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City profile: Merriam small city with roots in American Indian culture

“The Seasons of Historic Merriam” by Charles Goslin, 1986. The mural in City Hall depicts the history of the city.
“The Seasons of Historic Merriam” by Charles Goslin, 1986. The mural in City Hall depicts the history of the city. Courtesy photo

To learn more about Merriam, Kansas, go back almost 200 years and study the Shawnee Indian Tribe.

Members of the Shawnee Tribe settled in the Turkey Creek basin after they moved from Ohio and Missouri to what became Kansas Territory in 1854 and a state in 1861. They had found in their new home “a rich and healthy country and were well pleased with the change,” according to one historic account.

Today, Merriam is a vibrant city that continues to prosper.

Christopher Engel, the city administrator notes Merriam is “20 minutes from anywhere you want to go.”

To look at the roots of the city, historians go back to 1832, when Quakers rejoined the Shawnee friends they had worked with in Ohio. They established a mission in 1836, opening a school that operated for 32 years.

The Shawnee Indians built houses and farms.

Tennessean David Gee Campbell stepped in to develop the community after he bought land from Indian Mary Parks. In 1864 he moved his home to the south side of present day Johnson Drive. The growing town of 20 homes, the Nall Hotel and businesses that included James Walker’s Store was named Campbellton in his honor.

But the name didn’t stick for long.

Every community coveted a railroad during this era and the small Missouri River, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad built its route through the Turkey Creek area and a depot was built. Reorganized in 1879 it became the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf, a name that lasted to 1888.

Charles Merriam, once a secretary and treasurer of the railroad, was honored when the town was renamed for him.

Today, the Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe Railroad runs 50 to 60 trains through Merriam daily. Mayor Ken Sissom said the intersection of the railroad with Johnson Drive is the busiest crossing in Kansas.

In 1880, as neighbor Kansas City reached a population of 75,000, railroad executives purchased 40 acres in Merriam to build an amusement park. The park, which opening in 1880 after a dedication by former President Ulysses Grant, welcomed thousands of people a day, who paid 25 cents admission.

However, not even the zoo, the merry-go-round, the pond for boating, athletic fields and picnic facilities could keep it open past 1900 due to competing venues in the metropolitan area.

Even sans amusement area, the city continued to flourish.

By 1930, Merriam was the largest community in northeast Kansas, with four grocery stores, two hardware stores, four gas stations, two churches, three drug stores, feed, lumber and coal yards and other businesses necessary to making the community self-sufficient.

Incorporated in 1950 as a city, it had the first post office, first public library (in 1956) and first Bell Telephone Company (in 1908) in Johnson County. It became the first home of Johnson County Community College, from 1969 to 1972.

The case of Webb v. School District 90 set the stage in 1954 for Brown vs. the Board of Education verdict. Corinthian Nutter, an African American teacher, and white civil rights activist Esther Brown were successful in 1949 in integrating a new elementary school. Thirty-nine black families boycotted the old Merriam school and were taught by Nutter in other buildings until the court rendered its verdict.

City boundary lines within Johnson County are blurred by growth. Merriam is an area bounded by Switzer on the west; Antioch on the east; West 47th Street on the north; and 75th Street on the south.

It is also split by I-35. Merriam has a geographical area of only 4.5 square miles. But within that small area, said Engel, the city has issued 450 business licenses. Many businesses are small, but there’s also a huge business: the only IKEA store in the metropolitan area.

Engel remembers pictures of a hospital founded in 1962 that resembled a drive-thru Today, the city has a hospital with more than 500 beds. Shawnee Mission has been rebranded and is now AdventHealth. Sales taxes are the main source of revenue, Engel said. Of the total sales tax paid of 9.475%, 1.5% goes to Merriam.

“Voters have designated one-quarter cent of that to the new 66,000 square foot community center opening in 2020,” said Anna Slocum, Parks and Recreation director.

Voters appear to like amenities, as the city has six parks, a farmer’s market and a museum/visitor’s center.

“We are financially sound,” said Sissom, “and have the money to do what needs to be done.”

So what does the future hold? The city has hired Confluence Inc., to conduct an update of a 2001 study.

“Population has trended and is more mature,” Engel said.

“There is more commercial property. We will have surveys, public meetings, and online access. It has to be a two-way conversation.”