I recently was talking with a colleague who said that the decade of the 1980s was probably the most significant era in recent history of Wyandotte County. After doing some research, I would have to agree.
The Wyandotte West published a special Heritage historical supplement in early 1990 looking back at the accomplishments of that period. It provided an excellent guide to what happened during the decade.
Politically, the most significant event was the change in city government to one with a professional city administrator and a mayor and city council who were policy makers. The voters approved this change by a slim margin of about 250 votes in the August primary election of 1982, despite the efforts of patronage machine politicians who campaigned that jobs at City Hall were at stake.
The change in city government was the brainchild of O. L. Plucker, who was the Kansas City, Kan., school superintendent. He headed a study committee that recommended the change in government that went on the ballot. Bill Little, an outspoken president of the Chamber of Commerce, assisted Plucker in the effort to pass the issue by raising campaign funds.
But the change wasn’t an easy one as patronage politics reared its ugly head, a carry over from the former commission form of government. In 1985, Jim Medin, the city’s first permanent administrator, was fired. Council members were upset with Medin’s appointment of a fire chief.
The change of government gave people hope; the firing of Medin brought about a very angry response that resulted in the ouster of council members and Mayor Jack Reardon in the 1987 election. Reardon had undergone a heart transplant just months before the general election. Enter a new mayor—Joe Steineger Jr., a farmer from the Muncie community who was a longtime president of the Turner School Board.
Kay Nies, a Republican and a member of the Kansas City, Kansas School Board, upset Pat Scherzer, a Democrat, in 1988 in a race for county commissioner. Steineger and Nies quickly formed a cooperative alliance that later would lead to the annexation of the Piper community—something that was necessary for the commercial and residential growth of Kansas City, Kan.
Carol Marinovich, a school teacher from Strawberry Hill, was elected to the city council in 1989. She would later be elected Mayor and lead in the effort of consolidation of city and county government and the development in Village West.
But there were significant happenings other than in the political arena during the 1980s in Wyandotte County. A $68 million dog and horse track, The Woodlands, opened in 1989 just east of I-435. Unfortunately, the inability to get an allied casino at The Woodlands, would later lead to its bankruptcy and later its closing.
Community organizations were formed during the 1980s and remain viable today. Among them are the Shepherd’s Center, Business West and the Leavenworth Road Association.
Representatives from the Shepherd’s Center in Kansas City, Mo., worked with volunteer leaders here to form a similar Kansas City, Kan., organization that focused on the educational needs of older adults.
Joe and Katie Maderak founded Business West so that area businesses would have a voice at City Hall and elsewhere. That organization is now developing a community improvement district along the State Avenue Corridor.
A group of community leaders including Joe and Betty Swanson, Tom Bruns, Helme Calfee, Ron Mears, Fred Ball, Helen Folsom and Larry and Dixie Kaster were instrumental in organizing the Leavenworth Road Association. This organization was later instrumental in getting a grocery store and attracting an auto parts store. Major drug stores are considering building new stores on Leavenworth Road.
In the early 1980s, General Motors proposed building a manufacturing plant near 110th Street and Parallel Parkway. The proposal met with stiff opposition from residents in the Piper community. However, because of slumping sales of diesel cars, GM withdrew its proposal. In the mid-1980, GM decided to stay in the Fairfax Industrial District after assurances of flood protection and a very attractive tax abatement in building a new plant.
In looking back at the history of Wyandotte County, the decade from 1880 to 1890 also saw very significant progress. The population jumped from about 19,000 to more than 54,000.
The Wyandotte County Industrial Society was formed in 1880. Its purpose was to promote and display products made here at various fairs and exhibitions. Many of the immigrants who came to Wyandotte County in the 1880s provided the work force for factories. Farmers, particularly those from Germany and Belgium, settled in southern and western Wyandotte County.
The most significant political activity during this decade was the consolidation of the cities of Wyandot, Kansas City and Armourdale in 1886. Gov. John Martin, following an act by the Kansas Legislature, approved the legislation.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is the executive director of Business West.