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Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

Spencer’s January-February Exhibit: “Building Tomorrow Today: Clinton Lake and the Flood of 1951”

February 6th, 2024

I developed Spencer’s current short-term exhibit to compliment the research I conducted about Clinton Lake and the Wakarusa Museum as an undergraduate student. While writing my thesis paper last year, I used a lot of the materials featured in this exhibit as primary sources. I hope this blog post will elaborate more on the complex history of Clinton Lake and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from a community perspective.

This image has text against a blue and red illustration of the dam and lake.
A project brochure and map of Clinton Dam and Lake including information about costs, benefits, and construction, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1972. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.

Originally passed by Congress in 1917, the Flood Control Act directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin evaluating issues of flood control along tributaries of the Mississippi River. This included the longest tributary of the Mississippi River: the Missouri River, which feeds the Kansas (Kaw) River. On July 13, 1951, after a series of storms produced up to 16 inches of rain, the Kaw spilled over its banks. More than 115 cities along its path in eastern Kansas – most notably Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City – were flooded. In Lawrence, the river crested at 29.90 feet (11 feet above flood stage). The flood also washed out 1 million acres of land and nearly 10,000 farms. For many local community members, the Flood of 1951 represented a once-in-a-lifetime disaster. The flood forced 85,000 people to abandon their homes and amassed $760 million in damages (nearly $5 billion today).

Black-and-white photograph of a two-story home with its first level submerged in water. Two other buildings are under water, with only the roofs visible.
A submerged farm on the outskirts of North Lawrence, 1951. Photograph taken by the U.S. Navy. Call Number: RH PH 172. Click image to enlarge.

In response, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a network of levees and reservoirs to prevent future flooding. The Flood Control Act of 1962 authorized funding to dam the Wakarusa River, a major tributary of the Kaw, and build Clinton Lake. In addition to flood control, Clinton Lake would also supply the city of Lawrence with water and provide a source of recreation for locals and tourists alike. Located southwest of Lawrence, Clinton Lake ushered in an era of excitement and uncertainty for the people of Douglas County. Despite protests from many Wakarusa River Valley citizens, the Corps of Engineers began buying land as early as 1968, and construction of the dam started in 1972.

Color illustration of Clinton Lake with neighboring communities and roads.
An informational brochure about Clinton Lake including a map of surrounding recreational activities and campsites, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, undated. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.

Swift action on behalf of the Corps of Engineers prompted local residents of the Wakarusa region to form the Clinton Lake Landowner’s Association, which advocated for the landownership rights of Wakarusa River Valley citizens. According to Martha Parker, a lifetime resident of Clinton and an active community member, “they did nothing but lie to you. We used to have a saying, ‘How can you tell a Corps man is lying? When his lips start moving.'” An auxiliary group, the Clinton Lake Historical Society (or CLHS) was formed alongside the Landowner’s Association with the goal of gathering and preserving the region’s history, which many feared would be lost forever beneath the lake. Many local community members held feelings of great anxiety about the proposed construction of Clinton Lake. This anxiety was not only rooted in an intense fear of the unknown, which often accompanies forced displacement, but the idea that the disappearance of regional history meant the erasure of one’s personal identity. “People just had no idea what was about to happen to them,” Parker explained. “Tons of people were selling all their belongings, their land, everything. I kept telling folks, don’t sell. Nobody listened.” With the support of the Landowner’s Association and the CLHS, Parker went on to establish the Clinton Lake Museum, known today as the Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum.

A man in a bulldozer labeled "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers" cutting a path across the United States.
A Kansas City Star political cartoon about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1975. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.
This image has text with a black-and-white photograph of two women standing in front of a building.
A Lawrence Journal-World article reporting on the Clinton Lake Museum, 1983. Papers of Carol Buhler Francis. Call Number: RH MS 1473. Click image to enlarge.

However, it is important to remember that Clinton Lake displaced more than just rural residents of the Wakarusa River Valley. The process of artificial lake building results in the forced displacement and subsequent migration of different groups of peoples at different moments in time. Yet this process cannot be viewed from a static perspective. Dispossession is not merely an event; it is a process that continues long after initial physical removal. Beginning in the 1800s, Native American nations located within the Wakarusa River Valley were removed from their federally promised lands in order to make room for white settlers. This included the Kaw Nation (whose ancestral homelands included the river valley) along with tribes relocated from the East (namely the Shawnee and Delaware). Therefore, Clinton Lake serves as a force of continuous dispossession. Flooding the land removes any future opportunity for communities, both Native and non-Native, to return to their homes and restore their sense of historical, cultural, and spiritual connection to that place.

This exhibit is free and open to the public in the North Gallery through February 28th.

Claire Cox
Public Services Student Assistant
KU Graduate Student in History

Student Spotlight: Claire Cox

October 9th, 2023

This is the latest installment in a series of posts introducing readers to student employees who make important contributions to the work of Spencer Research Library. Today’s profile features Public Services student assistant Claire Cox, who answered a few questions about the projects she works on at Spencer.

Headshot of a young woman.
Public Services student assistant Claire Cox. Click image to enlarge.

Please provide some brief biographical information about yourself.

I am an Accelerated M.A. student in the history department. This is my third year at KU, but my first year as a graduate student. As an undergraduate, I spent my first two years at Johnson County Community College before transferring to KU and earning my B.A. in May 2023. I majored in history with a minor in global and international studies. I started working at Spencer Research Library in August 2022.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I am a public services employee. My job tasks include retrieving and re-shelving materials from the stacks, sitting at the reception and reference desks, and assisting researchers in the Reading Room. Occasionally I work on a shifting project in the stacks. I also get the opportunity to curate temporary exhibits located in our North Gallery.

What part of your job do you like best?

I really enjoy working in the stacks. Whether retrieving or re-shelving materials, I am usually handling new items that I have never seen before. Not only does this help me get to know the collections better, but it is also really fun and interesting. The Kansas Collection is my favorite part of Spencer. I am constantly looking at old books related to the Kansas environment from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I also like working with the patrons that come into the Reading Room, and I love hearing about their research interests/projects.

What are you studying, and what do you hope to do in your future career? Has your work in at Spencer changed how you look at your studies or your future career plans in any way?

I study environmental history of the Great Plains in the twentieth century. I look forward to continuing my research on the relationship between Indigenous peoples, rural communities, and the environment by further examining the process of artificial lake-building in the region. As an undergraduate, I studied the construction of Clinton Lake near Lawrence. I plan to build upon this research throughout the upcoming year. As an employee at Spencer Research Library, I have learned a lot about how a special collections library works from behind the scenes. This knowledge informs how I conduct my own research, and I feel more confident when visiting other research institutions or archives. I have also found a lot of very useful material in the Kansas Collection about Clinton Lake, which I used for my undergraduate thesis project.

What advice would you offer other students thinking about working at Spencer Research Library?

I highly recommend working at Spencer. There are so many different opportunities for students to find a position that suits their own interests. Contrary to the stereotypical library job, working at Spencer never gets boring! Every day comes with new and exciting challenges.

Claire Cox
Public Services student assistant