board and staff exhibits underground railroad feature donation gallery

From rich river bottom farmland to 7,000 acres of Clinton Lake surface and parkland, arose the Clinton Lake Historical Society’s Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum

“Once they flooded the lake, all of the history started rising to the top.”
—Martha Parker Founder and Historian Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum

Rumors of damming the Wakarusa River had persisted since the early 1900’s to primarily stop devastating floods. Valley residents became complacent to the concept. In the mid-1960’s however, the U.S. Corps of Engineers began buying property for the project and farmers started feeling the potential impact. Families who had tilled the land for several generations were being forced to sell and move out. They began thinking of the Corps in the same vain as settlers from a century earlier had felt about the Missouri Ruffians’ invasions. Like their ancestors, families banded together for mutual protection. They called their group the Clinton Lake Landowners Association.

Some of the organization’s members expressed concern about the potential loss of their identity and the valley’s history along with their land. Thus, the association formed an auxiliary group called the Historical Committee whose mission was to address that specific concern. Of special interest was Col. J.C. Steele’s red brick house, located high on a hill above and east of the town of Clinton in the Bloomington community. The Corps acquired that parcel of property in February of 1972 and scheduled it for demolition.

Over 200 members of the landowners’ association petitioned the Corps to halt the destruction and save the house for use as a historical museum. Research confirmed the house of Col. J.C. Steele was of “historic” interest. Furthermore, the valley was a minefield of history from the Bloomington Guards, the Underground Railroad, the First Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the home of Free State abolitionists–mostly Quakers–who paid with their lives to make Kansas free.

In order to save, preserve and meet the Corps’ criteria, the Clinton Lake Historical Society was incorporated in 1979 and the Steele house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plans were made to repurpose the house into a museum. An architect and a consultant were hired to build the plans that would turn it into a tourist attraction under the auspices of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The citizens of the lake area were elated to hear from Col. W.R. Needham on October 10, 1973, that the Corps had agreed “to renovate the historical J.C. Steele house” and make it available to the public as a museum. It would become “one of the highlights of Clinton Lake.” Ultimately, the Corps did not to deliver on their commitment. The house was dismantled in 1981. While deeply disappointed, the Clinton Lake Historical Society forged on with an alternative by opening a museum in a restored milk shed on the property in 1983.

By 2008, the museum clearly needed more exhibit and collection space to store and interpret the history of the 10 communities affected by the Clinton Lake construction. The board hired an architect and a consultant to draw up a master plan and prepare a professional report to submit to the Corps. Through countless fundraising efforts, grant monies and the invested time of many volunteers, the museum addition was completed in 2014. It added 1300 square feet to the original existing milk barn structure. The museum continues to thrive and grow its exhibits along with the number of visitors each year.

Another landmark addition to the property came from an idea of the “guiding light,” a symbol of the “light” that was destroyed with the dismantling of the Steele house, and also a symbol of the Underground Railroad route through the Wakarusa Valley. Historical records document that the North Star, candles in the window and the sunlight on sheets drying on clotheslines of anti-slavery settlers’ cabins were all guides to safe flight from slavery. A tower, encompassed with giant rings, was erected just north of where the Steele house originally stood. This sculpture, aptly called “Freedom Rings,” embraces the valley’s strong heritage and history in art form.

To view Stephen’s website