Little hands dig into mounds of dirt to unearth a treasure of potatoes.
Ponytails bounce as little girls tug at leafy green plants, quickly rewarded with bright red radishes.
Bright eyes proudly behold a brown bag of goodies — cabbage, onions, squash and carrots — all harvested and ready for the dinner table.
One midsummer morning, bugs, dirt and veggies were the central focus of the Children’s Garden Day at Gladstone’s Atkins-Johnson Farm. The event drew kids with sidewalk chalk fun, honey straight from the bees, and a scavenger hunt through a heritage garden tended by Missouri Master Gardeners.
The free event was designed to give modern folk a history lesson of sorts on food and farm life, and it happened right in the middle of the suburbs.
The garden is part of a 22-acre park and historic museum in the middle of Gladstone. It’s preserved to capture the spirit of the family farms that were once the backbone of the community.
The site tells two stories. It tells of the Atkins family, among the first pioneers who settled in Clay County in the 1830s and saw the area evolve from a frontier to a settled land.
And it tells of the Johnson family, who owned the property through eight decades of the 1900s during a time when the family farm and the surrounding landscape changed dramatically into what we know as the Gladstone of today.
The Atkins-Johnson farm is the first historic site and museum in Gladstone. Curators, volunteers and city leaders believe preserving this piece of the past plays a critical role in the future of Gladstone.
They have recently approved a master plan for the space, which is considered a city park as well as a historic site. Educational programming has begun and city road projects will soon make the site more visible and easily accessible. Many who live nearby are just discovering what the Atkins-Johnson Farm, which has been open to the public for about three years, has to offer.
They’re discovering a museum, a walking trail to a historic cemetery, beehives and a growing number of events and programs designed to teach about life on a small family farm.
For Charlie Johnson, his brother Frank, and his cousin Mary, who all still own and farm on land surrounding the site, the white clapboard house on the farm will always be full of family memories.
Charlie recalls the time he let the chickens out of the coop and they ran all over the yard on his way home from school one day.
Mary remembers the damp and cool cellar that always had shelves filled with canned goods, and the thrill of summer sleepovers with beloved aunts. Frank remembers helping his uncle dig a septic tank when they finally installed indoor plumbing in the mid-1960s. Their grandmother, Mary, whom the grandkids called GongGong, carried a 5 gallon bucket of water out twice a day or more without fail to water those chickens.
“Must have been close to 60,000 trips over the years,” Charlie Johnson said. “She always had a big garden, fruit orchard and beautiful flowers around the house.”
Those are the kind of experiences lost for most suburban Gladstone residents today, and the kind city leaders decided to preserve when they purchased the land in 2005.
Museum Manager Erica White explains most people think of the bedroom communities of the 1950s when they think of Gladstone. Much of Gladstone is filled with housing complexes. But the history of settlement and community growth in the area extends long before that time. The Atkins-Johnson property offers a time capsule to that story.
“There are not a lot of places like this left, especially for Gladstone,” White said.
“Gladstone is different than other cities, like Liberty, in the sense that we do not have a historic downtown. Being a 1950s bedroom community, it’s important to be able to say we do know where our community came from. This is our past. It is small family farms and the evolution of farms.”
Charlie Johnson’s grandparents, John and Mary Johnson, purchased the property in 1920. John was a Swedish immigrant who, according to family lore, stowed away on a ship with his brother to emigrate to this country. He had lived in Kansas City and worked for the Police Department before buying the farm in the early 1920s. His wife, Mary, was from Kansas and had worked at one time as a maid for the Pendergast family.
“My brother (Frank) still has the chair Pendergast gave her (Mary) on her wedding day,” Charlie Johnson said.
The couple had five children, three boys and two girls, when they moved to the 160-acre farm. The siblings grew up in the home. Their parents became farmers, making their living raising cattle and growing crops. They had pigs, horses, chickens and a huge garden meticulously kept by their grandmother and aunts.
All five children stayed nearby as adults. Two sons built houses on the property, one son owned a farm just down the road. The two daughters never married and never moved. Family members lived in the house from 1920 until the last sister’s death in 1991. The family rented out the home until 2005, when the city of Gladstone purchased the house for a museum.
The family was Catholic and gave back to the community, offering their home as a polling site and hosting dances. The St. Andrews Church is built on a corner of what was once part of the farmland. Ellen and Louise Johnson were known to walk to Mass every morning for years before they went to their jobs at Davis Paint in North Kansas City.
The city of Gladstone purchased the house and 2 acres of the property in 2005 because the house had been identified as one of the oldest and continuously occupied properties in the city.
It had been identified as a historic property as far back as 1976 when it was designated as a Clay County Historical Landmark. The white clapboard house on the site was originally built as a log cabin in the 1830s. While the home was extended and changed over time, the original log cabin is still the base of the home’s structure. City leaders spent a few years laying the groundwork for what was the city’s first foray into museum work or historical preservation.
“(The city) realized pretty quickly while the house is unique, it’s not just the house that tells the story, it is the land that it sits on,” White said. “There’s a richer story there when you take a look at the farm as a whole.” The city purchased an additional 20 acres around the house to be able to tell the story of farm life and how it was a crucial part of the development of the community that would become Gladstone.
Current Gladstone City Manager Scott Wingerson was in the city development office when Gladstone purchased the property. He explains that while historic preservation was new to the city, the opportunity to look back at the past of Gladstone became a central part of the city’s plan for the future.
“When we look backward and understand where we came from and how we came, it helps us understand how to move forward,” Wingerson said. “History can help inform the future. When you explain that to people, most are very supportive.”
