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 (

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.




Horse Fossils and Buffalo Grass: Life on the Equus Beds Aquifer

A lush landscape of low-irrigation native plants at Dyck Arboretum in Hesston

A lush landscape of low-irrigation native plants at Dyck Arboretum in Hesston

For a librarian, Libby Albers sure loves aquifers. Before becoming the director of Hesston Public Library in south central Kansas, Albers worked in water and environmental resources management. She still maintains a passion for water in her current work. When asked how water affects her job at the library, she laughs and points at the fish tank in the lobby. But then she pulls a fossilized horse tooth off a shelf—she found it beachcombing in the surface waters downstream from the Equus Beds Aquifer, so named because of horse fossils like the one she delicately holds.

Water does affect Albers’ work at the library, just as it affects everyone in Hesston (and, by extension, Kansas). Sometimes, it’s in small reminders—the Hesston Public Library is one of three in the state where patrons can check out a fishing pole.

Sometimes, water’s impact on library work is accidental, like when the water main out front had to be replaced, a symptom of the aging water infrastructure of both small towns and large cities across the country.

Hesston’s water usage is primarily municipal, and it draws almost all its water from the Equus Beds Aquifer. About 24 percent of the aquifer is used for residential purposes, while 13% goes to industry and 50 percent goes to irrigation. The Equus Beds, begin just north of Wichita and stretch north and west to include Hutchinson and McPherson. It serves the most residential customers of Kansas’s aquifers.

The challenge, according to Albers, lies in how to make aquifer preservation and care seem like a pressing issue for a Hesston, Wichita, or Hutchinson resident who can twist a knob and make clean water come out for cheap any time, day or night, drought or flood. However, Kansas aquifers in general are depleted faster than they’re recharged, and some estimates have aquifers in the state reaching a crisis point by the 2060s.

Brad Guhr, education coordinator at nearby Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, recites a quote most often attributed to Mark Twain: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It’s funny, but the context is clear: If we don’t care for the aquifers, things could get ugly, political, or even violent. Guhr says so far we’ve been lucky. He explains, “Kansans for decades have utilized a seemingly endless supply of water to drink, to bathe, wash clothes, manage sewage, generate power, irrigate lawns, and grow crops. We give it little thought, we turn on the tap and it is there – clean, plentiful and inexpensive. A good first step to better aquifer stewardship is more awareness.”

To learn more about demands on the Equus Beds Aquifer, as well as other elements of Hesston’s water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, splashing into the Hesston Public Library from November 18 through December 31, 2017.


KHC Awards Five Grants

The Kansas Humanities Council recently awarded $28,305 in Humanities grants and Heritage grants to five Kansas organizations.

American Indian Health Research and Education Alliance, Shawnee ($5,750)
“AIHREA O.N.E Powwow Documentary”
A documentary film project to examine the twelve-year evolution of the Our Nations Energies (ONE) Powwow and its unique existence as a tool to promote cross-cultural education about American Indian Cultures. Ed Smith, project director.

Ashland Library ($3,428)
“The 2017 Starbuck Fire and its Effect on the People of Clark County”
An oral history project to transcribe and preserve the stories of firefighters, evacuees, farmers, ranchers, and survivors of Kansas’ largest grassland fire. Cara Vanderree, project director.

Finney County Historical Society, Garden City ($10,000)
“Garden City Works”
A short documentary film to explore how Garden City integrated cultures, ethnicities, and languages, as thousands of new immigrants came to live and work in what is now a majority-minority town. Steve Lerner, project director.

Johnson County Library Foundation, Shawnee Mission ($5,627)
“Race Project KC 2017-2018”
This series of public events will explore Kansas City’s racial history and how that history affects the present. Angela Tucker, project director.

Koester House Museum Foundation, Marysville ($3,500)
“Koester House Museum Library – Telling the Stories”
A project to preserve the museum’s library materials, as a means of understanding the lifestyles and attitudes of an earlier period in Marysville, and how it informs culture today. Pat Breeding, project director.

