Too Much to Drink
An Early History of Lake Shawnee
and The Shawnee Yacht Club
By George H. Chaffee
Presented to the Jayhawker Club
April 28, 1987 Topeka, Kansas
I've never seen the lake as beautiful as it was that sunny, autumn day.
From our elevated viewpoint on the west bank, it looked like an architect's perspective rendering; everything was precise, geometric, even surrealistic. Small fluffs of clouds grew smaller as they paraded off to Missouri, pushed by an advancing front. To our delight, the breeze at our backs also pushed Whitney Garlinghouse’s sailboat at ever-increasing speeds up and down the lake.
It was October 16, 1981. Winter was already sweeping across the high plains of Kansas and those few of us gathered on the patio of the Shawnee Yacht Club in southeast Topeka figured we were witnessing the last sailboat ride of the year. And Whitney, along with his crew, Mike Siegler, made it memorable for us.
A broad grin was permanently etched on John Armstrong's face as his pale blue eyes traced Whit's course. Perhaps it brought to mind many of John’s own personal sailing adventures. Perhaps he was reflecting on the past fifty years.
In that time, he had witnessed the lake’s creation, had been one of the first to sail on it, had helped organize sailors into the yacht club and had become the club's patriarch. No club could have asked for a better one.
There are a few institutions that bind fellow men together and give them a sense of community. Sometimes it's a business enterprise; often it's a church. That same spirit of community has existed for forty-five years at the Shawnee Yacht Club.
(One immediate disclaimer: don't let the word "yacht" in the name confuse or bias your thinking. It can mean any size boat used for pleasure or racing. Today, the yachts at Lake Shawnee range in size from 20-foot racing scows to 8-foot prams. And incidentally, the prams were originated by your stereotypical yachtsmen who wanted something simple and easy to race when they weren't campaigning their juggernaut yachts.)
The Shawnee Yacht Club is and always has been composed of people who enjoy sailing and each other’s company. Among its members are barbers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, mechanics, salesmen, educators, assembly line workers and chemists. Every summer we put our boats on the starting line, trying our best to out-maneuver, outwit and outsail each other. That competition provides many growth experiences no matter where we finish in any given race.
Just as significant is the spirit of community that exists between races and even between seasons. We offer each other support and advice on everything from hardware to helmsmanship.
We share stories, jokes and trivia. We work together to maintain the club’s facilities. We congratulate our winners and offer solace to the discouraged. Well, sometimes solace comes after wit and sarcasm.
The spirit of community goes deeper than sailing. We've bounced each other's babies off our knees and we've watched each other's children grow each summer. We've shared weddings and divorces, births and deaths, laughter and tears. We've shared more than sailing experiences; we've shared a good part of our lives with each other.
To be sure, it hasn't always been fun and fellowship. The sport of yacht racing can bring out the very best and the very worst in each of us. Nothing — not even golf— can test one's patience or even self-esteem like yacht racing. The agony of defeat is not best portrayed by some hapless skier cartwheeling off a jump. No, the agony of defeat sinks in slowly as the entire fleet sails off and leaves you wondering where you made your mistakes. The agony of defeat is sailing back to the docks as everyone else is almost through putting their boats away.
There is also the matter of rules. In the Topeka Daily Capital dated August 22, 1943, John Armstrong said, "Sailing is a good clean sport and one where a man can't disregard the rules and regulations. He has something of his own to watch and usually too big an investment to risk by foolish actions." The Shawnee Yacht Club generally adheres to international rules of yacht racing and we've set up tribunals and taken each other "to court" to settle protests over alleged rules infractions.
Over the years, we have made enemies as well as life-long friends.
So there we were...a few of us at least...on that October day, watching as yet another sailing season drew to a close.
With John Armstrong were some newer converts to sailing — Judy and George Chaffee, Debbie and Dave Holzmeister, Jan and John VanOosten. None of us can recall the topic of conversation that day. Mostly we just kept remarking how pretty the lake looked. The conversation didn't really matter. Companionship and the contentment of the moment mattered.
