History of Merriam

Merriam’s history includes a legacy of thriving commerce and groundbreaking achievements. Frontier trails ran through Merriam, and travelers stopped along Turkey Creek and at a trading post. During the late 1800s, the railroad brought thousands of people to the community to visit the grand Merriam Park. Years later, Hocker Grove was established along the trolley line. Access to education was highly valued from the time of early settlement, and later established remarkable legal precedent. The landmark Webb v. School District 90 case contributed to the larger narrative of civil rights and desegregation of schools. Beyond these milestones, Merriam proudly stands as a city of many firsts with a history that reflects the quintessential American spirit of growth and progress. 

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Kanza + Early Settlement + Frontier Travelers

From the late 1600s until the early 1800s, the Kanza (Kaw) Indians lived in northeast Kansas. The Indian word Kanza means “People of the South Wind," and both the state of Kansas and the Kansas River take their name from this tribe.

The Kanza culture was semi-nomadic. Beginning in the 1820s, the Kanza surrendered their land through a succession of treaties and forced moves. The Kanza were designated land farther to the west and eventually settled on a reservation in Oklahoma.

Settlement Merriam - Shawnee Tribe.jpg

Between 1826 and 1833, the Shawnee Indians were moved to the Kansas Territory from their original settlements in Ohio and Missouri. The Shawnee established themselves along the banks of the Kansas River and the surrounding area, including tributaries such as Turkey Creek. The area had many springs, good timber, and stone suitable for building.

Regarded as skillful farmers, the Shawnee kept cattle, swine, oxen, and draft horses, and they were particularly known for the variety of fruits they raised. Contemporary accounts of Shawnee settlements noted fenced fields and log cabins. The Shawnee were also skilled craftsmen and prospered as traders with overland travelers.  

The Quakers had worked among the Shawnees in the Ohio Valley, and as the tribe moved to lands that would become Johnson County, the Quakers followed. The Shawnee requested that the Quakers establish a school among them, and the missionaries agreed. In 1833, a committee of three Quakers visited the Shawnee in preparation for the mission school. They were given 320 acres, most of which is within the city limits of present-day Merriam. The school was located at what is now 61st and Hemlock in Merriam. In 1845, a three-story building was built to accommodate the growing enrollment. 


Historic frontier trails cut through what is now Merriam as hundreds of thousands of people emigrated to the western frontiers. The California Road ran west through Merriam, south of modern day Johnson Drive during the 1830-1840s. It was used by the Shawnee, missionaries, surveyors, and in the 1850s by people traveling to the west coast. The Fort Leavenworth Military Road crossed southeast through present day Merriam, where travelers stopped along Turkey Creek. It was designated as the boundary line of the "permanent Indian Frontier" by the federal government. 

Charles Bluejacket, a Shawnee chief and Methodist minister, ran a trading post along the trails. Located on the southeast corner of Johnson Drive and Slater St., the establishment was a two story log cabin. 

Campbellton to Merriam

Campbell Family, 1880.jpg

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. The home still stands today at 9503 Johnson Drive. 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.

campbellhouse.jpg  Campbell Home.jpg

Railroad development played a major role in the settlement of this area. A route from Kansas City passed through the Turkey Creek basin to Olathe. The railroad was known as the “Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf.”

In 1870, the first railroad station in Campbellton was built. Additional land was then purchased and the new area was called Merriam, in honor of Charles Merriam, the secretary of the railroad. In time, this addition grew until it became the major portion of the town. The name of Campbellton was gradually dropped, and in the 1880's the town began to be known as Merriam. 

Railroad Merriam 1880s


Amusement Parks + Businesses

Merriam Park

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. The company purchased 40 acres to establish Merriam Park. The location was ideal because of the country atmosphere and quick means of transportation. The park was dedicated in July of 1880 by former President Ulysses S. Grant.   


The Merriam Park was indeed a grand amusement. Costing 25 cents to enter, the park attracted more than 20,000 visitors per day. Merriam Park featured a large lagoon used for boarding, a shelter house, a dance pavilion, zoo, and a carousel. The beauty of the park was due in large part to landscape architect George Kessler, who served as park superintendent. 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.


Hocker Grove Park

By the turn of the century, Kansas City had constructed its own amusements and Merriam Park closed. A few years later, Richard Weaver Hocker developed the second largest amusement park in Merriam. Named Hocker's Grove after its founder, the park contained a picnic ground, baseball field, and dance pavilion/skating rink. The park was home to many sporting events, including basketball, horseshoe, boxing, and wrestling. This was also the spot for political rallies and hot air balloon rides. Running along the trolley line that linked Merriam to Kansas City, Hocker Grove Park existed from 1907-1919. Attendance dwindled after the death of Mr. Hocker and the park was no longer profitable. 


The Hocker Trolley Line

The trolley line began operating around 1907 with a fare of 10 cents. At the time, motor cars were rare and the use of horse and buggy was in decline. The trolley proved to be convenient until automobiles became more common. The trolley went bankrupt in 1927, and despite residents petition to save the line, it was sold at auction for $28,500. Residents continued the fight with the help of the Chamber of Commerce, and the line was brought back to life until 1934 when personal cars and a bus line shut down the trolley for good. 

