History of Merriam

The community of Merriam dates back to between 1826 and 1833 when Shawnee Indians were moved into this region from Ohio and Missouri. Quakers, who had worked among the Shawnee in Ohio, followed them and built a mission in 1836, located near 61st and Hemlock in Merriam. Read below for Merriam's complete history, from its early settlement to current day.

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Early Settlement

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Shawnee Indian Cemetery  

The history of this community began between 1826 and 1833 when the Shawnee Indians were moved into this region from their settlements in the more desirable regions of Ohio and Missouri. They established themselves along the banks of the Kansas River and surrounding tributaries, including Turkey Creek in Merriam. Local missionaries wanted to convert the Shawnees’ to Christianity. The Quakers had worked hard among the Shawnees in the Ohio Valley, and as the tribe moved to lands that would become Johnson County, the Quakers followed and built a mission in 1836, located at today’s 61st and Hemlock in Merriam.
 
A Tennessean, David Gee Campbell, bought acreage from an Indian (Mary Parks) in what is now known as Merriam. In 1864, he moved his home to the south side of Johnson Drive near Turkey Creek. In honor of our founder, the town was named Campbellton, and it had approximately 20 homes during this era, plus a few businesses, including the Nall Hotel and James Walker’s Store.

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Campbellton to Merriam

Railroad development played a major role in the settlement of this area with a route from Kansas City through the Turkey Creek basin to Olathe. The railroad was known as the “Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf.” In 1870, the first station in Campbellton was built, and the name of the town was changed to Merriam, in honor of Charles Merriam, who was once a secretary/treasurer of the railway. Merriam Park is also named for Charles Merriam.

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Merriam Park 1880

Amusements in Merriam

With Kansas City becoming the focal point of trade, communication, and transportation and with a population of over 75,000, railroad executives saw a need for a large, well-planned amusement park and purchased 40 acres in Merriam because of the country atmosphere and quick means of transportation. The park was completed in 1880 and, as an added touch, former President Grant was asked to dedicate the park.

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The Merriam Park was indeed a grand amusement. Costing 25 cents to enter, the park attracted more than 20,000 visitors per day. In years following, one of the park superintendents, George Kessler, went on to plan the park and boulevard system of Kansas City. Much of the beauty of present-day Kansas City reflects the influence of this ingenious man, a young engineer from Germany. By the turn of the century, Kansas City had constructed its own amusements and Merriam Park closed, however Hocker Grove, named after its founder RW Hocker, was another important amusement development within Merriam. Running along the trolley line, Hocker Grove existed from 1907-1919 and contained a picnic ground, baseball field, and pavilion.

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Merriam became the biggest town in Northeast Kansas around 1930. Four grocery stores, two hardware stores, four gas stations, three drug stores, two dry goods stores, three restaurants, a bank, two garages, two barber shops, a beauty shop, two feed and coal yards, two taverns, a lumber yard, chicken hatchery, two realty businesses, a dry cleaning store, insurance agency, two churches, and a grade school all called Merriam home during this time.

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Education

Education in Merriam was also a highly significant historical development. For 32 years, the Quaker Mission served to educate and evangelize in homes, stores, and vacant buildings. Early settlers of Campbellton sent their children to the Hickory Grove School, which is now Shawnee Mission North High School.

As the population of Merriam increased, so too did the need for a local school. Classes were held for a short period in the former Lelan Wilson Hatchery until the old Gin Mill was leased for a school building in 1871 as District 79 formed and a two-story red brick schoolhouse was built. The building was used for many years for classes and community events and still stands as one of the oldest buildings in downtown Merriam today.

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In 1911, the Merriam Grade and High school was built to serve students until 1969 when it shut down. The building was then used by the Johnson County Community College and the Kansas City Christian School until the City of Merriam bought it in 1988, revamping it into the Irene B. French Community Center. In 2020, the building was demolished and a new community center was built at 6040 Slater St., just down the block from Merriam City Hall. Today, Merriam is part of the award-winning Shawnee Mission School District, and two elementary schools are housed in the City: Merriam Park and Crestview. 

Perhaps one of the most recognizable historic movements in education was the 1949 Webb vs. School District 90, a lawsuit filed on behalf of 39 families whose children were rejected from the white-only school, known as South Park Elementary and forced to continue attending Walker School. Corinthian Nutter, a true pioneer in desegregation, was the key witness in the lawsuit and helped create history when the Webb case paved the way for the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision to remove segregation in the public school system. Below is an excerpt of Ms. Nutter’s comments regarding desegregation at South Park school:

"I am the willowy daughter of a former slave. I ran away from home at age 15 to pursue an education in the North. When the time came, I sacrificed my hard-won teaching position to boycott the dilapidated all-black schoolhouse where I once taught in South Park. The one-room Walker Elementary School, with an outhouse on the playground had been separate from the town's white school for more than 60 years and equal for none of its students. Black parents lost their patience when the town's school board refused to let their children attend the new, modern school on the hill --- a school built in part with black tax dollars. During the boycott, I did not want the children to suffer in the wake of being pulled from school, so I agreed to teach 39 children in my home, parents' living rooms and in the basement of Mt. Olive Baptist Church. I was a teacher in the classroom, that's all. And, education was for the children, not for a color. I was paid a stipend each month from the NAACP, but I would have done it for nothing. The lawsuit was an opportunity to stand up for equal rights in education. I just told them the truth. The school was dilapidated. We had no modern conveniences, had to go outside to go to the toilet - schools shouldn't be for color. They should be for the children."

Nutter Class

Incorporation

Merriam was unincorporated during much of its life. It wasn’t until 1950 that the Merriam area petitioned the Governor to become an incorporated city of the third class, with Carl Engel Sr. serving as our first mayor. Merriam became a city of the second class in 1957. Currently, our governing body consists of a mayor plus eight members to represent four wards throughout the City.

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A pioneer and leader in the development of the Kansas City area, Merriam was the site of the first Bell Telephone office in Johnson County in 1908; the first public library in 1956; the first major park in Johnson County (Antioch Park in 1956); the first full-service hospital, Shawnee Mission Medical Center (now called AdventHealth) in 1962; and, Merriam was also the first home to Johnson County Community College from 1969-1972.

 

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Downtown Merriam Mural

 

 

Today

Today, Merriam is a vibrant community of more than 11,000 residents, nestled just eight miles south of downtown Kansas City and minutes from anywhere in the metro. Although our transportation methods have progressed from trolley lines and railroads to automobiles, our area continues to grow and develop within the region.

In 2020, while demolishing the Irene B. French Community Center, crews discovered a hidden piece of history inside the original cornerstone of the 1911 Merriam Grade School. More than 109 years old, this "time capsule" contained signatures of students and residents who attended the school's dedication ceremony on June 27, 1911. Also inside the capsule was a "Laws Relating to the Common Schools of Kansas" pamphlet from 1909. Read more about this fascinating find in the Winter 2020/Spring 2021 Merriam Highlights Magazine.

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Discover Merriam's history on the Otocast app! Download Otocast for free on the App Store or Google Play, select the Merriam History Tour and begin your journey to explore 12 historic moments across Merriam.

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