters’ is the best movie ever made. Because that’s got all of ‘em in it!” She didn’t like the comedic monster movies as much (like the “Abbot and Costello” films where they meet various Universal monsters), because she preferred bringing humor to a movie that was otherwise serious.
However, Roberta had nothing to do with the choosing of the films or the scheduling. She was entirely at the mercy of the programming department. Generally, she would know the film schedule a month or two ahead of time, but other times she didn’t know until she went in the week of filming for her preliminary watch.
As for the Crematia segments, when they weren’t live, they were taped, and the tape cost around $100 per hour, so they usually reused it. This meant that each new Crematia episode taped over an old one. Rob says that the channel did keep some stuff, but a lot of it is trapped on inaccessible formats. These days it’s difficult to find a functioning machine that will play and transfer two-inch or three-quarter-inch tape. Add to that the fact that tapes can be delicate, shedding oxide as they play, and you have a lot of lost media.
For the first several years, the show aired on Saturday night at 10:30 PM. There were a few occasions where the show aired on a weeknight, and that was usually prompted by Halloween falling in the middle of the week, or the programming department having a special movie they could promote. For example, when “Gorilla at Large” aired, it aired on a Thursday for New Year’s Eve 1987. It was a 3-D film, so it got extra promotion, with 3-D glasses available for audiences to buy at Rax restaurants. I asked Roberta what the quality of the 3-D was like, and she said, “All I know is it gave everybody a headache.”
In January of 1986, KSHB-TV 41 moved Creature Feature to Friday night, making room for a science-fiction film on Saturday.
Roberta explained that during the day, the studios could be rented by outside clients taping commercials and other things like that. “The station wasn’t able to use the studio for commercial clients while I was taping my show, so it was decided that the ‘Creature Feature’ should be moved to Friday night… and carried live.” They renamed the show “Crematia’s Friday Nightmare,” finally giving its star top billing.
“The structure of the show didn’t change much, although we did take phone calls from viewers for a time,” Roberta said. “I didn’t feel any pressure doing the show live because we were so well prepared, but I did feel that we lost some of the ‘magic’ of the show.” She said she felt that doing it live slightly “punctured the weird little world that Crematia lived in and controlled.”
In October of 1986, KSHB became a Fox affiliate. “When we were an independent, we really had to come up with all of our own programming,” Larry Rempe of the KSHB engineering team told me. “We would have to buy or produce it ourselves. Then the Fox network started up, and we were part of the original group of stations that started the Fox network.”
Although Fox had relatively little programming in general and nothing late at night when they started, eventually programming changes caused Crematia to move back to Saturday nights (becoming “Crematia’s Nightmare”), and they started taping it ahead of time again, which Roberta was happy about.
One other thing to note is that in the fall of 1983, KEKR-TV 62 (aka KSMO-TV 62 as of 1991) started up in Kansas City. It looks like they started carrying the nationally syndicated “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” in the same timeslot as Crematia’s “Creature Feature” by the end of that year, and that Elvira eventually followed her to Friday too. Nevertheless, Roberta says that Crematia’s ratings were consistently higher than the competition, in part because KSHB was carried on cable in multiple states.
Steve Fritts confirmed that the ratings were solid, especially when one considered that the show aired on a relatively little station in the middle of the night. “Management and sales were very pleased with us.” Rob Forsythe also mentioned that the show got a lot of support from the sales department, programming, and management, which they greatly appreciated.
“Crematia was also popular in Kansas City because she was local,” Roberta said. “She popped up in appearances all over town, especially around Halloween, and the show’s contests all involved local viewers. Crematia’s fans were loyal. In addition, we decided early on that Crematia would be a ‘family friendly’ host, and I think that helped our ratings because so many families watched the show together.”
“In the minds of a lot of Kansas Citians, that still is a huge part of their childhood,” Katey McGuckin-Woolam told me. She remembers hearing about young fans of the show who would have birthday parties or sleepovers and their parents would let them watch the Creature Feature. “It was comfortable for a mom to let kids watch it. And I think that that’s what made it so popular. Not only with kids but for adults too.”
She went on to say that one of the nice things about the show was that the movies were never very scary, and were generally from a tamer era. “The whole family could watch it, and you knew that your kid would not wake up in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder,” she said with a laugh.