For  more information about KHC Humanities and Heritage grants, contact Murl Riedel, director of grants, at murl(at)

Stanton County: Can You Dig It?

A mural at the Stanton County Museum depicts life in the Western Interior Sea (mural by Chuck Bonner, Keystone Gallery, Scott City, Kansas)

To understand Stanton County’s water story and history, you need to start digging. Clues to this southwest Kansas county’s long and varied water story are found underground. Here you’ll find fossils of fish and whales, not dinosaurs.

These sea animals lived during the Cretaceous Era, between 66 and 145 million years ago, in a body of water as the Western Interior Sea. This sea stretched from today’s Gulf of Mexico all the way through northwest Canada to the Arctic Circle.

An amazing variety of creatures lived in the Western Interior Sea, including the Mosasaur. Katie Herrick, director at the Stanton County Museum, refers to it as “the T-Rex of the sea.” An adult Mosasaur grew up to 17 meters in length and looked like an aerodynamic, elongated whale with a pointed, alligator-like mouth. Mosasaurs and other marine life left their fossilized remains, and archaeological digs regularly find ancient traces of a time when an ocean covered this part of Kansas.

Around 9,000 years ago, after the ocean receded, the first humans appeared in what is now Stanton County. During the same era, a chain of intermittent playa lakes – temporary lakes formed by rainwater filling natural hollows in the landscape –provided a place for bison to gather and drink and offered a tempting spot for Paleo-Indians to hunt.

In 2002, Jack Hofman, archaeologist at the University of Kansas, discovered dozens of bison bones, including fully articulated skeletons, on a dig at the Bear Creek playa bed. The team also found two small stones—a tiny edge of a lithic arrowead, and an entire arrowhead point. This helped provide evidence that Paleo-Indians met at Bear Creek playa and used it as a bison kill site.

Keep digging in Stanton County today—you might need to go down pretty deep—and you’ll hit the Ogallala aquifer, proof that Stanton County’s water story is ongoing.

To learn more about Kansas’s water story visit Water Rights: Exploring Our Relationship with Water on display at the Stanton County Museum in Johnson City through November 12, 2017.


Look Down to Think Forward

Rainwater retention tanks at Kiowa County High School in Greensburg

Rainwater retention tanks at Kiowa County High School in Greensburg

In the 1880s, towns across Kansas sprang up with two hopes: to become a county seat and to attract a railroad. To do either, a town needed people and businesses, and water. Greensburg, in south central Kansas, was no exception. Teams of farmers, cowboys, and transients dug a huge hole in the middle of Greensburg in search of the groundwater below. It took two years to find the water and shore up the resulting well, which measured 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide.

The well still stands in near-perfect condition, a triumph of frontier engineering. The Big Well served as Greensburg’s chief water source from 1888 when it was completed until 1932. After sitting vacant for a few years, the Big Well reopened in 1937 as a tourist attraction, which it remains today. Visitors can descend a long, spiral staircase and inhale the damp, cool air of the well, which smells like equal parts ocean and fill dirt.

On May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado, one of the strongest ever recorded, freight-trained its way through town and leveled 95 percent of Greensburg, including the small gift shop and visitor center above the Big Well. Safely below ground, the well remained intact, though the tornado had knocked its concrete cover askew.

Less than a year after the tornado, the Greensburg City Council passed a resolution calling for all new municipal buildings to acquire LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification, the first such resolution in the country.

The decision to go green impacted Greensburg’s water use: downtown’s small business incubator is equipped to use gray water in its toilets; the hospital boasts a retention pond that serves to collect rainwater for irrigating the grounds; and the high school has four massive collection tanks designed to channel rainwater off the roof and into the irrigation system.

The design of all these water systems minimizes Greensburg’s impact on the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive stretch of groundwater that serves much of western Kansas. The Ogallala is depleting faster than it’s replenishing, and suffers from other concerns such as toxicity and chlorine salinity. Some are intimately aware of the depletion of the aquifer, as Greensburg Tourism Director Stacy Barnes notes, “water is something you’re always aware of.”

