Gardner History

In a 1924 dedication of a State Historical Marker at the edge of Gardner, Senator Rolla W. Coleman called the place where the trails divide "the grand-daddy of all highway junctions."  From its beginnings in 1857, Gardner can attribute its early growth to its unique location at the junction of the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Today, Gardner has enjoyed its more recent growth due to its proximity to Kansas City and Johnson County, a central hub of our nation's business and transportation.  

Early Settlers:

  • Jacob Victor - Settled March 3, 1857 - Took a claim on the Santa Fe Trail by a spring on the present-day site of the Johnson County Industrial Airport.   He and his wife started a hotel which was billed as "the largest house between Westport and Santa Fe."  His sons were involved in early transportation of freight on the trail.  

  • Edwin Turner - March 15, 1857 - Settled among the Indians of southeast Gardner Township.

  • W.J. Ott - April 22, 1857 - A farmer, carpenter and a fine violin player from Virginia who settled on land near Gardner.  Ott built the first house for the town company, the store of J.W. Sponable, churches, furniture and most of the early day caskets.  

  • George and Rufus Thorne - May 1857 - Settled in southeast Gardner Township.

  • Amos Fuller - May 1857 - Settled in southeast Gardner Township.

  • Dr. W. M. Shean - 1857 - A farmer, school teacher and doctor from Maine.  Took his quarter section claim two miles south of Gardner and brought family to Gardner a year later, including wife Anstress Dudley, sons Ed and Chandler, and daughter Myra D. Shean.  Arriving in October 1858, Myra started a school in her parents' home.  The family moved to a house in the new town of Gardner in 1862.

  • John W. Sponable - 1857 - Owned most of the land of the original Gardner townsite. In 1858 he erected the first store.  He lost his wife and sons within the first two years, then married Myra Shean, Gardner's first teacher.  He kept shop in Gardner for ten years and was elected State Representative in 1866, after two terms as County Treasurer.

        Others who took claims in 1857

  • James Frame, Thomas Rosington, Asa Thayer, O.B. Gardner, B.B. Francis, G.W. Chamberlain, A.B. Bartlett, the Carrolls, Whittakers, Keatings and others.

A Town Prior to Statehood

Gardner was was formally laid-out, platted and surveyed nearly four years prior to Kansas becoming a State.  The original town that was staked-off in August 1857 consisted of 320 acres.  A man named C. Storrs Jr., performed the survey. The survey chains were carried by Bradley and Hopkins, while George A. Thorne and a Mr. Huntoon drove the stakes.  The Gardner Town Company was chartered on March 16, 1857, and the original members were Asa Thayer, B.B. Francis, both of Maine, O.B. Gardner, the Justice of Peace, G.W. Chamberlain of Vermont, and A.B. Bartlett of Massachusetts.   Gardner is said to be named after the Governor of Massachusetts, Henry J. Gardner, who held the office from 1855 -1858.  

Early Political Leanings - Free State Proclivities

There can be little doubt that Gardner's early beginnings, at least in part, stem from the free-state activities that were organized and directed at Kansas by the 1854 enactment of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.   It was the stated and direct purpose of this initiative to facilitate and help finance travel and settlement of emigrants in Kansas as a countermeasure to those who were taking undue advantage of settlers and to carve  and build a free-state out of the Territory of Kansas.  The Society financed the establishment and defense of Lawrence, Kansas, as the destination of the emigrants and the center from which their settlement would proceed.  The Report of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society clearly spelled out its authors' opposition to slave-state activities occurring in nearby Missouri. 

According to the 1854 document, "The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company promises to give confidence to settlers, by giving system to emigration. By dispelling the fears that Kansas will be a Slave State, - the Company will remove the only bar which now hinders its occupation by free settlers."   The document further states: "It is to be remembered that all accounts agree that the region of Kansas is the most desirable part of America now open to the emigrant. It is accessible in four days of continuous travel from Boston. Its crops are very bountiful, its soil being well adapted to the staples of Virginia and Kentucky and especially to the growing of hemp. In its eastern section, the woodland and prairie-land intermix in proportions very well adapted for the purposes of the settler.

With generous complimentary language and written accounts of the benefits of the Kansas land and promises of assistance to potential settlers, the free-state movement had begun.   With Lawrence, Kansas established as the hub of the new initiatives, many a settler to Gardner probably experienced the familiar story as follows: "My father, W.J. Ott grew up in Virginia.  He came west to Kansas in 1857 and while in Lawrence met a man who told him of the fine prairies to the southeast, where he arrived (at Gardner) on April 22nd."*

The political persuasion of those who lived in the one year-old town of Gardner became obvious in the August 1858 general vote on the Lecompton Constitution, a pro-slavery resolution.  Out of 103 votes cast from Gardner Township, 100 were against it.  The pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was formulated (Sept., 1857) at the territorial capitol of Lecompton , and was ratified (Dec., 1857) after an election in which voters were given a choice only between limited or unlimited slavery.  Free state men refused to cast their ballots. At a subsequent election (Aug., 1858), Kansas voters decisively rejected the Lecompton Constitution. Kansas was later (January 29, 1861) admitted as a free state.  

Bushwacker Raids

In the first few years of its existence, Gardner would experience a few incidents of anti-free-state activities by those who sought to undermine the determination of Kansas as a Free-State.  A written history, Gardner - Where The Trails Divide  states Gardner was "the first town in Johnson County, if not the state, raided by Confederate guerillas," on the night of October 22, 1861.  Fourteen men known as Dick Yeager's or "the Up Hays' Gang" rode into Gardner from the east and stole horses, wagons, raided the armory, broke down doors and took money and other provisions, which they loaded into wagons in front of about 20 hostages they stood guard over, then took off.  A posse of about 200 men followed, however, the bandits escaped.

William Quantrill and his gang passed through Gardner on the evening of August 20,  1863, on his way to sack and burn the town of Lawrence.  They rode through town four abreast, quietly and without incident, but under the suspicion of many of the citizens who locked their doors and hid valuables.  One account of the Cramer family states the gang took a pair of Abram Cramer's best horses and fresh baked bread.  They remembered later seeing the smoke of the burning town of Lawrence.

 *Reminiscensces of Ralph Ott, 1957, from Gardner - Where The Trails Divide by Virginia Armstrong Johnson and the Gardner Centennial Committee, 1957.