Olathe History

The following information was provided by the Olathe Historical Society.

In the Beginning

In prehistoric times the Kansas, Pawnee and Osage Indian tribes roamed the land drained by the Kansas, Missouri and Osage Rivers. Later, hunters and trappers ventured into the area, and after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the explorations of Lewis and Clark encouraged frontiersmen to move into the Trans-Mississippi West.

Overland trade with Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail brought enterprising merchants, the military and the first settlements to the western borders of the United States. Government treaties forced many woodland Indian tribes to move into what is now eastern Kansas. The Rev. Thomas Johnson immigrated with the Shawnee tribe to the new reserve in 1829, and established a mission.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the Kansas Territory, opening the land to pre-emption by home seekers of European descent from the more heavily populated states. Counties were formed late in 1855.

In the early months of 1857, the survey of the Shawnee lands was followed closely by land speculators, among whom was Dr. John T. Barton, a physician assigned to the Shawnee tribal headquarters. Preemption law provided for town sites that gave town companies the opportunity to gain power, money, political influence, and concessions such as post offices. 

Barton and his associates chose the geographic center of the county, crossed by Mill Creek and the Santa Fe Trail, to claim for their town. Olathe, a Shawnee word understood to mean "beautiful," was incorporated in 1857, and because of unstable political institutions, again in 1858. The Mahaffie family was among the first to settle near Olathe. The first Board of Trustees, headed by John T. Barton, was elected in 1859. Olathe legally became the county seat in October of that year.

Pat Cosgrove took the Johnson County Census in 1860. Of the 4,364 enumerated, 52 percent of the population were less than 19 years old; 11 percent were foreign born, mostly from Germany or Ireland; .01 percent was age 60 or older. Olathe's population was 341.

The few homes and businesses were built of rough lumber and native stone. Public amenities did not exist, and streets were left to the imagination. One building, 12 feet by 14 feet, served as grocery, drug store, dry goods store, salon, and hotel. By fall, severe drought caused many settlers to pack up and return to the East.

About 1859 or 1860, Barton left Olathe for good. He served in the Confederate Army and later settled in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas came into the Union under the Wyandotte Constitution in January 1861. The Civil War began in April. Two-thirds of all adult males in Kansas served in the Union Army. The infamous Quantrill raided Olathe on Sept. 6, 1862. General Price was forced from Westport to defeat at Mine Creek in 1864.

More than half the buildings standing in Olathe in 1861 were moved or destroyed long before the end of the war. During this time, city government was very chaotic, but after Appomattox, Olathe was reincorporated as a city of the third class.

The 1865 Johnson County census was 6,093. The Institute for the Deaf and Dumb was organized in Olathe in 1866. Olathe's first public school was built of stone in 1868. The railroad reached the eastern edge of the city in 1867, and the southern edge of the county by 1869.

 

 

 

1870 - 1890

Peace and prosperity enabled the city to develop a more distinct social and cultural character. "Art has added much to nature," said one observer, who went on to comment on the growth of trees, hedges and shrubbery, the building of houses and fences, and the embellishment of grounds.

The town became a second class city in 1870, having 2,045 inhabitants. The 1870s saw growth in the physical plant at the school for the deaf. Churches, which organized after the Civil War, began to erect centers of worship. A subscription library began in 1874. The first history of the city was written that year.

In 1875, 72 percent of the county worked in agriculture, 11 percent in professional and personal service, 8 percent in trade and transportation, and 9 percent in manufacturing and mining. Olathe's population in 1875 was 2,146.

Growth was not achieved without a struggle. Crops failed because of drought, tornadoes, and grasshopper plagues in the middle ‘70s. Economic depression, lack of business regulation - especially of the railroads - and social concerns about temperance and women's suffrage came to a head at this time.

John P. St. John, who made his home in Olathe, began his political career here, was elected governor in 1878 and 1880, and ran for president on the Prohibition ticket in 1884. The Johnson Cooperative Association, an outgrowth of the area grange movement, opened a store in Olathe in 1876, and soon branched into Stanley, Edgerton, De Soto and Gardner.