The Big Well offers visitors a valuable experience – here, they can actually see the Ogallala aquifer. The bottom of the well still contains water and provides a rare chance for people to glimpse the underground water supply that feeds so much of the High Plains. It’s right there, a strikingly clear turquoise in the cool, hushed well—and it’s fallen four feet since the new, post-tornado Big Well Museum opened in 2012.

Looking up from the bottom of the Big Well (Photo courtesy The Big Well Museum)

Looking up from the bottom of the Big Well (Photo courtesy The Big Well Museum)

To learn more about Kansas’s water history, visit the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition Water/Ways on display in Dodge City from September 30 through November 15, 2017.

To learn more about Greensburg’s water story, both past and future, visit their Greensburg: Looking Down to Think Forward exhibition, on view at the Big Well Museum during the same dates.




Empty Promises, Empty Riverbeds

The Soule Canal, Dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal, dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

Once Dodge City showed promise of becoming a bustling town, enterprising minds decided irrigated farmland would be just the thing to lure even more people to the area. In the 1880s, brothers George and John Gilbert dreamed up the Eureka Canal, which diverted the Arkansas River through potential farmland. The large scale irrigation project drew financing from none other than Dr. Asa T. Soule, the “worldwide Hops Bitters King,” a flamboyant businessman who made his fortune peddling a medicinal combination of alcohol, bitters, and hops.

Townspeople greeted the canal project with bombast and fanfare. One 1884 article in the Ford County Globe promised such a large vegetable crop from the irrigated land that a canning factory would be needed. The article claimed, “Upon completion of the irrigation canal you may talk about homes in Southern California, and on the banks of Lake Como, in Italy, but in preference to either give us a home in Southwestern Kansas, with plenty of water for irrigation purposes and a bottle of Hop Bitters as a family regulator.”

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The canal was finished in 1888, but a mere four years after its construction the project became known as “Soule’s Folly.” The Arkansas River, the canal’s source, flowed irregularly, and nowhere near the predicted levels of water came through the canal. Add to that unusually porous soil, and the canal was dry more often than wet; the promised Eden of Southwest Kansas growing never came to fruition.

The westward movement of settlers into Colorado and their use of the Arkansas River proved to be another reason the canal never filled. These Colorado farmers built their own canals upstream, diverting enough water to decrease the flow of the Arkansas into Kansas. A conflict erupted between the two states resulting in a decades-long legal fracas that saw United States Supreme Court decisions in 1902, 1907, 1943, 1985, 1995, 2001, and 2009. Even today, people in Dodge City claim that Colorado uses too much water from the Arkansas. It’s easy to understand why. Most days, the Arkansas River through Dodge runs as dry as the remnants of the Soule Canal.

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

As Boot Hill Museum curator Lyne Johnson says, “Dodge City always has to renivent itself.” Despite rapidly-changing times, environments, and riverbeds Dodge City has done just that.

To learn more about Dodge City’s water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the Napeste: Water in Dodge City exhibition, both on display at the Boot Hill Museum from September 30 until November 12, 2017.


Water + Ink

Amanda Maciuba, "Concerning the Past, Disregard the Future (The Ogallala Aquifer)" (Intaglio, Monotype & Silkscreen, 20” x 26” each, 2015)

Amanda Maciuba. Concerning the Past, Disregard the Future (The Ogallala Aquifer) (Intaglio, Monotype & Silkscreen, 2015)

Printmaker Amanda Maciuba is an artist shaped by water. Hailing from Buffalo, New York, for most of her life looking at water meant looking west to the behemoth Lake Erie. She says it still feels odd to go to a city like Chicago, where “the water is on the wrong side.”

