Saving Water, Providing Jobs: A KERCulean Effort

KERC Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 KERC workers clear timber at the site of Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 (photo courtesy Greg Hoots)

In 1934, Kansas faced two major problems: a lack of jobs and a lack of water. The Water Conservation Program, spearheaded by the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee (KERC), aimed to take care of both at once.

A 1934 flyer for the KERC’s Water Conservation Program declared that, “The Water Conservation Program, as part of the Drought Relief Service, is designed to aid in relieving destitution actually resulting from drought conditions.” The program strove to fulfill its mission by constructing municipal lakes and farm ponds, and repairing levee and flood systems. It employed jobless laborers in order to solve the state’s drought-related problems.

All told, the program built or began construction on 27 lakes across the state, including those located in Bourbon, Atchison, Hodgeman, Linn, Harper, Graham, Wabaunsee, Decatur, Woodson, and Brown Counties. Bourbon County Lake, one of the largest, located near Fort Scott, took an average of 365 men per week for 53 weeks to construct the lake using a dam. The men worked more than 19,000 days in a region starved for work.

Lakes served as reservoirs for municipal water supplies and enabled water-based recreation like boating, fishing, and swimming.

The same, dual-purpose, environmental and recreational thinking went into KERC’s farm pond program, which built 2,992 ponds in 1934 and 1935. In exchange for the labor to build the pond, farm owners signed easements granting county access to the water in case of emergency.

Also important were KERC’s flood relief programs. Somewhat prophetically, KERC set up emergency work relief programs in Kansas during December of 1934. In the spring of 1935, terrible floods ravaged the state. Under KERC’s program, counties telegrammed the nature of their emergency and how much help they needed to the state, who instantly approved work-relief labor to help.

Many counties employed work-relief for preventative measures such as rebuilding levees in advance of the floodwater. These efforts saved property and likely lives. Work-relief labor was also used to bury drowned livestock, repair dams, clean up post-flood messes, and repair roads. One work-relief crew in Cheyenne County rescued a family atop a house floating down the river from Colorado. On its roof, trapped for days, were a rattlesnake, a coyote, and five humans, each too absorbed with their own predicaments to bother one another.

All told, during the 1935 flood, 61 relief projects were authorized in 51 counties, all thanks to KERC’s efforts to both care for Kansas’s waters and its workers. KERC was disbanded in 1937 by order of Governor Walter A. Huxman, in part because many New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration took over providing jobs for the struggling and transient workers of Kansas. Still, many of KERC’s aquatic projects continue to shape Kansas waters today.
Learn more about Kansas’s water history at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display in Eudora at the Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017 and its partner exhibition in at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Center in Kansas City, KS.


KHC Awards Ten Grants

The Kansas Humanities Council recently awarded $69,991.00 in Humanities and Heritage grants to ten Kansas organizations. Local contributions to the projects are estimated at $118,850.00.

Do Good Productions, Leawood ($10,000)
“Archiver Podcast”
A nine-episode podcast series that connects Kansans with key moments in history through historical audiotapes straight from the archives. Sam Zeff, project director.

Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, Lawrence ($8,000)
“Strength in Numbers: Continuing the Interpretation of Quindaro”
A public symposium honoring the legacy of the historic Quindaro town site and recent developments in the effort to create a National Historic Landmark. Elizabeth Hobson, project director.

Kansas Oral History Project, Topeka ($3,500)
“Legislative Legacy”
An oral history project to interview legislators who served in the Kansas Legislature between 1960-1980 and document the stories behind key policy issues. Joan Wagnon, project director.

Lecompton Historical Society ($3,500)
“Lecompton School Memorabilia Inventory”
A project to preserve the photographs, trophies, certificates, letter jackets, and other items related to Lecompton schools before consolidation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lynn Ward, project director.

Lucas Arts & Humanities Council ($3,491)
“Digitizing Kansas Grassroots Arts Environments Videos”
A project to digitize video footage of 30 grassroots artists and their art environments. Jeannie Stramel, project director.

Sociedad Hidalgo, Inc., Shawnee ($5,000)
“Latin American Cinema Festival of Kansas City”
A series of five Latin American films followed by bilingual discussions in Spanish and English. Gloria Bessenbacher, project director.

Ulrich Museum, Wichita ($7,500)
“looking at the overlooked”
As part of Wichita’s citywide initiative “Candid Conversations: A Discussion of Race in Wichita,” this project invites speakers and artists to examine material culture and representation within the context of race and suppression. Jana Durfee, project director.

University of Kansas, Lawrence ($7,500)
“Black Love: A Symposium”
A weeklong celebration of the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937), through an exploration of African American art, literature, and culture. Ayesha Hardison, project director.

Wellington Public Library ($3,500)
“Digitizing, Preserving, and Making Fragile Records Available for Reading and Research”
A project to preserve historical documents from Sumner County, including the materials of the Prentiss Club, an early 20th century group created for the specific purpose of building the library. Lisa Vargas, project director.

