The ghosts of some strong women in Olathe’s past came alive last month on the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm’s annual tour. The idea was to give people a taste of what Olathe, and the surrounding area, was like about 150 years ago.
Re-enactors embodied Lucinda Mahaffie, James Mahaffie, Susan St. John, Nancy Hayes, Mary Catherine Alger Nelson and Nancy Judy. They related stories of what the women had seen and experienced before being laid to rest at Olathe Memorial Cemetery.
“Cemetery tours provide an opportunity to meet people who were living here at the same time as the Mahaffies,” said Alexis Woodall, events coordinator at Mahaffie.
Woodall herself led tours in character as Lucinda Mahaffie and dressed the part in a 19th-century-style hoop skirt, holding only a lamp to light the path through the graves.
Over three days, guides led 11 tours totaling 265 people.
The research to prepare for the tours is serious business. Staff and volunteers do a deep dive through obituaries, census records, newspapers and any other records they can find. They track when each person lived and when they came to or left Olathe.
From that information came a set of talking points for the character. To keep things sounding more natural, each reenactor wrote her own dialogue.
“It’s a good way to have history not be so static. … This is a way for us to kind of help show what rich resources cemeteries are for learning about your community,” Woodall said.
Nancy Judy’s story focuses on Quantrill’s 1862 raid on Olathe. Quantrill’s men forced her husband and brother-in-law from their house and shot and killed them within earshot of Judy. As re-enactor Mary Schmidt described the moment her character heard them die, two very real shots rang out in the cemetery as a sound effect.
“When I’m talking to the audience, I truly am telling this widow’s story. I think it’s horrendous what she went through,” said Schmidt, an education assistant at Mahaffie. “You can’t really see them (in the dark), but I think you can feel when an audience is with you. One of the first nights, there was a woman who stayed behind, and afterward, she hugged me.”
Other stories included that of Susan St. John, an avid supporter of Prohibition, whose husband was the eighth governor of Kansas and ran unsuccessfully for president in 1884.
Though her husband is the one in the history books, St. John had a colorful personality herself, and reenactor Kari Coates was able to tell tales of her water banquets, which served no alcohol.
Themes from previous years include World War I veterans and elections of the 1860s. Changing the theme keeps things interesting for people who attend every year, Woodall said.
Mahaffie staff members also work with Olathe Parks and Recreation staff to plan the route through the cemetery.
Lesilee Stevens and Jeff Stevens live in Lenexa now but lived in Olathe for many years and still have a deep interest in the city’s past.
“I love history, especially my local history, and so I bought the tickets the day they went on sale, I was just so excited,” Lesilee Stevens said. “… (The cemetery stories are) part of our culture, our history, and it’s definitely not dry.”