After living a childhood anchored by the Great Lakes, she moved to the Great Plains, land of underground aquifers and rivers “that you can’t even swim in,” as Maciuba puts it. This influenced her art, which she says investigates issues like time, place, and a location’s environmental history.

Amanda now lives in Massachusetts, but she recently completed a stint as an artist in residence at the Lawrence Arts Center in northeast Kansas. She earned her MFA in printmaking at the University of Iowa. Four years before she arrived in Iowa City the town flooded so severely that recovery continued by the time she got there. The lingering effects of the disaster shed new light on Amanda’s perceptions of how environment and place interact.

The flood inspired motifs in Amanda’s art that she still employs, namely Noah’s Ark, which she sees as “a reminder of the futility of building despite climate change”: no matter what man builds, it will always be surpassed by the environmental forces which are beyond his control.

After moving to Kansas, Amanda became interested in aquifers and irrigation, especially the circular patterns caused by center pivot irrigation systems. The geometry of the circles, as well as their environmental implications on aquifer drainage and water conservation, inspired Maciuba to include them in her art. Both circular plots and Noah’s Ark frequently appear in her works, which she makes using a variety of printmaking techniques such as letterpress, intaglio, silkscreen, and lithography.

Recently, Maciuba ventured out to the Baker Wetlands south of Lawrence. For years local debate erupted when it was revealed that the wetlands would fall in the projected path of the South Lawrence Trafficway. A compromise was struck – in order to complete the project and avoid destroying the wetlands, construction crews would add 380 acres of Wetlands adjacent to the existing site to make up for any territory lost to the highway.

When Maciuba visited the new, man-made wetlands site, she found it a “nude and strange landscape.” Such places raise questions about the human ability to control – much less replace – nature and water.

These questions also remind her of the Iowa City flood, which occurred due to necessary discharges from a man-made dam. While others might not be drawn to “nude and strange” landscapes, these themes compelled Maciuba to use her artwork to explore the question of how humans interact with nature.

To learn more about how water shapes human existence and vice versa, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and its partner exhibitions.

To learn more about Amanda Maciuba’s art, visit her website or see her work as part of Memory of Water: an Interdisciplinary Arts-Based Research Project on exhibit at Albrecht -Kemper Museum of Art on display from December 1, 2017 – March 18, 2018.



“Water Clear and Pure, & Excellent for Drinking:” Exploring the Solomon


Robert McBratney, Newspaper Man, Railroad Man, Explorer Man (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

Robert McBratney, born in Columbus, Ohio in 1818, held quite a few jobs during his career: lawyer, printer’s apprentice, delegate to the 1861 presidential election, newspaperman, and, by 1861, registrar of the Land Office in Junction City in northeast Kansas, but it was abolitionism that first drew McBratney to Kansas.

The western territories had a case of railroad fever, and companies sprang up to lay routes into the territories. One such company was the Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad, which formed in September 1869. The new company’s board of directors needed to hire a president who could not only lead the business, but who could also lead an expedition along the Solomon River to sell the region to settlers and railroaders. They wanted someone smart and ambitious who could observe and report with clarity. Robert McBratney and his journalism background fit the bill.

The journey began October 14, 1869 and was not an easy one due in part to its size. In addition to a senator, a geology professor, and a state agent for the sale of railway lands, McBratney brought along one cook, one ambulance driver, one servant, and almost a hundred state troops to serve as protection. McBratney kept a detailed diary of his trip, available to read in full here.

Issues plagued the journey almost from the start. McBratney complained about the wind in an October 18 entry, near what is now Glasco. He wrote, the party “concluded to go into camp, one of our mules being very lame & the day being very raw and windy [and…] very disagreeable.” Later, on October 22, the party awoke to “a strong northern blowing filled with snow, that fairly stings the face.” The snow abated long enough for them to hit the trail, but resumed later “with almost blinding fury.”