Wichita State University ($10,000)
“Coin(ando) Wichita”
This series of public events will explore the cultural and culinary traditions of Hispanic communities in Wichita. Rocio Del Aguila, project director.

The next grant deadline for Humanities and Heritage grants is September 21, 2017.


Lawrence’s Reluctance to Take the Plunge into Equality

A civil rights protest outside the Jayhawk Plunge, July 3 1960 (Photo courtesy Lawrence Journal World Collection, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries)

A civil rights protest outside the Jayhawk Plunge, July 3, 1960 (Photo courtesy Lawrence Journal World Collection, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries)

In 1949, riots erupted in St. Louis when the city desegregated its public pools. As many as 5,000 white swimmers attacked black youths who tried to swim in the newly integrated pools. The unrest injured 20 people and took 400 police officers to break up.

A few years later, Kansas City’s public pool at Swope Park, its crown jewel, opened in 1941 as a whites-only facility and became the target of an NAACP lawsuit on behalf of three black children who wanted to swim there. Instead of integrating the pool, the city shut it down. In courtroom proceedings at the time, a city representative said pools in particular needed to be segregated because of “the natural aversion to physical intimacy inherent in the use of swimming pools by races that do not mingle socially.” Regardless, the city integrated the pool peacefully in 1954, after an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case fell in favor of its young, black petitioners and toppled segregation.

The road to aquatic equality was rocky in Missouri’s two biggest cities, but by 1954, both reluctantly accepted that all races could access the public swimming facilities. However, Lawrence in northeast Kansas took much longer in providing equal access to public pools.

As late as 1960 Lawrence’s residents refused to fund a municipal-owned swimming facility. Lawrencians voted down municipal pool ballot measures in 1949 and again in 1964. The closest equivalent to a public pool for black children was the Kansas River, where many drowned. White children, on the other hand, swam at the Jayhawk Plunge. Officially, “The Plunge”, owned by Bertha Nottberg, operated as a private club and was thus exempt from civil rights legislation as exemplified in Brown v. Board of Education; unofficially, Nottberg sold single-day tickets for 25 cents to children who were not members as long as they were white.

A Lawrence group called LLPD, Lawrence League for the Protection of Democracy, took issue with Nottberg’s discriminatory practices. The group, led by University of Kansas Professor of Economics Harry Shaffer, looked to pressure the city to pass an ordinance claiming pools were included in the public entities covered in recent Civil Rights legislation. The city dragged its feet due in no small part to the pool’s technically private standing.

A group of about 30 black residents loosely affiliated with LLPD, perhaps spurred into action by the unhurried response of the mostly white leadership, began picketing Jayhawk Plunge on July 4, 1960. Nottberg put slats in the pool’s chain-link fence so swimmers could not see the picketers.

Nottberg, fearful of the negative economic impact of being a political flashpoint, and of operating an integrated pool, offered to sell her pool to both the city and the LLPD. Neither entity was interested.

The biggest counter-argument to forcing Nottberg to integrate the pool was one of politics. The city, as well as the LLPD’s opponents, were deeply uncomfortable telling Nottberg how to run her private business, even though it was functioning as a public pool. According to historian Rusty Monhollon, opponents of an integrated Plunge were more concerned with private property than race:

“The effort to take the Plunge also testified to the potent forces impeding racial equality in Lawrence and the limits of liberalism in challenging those forces. White racism was one such force. But many Lawrencians defended segregation through their opposition to the activist, liberal state and a steadfast belief in the rights of individuals to use their property however they wanted.”

Indeed, soon after the picketers took up residence outside the pool, a counter-protest covered the ticket booth: an anonymous Nottberg ally plastered the pool with flyers that said “what happened to the personal rights of private industry to operate at a profit?” and “KU does have a pool, what’s wrong with it?” The flyers sent a clear message: the protesters were “outsiders,” affiliated with KU and not Lawrence, agitating a local business owner and trying to tell her what to do with her business and hard-earned money.

On July 11 of that same year, someone put 11 carp in the pool and 11 more on LLPD president Shaffer’s doorstep along with a threatening effigy, followed up with telephoned death threats.

On July 12 Nottberg closed the pool, citing financial losses. She leased it to Kansas City businessmen who ran it more like a private club, erasing any possibility of integrating that particular pool.

It would take several more years for Lawrence to pass a referendum and build an integrated municipal pool. For the black children of Lawrence, finally, the time would come to be able to take a dip on a hot summer day without needing to fend off the currents of the mighty Kansas River.

Learn more about Kansas’ Water Story at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, on display in at the Eudora Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017, and its partner exhibitions.

This article is based primarily on Rusty L. Monhollon’s article “Taking the Plunge: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Desegregation in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960,” written while he pursued a PhD at the University of Kansas. The article can be read in full here.