After gazing across the lake for a half hour or so, John stood up, said his good-byes and ambled to his car. One by one, the others followed suit. A few hours later, John’s heart, which had been weakened for several years, stopped beating. The Shawnee Yacht Club had lost its founder.
Call it fate or simply call it appropriate that part of John’s final day was spent surveying what was such a significant part of his life. One last look at the yacht club and Lake Shawnee.
John Davis Armstrong was born March 22, 1914, at Topeka, the son of John H. and Sadie Grace Armstrong. He lived in Topeka all but ten years of his life. Those years were spent in Chicago, one of the assignments in his 42-year career with Santa Fe Railway.
It may have been Chicago that gave John his sailing fever, albeit from a distance. In a brief, anonymous paper which is part of the Shawnee Yacht Club’s cardboard box of historical documents, John is quoted as recalling, "I used to go to Chicago on business trips and when the business was over, I would go down to the water and watch the sailboats."
John was a superintendent at Topeka's Santa Fe Shops and a noted woodworker and craftsman, talents that would later prove invaluable in building a fleet of sailboats that would introduce landlocked Kansans to the sport of sailing. First, however, he needed a lake.
If I were James Michener (which I'm not) and had sufficient time and resources (which I don't) I would, like Michener, go back to the era of what Bern Ketchum calls primeval slime and describe how this part of Kansas came to be. Instead, we'll have to be content with wondering aloud how a small stream came to be called Deer Creek.
Most of the rivers and streams of what is today Shawnee County, have logical and very historical roots to their names.
Those of you who have lived here most of your life probably know them. Mission Creek was so named because of a Kaw Indian mission on its banks. Likewise for Blacksmith Creek. Others were named for the first settlers, such as Linn Creek.
So far, I can only guess how Deer Creek came by its name. It might have logically been named by the Kaw Indians after the fauna they found there. Or it could have been named by one of the first pioneers on the creek, a Missouri farmer named Horatio Cox who settled there in May of 1854. His farm, which was later sold to John Long, was located at the crossing of Deer Creek on what was then the Tecumseh and Topeka road.
Cox may have been one of the first, but if Historian Roy Bird was correct in his history of Shawnee County called "Witness of the Times," there were earlier settlers. A passage from that book:
"Topeka was founded in 1854 by nine men who formed the Topeka Association. But they were preceded by at least twenty still heartier souls who came, not to promote a town, but to establish frontier homes, each for himself, and they were attracted not by the high prairie later to be traversed by Topeka’s principal streets, but by the wooded valleys nearby where there was convenient water for livestock, timber for cabins and plenty of game... Most of the twenty settled along the Shunganunga and Deer Creeks."
Another early reference to Deer Creek in Mr. Bird's history describes an incident in April, 1856, in which "a Tecumseh transient with the inappropriate name of Pleasant Wood struck with a rock and seriously wounded Deer Creek farmer Erastus Moffet." The altercation was apparently the result of Freestate and Pro-Slavery differences.
Dam building was frequent along the Shunganunga and Deer Creeks. One item in the Bulletin of the Shawnee County Historical Society reads: "An obscure item among George Root's collection of historical data mentions that on April 12, 1876, the 'dam on the Shunganunga had been washed out for the third time." The item continues, "When some patient researcher undertakes to compile a record of the private and public life of that watercourse, the forgotten stories of its dams should make an interesting detail." The researcher will require more patience than what I now have.
Until the 1930's the biggest attraction on Deer Creek was undoubtedly a spot called Vinewood Park. Located just north of 29th Street, Vinewood was labeled Topeka's stellar attraction.
Just after the turn of the century, young people (and older ones, too) flocked to Vinewood. While different sections of town and county possessed a grove or park well used by the neighborhood residents, Vinewood Park outshone them all as a place for recreation, relaxation or quiet courtship.
Again from "Witness of the Times":
"When the expanded park reopened in July, 1903, over 7,000 persons jammed the place, causing a mammoth tie-up on the street-railway. Some persons did not get home until after 3:00 o'clock, many after an all night walk from the park. Yet, everything that night proved a success... The Journal, on July 27, stated that all the row boats were "busy from morning till night and the remarkable twistings and curves of Deer Creek were the cause of an unprecedented destruction of oars."
