Time capsule contents reflect county in 1951

Two women standing in a room discussing the county time capsule

Johnson County was far different seven decades ago.

There were once 101 school districts, mostly with one-room schoolhouses and one teacher. There were seven two-teacher schools and eight rural high schools. Each school had its own mill levy with only five schools assessing more than one mill in property taxes. Most schools were only a few miles apart.

Tax bills in 1950 had a Kansas levy of .1670 mills. City taxes ranged from .3393 to 2.8722 mills. The Johnson County tax statement included mill levies for bridge, road, welfare, health, Farm Bureau, noxious weeds, magistrate court and bond/interest. The county tax totaled .8130 mills.

Back then, half of cities in Johnson County were incorporated youngsters. The county population was estimated at more than 64,000.

These were some of the highlights reflected in more than 100 items, including old letters, documents, maps, newspapers and photographs, from a time capsule installed in Johnson County’s old courthouse on May 7, 1951. The well-sealed copper box was discovered when the former courthouse,
which opened in 1952, was razed last year. It was the third courthouse in county history.

An inventory of the items recently was released by staff at the Johnson County Museum. A video is accessible on YouTube.

“The most surprising thing about the time capsule was the amount of 2-D paper items they fit in there. I was expecting more things and less paper,” said Liz Lumpkin, the museum’s collections manager. “The number of individual items they managed to fit into the capsule was amazing. They really stuffed it in there!”

Anne Jones, Curator of Collections, agreed.

“Most of the items are in great condition. Nothing was wet,” she added. “The envelopes were surprisingly all sealed up. Only a few were partially opened.”

Since opening the time capsule in late April, staff at Johnson County Museum, working with two conservators, have carefully opened the letters enclosed in envelopes and packets of photographs protected in sheets of aluminum foil sealed with beeswax; and completed an inventory of all contents found inside the container.

The contents included more than three dozen letters from city and county leaders along with a few bank statements and correspondence/business cards from a handful of other banks and businesses along with a church pamphlet.

County Attorney John Anderson Jr. noted Johnson County had no first-class city (a population of 15,000 residents) and the “number of third-class cities (population between 2,000 to 5,000) changes from month to month and before many months have passed, Mission Township will be a checkerboard of third-class cities.”

Ten cities, mostly in northeast Johnson County and Leawood to the south, were incorporated between 1948 to 1952. They joined eight cities incorporated before 1922, including five – Gum Springs (Shawnee), Spring Hill, De Soto, Edgerton and Olathe – created 1856-1857. The county’s final two cities were Overland Park, incorporated in 1960, and Lake Quivira in 1971.

The time capsule contained letters from 14 city officials.

There were 48 photographs, including eight images of the courthouse under construction and 37 pictures of the cornerstone laying ceremony with a photo of each letter being added to the copper box. The event on May 7 was more ceremonial than actual since the pictures had to be developed, meaning
the time capsule was permanently installed in the courthouse later.

One of the most interesting, and surprising, photograph was of the crowd attending the opening on July 4, 1891, of the county’s second court facility called the Washburn Courthouse. The cornerstone from the courthouse was saved when the building was demolished in 1952 and is now located in the Johnson County Square.

Two photographs showed patrol cars and personnel of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. In a letter, Undersheriff Joe Darrell summarized the office was equipped with “three 1951 Pontiacs, one 1950 Pontiac, two 1951 Harley Davidson motorcycles, all radio equipped with transmitters and receivers.” The staff included Sheriff L.A. Billings Jr., one chief investigator, four special investigators, 12 patrolmen, three full-time dispatchers, one “half-time office girl” and one delinquent tax collector.

One of the deputies in the group photo was Sergeant Willard Carver. A year after the time capsule was installed, he was the first Johnson County Sheriff’s deputy killed in the line of duty while attempting an arrest on June 23, 1952.

County Attorney Anderson successfully prosecuted the gunman, who admitted firing the fatal shot, in a November 1952 trial lasting two weeks. It was the first death penalty recommended by a county jury since the penal code of 1935 was enacted. The killer was executed by hanging in 1954.

Anderson was appointed the 33rd Kansas attorney general in 1956 and was elected the 36th Kansas governor in 1960, serving one four-year term before not seeking re-election and establishing a law practice in Olathe.

Other correspondence revealed:

  • County Treasurer M.J. Quaintance reported the 1950 tax year, totaling $3,353,318, had collected 88% (slightly more than $2.9 million) of the revenue by May 1, 1951. The office also had handled almost $7.3 million collected by other county offices.
  • Register of Deeds Helen Hudelson listed receipts of $176,980 from filing 31,629 “instruments,” including 12,166 chattels, 5,977 mortgages and 66 plats.
  • Gertrude Hedberg, clerk of the district court, and Magistrate Court Judge Lyndus Henry, noted that a second district court had just been added to the courthouse along with the magistrate court, replacing the justice of the peace. The court system had “served in some 917 civil actions, 2,582 criminal (both misdemeanor and felony) actions and 1,394 traffic actions.” The district court’s trial docket was also enclosed in the time capsule.
  • County Engineer Malcolm Steele reported Johnson County had 1,296 miles of roadways, including 97.5 miles of state highways, 245.5 miles of county highways and 943 miles of roads in 10 townships. There were no Interstate highways.

The capsule contained phone books from Olathe (1950) and Spring Hill (1949), maps of Olathe and Johnson County, 1951 courthouse blueprints, a list of all Johnson County officers and employees, and event programs, including the 50th Annual Old Settlers Day in 1948 and the 5th Annual Olathe Rodeo in 1950.

There were more than a dozen newspapers from De Soto, Spring Hill, Gardner and Olathe, including The Eagle, produced at John P. St. John Memorial High School in Olathe. A copy of the Kansas City Times on May 7, 1951 had 20 pages and sold for a nickel. The Johnson County Herald in Overland Park, also with 20 pages, cost 8 cents.

A roll of microfilm did not survive the long stay in the time capsule and is not viewable or usable. An audio recording by KPRS Radio of highlights from the May 7 activities is pending professional assessment of its usefulness.

Lumpkin listed two favorite things from the time capsule. One was a school district map with the hand-coloring indicating the school district consolidation plans that had occurred from 1948 to May 7, 1951.

The other was the letter from Prairie School, Prairie Village, discussing the planned building of three additional school buildings in the next few years. Porter School, Prairie Village, was under construction at the time as the second school in the district. The letter mentions two future schools to open in 1954.

“Both of these things really highlight the rapid growth to the suburbs during the early 1950s, which is a fascinating period of our county’s history,” Lumpkin said.

In the months ahead, museum staff plans to complete cataloging the individual items from the time capsule into the museum’s collections database and processing high-res digital scans of all contents for study and public access online at the jocohistory.org website in 2023.

Johnson County Museum is planning a public exhibit of the time capsule and contents in 2024.

The rest is history.