Inside JCPRD: Johnson County’s past pleasure parks

Coney Island opens August 31 for seven weeks.

By the Johnson County Museum    

On Aug. 31, 2020, the Johnson County Museum opens a traveling exhibit: Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861 – 2008. This exhibit, which will be featured in the Temporary Gallery of the Johnson County Museum until Oct. 17, explores the topsy-turvy, ups and downs of Coney Island, a summer resort and amusement park destination for nearly 150 years. Located near New York City, Coney Island captured the American imagination with technology, tricks, and thrills. Although located far from Johnson County, Coney Island influenced the area in surprising ways.

In the late 1800s, cities across America were undergoing major changes. Population shifts from the countryside to the city brought more people into close contact than ever before. Technological advances paved the way to the Industrial Revolution and an increasing density of working populations in cities. Recreation, leisure time, and vacations took on a new importance for the wealthy and working-class alike.

As population density in Kansas City grew, small amusement parks like Kansas City’s Electric Park and Fairyland Park opened to entertain thrill-seekers. The amusements offered them differed from what we see today—electric lights were enough to shock audiences, exotic foods like hotdogs and snow cones were a trip, and technology on display in rides like carousels and airplane flyovers was on the cutting edge of modern.

Johnson County was also home to an amusement boom. Although mainly rural and agricultural, three old-fashioned amusement parks operated in Johnson County around the turn of the century.

The oldest amusement park in Johnson County was Merriam Park, located near I-35 and Turkey Creek today. The Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad developed the park and provided a direct link to downtown (Merriam was named for one of the company officers, Charles Merriam). This pleasure park, as it was called, was open from 1880 to 1900. Former President Ulysses S. Grant helped open the park on July 4, 1880. Far from our modern conception of an amusement park, Merriam Park provided opportunities for city folk to get out in the country, enjoy a nature walk, take a picnic, view an animal menagerie, and watch a baseball game.

Johnson County’s other early amusement parks were built as attractions to lure Kansas Citians to new suburban developments in Johnson County. Richard Hocker, a real estate developer, envisioned rows of neat cottage homes, a quaint but modern trolley line, and a pleasure park in his Merriam-adjacent development. In 1908, Hocker built an electric trolley line—the Hocker Line—from downtown Kansas City to Merriam (eventually reaching Zarah, near west I-435 today), platted two neighborhoods, and built a 40-acre amusement park called Hocker Grove Park.

Roller skating rink at Hocker Grove Park between 1908 and 1915. JCM https://jocohistory.org/digital/collection/jcm/id/2660

Hocker Grove Park was popular, drawing more visitors than buyers for Hocker’s residential lots. Visitors could roller skate, dance under a pavilion to a Wurlitzer automatic band organ, watch balloon ascensions, professional boxing matches and baseball games, and “enjoy picnics in a natural setting.” After Hocker died in 1919, park attendance dwindled and it closed the next year. Hocker’s trolley line shut down for good in 1934. The area he developed, however, remains a desirable suburban area.

William B. Strang deployed a similar approach to Hocker, building a railway and amusement park to complement his suburban neighborhoods. Aviation Park – Strang’s development – was reputed to be the first airfield west of the Mississippi River. The 83-acre airfield located at what is now Santa Fe Drive and Robinson was designed to lure city dwellers to the countryside. The Missouri and Kansas Interurban Railway streetcar line—the Strang Line—took prospective buyers from downtown Kansas City to Strang’s developments in today’s Overland Park.

A salesman at heart, Strang sold town lots at gala auctions that he paired with events at his pleasure park. Strang brought in “barnstormers” or flying biplanes to wow audiences for an afternoon or weekend of entertainment. It was not unusual to see tents pitched along the edge of Aviation Park. Typical amusements for the time—picnic grounds, baseball games, and a multi-purpose pavilion—provided opportunities for downtowners to enjoy the countryside. Strang built South Lake for strolling, vistas, and a grandstand near the airplane hangars so audiences could watch airshows, balloon ascensions, marching bands, and troop maneuvers. The excitement of Aviation Park wore off. In 1919, Strang sold the land at Santa Fe and Robinson. It was later subdivided into a neighborhood.

Biplane event at Aviation Park around 1918. JCM https://jocohistory.org/digital/collection/jcm/id/149

Although Strang died in 1921, his successors continued his vision to use amusements to attract people to suburban developments. In 1925, they added a silent movie theater as they tried to make the fledgling Overland Park the center of Hollywood moviemaking. That dream, as well as the Strang Line streetcar, fizzled by 1940.

These early Johnson County pleasure parks would likely seem boring or quaint to Americans today, who are used to extreme rides at large theme parks. But in their time, they provided an outlet for the urge to get out of town, see something new, experience that feeling of excitement in your stomach, interact with modern technology, and have fun with friends and family. So, despite their relative tameness, Merriam Park, Hocker Grove Park, and Aviation Park served much the same purpose as Worlds of Fun and Branson do for larger audiences today. They may not have been as large or long-lived as Coney Island, but they were well-loved Johnson County attractions in their day.

To learn more about the trend-setting and surprising history of Coney Island’s amusement parks of the past, take a #JoCoStaycation at the Johnson County Museum between Aug. 31 and Oct. 17. The special traveling exhibition Coney Island—Visions of an American Dreamland is included in the regular price of museum admission ($6 adults, $5 seniors, $4 children under 18, children under 1 free—members enter free!). The Museum will host a virtual program in connection with the exhibit: Ups, Downs, Loops and a Lot of Fun: A History of Rollercoasters and Amusement Parks with rollercoaster enthusiast Paul Drabek on Thursday, Oct. 1 at 6 pm. Program costs $6 (must register to receive Zoom link).

This exhibition is made possible by NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is adapted from the traveling exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008 and organized by Robin Jaffee Frank, Ph.D., former Chief Curator and Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. It was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, and The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc. It was adapted and toured for NEH on the Road by Mid-America Arts Alliance.