Inside JCPRD: Presidents and Johnson County

Presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kennedy in Prairie Village in October 1960. Photo courtesy Shawnee Mission East High School.

By the Johnson County Museum                                                                                             

Kansas City has hosted numerous presidential visits. Ulysses S. Grant visited in in 1880, as did Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, Calvin Coolidge in 1926, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1979, George W. Bush in 2007, Barack Obama in 2014, and Donald Trump in 2018. Harry S. Truman worked, dined, campaigned, and took piano lessons in Kansas City. But have any presidents ever visited Johnson County? With the presidential election just around the corner, your friends at the Johnson County Museum dove into the archives to see if any presidents had visited Johnson County. As it turns out, several presidents have visited Johnson County, each for very unique reasons.

Ulysses S. Grant Opens Merriam Park

The first was former president Ulysses S. Grant (in office 1869 – 1877), who visited in July 1880. What drew Former President Grant to Johnson County? The opening of Merriam Park, a Victorian pleasure park located in Merriam, Kan.

Merriam Park was planned and operated by the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad. The opening ceremony was a don’t-miss event. Although Grant was a distinguished guest, the press reported that the former president and retired Union general received a cold welcome from “uncourteous Missourians” who made a scene during the event.

Neither jeers from “uncourteous Missourians” nor and a torrential thunderstorm could dampen what was advertised as the “grandest picnic gathering Kansas has ever seen.” Crowds in the thousands flocked to Merriam Park’s opening day. Once he completed his duties, Grant continued on a busy trip around the region, stopping in Kansas City, Mo. and Leavenworth, Kan., before going on by train to the New Mexico Territory to inspect mines.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Whistle Stop Speech in Olathe

On Oct. 13, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (in office 1933 – 1945) became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Johnson County. Returning from a campaign tour in Colorado ahead of the November 1936 presidential election, Roosevelt’s train made a stop in Olathe. The stop was arranged by former Kansas Governor and Olathe resident, George H. Hodges.

When news of the president’s visit was announced the night before his arrival, schools and stores closed. Newspapers reported thousands of people waited for the president to arrive at the station. Roosevelt delivered an extemporaneous speech from the back of the train before traveling back to Washington, D.C. No known photos of the stop exist.

President Eisenhower’s personal plane, the Columbine III, on the tarmac at the Olathe Naval Air Station in 1958. It was the only Lockheed VC-121E aircraft ever built. Johnson County Museum collection.

Eisenhower’s Unintended Visit to Johnson County

In January 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (in office 1953-1961) personal plane, the Columbine III, made an unplanned landing at the Olathe Naval Air Station (ONAS). Eisenhower was en route to the downtown Kansas City airport following the death of his brother, Arthur, when the pilots decided to land due to heavy fog at the naval station built in Olathe during WWII. The visit was documented in the president’s appointment book, and the museum’s collection includes a photograph of the Columbine III and pilot on the tarmac at ONAS. Given the private nature of Eisenhower’s visit to the area, it is not believed that he gave any public addresses in Johnson County.

Presidential Hopeful John F. Kennedy Sets His Sites on Johnson County

On the night of Saturday, Oct. 22, 1960, just one day after his final televised presidential debate with Vice President Richard Nixon, Senator John F. Kennedy (later in office 1961-1963) visited Prairie Village. Like Roosevelt’s visit 24 years earlier, Kennedy’s visit was political. He arrived in Prairie Village after a long day of plane hopping from St. Louis and Joplin, Mo., to Wichita, Kan., before setting down on the tarmac in Kansas City, Mo. His motorcade buzzed as many as ten thousand people waiting to see him at Truman Corners Shopping Center in Grandview, Mo. where he paused for a speech, before moving on to Prairie Village.

More than 1,000 people crammed into the Shawnee Mission East High School cafeteria to hear Senator Kennedy deliver a well-rehearsed stump speech in which he outlined his vision for the presidency and stumped for Kansas politicians. Interestingly, the cafeteria was chosen because the auditorium was being used for homecoming activities. After his speech, Kennedy shook hands with supporters for ten minutes before returning to the campaign trail. His next stop was in Green Bay, Wisc. Photos and a signed menu from the banquet exist as reminders of his visit, and today are a part of Shawnee Mission East High School’s collection.

Truman Connections

It is very likely that at some point in his career, Harry S. Truman, a native of Independence, Mo., visited Johnson County. Sadly, we have no record of such visits, so we reached out to the Truman Library for help. Although they, too, were stumped to find a JoCo connection, they did share this gem in a letter Bess wrote to Harry in November 1932 regarding a bridge club meeting she was to attend in Overland Park. “Edna is having the bridge club way out at West-Avery (near Overland Park) today. May asked her why she didn’t go on to Colorado while she was doing it.”

Johnson County is more connected to Kansas City today than in Truman’s time. It is no longer “just” a suburb of Kansas City, but a place in its own right. As the county continues to grow in population, diversity, and economy, we wouldn’t be surprised to see presidential candidates and sitting presidents visit Johnson County more often in the future.