Despite these difficulties, McBratney fell in love with the Solomon Valley. He wrote, “this is as fine a contre [sic] as any in the state.” The wildlife of the region filled him with wonder, and he reverently observed, on October 28, that “the hills were nearly covered with buffalo. We have seen more of them today than altogether. Saw also deer, elk, and antelope. Also gray wolves, thousands of prairie dogs, coyotes, and sage hens.”

He declared “the water of the Solomon and its tributary is clear, pure, and hard.” McBratney’s final verdict? “One snort of the iron horse in this valley would do more to people the wilderness we have traversed, than an army with banners.” The Solomon River, according to this early exploratory expedition, was fully capable of housing both industry and communities on its banks and bends.

The Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad never came to be, but the Union Pacific did build a branch line through the valley after McBratney’s letters to eastern periodicals enticed settlers. Present day towns like Minneapolis, Delphos, Glasco, Simpson, and Beloit pepper the banks that so enamored McBratney.

Find out more about McBratney’s expedition and the Solomon Valley’s water story at Valley Highway 24 Heritage Alliance’s exhibit Living Off the Water: the Challenge to Tame and Sustain Life in the Solomon Valley, a Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution partner program on display at Bull City Cafe in Alton from August 12 to September 2, 2017; at Mitchell County Historical Society in Beloit beginning September 11, 2017; Stockton Public Library, October 7 to October 28, 2017; and Glasco Community Foundation’s Corner Store, November 4 to November 25, 2017.



A Laboratory on the High Plains: Joe Kuska of Colby

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Raised on a farm in the Great Plains, Joseph B. Kuska graduated from the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska. He joined the staff at the Colby Branch Station in 1914. The Colby Branch Station, an agricultural experiment center, was opened by an act of the Kansas Legislature in 1913. Northwest Kansas farmers, concerned with erratic rainfall, drying winds, temperature extremes, and periodic drought decided a branch station might help find solutions to the difficult growing climate. Soon the United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the branch station to research how to farm in dry conditions.

Joseph B. Kuska’s leadership of the Colby Branch Station left a lasting impact where “except for a few years,” he served as its chief until 1951. According to a 1964 50th anniversary history of the Branch Station, Kuska’s “firsthand knowledge of farming practices in the Great Plains, his good judgment, energy, and enthusiasm were in large measure responsible for the success of the work.”

A significant part of Kuska’s job dealt with water and how it impacted farming in the arid High Plains. Under Kuska’s guidance, the Branch Station studied “moisture storage under different methods of fallow; moisture storage with a basin lister; conservation of winter moisture; available moisture in soil at seeding time and its effect on yield and penetration of rain.” Ultimately, they found that “the dry land farmer, to be successful, should follow a flexible system. This applies to his cropping systems, tillage methods, and cultural practices.” Adaptability and flexibility were the ingredients for successful farming on the High Plains.

Yet the 20th century brought change to Kansas agriculture. In the 1970s the center pivot irrigation system replaced the ditch irrigation system of the 50s and 60s, ringing in a new era of irrigation. The use of center pivot irrigation to grow crops like corn in Western Kansas opened a new line of research of farming the Great Plains.

The Branch Station, now called the Northwest Research-Extension Center (NWREC) and operated by Kansas State University, continues the research that Kuska started. These days, NWREC seeks more conservation-friendly alternatives to center pivot irrigation methods. For example, in 1989 Kansas State University started an initiative to test and advocate Subsurface Drip Irrigation, which irrigates crops using buried conduits and pipes slowly emitting water right into the soil. According to their website, NWREC “is committed to developing and promoting new irrigation technologies that will be environmentally and economically efficient while conserving and protecting limited water resources.” Many believe that with the decline in aquifer levels and the high financial cost of irrigating, dry land acreage is a good fallback. Thus, a century after Joe Kuska signed on, the Branch Station in Colby continues to lead the way in water and farm research.

To learn more about Colby’s water story, be sure to visit the Water/Ways  Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and Scarcity and Abundance: Water in Northwest Kansas, both on view at the Prairie Museum of Art and History from August 12 to September 24, 2017.




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.