John Barkley: War hero, farmer, park legend
February 24, 2021
By Gerald Hay
A century ago, John Lewis Barkley became a World War I hero, receiving the Medal of Honor. Forty years later, he helped to create the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.
He was a Missourian during the first half of his life. During the second half, he was a Kansan, living and farming in Mission Township in northeast Johnson County.
Often referring to himself as “Old Farmer John,” Barkley was unpretentious about his many feats during and after WWI. He also claimed to be a descendent of Daniel Boone with his family roots in Kentucky before his parents moved to Missouri.
“Dad didn’t talk much about the war. Not really at all,” said his daughter, Joan Barkley Wells.
“He liked to describe himself as a Missouri backwoodsman and a Kansas dairy farmer.”
The seed of the park system was planted by her father following WWI when he became a Johnson County farmer and later a land developer, acquiring land to create the county’s first two parks.
Born on Aug. 28, 1895, and raised at his family’s farm near Holden, Missouri, where he graduated from high school, Barkley was a student at Warrensburg Teachers College, now the University of Central Missouri, until WWI when he left college.
Stuttering in childhood
According to Barkley Wells, her father was initially rejected by the Army in 1916 because he stuttered but was admitted a year later. His stuttering began in early childhood. “He was teased at school and often hid in the woods,” Barkley Wells said. While attending college at Warrensburg, he had to write all his oral reports because of his speech defect.
As part of his Army training, Barkley received special instruction as a sniper, observer and scout at Fort Riley. He also was an expert marksman in his military training since he loved to hunt while growing up on the family farm. According to a Kansas City Times article, he could “repeatedly hit a bull’s-eye about the size of a half dollar at 200 yards.”
Barkley arrived in France in the spring of 1918. Late that year, during the Second Battle of Marne (July 15- Aug. 6), his stuttering was “miraculously cured,” according to his mother, when a German artillery shell struck a tree behind his observation position. The tree fell on him and he was unconscious for several hours.
“He said when he radioed his commanding officer, he found that his stuttering had stopped,” Barkley Wells said. The Kansas City Times reported his mother called it “a missile from God.” His father thought his son only “needed (the) hell knocked out of him to get over that.”
Barkley was a 23-year-old Army PFC when he earned the Medal of Honor in combat on Oct. 7, 1918 near Cunel, France. He was stationed in an observation post near the German line when he witnessed an enemy advancement.
Repelling two German counterattacks
Using a captured enemy machine gun and mounting it in a disabled two-man French tank near his post, Barkley then single-handedly repelled two German counterattacks, killing or wounding many of the enemies. The “WWI – Through their Eyes” exhibit at Kansas City’s WWI Museum and Memorial details his heroic actions, noting: “After hostilities had ceased, there were over 4,000 expended machine gun rounds found in the tank.”
Barkley was awarded the Medal of Honor by General John Pershing on April 2, 1919. His heroism also earned him the French Croix de Guerre, the Italian Cross of Military Valor and the Montenegrin Medal of Bravery.
After WWI, Barkley worked for a time as a private detective in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1930, he wrote a book titled “No Hard Feelings!” about his war experience. With about 4,000 copies printed and only a few sold, the book flopped. The book was reissued in 2012 under the new title “Scarlet Fields: The Combat Memoir of a WWI Medal of Honor Hero” with more success.
He came to Johnson County in 1936, settling in Mission Township and marrying Marguerite Mullen whose farming family settled in Johnson County prior to the Civil War.
Along with growing wheat and other grains, Barkley was a dairy farmer whose property straddled what is known today as Johnson Drive. He was known for stopping traffic on the road twice a day to move his dairy cattle from pasture to the milking barn and back.
“The cows were very eager to get up to the milk barn,” Barkley Wells said with a smile. “There wasn’t too much traffic to stop back then.”
Farm land finds other uses
After the dairy operation ceased circa 1950, he helped develop the farm for commercial and residential use, including the site of the Northeast Johnson County Offices in Mission. Sections of the family farm and Mission Township land would eventually be incorporated as the city of Mission in 1951.
In the early 1950s, with a county population of approximately 65,000, Barkley led acquisition and development for a park system to benefit a growing Johnson County. He also spearheaded legislative action to create and fund a county park district.
“The park system development was important to my dad because he thought that it was against freedom of an individual, a child, to be cooped up on an 80-foot suburban lot,” Barkley Wells said.
“He remembered his growing up in the Missouri woods where he had the freedom to investigate nature - the flora, fauna and the habitats of native wild animals. He thought that children would gain a depth in their souls from contact with nature.”
Her father was appointed the park district’s first superintendent in December 1956, a year after creation of the Shawnee Mission Park District.
He retired as superintendent of the park district in 1963. He died in 1966 at age 70. Three years later, the park system was renamed the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.
Since March 1978, Barkley Wells has served as a board member of The Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County, including as past president. She is also a former trustee at the National WWI Museum and Memorial. Father and daughter are former trustees of the Johnson County Museum.
Her 43 years on the foundation board have been important to her in helping further development of a park system championed by her father. “It allows me to be a part of decision-making for the betterment of this great park system,” she said.
Roadway, building, plaza in his honor
In honor of Barkley’s legacy to the park system, the main entrance to Shawnee Mission Park, 7900 Renner Road, was renamed Barkley Drive in 1977 in his honor along with the opening of the John Barkley Visitors Center.
The visitors center was closed and razed in 2016 with plans to build the John Barkley Plaza in his honor. Construction of the plaza occurred in 2020 with completion in early 2021, paving the way for a public dedication on April 24.
Barkley Wells believes her father would be humbled about having a former building, new plaza and existing roadway named after him.
“I think he would be surprised, really, about having something like this (plaza) in his honor,” she said. “He would also be really surprised about how the park district has grown to what it is now. He would be really pleased.”