How Lenexa became the spinach capital of the world

In 1929, the American spinach industry was having a Popeye-powered boom. The stocky, hot-tempered cartoon sailor had caused spinach sales to spike by 33 percent — causing a market wave that hit Lenexa, Kansas, where the leafy green happened to grow particularly well.

A buyer from the Ernst Applebaum Company of Chicago sought out spinach in St. Louis and found that the city’s soil was too sandy for the crop, which thrives in nitrogen-rich soil. The buyer then went west to Kansas City. When he tasted Lenexa’s spinach at the downtown River Market, he was hooked. The buyer paid 12.5 cents per bushel, and Lenexa became a spinach town. By 1934, the Kansas City Star had christened Lenexa the Spinach Capital of the World, a title that lasted until the early 1940s.

Lenexa celebrates this part of its history each fall with the Spinach Festival — a one-day event that includes a spinach recipe contest, live music, craft and antique vendors, food vendors, children’s activities like paddle boats and a rock skipping contest, and the world’s largest spinach salad.

The festival originated with the Lenexa Historical Society in 1982, according to the group’s president Bruce Daniel. The festival originally concentrated on arts and crafts, but in 1983, it added a focus on spinach. This stuck, and today, the festival hosts more than 50 vendors and 6,000 attendees annually.

“It’s changed to what it is now,” Daniel says, “but we still celebrate the fact that there was a period in time where Lenexa was the world’s capital of something, and it happened to be spinach.”

Daniel says Lenexa’s title can be attributed to the founder of Lenexa, Charles Bradshaw, who struck a deal to give up land for the railroad in exchange for the town getting a train depot.

“Because we had a train depot in the ’30s when the spinach had to be shipped back east, everything came to Lenexa and was shipped from here,” Daniel says.

Bradshaw made Lenexa what it was by sacrificing his land to get the depot, a spirit that’s alive in the town today.

“In Lenexa, there’s a whole lot of people who, for whatever reason, have a real sense of pride in this town,” Daniel says. “They really do care about the city. There’s a pretty strong sense of community in this town. I think that’s one of the reasons the festivals are always so successful.”

GO: Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park, W. 87th Street Parkway and Lackman Road. 9 am-4 pm. Free.

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