Shawnee Mission Park has a newly-redesigned eastern entrance and a memorial plaza honoring John Lewis Barkley with a dedication set for April 24. Barkley, a Medal of Honor recipient from World War I, was the first superintendent of the county’s park district. He acquired approximately 1,300 acres for development of the first two parks in the Shawnee Mission Park District, now called the Johnson County Park and Recreation District (JCPRD).
“John Barkley’s love for nature, combined with his vision and dedication to provide public park space for the community to enjoy outdoor recreation and nature, made him the perfect fit,” said Jeff Stewart, JCPRD executive director. “This was the great beginning of developing a park and recreation system that is highly valued by the residents of Johnson County and nationally acclaimed.”
Aside from acquiring the first land for park development, Barkley also spearheaded efforts, along with the Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club and its female counterpart, La Sertoma Club, in the early 1950s to ask the Kansas Legislature to create a special park district in Johnson County. The League of Women Voters also supported the initiative.
In 1953, legislation was passed to allow a park district to be formed upon petition to the county by 5,000 fully qualified electors. That was achieved in 1954 when the club presented 7,309 signatures on petitions to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). Concurrently, special legislation was obtained from state lawmakers for a three-quarter mill levy for park operation and maintenance.
The BOCC created the Shawnee Mission Park District on Jan. 12, 1955. The following year, a bond issue of $1.1 million for land purchase and park development was passed by Johnson County voters. The bonds were used for purchase and initial development of land for three parks.
Barkley was appointed the park district’s first superintendent in December 1956. He was responsible for touring the undeveloped countryside in Johnson County in search of park land.
He personally negotiated the acquisition of 1,250 acres in Shawnee and Lenexa that would become Shawnee Mission Park along with 44 acres for development of Antioch Park in Merriam. Dedicated on May 25, 1958, Antioch Park was the first park in the Shawnee Mission Park District. A neighborhood park was also established in Shawnee. Approximately an acre in size, it was called Bluejacket Park and later became the site of Old Shawnee Town. Barkley retired as superintendent of the park district in 1963. He died three years later at age 70.The Shawnee Mission Park District’s name was changed to JCPRD in 1969. It remains the only special park district in Kansas. JCPRD now has 17 parks with slightly more than 10,000 acres.
In 1977, the main entrance to Shawnee Mission Park, 7900 Renner Road, was renamed Barkley Drive in his honor along with the opening of the John Barkley Visitors Center. The visitors center was closed and razed in 2016 with construction of a major addition to the JCPRD Administration Building to house the park police headquarters and visitor services.
“The John Barkley Plaza, where the building (visitors center) used to sit, was re-imagined as the gateway into Shawnee Mission Park,” Stewart said.
Construction of the John Barkley Plaza has taken place over the past year at the entry way nto Shawnee Mission Park from Renner Road. The project included improvements to Barkley Drive, additional parking, a new monument sign and installation of a traffic light at the park entrance at 79th Street.
The plaza features seat walls, a shade pavilion, a drinking fountain, a BikeShare rack and a bike-fix-it station along with an existing flagpole near the park entrance. Users of the plaza will have access to existing restrooms in the nearby JCPRD Administration Building, which are available whenever the park is open.
Informational kiosks, including a park map for reference, will be located near the north and south parking areas.
The John Barkley Plaza will be dedicated on April 24 in a public ceremony with social distancing and face masks required. The event is tentatively scheduled to start at 10 a.m.
“The plaza serves as an impressive welcome to Shawnee Mission Park off Renner Road,” Stewart said. “The space includes a pavilion that is perfect for small gatherings and provides a meeting point from which to explore all of the wonderful things that Shawnee Mission Park has to offer.”