“I took that really seriously,” Roberta continued. “We made a decision. We had a number of conversations about this and we made a decision early on that the Creature Feature was going to be family friendly. ‘Family friendly’ wasn’t even really a term then, but we just decided it. I knew that there were a bunch of little kids, and it was so cool because it was moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas and big brothers and sisters and babysitters who were sitting down together on a Saturday night to watch this monster movie, and it was a family thing that they did.”
“And some kids were watching alone in their room under the covers, you know. And I always wanted to be the one who reminded them that, ‘It’s not really scary, if you look really hard, you’ll see that the monster ran off behind a bush, and then the next thing, he came out from behind a car!’ You know? So, I would try to point out things that were incongruencies in the film, or why it wasn’t necessarily so scary, or I’d weave tales about the monster. And none of the movies that we played were really scary scary scary.”
“Actually, that was one of the reasons why I decided it was time to end the show because it started to be that horror moved into slasher films, you know, and [films] that were really scary and creepy and awful. And I didn’t like those films. It wasn’t like a creature feature anymore. It was like scary horror. The genre changed. Or a new genre came to be, and it was not something that was going to be easy for little kids to watch.”
On top of that, “as KSHB’s commitment to programming from Fox grew, the show kept getting pushed back later and later. Because of that, the audience started to change. The most delightful thing to me was that so many families had watched the show together, and that wasn’t possible if the show didn’t air until midnight. So, after 8 years, I decided it was time for Crematia to disappear into her coffin. My last show aired in January, 1990.”
Toward the end of my conversation with Larry Rempe, I asked him if there was anything else he remembered about the days of Creature Feature. “It had a following,” he told me. “It was a cult following almost.” He paused, then added with fondness: “We had a lot of crazy people watching back then.”
“One year when Scripps-Howard bought us,” Steve Fritts told me, “the Scripps-Howard logo is a lighthouse, and so on St. Patrick’s Day the station made a lighthouse float to go down the parade route. Well, Crematia told all her viewers that whenever the float went by, they should put their hands out in front of them like a lighthouse beam and say, ‘A-ooga!’ And all up and down the parade route people were going ‘a-ooga’ to the big float. So we got a good response!”
“We got a tremendous amount of direct response from the audience,” Rob Forsythe said. “Letters and phone calls and so forth.”
Roberta remembered the show getting tons of fan mail. She tried to respond to as much of it as she could, and read a fan letter on the air almost every week. Sometimes they held contests for viewers to write their own opening to the show, like a scary poem or something along those lines, and the winning entry would become the show’s opening for a month or two before returning to the regular one. They also got a lot of mail when they ran trivia contests, where viewers could answer a question about the night’s movie for a chance to win t-shirts or promotional materials, like Crematia Christmas ornaments. (Speaking of ornaments, there was once a contest where viewers could mail in scary Christmas ornaments they’d made, and the winners’ ornaments were featured on the show.)
Every year around Halloween they had scary story contests where hundreds of kids sent in scary stories they had written and different age groups won different prizes. The grand prize winner got a night on the town with none other than Crematia Mortem.
Roberta said that the contest winner would show up at the station with a parent or guardian, and they would get a tour of the set and maybe tape a promo with Crematia. Then they would go grab dinner at McDonald’s or someplace like that in a rented limo. Next, the limo would take them around to a few of the different haunted houses in downtown Kansas City – longtime haunted house capital of the world – where they got to cut to the front of the line. Roberta/Crematia and her crew didn’t go through every haunted house with the winner, but she remembers going through several. And they didn’t tape it for television, they all just went out and had a fun night.
One winner in particular stuck out in her memory. She said he looked a little like Larry Mondello from “Leave it to Beaver,” and brought his dad and a friend with him. They were driving down Ward Parkway in a limo that had a car phone (a rarity for the time) and a sunroof. The boy called his mom from the car, and – during the call – stood up, stuck his head out of the sunroof, and yelled, “This is the best night of my life!!!”
Another young Crematia fan was not quite as lucky. He was about ten or eleven years old, as Roberta remembers it, and he had created a big papier-mâché monster costume – so big that he was standing on small stilts inside of it. They found out about him somehow, and had him come onto the show as a guest. They premised the whole episode around him, and the bit was going to be that Crematia saw him and fell madly in love with him. During the taping (fortunately this was not a live episode), they began to play swelling romantic music, and the monster started to move toward her. As the boy walked toward Crematia, “somehow his foot got caught on the rug, and he started to fall over, but because he was so big he fell over like in slow-motion. He landed with a thud, this giant thing on the floor. And a big poof of dust came out of his head, and then from inside I hear this little kid going, ‘Can somebody get me out of here, please?’” Roberta laughed with conflicted, sympathetic amusement as she recounted the story. “And he was okay!” she assured me. She doesn’t remember how they modified the episode, but hopefully he still got to participate somehow.