"Highlights at Vinewood included a penny arcade, bandstand, dance hall, lagoons, a moving picture theater, carousel, roller coaster and a circle swing."
But the dance hall was destined to rot away, the lagoons to dry and the waters of Deer Creek to slow to a trickle. It was now the 1930's. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl Days had come to Kansas. John Armstrong recalled that it seemed "almost a daily occurrence for the sun to suddenly grow dim and that blistering hot... never-ceasing wind to deposit almost two-thirds of the topsoil from Trego County onto Topeka."
But John remembered those times fondly in the brief historical sketches he left behind. He wrote, "Money at this ... time was a very rare item, but youth will triumph ...! There were great dance bands roving the country and the young... unemployed man could scrape together enough by cutting a few lawns to take his favorite girl dancing and enjoy a couple of spiked pale beers to set the mood. He could rise above, at least temporarily, the everyday problems that confronted the youth of America."
After Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, he created many bureaus, agencies and programs designed to put people back to work. One of those was the Work Projects Administration. According to John Armstrong, the activities of the WPA "and the money appropriated by Congress for its use was to be spent on the administration, engineering and construction of large projects such as new roads, buildings intended for government use and the locating and construction of dams."
My own research showed that to be only a part of the WPA’s focus. Other activities such as fixing hot meals for public school children, sewing and even literary and art endeavors were part of the WPA. But John can be forgiven his enthusiasm for the dam projects; the WPA was to make his dream of sailing become a reality.
At first, the name ascribed to the project was Deer Creek Lake and Park. The September 22, 1933, issue of the Topeka Journal described the future facility as one of 13 proposals in a bond election that next October 3rd. The issue failed along with the other twelve. The failure could be attributed to the timing of the bond election as money was in scarce supply and most headlines of the day talked of the Finney bond scandal that was the subject of a paper presented to the Jayhawker Club earlier this year.
Still another possible reason this project didn't excite Topeka voters was the town was thinking about an even bigger dam — one that would span the Kaw just west of Topeka at the littlecommunity of Kiro. This dam would have created a huge lake, flooding farmland all the way to Wamego. Despite great enthusiasm, the idea died — perhaps the undertaking was too large to be practical or perhaps there was too much opposition from the estimated 10,000 who would have been displaced.
Nearly two years later, Shawnee County picked up the Deer Creek project. County Engineer Charles A. Martin presented plans to the Shawnee County Board of Commissioners and the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee on July 19, 1935, and received approval from both groups.
The Deer Creek Lake proposal was not universally popular Another group, headed by W.H. Thomas, wanted the WPA lake built on the north side of town on a site seven miles west of Highway 75 near Elmont Grove on Little Soldier Creek. The Shawnee County Board of Commissioners approved the Deer Creek project probably because that site was more practical. The Deer Creek site was more accessible and was already served by electricity.
After about 900 acres of land was secured, construction began in November of 1935. The dam was to be 2,200 feet long and 55 feet high, built on the south side of 29th street. The dam would be 370 feet wide at the bottom and 30 feet wide on top. It called for 57,000 cubic yards of rip-rap. Earth for the dam was taken from a pit five feet deep, 2,000 feet long and 1,500 feet wide just inside the lake south of the dam.
It was to be a slow, arduous process. When the work force reached its full complement of about 400 laborers, John Armstrong remembered the "whole area fairly crawled with workmen, most of the labor being done by hand." The true purpose of the project was to provide people with work and not to set any construction records.
Although the dam required the largest work force, there were crews at work all through the lake bed cutting down trees, stripping off limbs and securing everything to the ground by using large spikes driven by sledge hammers. A network of heavy wire was woven over the felled trees and wrapped around the spikes. Many years later, after the lake had filled, this procedure proved to be a mistake. After the stakes and wires had corroded, several boats were struck from underneath as a tree broke loose from its bindings and soared to the surface. John Armstrong wrote that it was not uncommon to have a tree "pop up at your side or in front of the boat while sailing!"
