Old Settlers returns to Downtown Olathe

Johnson County Old Settlers, as an event, turns 114-years-old in 2022. The Grange Pup, as a popular food item, is 74-years-old. Old Settlers, as residents, have lived in Johnson County for at least 45 years.

All are September staples during the annual Old Settlers Celebration in downtown Olathe. The free public event from Sept. 8-10 features food and fun for all ages, including live entertainment, food booths and trucks, carnival rides, arts and crafts booths. Many activities take place in and around the Johnson County Square that was platted in the heart of Olathe in 1857 when the city was founded.

The 2022 theme of “We’re Back – Let the Festivities Begin” signals the return of the annual celebration after a two-year hibernation.

Over the years, Old Settlers has been called off only a few times. The 1946 event was cancelled due to the epidemic of polio, a disease that seemed to thrive on hot weather. Seventy-four years later, the 2020 Old Settlers celebration was scratched because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction activities (demolition of old courthouse and building of new apartments) impacting streets in downtown Olathe caused the cancelation of the 2021 celebration. A road project affected the 1925 celebration that was “almost completely overshadowed” by the events surrounding the Sept. 12 dedication of the “spectacular new brick highway (Kansas City Road) connecting Olathe with Kansas City,” according to the Johnson County Museum.

Some historical background on the Johnson County Old Settlers celebration is in order.

As its name implies, it began as a one-day event to commemorate the pioneers of Johnson County’s early years. The first all-day Old Settlers gathering occurred in September 1877, 22 years after the creation of Johnson County as one of the first 33 counties in the then Territory of Kansas.

“People came from all over the county to meet in a shady grove southwest of Olathe. After a picnic lunch, election of officers and some musical entertainment, the group passed a resolution to form ‘The Pioneer Association of Johnson County, Kansas,’ with membership open to any person who had resided in the county before Jan. 29, 1861, when Kansas joined the Union,” according to the Museum. 

The group resolved to meet annually thereafter. It didn’t happen.

The next gathering occurred in the spring of 1898, following an invitation printed in the local newspapers. Organizers adopted the name “The Johnson County Old Settlers’ Association.” Although the group was open to any resident, anyone who had come to the county in 1860 or earlier were “Grade A” members.

Tradition begins Sept. 17, 1898

The long tradition of an Old Settlers’ reunion officially began on Sept. 17, 1898, with the association’s first annual celebration on the courthouse square (Johnson County Square) in Olathe. It opened with a bugle call at 11 o’clock, followed by an opening prayer, musical entertainment and a basket dinner. Afternoon activities included speeches and pioneer reminiscences.

In the annual events that followed, other activities were added or ended to the Old Settlers Reunion, as it was called. Early activities included noon picnics, firework displays, tug-of-war contests and various types of races for different age groups. Speeches about experiences of the early pioneers were members of the Old Settlers Association are shown in front of the Johnson County Courthouse around 1905-1914.
a standard part of the annual celebration. At each reunion, all actual old settlers in attendance were registered.

According to the Johnson County Museum, the Old Settlers’ Reunion of 1917 was declared the best ever.

“Olatheans volunteered 40 private vehicles in which to give out-of-towners a tour of the community. The crowd of almost 10,000 enjoyed musical entertainments and were treated to a carload of 1,200 free watermelons during the noon picnic. The afternoon’s events included two baby shows (one ‘white,’ one ‘colored’) and free merry-go-round rides,” the Museum’s 2005 quarterly newsletter noted.

“A vaudeville show launched the evening’s fun, followed by an outdoor showing of a seven-reel movie, interspersed with projected images of the old settlers in attendance. Immediately after the movie, all electricity around the courthouse square suddenly went out and the crowd headed for home, ‘leaving behind a trail of watermelon rinds and very pleasant memories.’”

Throughout its history, the Old Settlers event has had many challenges and changes, including:

  • No record of a reunion survives from 1901, perhaps due to the assassination of President McKinley on Sept. 6.
  • The 10th Old Settlers meeting in 1907 featured the dedication of the Santa Fe Trail Monument that remains today as part of the Johnson County Square.
  • The 1909 event was scheduled three weeks later than usual, traditional in early September, in the hope of avoiding the extreme heat that had marred the previous year’s get-together. “The reunion committee offered (although no one stepped forward) to pay for the license and fees for any couple volunteering to be married on the balcony of the courthouse at the close of the day’s program,” according to the Museum.

Dancing until the orchestra packed up

  • The 1912 Old Settlers included a two-wagon run around the courthouse square by the Olathe Fire Department to put out a fire fueled by a huge pile of boxes in the middle of the street. The Olathe Register estimated the crowd at 7,000 to 8,000 people, reporting: “Revelers at the evening’s street dance finally called it a day only when the orchestra packed up their instruments at midnight.”
  • In 1919, organizers had trouble scheduling speakers because “it seemed that all wanted to go to the city to see and hear President Wilson,” according to the Museum. (Woodrow Wilson spoke in Kansas City on Sept. 6 as part of his nationwide tour to enlist support for the League of Nations).

During the 1920s, organizers encouraged countywide participation in the annual event along with its historic ties to Olathe, promoting Old Settlers as a celebration of the entire county’s heritage.

Baseball games between teams from Olathe and other Johnson County communities were organized. Other events included a flower show, which remains in 2022, and a bathing beauty contest for girls 6 years old and under. That activity has since changed to an annual Sweet Six contest.

“A girls’ doll buggy parade and a boy and dog parade also proved popular and soon grew into a large annual parade of marching bands, horses and floats,” according to the Museum. The annual Old Settlers parade, billed as the largest parade in Kansas, takes place Sept. 10.

Santa Fe Trail Monument was dedicated during the 1907 Old Settlers celebration.

The Depression years of the 1930s brought ups and downs for the annual reunion with decreased attendance and a new definition of “Old Settlers,” registering all residents who had lived in the county prior to 1901. Old settlers now only need to be county residents for at least 45 years.

The war effort in World War II led to the decision to dispense with all amusements during the 1942 Old Settlers. Attendees listened to speeches on the early history of communities throughout Johnson County. A carnival midway was added after the war and remains an annual attraction.

In 1941, a reception for Johnson County natives and old timers became part of the celebration. By the 1950s, the get-together was known as the Gab Fest, an annual gathering that has occurred since then. The 2022 Gab Fest for old settlers will occur Sept. 10. The Grange Pup was created in 1948 as a fundraiser for Morning Grange at Ol d Settlers. Food booths, mostly run by various non-profit organizations, were added in the 1950s followed by arts and crafts booths in the mid-1970s.

The Johnson County Old Settlers Association added a time capsule in 1998 to the Johnson County Square to commemorate its 100th anniversary. The time capsule will be opened in 35 years in celebration of the city’s bicentennial. At that time (2057), the Old Settlers event will be planning its 159th anniversary in 202-year-old Johnson County.

That’s then, but now, the 2022 Johnson County Old Settlers celebration, with its long tradition, begins Sept. 8 and ends Sept. 10. More information is available at johnsoncountyoldsettlers.com. The rest is history.

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