Crematia also made appearances all over the Kansas City area. She went to the Renaissance Festival every year to shoot an episode, and appeared annually at Ward Parkway Shopping Center’s “Trick or Treat Village,” which raised money for a charity. Roberta remembers that kids would show up dressed in their costumes, excited to take pictures with her. She went to schools for Halloween activities, showed up at Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and YMCA events, and even made an appearance at the zoo one time. She never did appearances to sell any products, because she wanted Crematia to maintain an air of mystery and not be popping up everywhere kids looked.
Crematia even performed with a vocal jazz ensemble at UMKC once, singing a couple of songs like “(You Give Me) Fever,” and putting Roberta’s several years of conservatory choral experience to good use.
There is also the story of yet another young fan in the Kansas City area, although he didn’t win any prizes from Crematia until much later in life. In the 1980s, David Dastmalchian was growing up in Overland Park with a love of comics, monsters, and a very active imagination. At some point, he saw a commercial for Crematia’s Friday Nightmare, and although his mother wasn’t a huge fan of the idea of him staying up late on a Friday night to watch a creature feature, he knew he couldn’t miss it.
One Friday he waited until everybody else in the house was asleep, then he snuck down to the basement to watch Crematia. He thinks that the first episode he ever saw was Terence Fisher’s 1961 Hammer classic “The Curse of the Werewolf” starring Oliver Reed. It was love at first fright.
“I’ll never forget the excitement that I would get anticipating the evening’s Creature Feature,” he told me. As he described his memory of the show, I could still hear it in his voice. “She had this amazing intro where you’d go into a haunted house and the lightning would strike, and there was this great voiceover, and then she would be in her coffin and she would start in with her bit for the week. And there was always some amazing humor… and she had all these fun characters that she created. Then she would get to the movie, and she really introduced me to the things that would have an important lasting impression on my life.”
David, of course, would grow up to become an actor, starring in huge films such as “The Dark Knight,” “Prisoners,” “Ant-Man,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Bird Box,” as well as the upcoming “Dune” and “The Suicide Squad.” He’s also written and starred in two films: “Animals” and “All Creatures Here Below” (both available to watch on Kanopy, which you can access with your Johnson County Library card). He said that Crematia’s show was his first exposure to some of the actors and performances that were most formative for him – his “first and lifelong acting heroes” – such as Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and William Marshall.
“She had this great sense of humor that took the fear away when I was getting scared,” David says. “She just had this way of capturing my imagination and my fancy, and she made me laugh and scared me and she was someone I could count on every Friday night.”
He pointed out that what Crematia did (and what other horror hosts did and do) for the movies was in the tradition of the old EC horror comics like “Tales from the Crypt,” “The Vault of Horror,” and “The Haunt of Fear,” which each had a host (the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch, respectively) guiding you through the comic’s pages. “They added a level of humor and ghastliness to this scary story that we were going to all experience together,” he says. “There was this sense of communal viewership.”
Looking back on it, he says he feels like Crematia was popular, but not fully mainstream, particularly in the Bible Belt of the 1980s. However, in the years after Crematia’s show had ended, he realized that some of his friends had also been fans.
I suspect none of them were quite as big of fans as he was though. After all, he told me that when he was deepest in the throes of his Crematia madness he had made haunted houses in his basement and put on little shows that were inspired by her. “I have a lot of great memories, but Crematia’s way up at the top. I mean, you’ve got your Worlds of Fun, you’ve got your Oceans of Fun, you’ve got your Royals games…”
He entered the Halloween scary story contest every year, pouring everything he had into his submissions with the hope that Crematia would read his story on air. (Author’s Note: He very nearly correctly remembered the mailing address for KSHB when I was talking with him more than 30 years after the fact. If that’s not evidence of determination, I don’t know what is.) He never won, but the encouragement to write certainly paid off in other ways.
Many years later, some time in the mid-2010s, David finally connected with Roberta through the Crematia Mortem Facebook page.