At one point while the project was underway, an article in the February 4, 1936, issue of the Topeka Journal said that "if one is to believe authoritative opinion, some time in the late spring of 1937, housewives and doting young matrons will be hastily preparing lunches and dinner baskets in anticipation of a pleasant afternoon, in the more remote wooded reaches of Lake Shawnee park." Of course, that prediction didn't mention anything about water.
As the project dragged on and on, speculation and doubt surfaced. The popular boast of the day was made by many who said they would drink every drop of water that flowed over the spillway, once it was finished. For a long time, it looked as though their boast was safe. The dam was completed on May 30, 1938, after two and a half years in construction.
John Armstrong remembered several seasons observing what he called "this bare, dry monument to Roosevelt's New Deal." Three years passed before the lake filled to even 100 acres of water.Engineers and meteorologists alike blamed the drought. No more than about 20 inches of rainfall a year was recorded in the area during the years 1937, 1938 and 1939.
But that was more than enough for John. He recalled a time when there was only 10 acres of water in the lake and when three would-be sailors launched their boats. One was a 21-foot monster sailed by Tom McGinnis. Tom and his crew sailed the boat through corn stalks and fishing boats, but the voyage was short lived. The boat came to a jolting halt when its centerboard struck bottom. John recalled that the effort to free the boat was accompanied by plenty of verbal abuse from angry fishermen nearby.
Clearly, the lake’s first purpose was primarily fishing. Even as skeptics were still chortling about the lack of water, Shawnee County officially opened the lake to fishermen with a splash. It was called Anglers Day, when an estimated 5,000 fishermen showed up on September 3, 1939, to officially open the lake. Here's part of an account from Topeka Capital Reporter Bob Halladay:
"It was the day that Topeka's — yes, even Kansas' — sportsmen had been waiting for... scores had kept an all-night vigil, checking and re-checking their tackle and fairly straining at the leash until the long-awaited hour of 6 a.m. arrived.
"Long before the appointed hour, the banks of the shimmering lake were lined with people, all were in the spots they had chosen months ago... Just as the sun was pushing over the horizon, a gun boomed — the signal to let 'em fly. And let 'em fly they did. The whir of thousands of lines as they shot through the air was almost one sound.
"The old fishing maxim of keeping quiet...meant nothing to the Lake Shawnee anglers. They shouted in glee as each fighting bass, husky cat or wriggling perch was pulled to the shore or given a quick trip through the air as some excited fisherman hurriedly yanked his catch. They yelled words of encouragement to each other, tossed friendly jibes at their not-so-lucky colleagues and whooped when their lines gave that certain snap that is dear to a fisherman."
Halladay estimated there were 300 boats filled with anglers in addition to the shoulder-to- shoulder group on the shoreline. When the wind picked up, Halladay’s enthusiasm for the new lake was evident as he wrote, "Waves, real honest-to-goodness waves, pounded at the sides of the vessels and sent many of the less hardy individuals scurrying to shore."
The sight of those same waves was sending other Topekans to their garages to build sailboats. Lewis Rake completed his 14-foot boat "Stingaree" from the handy Fawcett publication, and others of all shapes and kinds came rolling out of garages and were launched at Lake Shawnee. Two of them were 12-foot plywood boats built from plans in a magazine called "How to Build 20 Boats."
Both were built by fellow employees of Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. — Harry Olds and Weldon Skidmore. Skidmore and his $42 boat were pictured in a later edition of the Topeka Journal. The caption said "The boat, thus far, has passed all others in speed contests on Lake Shawnee."
There's an adage about sailing that goes, "Anytime you have at least two sailboats within sight of each other, you have a sailboat race. That adage was proven during the summer of 1941. There were about a dozen sailboats skimming the waters of the nearly full Lake Shawnee that summer and Topeka Journal headlines asked, "Yacht Club on Shawnee? Anyhow, There Are Sailboats. Rivalry Among the Fresh Water Sailors for Speed Honors."
The article warned, "Don't ever snub that young fellow who wipes the dirt off your windshield, lady. He may be the next commodore of the Topeka Yacht Club.
