By the Johnson County Museum
On April 24, the newly redesigned entrance to Shawnee Mission Park off 79th and Renner Road was rededicated as Barkley Plaza. Since opening in 1964, Shawnee Mission Park has been Johnson County Park and Recreation District’s most-visited park – and until Big Bull Creek Park opened in 2018, it was also JCPRD’s largest park. In addition to a beautiful pavilion, two new interpretive panels present visitors with the history of JCPRD and its parks, as well as the Barkley family. But who were the Barkleys?
When we think of foundational families, we often think of the 19th century, not the 20th. But the 20th century was a period of great change for Johnson County, and the Barkleys were truly a foundational family for modern Johnson County. John Lewis Barkley was born in Johnson County, Mo. in 1895. He grew up on a farm and served in World War I—receiving the Medal of Honor, as well as decorations from half a dozen other nations for his heroism during the war. When he returned stateside, he lived briefly in Kansas City before moving to a farm in Johnson County, Kansas, near present-day Mission.
Living in an Era of Great Change
Barkley married Marguerite Mullen in 1936. The Mullens lived on the old Walmer-Mullen homestead, a large farm that encompassed much land to the northeast of the intersection of Metcalf Avenue and Shawnee Mission Parkway. Known as “Farmer John,” Barkley walked dairy cows across Highway 50 twice a day to his barn.
Soon after their marriage, Johnson County’s farmland began to transform due to prewar and then postwar suburbanization. The Barkleys were instrumental in organizing some of Johnson County’s most valued amenities through their community service in volunteer, social, and political positions. Barkley was elected to the Mission Township Board for District 1 beginning in 1952. Through this position, he helped establish essential public services such as police and fire control, sewers, and parks. The Barkleys also sold much of their farmland in what is Mission today, making room for the developments around Target, HyVee, and the Johnson County Northeast Offices.
Preserving Johnson County
Through the Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club, John Barkley got involved in what would shape perhaps his greatest legacy. The Sertoma Club sought projects to better the community, and Barkley was an advocate for creating a park district in the county. The organization successfully lobbied to create a special tax district that eventually funded the Shawnee Mission Park District (renamed Johnson County Park and Recreation District in 1969). As the district’s first superintendent, Barkley managed the purchase of land for Antioch and Shawnee Mission parks, opening in 1958 and 1964 respectively, as well as their development and maintenance. John Barkley was honored for this work in 1963 with the Jaycees’ Distinguished Service Award.
In 1930, Marguerite Barkley and others established the Shawnee Mission Indian Historical Society. Over the following decades, Marguerite was instrumental in securing a building and funding for sharing the history of Johnson County. These efforts laid the roots for the Johnson County Museum, which Marguerite helped establish in 1967. Marguerite served as the chairwoman of the museum’s volunteer board for 15 years; John served on the museum’s board of trustees. Together, the Barkleys helped start and shape the services and amenities that make Johnson County a great place to live today.
The Legacy Continues
John Barkley died April 14, 1966, at age 70. Marguerite passed away almost 21 years later at age 86. The Barkleys’ work on behalf of those living in Johnson County outlived them, however. The new residential and commercial districts they shaped are mature, thriving areas today. Johnson County residents consistently rank JCPRD and Johnson County Museum, which the couple helped create, among the most important amenities in Johnson County. Today, the Barkleys’ daughter, Joan Barkley Wells, has continued to provide leadership on The Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County’s board. The Barkley family was and continues to be a steward for Johnson County’s future.
For more information about John Barkley’s wartime service, the Barkleys’ other activities in the county, and the history of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District, visit the newly dedicated Barkley Plaza at the east entrance to Shawnee Mission Park, off 79th and Renner Road.
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