The 1880s saw the rise of the Hyer Boot factory, the milling industry, Hodges Brothers and Lanter Lumber companies, Patron's Mutual Insurance Association, and the building of Fairview Race Course, Olathe's second horse racing track.

1883 marked the founding of the Ladies Reading Circle, Olathe's first federated women's club, the first high school graduation, and the second written history of this area. Olathe's population in 1880 was 2,285 and in 1890, 3,294.

   

1890 - 1910

The decades surrounding the turn of the century saw rapid technological change in Olathe. The decorative Washburn courthouse, complete with steam heat and electric lights, was dedicated in 1892. The event set a corresponding trend in stately home building. Public utilities such as natural gas, telephones, sewers and water treatment came into common use. The automobile could be seen sharing space on Cherry Street with farm wagons and teams of horses.

1893 saw 48 scholars enrolled in the high school course at the old rock school. A separate high school building was completed in 1898, and a football team organized by 1902. The Johnson County Old Settlers Association formed to celebrate the history of the area in 1898.

Serious flooding of the Missouri and Kansas rivers occurred in 1903 and again in 1904. A souvenir photographic publication showing the progressive nature of Olathe was made by F.S. Mickey and G.A. Roberds, and distributed in 1907. That year the first cars of the Strang Line, an interurban electric railroad, reached Olathe from Kansas City.

Native sons, J.C. Nichols and Herbert S. Hadley were in the news during this time span. Nichols graduated magna cum laude from the University of Kansas in 1902, and Hadley was elected Governor of Missouri in 1908. The population of Olathe in 1900 was 3,451. The marking of the Santa Fe Trail by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1907 was celebrated on the Courthouse lawn. The once lively roadway to Mexico had become a historic monument.

   

1910 - 1930

In 1910, Olathe had a commission form of government, a population of 3,272 (with its suburbs 4,000), and a water-works plant with a basin of 20 acres. A city hall was built in 1911 at the southwest corner of Kansas Avenue and Santa Fe. In 1912, George Hodges, partner in the Hodges Brothers Lumber Company, was elected Kansas governor on a Democratic ticket. Women's suffrage passed in Kansas that year and the Carnegie Public Library opened. A domestic science and manual training building was completed for the school system in 1913. The Kansas School for the Deaf enrolled 250 pupils that year.

In 1914 the Johnson County Merchants and Farmers Association was formed to aid its members "in saving on advertising, collections, credit, merchants delivery, and free employment department. Over 300 farm hands had been placed by January 1915. Through the cooperation of this association many public improvements have been agitated."

An influenza epidemic and other diseases created a need for public health safeguards.

From about 1910 until the start of World War I, the Olathe Chautauqua pitched a big tent on the natural slope of Parker's pasture during the hottest two weeks of the summer. D.R. Ott's Boy's Band was organized in 1913. Ed Blair of Spring Hill published the third printed history of Olathe in 1915. Earl Milton Collier, killed at Belleau Wood in 1918, was the first Olathe casualty of World War I.

The need for army boots increased the reputation of the Hyer Boot factory, and Olathe, in the United States. Olathe population in 1920 was 3,268.

Former Olathe resident Albert I. Beach became mayor of Kansas City, Mo., in 1923, the year Gemmel Memorial Gymnasium opened to student athletes. Kansas City Road, formerly the Santa Fe Trail, was paved in 1925. James "Indian Jim" Brown paved his way into local folklore during a contest among the bricklayers on the new road. The Roaring '20s was a particularly happy time for Olathe youth.

   

1930 - 1950

The 1930 census certified 3,656 Olathe residents and 27,179 in the county. The balance of the population in Johnson County, stable since the 1880s, began to shift toward the northeast.

Olathe was described as "a prosperous market town of pleasing residences and stately elms. So popular is the courthouse with couples eloping from Missouri and eastern Kansas that the town has become a local Gretna Green. Judge Bert Rogers, father of Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, orchestra leader and motion picture actor, presides in its 'Cupids Parlor' which is decorated with more sentiment than restraint."

