Indian Jim, above, was a famed bricklayer in paving Johnson County roads. A brick-laying crew, left, is shown at work in downtown Lenexa in the early 1930s. Photo courtesy Lenexa Historical Society
Editor, Best of Times
Johnson County never had a yellow brick road, but red bricks helped to pave the road-way system out of the rut.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, most roads and streets were either dirt or gravel. Potholes and grooves were common, taking their toll on wagons and vehicles. Muddy roads after rains also hampered farmers and drivers, often adding hours to normal travel times. Two of the county’s main roads – Kansas City Road in Olathe and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park – were paved with brick in the mid-1920s.
The wizard of all bricklayers was James Garfield Cleveland Brown, a member of the Oneida Indian Nation, who became known as “Indian Jim.”
The paving of Kansas City Road in 1925 was a major project starting in Olathe, running through Lenexa, connecting to downtown Overland Park at 85th Street, now Santa Fe Drive, and joining Metcalf Avenue.
The bricked road, spanning 21 miles, followed the old Santa Fe Trail route from Olathe to Westport. It has since been paved and replaced by I-35.
Indian Jim vs. Frank Hoffman
The grand opening of Kansas City Road occurred on Sept. 12, 1925. It featured a bricklaying contest between Indian Jim and Frank Hoffman, a bricklayer from El Dorado, Kansas. They competed in laying bricks on a stretch of unfinished road 833 feet long.
According to the Johnson County Democrat newspaper, the bricklayers were positioned back-to-back at the midway point of the unfinished road. They had a support crew of six “tong men,” who used metal clamps to carry and stack four to five bricks at a time on either side of the ambidextrous bricklayers. Both worked stooped over from a standing position and wore rubber pads to protect their hands.
“He is as limber at the waist as a rubber man. When he raises his arms to a horizontal position he has a ‘wingspread’ of 87.5 inches,” The Democrat described Indian Jim laying bricks, adding that when he was “going good,” the bricklayer could lay 14 tons of brick a day with “no sign of effort or fatigue.”
Indian Jim won the competition by paving slightly more than 416 feet of Kansas City Road with 46,664 bricks (218 tons) in seven hours and 48 minutes in drizzling rain and 60-degree weather.
He placed1,755 more bricks than Hoffman. Indian Jim averaged laying almost 100 bricks every minute; that’s more than one brick per second. Each brick weighed eight pounds.
As part of his contest winnings, Indian Jim received a $200 prize (equivalent to $2,941 in 2019) along with his regular wages of $2 per hour. He was also presented a medal designating him as the Middle Western Champ in bricklaying, but Indian Jim had a broader claim of fame in mind.
“He has made an art of what other men have always regarded as drudging labor,” The Kansas City Star reported in its coverage of the competition. “He believes he is the champion bricklayer of the world and is proud of the fact that when he ‘lays them, they stay laid.’”
The bricklaying competition attracted more than 10,000 people, including U.S. Senator Charles Curtis and Governor Ben Paulen, and featured a parade with 60 floats, scores of decorated cars and a band concert. The Olathe Mirror newspaper reported 43 ceremonial bricks were laid by various VIPs, including Olathe and state officials along with three county commissioners, to finish Kansas City Road. The last two bricks were laid by Governor Paulen and Senator Curtis, who would be elected vice president four years later as Herbert Hoover’s running mate. He placed a silver brick. The governor added the final gold brick.
Trip to KC now ‘possible in 40 minutes ’
Featured speakers at the event told the crowd about the importance of paved roads for economic development of the region. One noted “a trip to Kansas City was now possible in 40 minutes.”
In the book “Johnson County Kansas: A Pictorial History, 1825-2005,” on the day after the grand opening celebration “a reported 7,500 cars drove over the brick road to experience a ‘modern’ roadway.”
In 1927, Indian Jim helped to pave Metcalf Avenue from 79th Street to Louisburg, which later became a part of Highway 69 from Kansas City to Dallas, Texas.
Aside from his notoriety in Johnson County, Indian Jim was a well-known bricklayer in Baldwin, Liberal, Goodland, Kansas and Pampa, Texas. Although other brick-layers challenged his claim, he was never defeated.
By the 1930s, brick paving, the standard of road and street construction since the late 19th and early 20th century, was replaced by concrete and asphalt.
Indian Jim died on Sept. 20, 1955, in a hospital at Houston. He was 76.
Some remnants of bygone brick roadways do exist beneath existing streets and roads. The bricks occasionally are uncovered by construction work. According to the Overland Park Historical Society, “the bricks on Metcalf were exposed just recently when the highway was resurfaced. The old asphalt was peeled off and the original bricks were exposed. Many people noticed the bricks north of 75th Street.”
Beth Wright, deputy director of public works for the city of Olathe, says Kansas City Road no longer has brick beneath the asphalt, but some streets do.“We have some portions of low volume roads which have brick beneath the asphalt surface but those are scattered sections throughout original town Olathe,” Wright said.
Only pockets of bricks are visible on Johnson County roadways. Some crosswalks, including a few along Kansas City Road in Olathe, have been constructed with bricks as part of streets. Several traffic islands dividing the county’s roadways also have brick surfaces. The intersection of Santa Fe and Cherry streets in downtown Olathe was built with bricks along with nearby crosswalks .
An “Indian Jim and the Building of the Kansas City Road” marker was completed in 2007 by students in the Olathe North High School 21st Century Program. The marker is located in a small pocket park at the junction of Poplar Street and Kansas City Road.
The rest is history.
(Used with permission. The Best of Times.)