“Are you the actor?” she asked.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Oh! I saw you in the movie ‘Prisoners,’ and you scared the daylights out of me!”
(I found it perfect that he had finally been able to pay her back for all the times she’d scared him.)
As they talked, Roberta learned of his many attempts to win the short story contest. A short while later, a manilla envelope landed in David’s mailbox. It was a Crematia prize package featuring a headshot, a t-shirt, and a beautiful letter.
“That eleven-year-old kid in me was jumping all over the house with excitement,” he said. He keeps the headshot on his writing desk, framed.
And just what kind of stuff does David write (other than movies, of course)? Well, that Crematia-obsessed eleven-year-old kid who used to regularly ride his bike over to Clint’s Comics in Metcalf South Shopping Center was always thinking about monsters, and at some point he came up with the idea of a horror host who used their job as a kind of cover for their actual duty: Fighting and protecting the world from monsters. That seed of an idea germinated in his imagination for years, until around the time he reached out to Roberta.
Once they connected, the project moved to the front of his mind, and – long story short – “Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter” issue number one came out in October of 2019. This June, Dark Horse Comics put out a trade paperback collection of the first four issues which you can get at the library or Amazon.
“How perfect that with this character,” he gratefully marvels, “I can take both visual and comedic inspiration from one of my earliest heroes: Crematia Mortem.” He sends Roberta his scripts for the comic, and the newest issues of it when he gets them. David hopes to continue the comic, and dreams that maybe someday he could have a promotional event at the haunted houses in Kansas City with Roberta, possibly convincing her to put on the costume one last time.
“I don’t have one bad memory from that show,” Roberta says. “It was just a joy from beginning to end. It was the most delightful thing I ever did in my life. And the thing that is so amazing is – I can’t believe it, you know – the show went off the air in 1990, and people still reach out to me about her, about that character. And what an honor, you know? To have that impact on kids, and have people still remember something you created so long ago.”
Roberta did Creature Feature/Crematia’s Friday Nightmare/Crematia’s Nightmare every single week for about eight years. If she took a vacation, they would just tape that episode further in advance. At points during the show’s run, Roberta was also KSHB’s station announcer, voiced a news program called “The 41 Express,” and produced a short public service series called Project Literacy, which was a joint effort with the Kansas City Star to help adults learn to read. All this while doing a morning radio every day, doing a ton of freelance voice work, and founding a talent agency in Kansas City.
After Creature Feature, Roberta continued doing morning radio until 1994, when she put a recording studio in her home and turned her voiceover work into a full-time job. She’s done lots of local commercial and corporate projects, and is now the voice of about thirty television and radio stations around the country. She’s done promos for every major television network, and did a lot of work last year with Jimmy Kimmel Live and the Late Late Show With James Corden. She’s done documentaries for NatGeo, ESPN, and Animal Planet, and even some movie trailers. She was also in the cast of Right Between the Ears on Kansas Public Radio for about twenty years.
Locally she can still be heard as the voice of KCPT-TV 19, and as the sponsorship voice of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network.
Roberta is everywhere. Crematia, on the other hand, has only been seen in public once since the end of her show, appearing at a horror film festival in Wichita in 2007. In 2012, she was inducted into Horrorhound Magazine’s “TV Horror Host Hall of Fame.” One can’t help but wonder what dreadful shenanigans she’s getting up to in her free time, and if she’ll ever pop up again somewhere.
As for the other key players, Katey McGuckin-Woolam worked at KY102 through most of the 1980s, before hopping over to Oldies 95 where she did a morning show with Dick Wilson until 2005. When that station was sold, she started her own company called P1 Learning, which trains radio and television personnel.
Steve Fritts worked at KSHB for over 40 years, from 1976 to 2018, and is now retired. Larry Rempe just retired from the station this year, a few days after I spoke with him. And Rob Forsythe left KSHB around the time Creature Feature ended and went independent (although he often returned to use the studio). He has spent many years making commercials and non-televised productions for companies, and is now “mostly retired.” He continued to visit his good friend Walt Bodine regularly up until Walt passed away, and would often bring him much-appreciated chocolate milkshakes from Winstead’s.