Lake Olathe (now Cedar Lake), covering 57 acres, was constructed in the 1930s. A swimming pool was built under the Works Progress Administration in 1934. It was located in the City Park at Poplar and Woodland. A Colonial-style post office was constructed at a cost of $90,000, and dedicated at Old Settlers in 1939. Albert T. Reid, an artist of national reputation, created the mural "Romance of the Mail" for the new building under WPA grant. Bus service for rural high school students began in 1938.

Olathe's population in 1940 was 3,979 and Johnson County's 33,327. The Strang Line went bankrupt in 1940 and a short time later World War II began.

The first Olathe residents to die in the war were Harlan H. Harper and Don W. Roberds. The Olathe Naval Air Station was commissioned Oct. 1, 1942. In May, 1943, a tornado destroyed more than 100 airplanes. Housing was at a premium because of the migration of military families. The Navy Hill area was constructed to alleviate the shortage. The presence of the military jolted a 50-year social and economic status quo for Olathe. After the war, rapid development in the northeast part of the county set the stage for the urbanization of Johnson County and Olathe.

   

1950 - 1960

In 1950, the naval air station became a training facility for reservists. In that year, Olathe's population was 5,593 and the county's spiraled to 62,783.

The Korean Conflict broke out and the first Olathe casualty was James C. Donham, who died Sept. 24, 1950.

The '50s brought many other changes to Olathe. A new courthouse was dedicated in 1952 and the old Washburn building was razed. The Olathe Community Hospital opened in 1953 at the southeast corner of Santa Fe and Cooper and delivered 411 babies in 1956. A central office for Southwestern Bell was constructed in 1957 and Delco-Remy, a division of General Motors, opened its plant in 1956.

Spiraling population as a result of the "baby boom" necessitated the construction of Westview Elementary in 1954 and Ridgeview Elementary in 1956.

Olathe celebrated its centennial in 1957 with a true festival of history. The fourth printed history of the city was produced for the event. Two long-time weekly newspapers, "The Olathe Mirror" and "The Johnson County Democrat," were purchased by Harris Newspapers in 1959 and became "The Olathe News." The newspaper survives today.

Rock 'n' roll music came into its own in the '50s. The poet Annie Dillard asked "will the music ever be loud enough?"

   

1960 - 1970

Olathe climbed to 10,978 citizens in 1960 with 143,792 in the county. Overland Park, incorporated that year, became the sixth largest city in Kansas. The Shawnee Mission Post office was established. King Radio, with 60 employees, moved to Olathe. The city began to examine ways to convert the Naval Air Station to the industrial park. Construction began on the Federal Aviation Administration center east of I-35. A beginning woman teacher in the Olathe schools earned $3,800. The salary for a man was $4,100.

I-35 was completed in Olathe in 1961. That year, Kansas celebrated its centennial. John Kennedy was inaugurated as president, and Olathe resident John Anderson became governor of Kansas.

Grace Bilger painted the murals in the lobby of the new courthouse, KSD also celebrated its centennial, and Patrons Mutual Insurance began a new office building east of I-35.

Twenty-four inches of snow fell in January 1962. The old Lincoln School, a segregated school for black children that had fallen into disuse, was sold to a private individual. Oral polio vaccine was being tested in some school districts. Kennedy ordered 1,800 Marines into Thailand. Metcalf South Shopping Center began construction.

Squabbling among city commissioners caused so much excitement in Olathe that one resident quipped, "We could hardly wait to get up in the morning to read about it in the paper!" Medicare and women's issues were debated topics. The new Johnson County Home for the Aged was dedicated in July. The largest enrollment ever, 287 started at KSD in September. The first annual All-School Reunion brought 587 out-of-town alumni to Olathe during Old Settlers.

City commission problems were settled by the election of 1963. The restaurants of choice in Olathe were the B & B Cafe at K-150 and I-35, and Custor's Last Stand, a fried chicken establishment sporting a conspicuous chicken head from the roof. It was at the edge of town on the corner of Ridgeview and Santa Fe.

