The exhausting and bloody Civil War was finally over.
Newspapers across the nation blasted headlines about President Abraham Lincoln’s shocking assassination.
Families packed their belongings into rickety wagons, to embark on the stressful road trip out west, where the possibilities for a better life appeared endless.
And in that same year — 1865 — in the sprawling green Kansas countryside, a wealthy family was overseeing the construction of a lovely new home that would one day become an iconic landmark in Johnson County.
The Mahaffie House.
This year the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm in Olathe is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the two-story native stone house. One of the most popular field trip destinations in the Kansas City area, the historic site has grown in popularity in recent years as the city of Olathe has expanded offerings and added an educational center.
The simple yet luxurious home was built to accommodate James Beatty Mahaffie and wife Lucinda’s growing family and affluent standing in the community.
The middle-aged couple had moved their family out west from Indiana in the fall of 1857, looking for more lucrative business opportunities.
They looked around the Missouri side and other parts of Kansas but fate kept them in Olathe. They were in the Olathe area when their teenage daughter, Isabelle, suddenly became sick with malaria. They stayed in Olathe while she recovered and ended up liking the little town so much, they decided to put down roots.
After living in town for a year, they moved out to the country, where Mahaffie bought a hefty chunk of land to build a farm. He had his family’s small house moved, via oxen, to the new location.
The property sat right on the Santa Fe Trail, which is now Kansas City Road.
“It would have been like having I-35 in your front yard with no fence, except the cars would only be going five miles per hour,” said Tim Talbott, the site manager at Mahaffie. “I imagine there would have been a lot of commotion and the family would have seen a lot of interesting things.”
To accommodate travelers, Mahaffie began operating his farm as a stagecoach stop in 1864.
At the time, stagecoaches were the precursor to buses, usually overcrowded with passengers. It wasn’t unusual to see uncomfortable travelers clinging to the top and back of the horse-led vehicles as they rumbled down the trail.
Since a lot of the trail traffic ran between Fort Scott and Fort Leavenworth, stagecoaches were often packed with soldiers and their families. Businessmen from Kansas City headed out west were also common travelers.
When the new farmhouse was built, it featured a full basement, which served as a dining room and kitchen for stagecoach passengers.
Like all families, the Mahaffies experienced happiness and heartbreak over the years in their new home: Their farm flourished. Their older children got married. Their son, Andrew, died as an infant. Their youngest, Ella, was born.
In the early 1880s, Mahaffie retired from farming and he and his wife moved back into town.
Over nearly the next century the Mahaffie house passed through several owners and numerous renovations.
By the late 1970s, when Olathe was rapidly growing, there were talks about the deteriorating house being torn down, with the property being eyed as a good spot for a shopping center or a subdivision.
A group of city officials and citizens fought to save it.
“The American bicentennial sparked an interest in preserving local history,” Talbott said. “It brought out awareness that our historical gems aren’t just the Liberty Bell or Revolutionary War battle sites. Every place in this country had a story.”
In 1979, the city purchased the house and historical grounds, with the intent of using the site as an educational tool and tourist attraction.
It was placed on the historical register.
Using documents, such as an engraving in the 1874 Atlas Map of Johnson County, a massive restoration and preservation was done to bring the house back to its 1865 state.
With the help of grants and donations, 19th century furnishings were also purchased to give the home authenticity.
While the site was primarily run by the Mahaffie foundation board for several years, it wasn’t until 2003 that the city incorporated it into its organizational structure, making the site an official division of the Parks and Recreation Department, said Assistant City Manager Susan Sherman.
The city decided that using its own resources for maintenance and day-to-day operation would be more efficient.
The foundation now focuses primarily on fund-raising and advocacy.
With the city and the foundation working together, it was easier to raise money for big projects, such as the Heritage Center, which was built around 2008, Sherman said.
The $3.5 million visitor’s center offers space for offices, storage, exhibits and events, such as weddings.
Thanks to the addition of the visitor’s center and its growing educational programs and activities, the site’s fan base has exploded. Last year, Mahaffie served around 40,000 people, which is double the 2006 attendance, Talbott said.
The site now has five full-time permanent staff and one part-time permanent staff member. It also uses around a dozen seasonal employees each year.
Mahaffie has a total budget of $846,000, but it also relies heavily on grants and donations from numerous groups and organizations.
Its 10-member foundation holds a major fundraiser each year, the Sunflower Wickets Croquet event.
For more than 10 years, Mahaffie had been bestowed a Johnson County Heritage Trust Fund, an annual grant ranging from $25,000 to $50,000, used for such things as the preservation of the farmhouse and barn, the purchase of a fire suppression system for the farmhouse, children’s exhibits for the visitor center, and other projects. The fund has since been phased out, however.
Mahaffie has also benefited greatly from the philanthropy of Olathe resident Maron Moore. She provided funding for the site’s prairie schooner and stagecoach. She also provided all of the funding for construction of the Agricultural Heritage Barn in 2014.
“We’re very lucky to have such tremendous community support,” Talbott said. “It’s a huge part of our success.”
A little farther north, the Olathe Memorial Cemetery also is turning 150 years old this year.
To recognize both anniversaries, the cemetery partnered with Mahaffie earlier this month for a joint celebration.
The big event? A funeral.
Well, a mock one, that is.
The Mahaffie farmhouse held a 19th-century style wake for Lucinda’s mother, Susan Henderson, who had lived with the family for a short while, before passing away from severe illness in 1871.
On a drizzly and chilly Saturday morning, the public was invited to nibble on funeral cookies, pay their respects and interact with actors portraying the family.