Finally, there’s Crematia’s coffin. Its exact whereabouts are unknown, and it’s probably safe to say that it’s no longer intact. But after the Creature Feature ended, it remained in the studio for many years. In 1994 KSHB switched from a Fox affiliate to an NBC affiliate, and they brought Tom Brokaw in to do a special event where he anchored the nightly news from the KSHB studio. That night Roberta was heading to dinner with her mother, and as they passed by the studio she wondered aloud if Tom Brokaw knew there was a casket behind his set. (Legend has it that he never found out about the coffin, but he did complain of hearing some vile fiend of the night cackling in the distance on her way to dinner with her mother.)
“It’s totally amazing to me that people still remember Crematia with such fondness,” Roberta says with gratitude. “I regularly hear from fans who grew up watching the show that Crematia was a huge and delightful presence in their lives. It’s kind of like the thing that wouldn’t die…”
I’d like to thank everybody that participated in interviews for this history of Creature Feature/Crematia’s Friday Nightmare/Crematia’s Nightmare. The contributions of Roberta Solomon, Katey McGuckin-Woolam, Steve Fritts, Rob Forsythe, Larry Rempe, and David Dastmalchian were extremely appreciated, and I had a blast talking with everybody.
If you have a Creature Feature story or memory you’d like to share, leave us a comment here on the blog or shoot me an email at email@example.com.
If you’re interested in a Crematia shirt of your very own, Fear What You Wear offers two types of Crematia shirts that are very close to the promotional shirts the channel gave out in the 1980s, reimagined for today by Bradley Beard.
Johnson County never had a yellow brick road, but red bricks helped to pave the roadway system out of the rut.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, most roads and streets were either dirt or gravel. Potholes and grooves were common, taking their toll on wagons and vehicles. Muddy roads after rains also hampered farmers and drivers, often adding hours to normal travel times.
Two of the county’s main roads – Kansas City Road in Olathe and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park – were paved with brick in the mid-1920s. The wizard of all bricklayers was James Garfield Cleveland Brown, a member of the Oneida Indian Nation, who became known as “Indian Jim.”
Indian Jim with his support crew of 6 men who carried 5 bricks each with tongs for him to work with. (Photo courtesy of the Lenexa Historical Society Collection on JoCo History)
The paving of Kansas City Road in 1925 was a major project starting in Olathe, running through Lenexa, connecting to downtown Overland Park at 85th Street, now Santa Fe Drive and joining Metcalf Avenue. The bricked road, spanning 21 miles, followed the old Santa Fe Trail route from Olathe to Westport. It has since been paved and replaced by I-35.
The grand opening of Kansas City Road occurred on Sept. 12, 1925. It featured a bricklaying contest between Indian Jim and Frank Hoffman, a bricklayer from El Dorado, Kansas. They competed in laying bricks on a stretch of unfinished road 833 feet long.
Workmen laying bricks on Santa Fe Trail Drive in downtown Lenexa. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCo History)
According to the Johnson County Democrat newspaper, the bricklayers were positioned back-to-back at the midway point of the unfinished road. They had a support crew of six “tong men,” using metal clamps, who carried and stacked four to five bricks at a time on either side of the ambidextrous bricklayers. Both worked stooped over from a standing position and wore rubber pads to protect their hands.
“He is as limber at the waist as a rubber man. When he raises his arms to a horizonal position he has a ‘wingspread’ of 87.5 inches,” The Democrat described Indian Jim laying bricks, adding that when he was “going good,” the bricklayer could lay 14 tons of brick a day with “no sign of effort or fatigue.”
Indian Jim won the competition by paving slightly more than 416 feet of Kansas City Road with 46,664 bricks (218 tons) in seven hours and 48 minutes in drizzling rain and 60 degrees. He placed 1,755 more bricks than Hoffman. Indian Jim averaged laying almost 100 bricks every minute. That’s more than one brick per second. Each brick weighed eight pounds.
Indian Jim in 1926. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCo History)
As part of his contest winnings, Indian Jim received a $200 prize (equivalent to $2,941 in 2019) along with his regular wages of $2 per hour. He was also presented a medal designating him as the Middle Western Champ in bricklaying, but Indian Jim had a broader claim of fame in mind.
“He has made an art of what other men have always regarded as drudging labor,” The Kansas City Star reported in its coverage of the competition. “He believes he is the champion bricklayer of the world and is proud of the fact that when he ‘lays them, they stay laid.’”
