Knob Noster State Park History and Significance

The New Deal comes to Johnson County

Since 1946, Knob Noster State Park has welcomed visitors to its forests, waters, cabins, and camps. The park's history begins, however, not after World War II, but in the depths of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt's administration viewed the depression not only as an economic disaster, but as a social and environmental crisis. According to this New Deal mindset, economic recovery and social uplift required the conservation of environments where Americans lived, worked, and played. Knob Noster State Park has its roots in this conviction.

The park's history began during the Great Depression, but the land's history began much earlier. For millennia, the territory that became the park was occupied, controlled, and managed by Indigenous peoples--most recently the Osage. Under intense pressure from US settlers, fur traders, and governmental officials, the Osage agreed to the Treaty of 1808, ceding 52 million acres of land with the mistaken understanding that they retained hunting rights. The cession included eventual parkland, which US settlers made their home.

Throughout the nineteenth century, primarily white settlers made thier lives and livelihoods from this corner of Johnson County, near the village of Montserrat. By the 1870s, they set up mining operations. Wage workers and black convict labor extracted coal from exposed seams that went to power the nation's emerging industrial economy. Others practiced agriculture, which remained long after the coal did. Farming took its toll. By the 1920s, the rolling terrain suffered from serious soil exhaustion and erosion. After the highs of the Great War, crop prices plummeted during the 1920s, making matters worse for farmers.

Then came the Great Depression and, in 1932, the election of Roosevelt with his promise of using federal power to stimulate the economy and alleviate suffering. A line from Pare Lorentz' 1938 documentary, The River, captured the integrated perspective common among New Deal conservationists: "Poor land makes poor people, and poor people make poor land." To address one was to address the other. By hiring unemployed workers in new agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), Roosevelt hoped to alleviate unemployment, improve infrastructure, stabilize natural environments that were running amok, and ultimately restore hope, optimism, and a sense of security in the American public.

The degraded land in Johnson County seemed ideal for pursuing this vision. A key question remained: what form would this rejuvation of land and people take?

The answer could be found not in rural Johnson County, but nearly seventy miles to the west in Kansas City. Throughout the 1920s, civic organizations noted the growing demand and insufficient supply of outdoor recreation opportunities in the burgeoning city. In this regard, Kansas City joined a surge of national interest in outdoor recreation, driven in part by the spread of automobiles and highways and by the emerging consumer culture.

Kansas Citians were hungry for the great outdoors close to home. A Kansas City civic organization, the Council of Social Agencies, proposed the area around Montserrat for a National Park Service (NPS) recreational demonstration area. By 1935, the Montserrat Recreational Demonstration Area was born, with the NPS planning to hand the park to the State of Missouri upon completion.

Park construction began in 1936. Workers from the WPA built roads, campgrounds, cabins, swimming pools, and dining halls--many of which are featured in this tour. The workers labored for years, completing construction in 1946. That same year, the state renamed the land Knob Noster State Park.