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Humans have always used the Kansas River for
sustenance, from the first Indians who fished and traveled by canoe
along the river, to the industries that developed on its banks and
poured their waste back into its waters, to the urban populations who
depend on the river for drinking water today. Like all rivers, the Kaw
is a hardworking stream that is often under-appreciated as a source of
wealth and economic vitality.
Grinter House Museum on the north side of the Kaw in Kansas City, Kansas. It is a state historic site maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. Picture of Grinter House Museum on left is courtesy of Craig Thompson.
The Kaw was one of the first dangers travelers faced on the Oregon Trail. Most travelers left Independence, Missouri, on the five-month journey in spring so they could get to the other side of the mountains before winter. But in spring, the Kaw was treacherous; in those days before dams upstream controlled the flow, the Kaw could become a roiling, angry river. Most crossed at Pappan’s Ferry in what is now downtown Topeka. The Pappan brothers were married to Josette and Julie Gonville, sisters whose mother was a Kaw Indian. The Pappans’ ferry boat in 1843 consisted of three dugout canoes supporting a single deck, and they charged $1 per wagon to cross. By 1849, the brothers had two boats in operation, each able to carry two wagons. They lowered the wagons to the river with ropes and had a team of oxen on the other side to pull them out.
In 1849, a Missouri newspaper reported that when the Kaw River was high, travelers would find an excellent ford at Uniontown. Thousands of emigrants bypassed Pappan’s Ferry at Topeka and headed 15 miles west for this location, which became known as the Upper Kansas Crossing. The Kaw River crossing, eight days out of Independence, became the traditional place where wagon trains reorganized, tightened discipline, and elected leaders. At a given signal, men who wanted to lead the journey would march across the prairie, and the travelers would run behind the candidate of their choice. The man with the longest tail of people following him was thus elected. At least two ferries began operating near the ford in the Kaw at Uniontown, and each was said to carry 65 to 70 wagons per day. At $1 per wagon, the ferry operators made a handsome wage for the time.
Although the Kaw ran high in spring, it was shallow and braided with sandbars most of the year. As a result, navigation was often a questionable
Navigation was doomed by an act of the Kansas Legislature in 1864 declaring the Kaw non-navigable, a political move designed to help the railroads build bridges and dams. The law was repealed in 1913, and the Kaw was again declared navigable, but by then there was little demand for river travel.
included a paper mill, a flour mill, and a chemical manufacturer.
Today, the Bowersock Dam still produces green power that is sold to the
local utility company. It is the only dam on the main stem of the Kaw. The
dam created a mill pond where catfish gathered, which resulted in a
thriving commercial fishing business in Lawrence at the turn of the
20th century. The north side of the river was lined
Abe Burns and Jake Washington, two fishermen who had a cabin next to the barbed-wire building & pictured below. Jake died trying to bring up a catfish that was too big for him to handle.
Back then, plenty of the fish were huge. Francis H. Snow, Kansas University’s chancellor at the turn of the 20th century and presumably a reliable witness, wrote in 1875 that he saw a blue catfish weighing 175 pounds and heard of a 250-pounder. Commercial fishing was eventually restricted, but many sport fishermen continue to catch big catfish in the Kaw.
Potatoes were the biggest crop, with 18,800 acres grown between Lecompton and De Soto in 1925. Farmers also grew sweet potatoes, beets, tomatoes, peas, beans, pumpkins, spinach, and sweet corn. Orchards and vineyards were abundant, too. Farmers’ menu of crops to take to grocery stores in Lawrence or to the City Market in Kansas City, Missouri, included apples, peaches, pears, and grapes. In 1900, a cannery opened in east Lawrence, giving Kaw Valley farmers a ready market for their vegetables. The Kaw Valley Cannery operated until 1925, when declining prices for canned goods shut it down. In 1930, Columbus Foods purchased and reopened the plant, and in 1950 Stokely-Van Camp bought it. The cannery continued producing canned vegetables into the 1980s, although by that time the produce was shipped in by rail.
Fruit and vegetable production in the Kaw Valley survived into the 1950s despite many challenges. Growing was never easy because of the unpredictable weather. Although eastern Kansas is an excellent place to grow horticultural crops, on average, extreme swings in the weather can ruin any given harvest. An abnormally bitter winter can kill trees, late spring freezes can ruin a budding fruit crop, and excessively hot, dry summers wreak havoc on vegetables. State apple harvest in 1919, for example, was 1.2 million bushels; two years later, orchards harvested only 100,000 bushels. The drought of 1934-1937 killed many orchards and vineyards in the valley, but farmers who survived replanted.
Even World War II and the extreme labor shortage it caused didn’t destroy the labor-intensive truck farming here. Local farm and business leaders worked with the Army to set up a prisoner-of-war camp just outside of Lawrence, and as many as 320 German POWs were moved here to work on farms, in businesses, and in construction. In July 1945, 175 prisoners of war harvested 1,000 acres of potatoes in this valley for 33 farmers. The flood of 1951 was the death knell for fruit and vegetable production, however. The Kaw and Wakarusa rivers raged out of their banks and covered virtually all of the floodplain. Orchards died, pea-shelling barns and equipment washed away, and soil was unworkable. As farmers recovered from the flood, many decided to try what was then a relatively new crop in the United States, soybeans. Bigger tractors introduced in the 1950s made larger-scale farming more practical, too, and farmers found they could make more money working with a tractor than doing the backbreaking physical work of vegetable farming.
In the past decade, though, vegetable farming has experienced a renaissance as small-scale farmers produce for local farmers’ markets,click here.
Wyandotte County is home to the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, which was chartered by Congress to honor America’s farmers. Inside the museum, extensive exhibits explain farming and rural life, with a large collection of machinery and implements of all vintages. Outside is a reconstructed 1900-era town, which includes a one-room school house, country store, veterinarian’s office, and other period buildings (pictured on left.) You can take a ride on a narrow-gauge railroad and tour an 1887 train depot. A brochure describes special events; the Agricultural Center has a number of celebrations which involve children, such as the Prairie Winds Kite Festival and Ice Cream Days. The center also offers educational programs for classes and groups that can be scheduled in advance.