Drought conditions pointed up the inadequacy of the city water system. President Kennedy was assassinated in November.

1964 saw Hyer Boot Factory move to a new building at I-35 and Rawhide. King Radio began a new plant east of I-35, and Safeway began construction of a new store at Woodland and Santa Fe. Fund-raising began for a new hospital. A serious fire destroyed several retail stores on Park Street, which were rebuilt and opened the next year. Olathe's population in 1965 was 12,661. Ernie Miller was named the first "Mr. Olathe" by the Chamber of Commerce. The Snepp family ended 90 years of ownership of Snepp Drugstore when they sold to Roy Taylor. The old St. Paul's Catholic Church was razed in September. The Marley Company and RO Products came to Olathe, and the Sunflower Ordnance Plant was reactivated.

Ambulance service began in Olathe in 1966. The new water system was operating, and the city commission purchased 18 acres of land on north Ridgeview Road to be used as a recreation area. Portions of the movie "In Cold Blood" were filmed here.

1967 saw the advent of urban renewal, MidAmerica Nazarene College (now MidAmerica Nazarene University), cable television, daylight savings time, Johnson County Community College and a new Olathe Community Hospital.

Santa Fe Trail Junior High opened with 600 students in 1968. Hyer Boot Company was sold to a Kansas City firm. Olathe tripled its size through annexation. MidAmerica Nazarene College enrolled 300 students, and Twin City Tool and Die moved into a new plant. Mel Winters was hired as superintendent of schools, and Olathe residents first used voting machines.

Among others, the old Hyer Boot building, the Ernie Miller building, the Avenue Hotel and Hotel Olathe were razed. "Cruzin' the 'Fe" was the thing to do for Olathe youth. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the newspaper was printing letters from Olathe residents serving in Vietnam, now America's longest war.

   

1970 - 1980

Olathe's population was 17,917 in 1970. Johnson County recorded 220,073. McDonald's came to Olathe and the hamburger became the meal of choice. A new Patron's Bank was built at Santa Fe and Cherry. Olathe became a city of the first class. The Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 50th anniversary.

1971 saw Kansas 18-year olds receive voting rights. Santa Fe was widened to four lanes. Urban renewal continued to ravage older neighborhoods.

In 1972, Edgar Moore graduated with the first class of MANC students and went on to win a seat in the Kansas Legislature. Widening of Santa Fe east of I-35 began in March. A seven-story addition to the Johnson County Courthouse was awarded to J.E. Dunn Co. Ernie Miller Park was sold to the county. The First National Bank moved into a new facility at Kansas City Road and Santa Fe. The new Masonic Lodge was built at K-7 and Park. The Havencroft subdivision was nearing completion in 1973. Plans for the construction of a new city hall and the destruction of the old building were completed. Southwest Grease and Oil broke ground for a new plant. Plastic garbage bags were in use by the city sanitation department subscribers. Water shortage was again critical.

In 1974, the Olathe School District operated 10 elementary schools, two junior high schools and one high school. "The Daily News" moved to its current site on South Kansas Avenue. The Olathe Community Theater Association was established and produced "Bye Bye Birdie." Chur Switzerland became Olathe's sister city. MANC received full accreditation and Town Square Shopping Center began construction. The street numbering system of Kansas City, Mo., was used on Olathe's east side. Johnson County Industrial Airport was dedicated.

Olathe became the tenth largest city and the Olathe School District became the sixth largest in Kansas in 1978. The Southgate cutoff from Kansas to Harrison was approved. Plans for Crossroads Shopping Center were approved as were plans for the new library, post office, and six buildings for MANC.

New housing starts boomed, but new industry did not materialize. A downtown redevelopment committee was formed. More than 31,000 vehicles a day crossed I-35 on Santa Fe and there were 2,130 parking meters in place. Overcrowding in some Olathe elementary schools was again a problem.

