The Little Dipper of the Flint Hills

Christy Davis drinks Flint Hills water right from the source

Christy Davis drinks Flint Hills water right from the source

The kitchen staff of Strong City’s Ad Astra Food and Drink lounge amicably at tables during a power outage. They have all heard of the artesian well nearby but cannot give precise directions to it. Someone suggests that it’s near Wonsevu, a tiny hamlet in southeast Kansas’s Chase County nestled in the heart of the Flint Hills. Today’s host and driver, Symphony in the Flint Hills Executive Director Christy Davis, confirms as much on a sectional map. But after driving about 20 minutes looking for the spring, Davis realizes the sectional map isn’t in the truck.

Arriving in Wonsevu, there’s no artesian well in sight. But Davis is determined to find it. She pulls the pickup into a long driveway, leaves it running, and hops out to knock on the door of a lovely house. A windmill softly chirps beside a clear pond. After a few minutes, Davis bounds back out of the house with a set of handwritten directions.

The directions are spot-on. After a short drive, Davis steps out of the truck and across the muddy road to an enameled ladle hanging from a barbed wire fence. Next to the fence, a pipe spits out cold and clear water. She dips the ladle into the spring and drinks—it’s cold, and it leaves a bit of a mineral film over the teeth.

The well sits in the right-of-way of the county road, so it’s not subject to valuable property rights like so many other wells and springs in the region. Further, agricultural practices in the Flint Hills ensure that aquifer water such as this is kept chemical-free. As Davis explains, “The Flint Hills is a place of time-honored practices and clean living. It’s a place where native grasslands keep water free of pesticides – where you can still drink water straight from a spring in a cup you share with your neighbor.”

To learn more about the Flint Hills water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on view at Symphony in the Flint Hills’s gallery space in Cottonwood Falls from February 24-April 8, 2018.

Strange Things Rising in the Flood

A Wilson County resident finds humor in the flood (Photo courtesy Wilson County Citizen)

A Wilson County resident finds humor in the flood (Photo courtesy Wilson County Citizen)

Stepping to the microphone, John Eck declares, “Only the good die young, but I’ve already lived too long. They say it’s a hundred-year flood, thank god, because I won’t see the next one.”

He’s in a church in the southeast Kansas town of Fredonia six months after the worst flood anyone in Wilson County remembers. When the Wilson County Historical Society brought together residents to tell their stories for posterity, townsperson after townsperson stepped up to the microphone. The memories of such a severe weather event evoked a surprisingly large amount of laughter in spite of the fact that the scars of the flood were still visible.

Early summer 2007 brought 21” of precipitation in the last two weeks of June, and the night of June 30 alone brought another 5.5″ in 35 minutes. This group of Fredonians appears happy just to be here and dry, and sharing their unique memories.

Beverly Elsberry shared the tale of how her SelectComfort air mattress floated clear to the ceiling during the flood. When it came down, the pillows were still dry.

Emma Crites recalled that every time her aunt Peggy walked across her living room, her heavy footfalls would knock over the family photos on the end table. During the flood, the torrent lifted that very end table and moving it around the corner into the next room, and when it settled back on the ground, not a single photo was out of place.

All memories were not so light-hearted. One Fredonia resident, Natalie Odell Puckett, sobbed that “everything we had is gone,” as she was consoled by none other than then Governor Kathleen Sibelius.

Still, as the July 2, 2007 issue of the Wilson County Citizen put it, “the best in people shows up in emergency.” Pam Walker at the Wilson County Conservation District remembered, “There was no ‘feel sorry for me’ attitude amongst those of us who were hit hard by the flood.  The losses were felt keenly, but everyone pitched in to pull up and out of the mire and muck.” Looking back, whether from a church microphone that same year or today, ten years later, one can’t help but be moved by a town reflecting on the surreal devastation of a flood and daring to laugh.

To learn more about Kansas’s water history, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and its partner exhibition in Fredonia, made possible by the Wilson County Conservation District from February 19 until March 9, 2018.

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Waconda Springs, From Sacred to Submerged

Waconda Springs in 1921 (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

Waconda Springs in 1921 (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

For centuries, tribes from the Central Plains revered the Waconda Springs, located in what is now Mitchell County in north central Kansas. The name Waconda comes from a Kansa word meaning Great Spirit, and the site carried such religious importance to the Kansa and other tribes that it was considered neutral territory and open to any group to visit.

Tribal members believed that the springs contained the spirits of animals, and they visited the site to gain knowledge from these spiritual beings. After Native removal, the springs captured the imagination of Anglo settlers to the area who drank the water in hopes of curing their ills.

In 1866, surveyor David E. Ballard described the springs this way:

“The Spring itself is a natural curiosity, it being located on the summit of a cone-shaped limestone rock. The rock is circular, about 200 feet in diameter at the base and about 30 feet high, upon the summit of this, rests the spring, the basin being circular and about 30 feet in diameter”.

The water from the springs gained such popularity that in 1904 it won a medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair for its medicinal value. A couple of years later an enterprising doctor named G.F. Abrahams turned the land surrounding the springs into a health spa to capitalize on the notoriety and advertised his venture with the promise that the water from Waconda Springs would “clean your works until your works work.”

In 2010 Kansas State University student Matt Kelley interviewed John Bingesser, great grandson of Dr. Abrahams about life at the spa as part of Kansas State’s Lost Kansas Communities Project; the project is housed at the Chapman Center for Rural Studies. Bingesser was born in a house on the site of the springs in 1939 and he lived on the 350-acre spa and farm until its demise in 1964 to make way for the dam.

He recalled administering baths to sanitarium patients with water piped from the springs heated “as hot as they could stand” and then spraying them with cold water in order to enhance circulation. To his recollection, the treatments worked and the spa regularly hosted 40 patients a day with most patients staying at the resort for many weeks.

One such patient was Perry Weston. Hailing from Nebraska, Weston made several trips to Waconda between 1916 and 1937 to help his heart ailment. While there, he took hot and cold baths, got massages, and went on juice diets. In one letter home, Weston wrote, “I have taken three baths in all. Yesterday they did not get me so very hot. Just when I got to sweating good he turned on the cold water and froze me. This is a funny place to doctor.” Though he thought it a “funny place,” Weston kept returning, and even took the spring’s water home to Nebraska in a Red Wing Stoneware jug, now in the Kansas State Historical Society’s collection.

Bingesser remembered filling up “countless numbers” of gallon jugs with spring water and shipping them off to customers from around the country at the Missouri Pacific Railroad depot, which built a line specifically for passengers traveling to the springs for treatment.

He also remembers the spring as more than a spa or resort. For him it was also a farm with pigs, chickens, geese, and cattle. They grew wheat and corn, and all meals served at the sanitarium came from food grown and harvested on site.

In 1944 plans were made to build a dam for flood control at the site. The Bingesser family fought the proposed dam, going so far as to hire an hydrologist who verified the site’s uniqueness. Dam supporters dismissed the findings and referred to the springs as a “mud hole.” The floods of 1951 sealed the fate of Waconda Springs and work on the dam began in 1964 when John Bingesser himself bulldozed the sanitarium site.

To learn more water stories in Kansas, visit Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the companion exhibition SubMerged!, on display at the Geary County Historical Society and Museums in Junction City through February 18, 2018, and its partner exhibition, Water/Ways in Rice County: Our Relationship with Water at the Rice County Historical Society in Lyons through March 31.

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