City staff helped start a volunteer friends group to raise awareness about the property, start events and raise funds. A 2007 National Historic Site designation for the house allowed the city to use available federal funds and tax credits for preservation and restoration efforts.
After a more than $1 million investment, which helped create infrastructure and restore the house, the property was opened to the public in 2013.
Wingerson points to the current heritage garden as a good example of the past informing the future. Kids and adults can learn about the difference between the family farm and the urban gardening environment in terms of yields and bug resistance.
The history of the land as a farm extends well before the Johnson family. An 1824 land grant first created an 80 acre parcel which included the current property. Jonathan Q. Atkins purchased the land in 1834. At that time, a log cabin had already been constructed on the site. Atkins moved his family into the cabin and lived there, adding on and expanding as needed over time. The Atkins family lived in the house until 1904.
During the 1800s, the home was the center of several business ventures and the social scene in Clay County. The Big Shoal Baptist church sat just south of the site, and was a gathering spot for early settlers in the area. The cemetery today has been restored by the city and can be reached by a trail from the house to the farm. Atkins had a steam sawmill and blacksmith shop on site and repaired wagons. He also had a working farm on the 130 acres he purchased in 1834.
Unlike many historic sites, the museum does not focus on one particular time period.
“The house and its construction to us is as much of a story as the families’ lives or some of the operations of the farm,” White said. “Because the farm is so old and spanned such a long time period from the 1820s until almost today, we wanted to give highlights of the farm in different time periods.”
The house underwent major exterior renovations in 2010, which preserved the clapboard look. In 2012, when interior renovations were completed, the finished product included many Plexiglas windows, which allow the visitor to see the original structure of the log cabin and the layers of wallpaper through the years.
The house has several rooms that were added through the decades, including a kitchen, which is now the gift shop, and a side porch. Archaeological investigations around the house have uncovered the paths people left behind on the farm, including those leading to some of life’s necessities.
“What they found is debatable,” White said. “It’s either a well or an outhouse. We think it may have been both, maybe a well first that went dry.”
The museum is still a work in progress. The second floor of the house is yet to be refurbished, and a barn on the property is still not stable enough to be used. Gallery and interpretation spaces offer areas to tell many stories of the past of Clay County and the development of Gladstone.
A front parlor of the house is used for temporary exhibits, which have examined wide-ranging topics that would have affected the Clay County and Gladstone areas, including the Homestead Act, Farm Fairs, recent archaeological findings around the house and the current exhibit, which looks at women’s fashions as they evolved over 100 years between 1824 to 1924.
White explains many people are still unaware the historic site is there.
“We still have a long way to go in terms of our development and our growth and what we’re going to do on the site,” White said.
The awareness level is about to rise with the rerouting of Pleasant Valley Road. At that location, the road currently takes a sharp curve to the south before connecting to 64th Street. A road plan, unconnected to the development of the site, will straighten what has been a dangerous intersection, taking it directly west to Antioch Road. This will change the “front door” for the site and bring it more visibility.
White explains they get many visitors who never realized the site existed, but they also get visits from people who knew the Johnson family.
“They were very popular in the community. People knew them, did business, and worked and went to school with them. They can share with use the personal stories of the family.”
The city sees the importance of the site as Clay County continues to become more suburban. It remains an oasis of what life was like 100 years ago, and provides an opportunity to show how changes in farm life affect the growth of communities.
“It is tucked away, but it is also an asset for the site. We are in the middle of Gladstone and we are surrounded by the city, but you feel very peaceful,” White said.
Charlie Johnson says the story he hopes is remembered about their family farm is one created by people who worked hard, were plain speaking and welcomed everyone into their home.
“I’ve had a feeling that my family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and parents resembled the family portrayed on the TV show ‘The Waltons,’ ” Johnson said. “They had no pretensions or any thought of self-importance about themselves. Everyone worked together and could always be counted on to show up when needed.”
About the Big Shoal cemetery
The City of Gladstone has also become caretaker of the Big Shoal cemetery, which sits directly south of the farm. It had been in disrepair and untended until 2009.
The plot of land that became the cemetery was donated by the Hightower family for the community to build a church and have a cemetery. The church, called the Big Shoal Baptist Church, in its heyday was a popular social hub for the area serving families in Gallatin Township, which is in the area now considered part of Gladstone.
“The church had spring meetings that were epic. Newspaper reports in Liberty described who was where and who was wearing what. That was a red carpet event for the 1860s of Clay County,” said White.
The congregation disbanded in the early 1900s after the church lost popularity, the congregation aged and people moved closer to the cities.
By the 1920s they had their last meeting.
A series of storms took out the church, which had sat empty for many years.
From the 1930s to 2005 the cemetery was essentially abandoned. Gladstone took over care of the cemetery in 2010 and has restored the area with a short historic walking tour.
Visitors can see the original footprint of the church and visit the graves of many early founders of Gladstone and leaders in the area, including Jonathan Atkins, who owned the land that is now part of the historic park which bears his name. Founders of the church and other people who developed the land in the 1800s in the area are among the 164 people buried in the cemetery.
Hours: The Atkins-Johnson Farm grounds in Gladstone are open dawn to dusk. On the grounds is a trail which runs the length of the farm and can be accessed through the parking lot. The trail is open all year. The museum is open seasonally and will be closed Dec. 18 through April 4, 2017.
Museum hours: Wednesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 816-453-3276.
Cost: $5 for adults; children under 12 free; students and seniors over 65, $3.
Location: 6607 N.E. Antioch Road, Gladstone.