Major issues in Olathe City Commission election of 1979 were traffic problems on Santa Fe, the need for industry and planning, controversial street projects, parks development, and sanitation department problems. The Ridgeview and Harold Street projects were approved and Olathe annexed 440 acres from Ridgeview to K-10 north of town. MANC enrolled 1,253 students, and a second parish was created by the Catholic Archdiocese for the east side of Olathe. The new $1.6 million Public Library was dedicated in November.

   

1980 - 1990

Prairie Center and Tomahawk Elementary Schools were being planned and Olathe South High School was under construction in 1980. Milgram's opened a grocery store in Town Square Shopping Center. The Juvenile Detention Center was dedicated. Crossroads Shopping Center opened in the spring. Frontier Park and Oregon Trail Park came into being. A controversial commercial sign law was drafted. Heritage Park, southeast of Olathe, was planned. Jack Nicklaus announced plans for a 3,100-acre golf course and residential development northwest of Olathe.

In 1981 the Olathe population was 37,258 and 270,269 in Johnson County. Good Samaritan Towers, a senior high-rise apartment building, opened in January. North Supply began a $36 million building at the Industrial Airport. Olathe High School graduated its last class of students. Classes would begin in two schools in the fall. A strike by air traffic controllers affected the Olathe FAA Center.

In 1982, business slowdowns caused layoffs in Olathe industries. A bandstand sponsored by the Olathe Arts Council was built on the Courthouse lawn. Plans for a new county jail to be constructed on the former site of the Olathe City Hall began. The Holiday Inn broke ground at US-169 and I-35. Wal-Mart selected a site to build a store at Santa Fe and Mur-Len.

The Trail Theater closed in 1984 to make way for the renovation of the Park Cherry Building. The first phase of Northgate access road system was approved in 1985.

Other landmarks of the ‘80s are:  

  • Construction of the Olathe Medical Center at 151st and I-35
  • A change of government to a ward system of representation
  • Completion of the Northgate roadway linking downtown to K-10
  • Commercial, industrial and residential development along 151st from US-169 to the Executive Airport
  • Development of Cedar Creek
  • Razing of the commercial buildings on the square, which included the 1859 Case Building
 

 

1990 - 2000

In the 1990's Olathe saw the completion of the overpass at I-35 and 151st Street and the opening of the 119th Street Overpass. 

Broadcasting City Council meetings on OGTN was initiated.

Garmin International, industry leader in navigation and communications electronics, relocated to Olathe in 1996.

The Great Mall of the Great Plains, located on 151st Street, just west of I-35, opened in 1997.

In the 1990's seven new elementary schools, one new junior high school, and one new high school opened.  Olathe East was built in 1992  on West 127th Street.  The first principal was Karl Krawitz.

A delegation from Maebashi, Japan came to Olathe in May, 1998, bringing cherry trees donated by Japanese businessman Akio Fikushima.  A dedication ceremony was held at Calamity Line Park, where some two hundred of the trees have been planted.

   

2000 - Present

Olathe reached a population of 100,000 in 2001.

In January, 2004, Money Magazine listed Olathe as the third "hottest" town in the central United States, and in July, 2006, Money ranked the City of Olathe 13th on its Best Small Cities list, reaffirming the outstanding quality of life Olatheans enjoy. 

With input from residents, Olathe's first Strategic Plan was adopted in 2001, establishing Olathe's 20-year vision in the strategic areas of transportation, public safety, active lifestyles, public services, downtown, economic sustainability, and diversity.  The Strategic Plan was updated again in 2004 to ensure that it adequately reflected the priorities and direction supported by the Olathe community.

Olathe leads the metropolitan area and the nation by being the first to implement an Automated Traffic Management System (ATMS).  Operational in 2005, the system works to alleviate congestion and improve traffic flow.

In 2005, construction started on two of the most important transportation projects in the City's history - the 127th Street Overpass at I-35, and the Railroad Grade Separation Project west of I-35, which will eliminate four at-grade crossings at Loula, Park, Santa Fe, and Ridgeview. 

