This history of Lake Wabaunsee, going back to its beginning, has been written by A.V. (Pete) Lungren, under the auspices of the Lake Wabaunsee Sportsmen Association, and dedicated to the Wabaunsee County Historical Society, Alma, Kansas, in order to perpetuate a segment of Wabaunsee County history. Written in 1970.
Five miles west of Eskridge, in Wabaunsee County, on Kansas highway 4 & 99, Lake Wabaunsee nestles in a rocky outcrop of the famous Flint Hills, on the eastern slope of a range of the Nemaha mountains. Feeding on 13 flowing cold water springs and four original blue stem grass drainage branches, the lake forms the south branch of Mill Creek which winds its way north some 40 miles to the Kaw river near Maple Hill.
Owned and operated today by the City of Eskridge, Lake Wabaunsee began as an ideas of progressive citizens looking forward to a water supply and a recreation area for the future. Businessmen, cattlemen, farmers and sportsmen joined forces in the 1920's and proposed the construction of a state lake in Wabaunsee county.
For several years it appeared that the lake would be built and operated by the Kansas Forestry, Fish & Game Commission. The commission had started to build state lakes in the 1920's and several had been successfully completed, stocked and opened to the public for fishing, boating and swimming. Public acceptance was favorable and many groups of sportsmen and county officials were requesting state lakes in their areas. The requests had to be rationed and given work priorities. Governors, state representatives, senators, and commissioners were contacted during the late 1920's and early 1930's by local boosters, but a firm commitment was never finalized for Wabaunsee County.
In 1932 local sponsors intensified their efforts, looking toward federal funds which were being allocated for public works programs. When President Roosevelt's economic recovery plan launched the Civilian Conservation Corps for employment of youth in 1933, the Lake Wabaunsee Corporation obtained options to purchase 497.04 acres for a park and build a 214 acre lake. They secured more than $20,000 in pledges toward the purchase of a site. Each $100 pledge entitled the donor to a lakeside lot when the project was completed.
The application to the CCC was rejected because of the mortgage remaining on the land. Governor Alf M. Landon personally guaranteed that the mortgage would be paid in due time, but Washington officials still refused approval.
A few weeks later the Kansas Emergency Relief Corporation agreed to establish a transient camp to build the lake. Finally, approval was received to build 10 barracks, a mess hall, two houses and several service buildings. The camp was designed to care for 400 men who could not qualify for CCC because of age, lack of permanent residence or dependents.
When the KERC buildings were completed, transients from various points in Kansas were employed. They were taken off freight trains, highways, etc., and offered jobs here and at Gardner, Kansas (near Olathe where another similar project was under way). Workers were paid 90 cents a week and furnished room, board and clothing.
Work continued under KERC until 1936, when construction was taken over as a project of the Federal Works Progress Administration. The project was approximately 15% completed when WPA took over. The work completed consisted primarily of quarrying rock. Earthwork was completed December 31, 1936.
As the job neared completion, in early 1937, the Lake Wabaunsee Corporation needed $12,000 more to clear the title to the site and pay expenses. Governor Walter A. Huxman urged the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Commission to assume ownership of the lake, but again it refused. The Wabaunsee County Commissioners also refused to assist with the completion. The boundary of the lake was established and markers with "S-P" on the top were set at all corners.
When WPA officials threatened to abandon the project, the citizens of Eskridge held a bond election on March 26, 1937, and voted by about 2 to 1 to purchase the land for $11,000. W.C. Shumate, Mayor and C.R. Moore, City Clerk, carried out the mandate of the election and the lake property then became the property of the City of Eskridge.
To raise sufficient funds the City Of Eskridge then held a lottery selling 150 lots at $100 each. Many of the lots were purchased by Topeka residents. A drawing for sites was held and deeds issued to the individual owners, with proceeds from the sale going into the lake fund established by the City.
The general obligation bonds, principal and interest, amounting to about $20,000 were paid off over a 10 year period by a levy on City of Eskridge property. There was no levy on lake property for the bond payments.
The total amount was paid to Otto Kraus who owned all the land involved.
In September, 1940, the National Youth Administration opened a mechanical training school at the lake for young men aged 17 to 24. They were taught mechanical trades. A modern machine shop and foundry was constructed. (The foundry building was torn down later, but was located where the present concrete and steel structure still stands.) The NYA group also erected a dormitory building which is now known as the Lodge building.
When World War II began in 1941, the NYA project was discontinued and most of the equipment was moved to Wichita. At the beginning of the war, the Ninth Armored Division used the lake facilities as a training area for water maneuvers. The units were rotated from their training base at Fort Riley.
In 1942 the buildings were leased to the Wabaunsee County Producers Association and several hundred German prisoners of war, captured in Africa, were received and housed at the Lake. They were employed by farmers in Wabaunsee and surrounding counties. Several bus loads of prisoners were taken to Topeka as well as many farms to work each day and returned every night.
The records reveal that one of the many projects built by the war prisoners was the Carl Harrold building in Eskridge, now known as the Martin Locker Plant.
After World War II, when the prison camp was abandoned, Lake Wabaunsee became more and more popular as a recreational area. The City of Eskridge provided more entertainment facilities, including equipment for swimming, boating, skiing, fishing, camping, picnicking, etc., until today it has become a favorite living area of some 70 year-around residents and over 500 seasonal or week-end residents.
Almost equidistant from Topeka, Emporia, and Manhattan, the lake attracts people from all directions. Most of the lake's seasonal population comes from a radius of 100 miles, but a good percentage are from Kansas City, Wichita, Salina, and even from points in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Missouri, Nebraska, and California.
A new bath house and Lake office was constructed in 1970 where all lake business is transacted through a full-time caretaker and bait, tackle, fishing and boating permits can be obtained. During the summer a beach restaurant is open and an all-year-round restaurant and tavern is open in the "lodge" building. There is no charge for swimming.
A modern trailer park is maintained where the original KERC dining hall once served 400 workmen. This wood structure burned down on October 22, 1947 after a party when crepe paper decoration apparently caught fire.
Although Lake Wabaunsee is a well-known recreation area with a placid appearance today, it was not developed without the usual turbulence of politics, financing and lack of total support that accompanies almost every public project in the course of civic progress. It had its oddities of the times just as every other generation has experienced them, before and after.
When the lake began to fill, a large well was dug below the dam. With the county furnishing the equipment and Eskridge providing the power, many loads of water have been trucked out through the years to fill cisterns and supply stock water during dry spells. The well has had an unfailing supply.
After completion, the lake was stocked by Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Commission with 40,000 fingerlings, mostly crappie, bass, channel cat, blue gill and drum. Later that fall, 30,000 more were added. From time to time since, the state has furnished fingerlings which have been fed, usually for a season, in rearing ponds to gain size, before turning into the lake.
In the fall of 1967, the Sportsmen Association matched funds with the City of Eskridge, in the amount of $2500.00 to purchase 3,000 walleye and 3,000 northern pike fingerlings for stocking the lake. In the spring of 1970, these fish had grown to known sized so 30 inches for northerns and 17 inches for walleye. The plan of biologists in stocking the pike was to help diminish the over-supply of crappie and carp.
After test-netting the lake in 1959, 1965, and 1970, state biologists have recommended draining the lake, fertilizing and restocking as a means of improving game fishing and controlling rough fish. However, no decision on this has been reached at this writing.