The bricklaying competition attracted more than 10,000 people, including U.S. Senator Charles Curtis and Governor Ben Paulen, and featured a parade with 60 floats, scores of decorated cars and a band concert.
The Olathe Mirror newspaper reported 43 ceremonial bricks were laid by various VIPs, including Olathe and state officials along with three county commissioners, to finish Kansas City Road. The last two bricks were laid by Senator Curtis, who would be elected vice president four years later as Herbert Hoover’s running mate, and Governor Paulen. The senator placed a silver brick. The governor added the final gold brick.
Featured speakers at the event told the crowd about the importance of paved roads for economic development of the region. One noted “a trip to Kansas City was now possible in 40 minutes.”
According to the book “Johnson County Kansas: A Pictorial History, 1825-2005,” “a reported 7,500 cars drove over the brick road (the next day) to experience a ‘modern’ roadway.”
In 1927, Indian Jim helped to pave Metcalf Avenue from 79th Street to Louisburg, which later became a part of Highway 69 from Kansas City to Dallas, Texas.
Six brick workers with Indian Jim. (Photo courtesy of the Lenexa Historical Society Collection on JoCo History)
Aside from his notoriety in Johnson County, Indian Jim was a well-known bricklayer in Baldwin, Liberal, and Goodland, Kansas, and Pampa, Texas. Although other bricklayers challenged his claim, he was never defeated.
By the 1930s, brick paving, the standard of road and street construction since the last 19th century and early 20th century, was replaced by concrete and asphalt.
Indian Jim died on Sept. 20, 1955, in a hospital at Houston. He was 76.
Some remnants of bygone brick roadways do exist beneath existing streets and roads. The bricks occasionally are uncovered by construction work.
According to the Overland Park Historical Society, “the bricks on Metcalf were exposed just recently when the highway was resurfaced. The old asphalt was peeled off and the original bricks were exposed. Many people noticed the bricks north of 75th Street.”
Beth Wright, deputy director of public works for the city of Olathe, says Kansas City Road no longer has brick beneath the asphalt, but some streets do.
“We have some portions of low volume roads which have brick beneath the asphalt surface but those are scattered sections throughout original town Olathe,” Wright said.
Only pockets of bricks are visible on Johnson County roadways. Some crosswalks, including a few along Kansas City Road in Olathe, have been constructed with bricks as part of streets. Several traffic islands dividing the county’s roadways also have brick surfaces. The intersection of Santa Fe and Cherry streets in downtown Olathe was built with bricks along with nearby crosswalks.
An “Indian Jim and the Building of the Kansas City Road” marker was completed in 2007 by students in the Olathe North High School 21st Century Program. The marker is located in a small pocket park at the junction of Poplar Street and Kansas City Road.
The rest is history.
-Gerald Hay, Johnson County Government
Originally published in the January-February 2020 issue of the Best Times Magazine.
As we enter the month of December, we may be seeing more jolly men (or women) dressed in red with hearts full of cheer. If you think Santa and his wife Mrs. Claus are relegated to indoor malls ala Miracle on 34th Street, think again. There are Santa Sightings everywhere, including the JoCoHistory Collection which contains artifacts from the Johnson County Museum, Johnson County and Olathe Public Libraries, and the historical societies of Overland Park and Lenexa.
George and Jeanne Savage’s grandson Ben donned the famous red suit for a family gathering.
Ben Savage, 1990 (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCo History)
Carl and Alice Koch moonlight as dynamic duo Mr. and Mrs. Claus and stop to admire their handiwork.
Koch Family, 1970 (Photo courtesy of Johnson County Museum collection on JoCo History)
A life size Santa statue watches over the students at the Kansas School for the Deaf.
1962 (Photo courtesy of the Kansas School for the Deaf collection on JoCo History)
Young Jo Taliaferro gets an early visit from Saint Nicholas with her sister Jan and family friend Joyce Luthy.
Taliaferro and Luth Families, 1954 (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCo History)
A group of library patrons stop and pose with Santa outside of the Olathe Public Library.
ca. 1959 (Photo courtesy of the Olathe Public Library collection on JoCo History)
Even boy scouts enjoy the occasional Santa sighting. When the big man in the red suit stopped by Antioch School, Gary McGee (seated on Santa’s lap) and his fellow scouts were quick to pose for a picture.
Gary McGee and other boy scouts, 1964 (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCo History)
You’re never too old to pay a visit to Santa. Robert Sanders (standing to the right of Santa Claus) and his fellow bowlers pause their competitive game in order to visit with Kris Kringle.
