Dams, Democracy, and Cold Cuts

Lyons ULAR

ULAR Watershed District Site 2 (Photo courtesy of Susan Nelson)

Jack Wempe saw democracy in action in a church basement between a podium and a cold cut tray. It featured a performance by the Notables, a band from nearby Hutchison, and a PowerPoint presentation by a K-State graduate student. Democracy in action, on view annually in central Kansas’s Rice County, makes Jack Wempe believe in the system.

Wempe, a former Kansas state legislator and member of the Kansas Board of Regents, now lives in Lyons, the seat of Rice County in central Kansas. In a September 2015 column for The Hutchinson News, Wempe described his annual visit to the board meeting of the Upper Little Arkansas River Watershed Joint District No. 95, and he claimed that such meetings “might be considered a way to keep government as close to the people as possible.”

The Upper Little Arkansas River Watershed Joint District No. 95, or ULAR, is one of 80 active Watershed Districts in the state, which cover about 28 percent of Kansas. Established by the Kansas Watershed District Act of 1953, Watershed Districts minimize flood damage along Kansas rivers. Their most common strategy, supported by local and/or federal tax dollars, is to construct dams.

The ULAR Watershed District formed in 1974 when Gene Deeds delivered a petition to the Secretary of State with 315 signatures, representing 28 percent of landowners and 33 percent of the land in the proposed watershed. The successful petition created a district covering more than 160,000 acres along the Upper Arkansas, which runs north to south through the eastern half of Rice County.

Over the past 42 years, the ULAR Watershed built 10 structures in attempts to control the Little Arkansas, and plans to construct 8 more. The District has two people on payroll—one office worker holding down the fort at District headquarters in Little River, and one part-time maintenance person to care for the aging dams. The rest of the 4-mile levy goes right into new dams for flood control, and all board members serve as volunteers.

According to Wempe, “exact cost/benefit studies are difficult [but] the benefit to farmers avoiding crop loss and to taxpayers avoiding damage to roads and bridges is obviously immense.” In a state that still has clear memories of big floods in 1951 and 1993, that peace of mind is more than worth the tax bill.

Ultimately, the ULAR Watershed District provides an example of local democracy in action—a band of dedicated volunteers coming together to solve local problems with significant local input. Jack Wempe doesn’t even own property in the ULAR District any more, but still makes a point of attending the yearly meeting because he likes “the idea of a shared objective that has lasted 41 years and appears to have no inclination to end.”

Learn more about Kansas’ water history at the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition, Water/Ways, on display in Hesston from November 18 to December 31, 2017.

To learn more about how Water Districts have shaped life in Rice County, make plans to attend the Water/Ways partner exhibition at the Rice County Historical Society from January 29 to March 31, 2018.




Don’t Forget Broughton

(Kansas City Star, April 9, 1967)

An image from the April 9, 1967 Kansas City Star entices tourists to vacation at the Tuttle Creek Reservoir, the construction of which erased many towns.

In 1966, government bulldozers arrived in Broughton, near Clay Center in north central Kansas. The engineers operating the bulldozers carried maps, which marked almost every house in town with circles. The circles indicated homes slated for demolition. The town emptied of people long ago, and now it was about to be empty of houses, too.

From 1962-1966, the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Republican River near Junction City. It created Kansas’s largest lake, Milford, an “inland sea.” Newspaper articles featuring attractive swimmers in bikinis promoted the idea of the new dam promising aquatic recreation and “glamour, too.”

The dam project arose as memories of 1951 still lingered in the minds of many riverside Kansans. The flooding that year devastated so many communities that it spurred the government to action on flood control. Add that to a New-Deal-inspired, Eisenhower-driven, anti-communist faith in big government projects and Kansas saw two major dams arise together within the span of a few years: Tuttle Creek and Milford.

Still, the Milford project inspired fierce opposition, especially from those in the towns that would have to move or be abandoned. The book Broughton, Kansas: Portrait of a Lost Town explains, “large scale development and public works were supposed to be for the benefit of the public, but in practice, important community livelihoods as well as linkages to significant human history were destroyed in the name of ‘progress.’” In order to prevent future floods in larger, downstream cities like Junction City and Manhattan, purposeful flooding would erase Broughton and 13 other smaller towns.

The people of Broughton knew what was coming. They were located in the flood plain for the Milford Dam. They saw it plainly on the planning map hanging in the post office: if the dam collapsed, no more Broughton. A similar project took shape in the creation of the nearby Tuttle Creek dam, and towns much like theirs were scrubbed from the map to make room for its reservoirs and floodplains. One resident said, “We all knew, when it came to be Broughton’s turn […] we knew we wouldn’t win.”

The post-war trends that saw young people fleeing small towns for big cities and college affected Broughton, too. Thus, the population of the town declined throughout the 1950s. By the time 1965 rolled, with its scheduled bulldozers rolling in as well, few families remained. Among them were the Bauers, whose ancestors settled the area in 1868. According to Broughton, Kansas: Portrait of a Lost Town, “the Bauers stayed so long on their land that they eventually received a ‘condemnation order.’ Family members still recall this bitterly […] ‘Many nights my father lay awake trying to reach a decision,’ Diana Bauer wrote in 1965.” The family eventually moved to Nebraska in an attempt to start anew. A few short months later, the bulldozers aimed their plows at their homes.

Kansas State history professor M.J. Morgan wrote that, “three general themes” encapsulated Broughton’s character. First were “psychological and social orientations”, based on proximity to the Republican River. The river provided fertile bottomland for farming. It also helped create a close-knit community through water recreation such as summer swimming and winter ice-skating, and had helped the town persevere through hardships, namely floods.

Second was “an impressive degree of human mobility” in counterpoint to the small core group of Broughton residents. For example, fifty young men from this tiny community served in World War II.

Third and perhaps most important was “a high degree of inclusion for people who were often viewed as ‘other,’” including African Americans, immigrants, and even Gypsies. Mark A. Chapman grew up there, eventually going to Kansas State University and then on to Texas where he became a wealthy businessman.

Chapman, thinking back on Broughton from his adopted home of Texas, decided to do something about the as-yet unrecorded history of his town, which at that point was only visible as ruins in the woods. In collaboration with Kansas State University, he founded the Chapman Center for Rural Studies (http://www.k-state.edu/history/chapman/).

Their first project was Broughton, Kansas: Portrait of a Lost Town, a book produced as collaboration between center director M.J. Morgan and her students. The book is a lively slice-of-life history that brings the once-forgotten town to life in its pages.

After finishing the Broughton book, Chapman and the Chapman Center decided to widen their focus, researching and documenting all kinds of lost or forgotten Kansas towns. The Chapman Center website provides a treasure trove of forgotten Kansas history.

All told, 14 towns were moved, razed, or abandoned to make way for the Tuttle Creek and Milford Dam projects.

To learn more about how water shapes the lives of Kansans, be sure to visit Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the local exhibition, SubMerged,  on display at the Geary County Historical Society & Museums from January 6 to February 18, 2018 and at the partner exhibition in Our Relationship with Water opening at the Rice County Historical Society in Lyons on January 29, 2018.