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Bricklayer "Indian Jim"

Kansas City is saturated with history and uncovering its many stories from the past is among my favorite things to do. Residents often pass by these location with fascinating tales without even knowing it. Whenever I stumble upon one of these places I dig in to learn more and if possible place a geocache to highlight it. Once such spot is on the south side of town and features a man who is a legend in his own right. Since I already composed the text and submitted a geocache there I decided to double dip and make it my blog for the day. Enjoy... Johnson County never had a yellow brick road, but red bricks helped to pave the roadway 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.

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,” using metal clamps, who carried and stacked 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 horizonal 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 degrees. He placed 1,755 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 $2,975 in 2021) 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 Senator Curtis, who would be elected vice president four years later as Herbert Hoover’s running mate, and Governor Paulen. The senator placed a silver brick. The governor added the final gold brick.

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.”

According to the book “Johnson County Kansas: A Pictorial History, 1825-2005,” “a reported 7,500 cars drove over the brick road (the next day) 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, and Goodland, Kansas, and Pampa, Texas. Although other bricklayers challenged his claim, he was never defeated.

By the 1930s, brick paving, the standard of road and street construction since the last 19th century and early 20th century, was replaced by concrete and asphalt.

Indian Jim died on Sept. 20, 1955, in a hospital in Houston. He was 76.

If you want to see a small piece of Jim's handiwork visit the memorial to him at the intersection of E. Kansas City Rd and E Poplar St in Olathe, Kansas.

Thanks to the Johnson County Historical Society for their assistance with this listing.

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