“Even though Susan’s funeral happened a little bit after 1865, we wanted to show what Americans were experiencing after the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination,” said Alexis Woodall, the Mahaffie events coordinator, who also played Lucinda during the festivities. “The country was in a period of mourning for its lost soldiers and its leader. The standards for grieving started to change.”
Draped in a black Victorian gown and dramatic veil, Woodall, as Lucinda, stood on the front porch of the Mahaffie home that morning, watching as her mother’s coffin was carried down the steps towards the awaiting black hearse.
An hour later, at the Olathe Memorial Cemetery, members of the public gathered to follow the horse-drawn hearse through the sea of graves to Henderson’s headstone.
Tours of the cemetery were given and an ice cream social was held. Members of the Second Baptist Church, which was founded in 1868, passionately sang popular 1860s hymns, such as “Amazing Grace.”
Some residents, such as Viola Vaughn, showed up for the festivities just to stroll in the sprawling cemetery.
“I love history and I walk through here all the time,” said Vaughn, who lives nearby. “It’s a beautiful day and they always keep the cemetery immaculate.”
Brian Nilges, the cemetery manager, said not many people realize the Olathe Memorial Cemetery was also the city’s first park.
In the late 19th century, families would bring blankets and food to the cemetery for picnics, and Fourth of July fireworks used to be held there.
The cemetery was established in 1865 by Olathe resident Watts Beckwith on his property. Prior to that year, bodies had been buried in the city’s Church Square. But when the railroad right of way cut through that area, the city transferred graves to the present location.
Several notable people are buried at the Olathe Cemetery. They include two Kansas governors, an unidentified Indian chief, President Barack Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather, and more than 500 soldiers from various wars.
“There are some pretty lively characters buried here and it’s nice to hear their stories,” Nilges said. “I’ve always thought there could be books or documentaries made about many of them.”
There are currently 4,000 burial spaces open in the cemetery. Every fall, the cemetery offers walking tours with historical themes.
For both the cemetery and the Mahaffie site, education is vital.
Talbott estimates that around 5,000 to 7,000 school kids go through Mahaffie each year.
On a rainy and muddy Friday afternoon in May, fourth-grade classes from Mill Creek Elementary in Lenexa received a taste of 19th-century farm life at Mahaffie.
The kids panned for gold, performed household chores and gleefully rode in the stagecoach.
“It’s interesting to see how people lived without computers and electronics,” said Bryson Mischlich, a Mill Creek 10-year-old from Lenexa. “I don’t think I’d want to live back then, but experiencing it for a day has been fun. Seeing history in person is a lot better than reading about it in class.”
Fourth-grade teacher Genie Scruton said she looks forward to bringing her students to Mahaffie each year. The field trip complements her class’ Kansas history and pioneer curriculum nicely, she said.
“It’s fun to see the students’ reaction to the simplest things, like a cow mooing or the sight of a wagon,” she said. “And they think the household chores, like grinding corn and sawing wood, are fun, which is really cute.”
A couple of the Mahaffie site’s most popular programs include Wild West Days in September and Family Fun Nights during the summer, which has grown significantly over the last five years, with several thousand visitors.
The site works closely with the Olathe School District to design and implement programs that meet learning goals and curriculum standards for Kansas and Missouri area schools. It also offers home-school days.
Newer programs focus on the Civil War and Border War, the roots of American cowboys, farming, Victorian childhood and the western trails.
Its 19th-century Independence Day celebration, held on the night of July 2, also has grown in popularity. At the event, the Olathe Civic Band performs, followed by 19th-century fireworks. Most of the fireworks are set pieces on the ground — the silhouettes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, an eagle, the American flag, and other patriotic symbols. There are also aerial displays.
Its daily living history program during the spring and fall is a staple at the site, allowing visitors to better understand life on a Kansas farm during the Civil War era. Since Mahaffie is an active living history farm, its animals are an important part.
Activities include cooking demonstrations on an 1866 woodstove and stagecoach rides. Farming activities include planting, cultivating and harvesting.
With the Heritage Center and Agricultural Heritage Barn, there are also exhibits and videos telling stories of Olathe in the 1860s, travel by stagecoach, historic agriculture, the western trails and the Mahaffie family.
The entire site explores an era of American history when the country was at a turning point.
And while Mahaffie is frozen in 1865, that year was just the beginning for Olathe. The city’s rich history had barely laid its roots by then, said Bob Courtney, president of the Olathe Historical Society.
Back in the 1850s, Olathe’s population was just 340 people.
In the 1860 consensus, there were 4,300 people in Johnson County.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the city started to boom, with more prominent businesses opening up and families moving in.
Courtney considers the stagecoach stop museum a fantastic asset to the community, but thinks residents should also take the time to check out other historical spots in Olathe, such as Lone Elm Park, where westward bound families camped out for the night during the 1800s, and Ensor Park and Museum, the former home of a pioneer in wireless communication.
“People don’t realize Olathe’s history involves so many fascinating people,” he said. “The cowboy boot and the football huddle were both invented by Olathe residents, people who set the tone for American history.”
Talbott agrees the city’s history is fascinating.
As Mahaffie continues to flourish, he would like to see other historical sites around Olathe, and the entire country, be preserved.
After all, these sites are the true portals to the past.
“You can’t get history back once it’s gone,” Talbott said. “We’re in a fast-paced era right now. If these places aren’t maintained, you might as well say goodbye.”
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Price varies.
Family Fun Nights: Mahaffie will be open 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday nights in June and July. Free admission.
19th Century Fireworks and Olathe Civic Band Concert: 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 2. Free admission.
Bootloose! An old-fashioned melodrama. Shows are 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. July 11; admission is $20. A barbecue meal between shows is included in the ticket price.
For more information, go to Mahaffie.org.