HockerStation.jpg    Route of the Hocker Trolly Line

Hocker Grove Neighborhood

W.C. Hocker built the Hocker Grove neighborhood along the trolley line. The neighborhood consisted of 17 well built homes with stone foundations that are still occupied today. Originally each lot was an acre. From the Hocker Grove brochure: 

"No more hard winters, with our wonderful gas supply. Long hot summers shortened, by springs that never go dry. For the air is tempered by the shade of our many trees, and the family that does not like it, would be very hard to please."

Today, Hocker Grove is a well sought-after neighborhood with mature trees, rolling landscape, and unique homes. See the homes around Knox Avenue and Hocker Drive. 


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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Schools + Ending Segregation

Education in Merriam was also a highly significant historical development.

Quaker Mission.jpg

Established in 1837 by Moses Pearson and his wife, the Quaker Mission School (also known as Shawnee Friends Mission) served to educate Shawnee and Quaker children. The Quakers wanted to convert the Shawnees’ to Christianity. They also sought to change the Shawnee by assigning English names to the children who attended the school and giving them English-style clothing to wear. The children were clothed and fed completely at the expense of the mission. Although the Quakers forbade the children to speak their native language, Charles Bluejacket visited the school and read to the children in their native tongue.

Enrollment at the school reached its peak in 1864 with 76 pupils. In its later years, the mission was primarily a school for Shawnee orphans. As the Shawnee gradually left the area, the necessity for a school lessened, and the mission closed in 1870.

Early settlers of Campbellton sent their children to the Hickory Grove School. The school was built in 1865 in a grove of hickory trees, and located near present day Shawnee Mission North High School. The school was known as the largest school building in Johnson County at the time. Children from Merriam attended Hickory Grove School until 1870. 




As the population of Merriam increased, so too did the need for a local school. In 1871, District 79 was formed and a two-story red brick schoolhouse was built on Merriam Drive in 1872. School was held in an old gin mill while the new school was under construction. The new school building was used for classes, Union Sunday School, community meetings and social affairs. A bell tower sits on top of the building, which still stands as the oldest building in downtown Merriam today. The building was sold in 1920 and has housed Chevrolet Motor Company, the Gas Service Company, a Studebacker agency, an independent garage, Gribble Music Company, and Pittman Moving and Storage.  



In 1911, Merriam School opened as the first school in Johnson County to serve both grade school and high school. In 1922, Shawnee Mission High School opened and Merriam School became only elementary school. The building served students until 1969 when it shut down after two newer elementary schools were built. 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 road from Merriam City Hall.

South Park and the Fight to End Segregation

Johnson County organized School District 90 in 1888 to serve the the South Park community, which was located just south of county line. It was an integrated community where James and Molly Webb settled their family. Both black and white students attended the Madam J. Walker School until the school district began separating students by race around 1900. 

walker school   Inside the Walker School

South Park Elementary School opened in 1947 and only allowed white students. Black students were forced to continue to attend the Walker School, which had 40 students in two rooms with poor lighting and heating, and used outdoor plumbing. The school building was clearly inferior. Black parents appealed the segregation to the school board and Johnson County Court. Their appeals were denied. 

Black parents organized a boycott with the help of Esther Brown, a local white woman. Known as the Walker School Walkout, teachers Corinthian Nutter and Hazel McCray-Weddington taught students in private homes for a year. Esther Brown helped the community hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit against the school district.

The 1949 case Webb vs. School District 90 was filed on behalf of 39 families whose children were rejected from the white-only South Park Elementary. The Kansas Supreme Court ordered that equal facilities must be provided for all children, allowing black children to be admitted to South Park Elementary in 1949. This case paved the way for the 1954 Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education, perhaps one of the most recognizable historic movements in education.

Nutter Class

Corinthian Nutter, a true pioneer in desegregation, was the key witness in the lawsuit. She helped 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."

Merriam's Black History

Incorporation + City of Firsts

Mayor Carl Engel, 1950 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.

City of Firsts 

A pioneer and leader in the development of the Kansas City area, Merriam was the site of many firsts:

  • First Bell Telephone office in Johnson County in 1908
  • First "superior school" in Johnson County in 1911
  • First NAACP branch in Johnson county in 1948
  • First public library in 1956
  • First major park in Johnson County (Antioch Park in 1956)
  • First full-service hospital, Shawnee Mission Medical Center (now called AdventHealth) in 1962
  • First home to Johnson County Community College from 1969-1972
  • First African American elected to political office in Johnson County, Julius McFarlin, serving from 1973–2001 as a Ward 1 City Councilmember
  • First African American mayor, Carl Wilkes, in Johnson County, elected in 2001
  • First city in Kansas to display a field of 1,000 flags, now an annual tradition known as Flags 4 Freedom which began in 2006  


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.

Cornerstone Laying.JPG Irene B. French Image 1.png

Irene B. French Image 2.jpg Irene B. French Image 3.jpg


Reflecting on History and Looking Forward

What does Juneteenth mean to Merriam residents? Watch the video below as they share their history, and see how they're shaping our City's future.

Residents interviewed include:

  • Mary Webb - Her parents led school integration in Merriam
  • Debra Roark - Merriam business owner
  • Mitch Fowler - Merriam Planning Commissioner
  • Marzella McFarlin - Merriam resident whose husband, Julius McFarlin, was the first Black City Councilmember in Merriam and Johnson County




Merriam Historic Plaza

Merriam Historic Sites(PDF, 518KB)

Historic Merriam by Myra Jenks

Johnson County Museum

Loomis Historic District, National Register of Historic Places

Walker House, Register of Historic Kansas Places