In 2005, TLC for Children and Families launched its "Bringing Our Children Home" Capital Campaign.  The project includes construction of a new residential treatment center; expansion and renovation of existing residential treatment centers; a new dining hall and commons; and expansion of the Mabee Family Center on the TLC campus. 

The City worked cooperatively with U. S. Senators Roberts and Brownback and Congressman Moore to secure funding for a third critical transportation project - the Lone Elm interchange at I-35.  As of July, 2006, 95 percent of the funding for this interchange was identified.

Nearly 2 million square feet of retail and over 1 million square feet of office space were constructed in Olathe, and the community saw a 20 percent increase in job growth in five years from 2002 to 2007.  New developments included the GARMIN expansion; the Farmers Insurance Group Regional Call Center; the KVC Behavioral HealthCare Corporate Headquarters and Ball Conference Center on the Olathe Medical Center campus; the Corporate Ridge Office Park at Ridgeview and K-10; and the Olathe Pointe shopping center at 119th and Black Bob Road.  In early 2006, Pacific Sunwear announced plans for a 420,000 square foot distribution center at 167th and Lone Elm Road.

A redevelopment plan for K-7 Highway and Santa Fe was approved in 2006.  The plan provided for the redevelopment of approximately 40.5 acres at the northwest corner of K-7 and Santa Fe.

A foundation-laying ceremony was held in May, 2006, for the new Olathe Bass Pro Shops store, which anchors 140-acres, $268 million Olathe Gateway center at I-35 and 119th Street.

The Olathe Fire Department is one of the best in the region, and the City has worked to ensure that quality fire protection services are available for all areas of Olathe.  A contract was awarded in January, 2006, for the design and construction of Olathe's 7th fire station, located near Mur-Len Road and 161st Street.

The City heightened an emphasis on emergency preparedness, an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) becoming operational at City Hall in 2005.  The EOC provides dedicated space for emergency preparedness and coordination of important City functions during natural disasters or other emergencies.

Olathe's parks, recreation facilities, nationally-recognized recreation programs, trails, swimming pools, and historic sites also contribute to the community's quality of life and economic vitality.  In 2004, citizens voted to expand and improve the City's parks and recreation opportunities by a projected $27 million through continuation of the 1/8-cent parks and recreation sales tax.

Olathe's parks acreage and trails have nearly doubled, from 2001 thru 2006, with residents enjoying 21.6 miles of bicycle and pedestrian trails.  The City dedicated three new community parks - Veterans Memorial Park in 2001, Stagecoach Park in 2004, and Lone Elm Park in 2005, preserving the historical Lone Elm Campground.  A new Four Chaplains Memorial was dedicated at Veterans Memorial Park on Memorial Day, 2006.

Funding was approved in 2005 for the new Heritage Center, a museum and visitors center to be constructed east of the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm.  The City has continued its commitment to the care and preservation of the Mahaffie site, which brings Olathe's rich and colorful history alive for the thousands who visit the site each year.

In 2006, the City acquired the historical Ensor Park and Museum, the former home of amateur radio pioneer Marshall H. Ensor.

Five years from 2002 thru 2006 marked the dedication of several new and expanded City facilities to serve the public.  These include the new Olathe City Hall, R. R. Osborne Plaza, and Municipal Services Center in 2003; the Fire Administration and Life Safety Services building in 2004; the new Olathe Municipal Court building in 2005; and the $20 million expansion of Water Plant No. 2 in 2006, which increased capacity at the plant from 17 million gallons to 36 million gallons per day. 

In 2005, the new SmartCart refuse collection service was implemented, providing improved customer service, efficiency, and safety.

Looking ahead to its Sesquicentennial year, the City appointed a 150th Anniversary Steering Committee in 2004 to plan events commemorating Olathe's 150th birthday in 2007.  To coincide with Olathe's 150th anniversary celebration, a new City logo was unveiled in 2004.  The new logo celebrates Olathe's historic past and small town sense of community, while recognizing the changes that occur with rapid growth.