Robert Sanders and other bowlers, 1947 (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCo History)
Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus team up with the Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club to bring a little holiday cheer to a Veterans Administration Hospital.
Frank Buchan, Roger James, Kes Kesler, 1998 (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCo History)
The Legler Barn Museum is operated by the Lenexa Historical Society in order to honor the rich history of the Lenexa region. Father Christmas stops by to take a picture with three members of the Lenexa Historical Society.
Gus Bogina, Velma Bogina, Mary McNerney, 1998 (Photo courtesy of the Lenexa Historical Society collection on JoCo History)
As you can see, you never know when or where Santa and Mrs. Claus pop up. Be sure to be on the lookout for this famous duo during the holiday season.
Shawnee Methodist Mission (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)
The Shawnee Methodist Mission was originally located around present day Turner, Wyandotte County, but in 1839, it relocated to Johnson County at 3403 W 53rd St, in Fairway. At one time, there were 13 small buildings and 3 large buildings, but the 3 larger buildings, East, West, and North, are all that remain on the campus today. Twenty-three different Indian nations were represented including the Shawnee from Ohio. Because of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a treaty was signed giving the Ohio Shawnee lands in Kansas. The Shawnee Methodist Mission was a manual training school, where they learned basic academics, manual arts, and agriculture until 1862.
The First Territorial Capital of Kansas was in Pawnee, part of present day Fort Riley, but those in the legislature wanted to move closer to Missouri, so for 23 days in 1855, the mission served as the second capital of the Kansas Territory. After 1862, the location included “a boarding house, a brothel, a frequent gathering spot for rowdies and ruffians passing through the open spaces and as a speakeasy”.(1) During the Civil War it served as barracks for the Union troops. There was very little upkeep after the closing of the school. However, in 1927 the state acquired the property. Work to restore the property commenced and the North building was completed in 1942.
Women at the Shawnee Indian Mission (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum Collection on JoCoHistory)
Shawnee Indian Methodist mission under reconstruction (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCoHistory)
The North building was used as a dormitory and school for girls. They learned spinning, weaving and other domestic arts. Some of the Shawnee embraced the Methodist religion and approved their children’s attendance. Some of the children were happy to go to a mission school because they were fed better than when they lived at home. However, they also were given new names, new clothes, and their hair was cut on admittance to the school.
Shawnee Indian Methodist mission (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCoHistory)
One little Shawnee girl, Emily, whose parents were Reverend Lewis McNiff, a white man, and Math-Ah-Pease, attended the school. Emily’s mother Math-Ah-Pease married again to a man by the name of James Blue Jacket, hence Emily Bluejacket. Records show she was at the mission in 1844 as Emily Bluejacket but they also differ on her age. According to the 1857 Kansas State Census an Emily Bluejacket was at the mission was 18.
The 1854 Treaty with The Shawnee stated that each single Shawnee person was entitled to 200 acres. Emily Bluejacket was entitled to 200 acres and part of her land was where Grinders in Lenexa is today, SE 1/4 of section 4, township 013S, range 024E. We find that Emily married Charles Barth in 1859 who took off to seek his fortune during the gold rush in California, never to return. She then married Joseph Nipp in 1866 and had 2 boys, and eventually moved to Oklahoma. The land changed hands several times, including the owner Icy Snow Beard in the 1930s, until it was purchased by Endicott Properties and a restaurant, Stonewall Inn opened as a restaurant with a pub-like atmosphere. This restaurant closed down in 2002 but Grinders Stonewall owned by Jeff Rumaner, opened in 2014 after 8 months of renovations.
Stonewall Inn (Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum collection on JoCoHistory)
-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library
(1)Thomas Johnson’s Story and the History of Fairway, Kansas, by Joe H. Vaughan, pg 14
Editor’s Note: There will be more JoCoHistory blogs in the future detailing a fuller history of the Mission, and the Johnson County Museum will host a travelling exhibit about Native American boarding schools in 2023.
By posting comments to the JoCoHistory Blog, you understand and acknowledge that this information is available to the public. The JoCoHistory Partner organizations do not endorse any user-submitted content and/or links nor assume any liability for any actions of participating users. Content not in compliance with our civility expectations will be removed from our page or posts, and repeat offenders may be blocked.