"Lake Shawnee now has nearly a dozen sailboat owners — and their wives are convinced that a real yacht club ought to be organized at almost any minute now.
"Owners range from schoolboys to mature business men; they all love sailing and they're all convinced Shawnee is a fine place to sail. Ranks of the owners are growing steadily, too, with new keels being laid already in several residential garages for next year's newest additions to the Shawnee fleet."
John Armstrong remembered that, "by the end of the summer, not much water had been added to the lake, but a tremendous amount of enthusiasm had been generated."
A few sailboat owners were in favor of forming a club. John felt that such a club would bind the group of sailors "together by rules to strengthen the representation of all sailing enthusiasts." John reported there was some strong opposition to the idea of a club, but he didn't elaborate.
In the fall of 1941, six men met at John's home at 1128 Garfield. In addition to John, were the following: Lewis Rake, Tom McGinnis, John H. Sticher, Weldon B. Skidmore and Harold Ruff. This half dozen unanimously agreed to organize a club. The name they gave their organization was "Shawnee Yacht Club." John recalled that the enthusiastic discussion covered several subjects about the organization of the club, but it was decided that a larger, more representative group should be assembled before writing a constitution and by-laws.
They also elected temporary officers with John Armstrong as Commodore, Lewis Rake as Vice Commodore and Tom McGinnis as recorder. At the adjournment of the meeting, each of the six attending was charged with the responsibility of soliciting for new members.
According to John, a representative group had been formed after two more meetings and the club was officially formed that fall of 1941. There were 13 charter members — John Armstrong, Chester Ebey, F.W. Fazel, Al Harper, Vincent Hoffman, Tom McGinnis, Harry Olds, Louis Rake, Harold Ruff, William Schwartz, Weldon Skidmore, John Sticher and Katherine Trumbill.
The constitution was drafted by McGinnis and Schwartz. Consisting of only two pages, it covered the basics of the club, including a $1 membership fee and the design of a club emblem, a dark blue triangular flag showing a white sail with a red letter "s" on the sail.
Thus was born the Shawnee Yacht Club. Since those beginnings in the summer and fall of 1941, hundreds of Topekans have been members and thousands more have sailed with its members or simply enjoyed the view of sails across the lake on a summer afternoon. Several members of the Jawhawker Club are current or former members of the Shawnee Yacht Club. Today those include Mike Grady, Bern Ketchum, Tim Edwards, Austin Nothem, Hershel Stroud, Allan Marquardt, Ty Petty and myself. Perhaps you know of others.
But there remains one last aspect of Lake Shawnee's early days which should be covered in order to complete this paper. That has to do with the lake filling to its full capacity of 410 acres of water. Remember, the beginnings of the Shawnee Yacht Club were traced back to a time before the lake actually filled.
Even in June of 1939 when the lake covered 100 acres, people were impatient. A June rain had boosted the lake another five inches but it was still far below the spillway.
"It's the same old story," said L.H. Cox, lake superintendent. "The rain was enough to fill ponds in the watershed, but the rain quit. I sympathize thoroughly with the impatience of swimmers and boaters and fishermen. In fact, there isn't anybody in the county who would like to see the lake full more than I would. But the simple fact is that we haven't had enough rain. Some day we'll get it — but it's getting tiresome waiting around."
The year 1940 passed without much improvement in the lake level.
The spring of 1941 brought a period of heavy rainfall and an April 22nd article said the lake was four inches deeper. Cox predicted that additional rainfall would fill the lake drastically since the ground was soaked and thus anymore rainfall would be "run off."
Cox's predictions came true. By early June, the lake rose another two feet... just from one three- inch rain. In November, the lake had filled another foot and covered 223 acres.
In 1942, Deer Creek valley became what we know today as Lake Shawnee in a matter of months. Just in the month of October alone, the lake climbed a full nine feet. In fact, it filled so rapidly that a 37th Street bridge crossing Deer Creek which was supposed to be dismantled before the lake filled was underwater before it could be removed. It still stands underwater on its piers today.
A headline in the August 27, 1942 Topeka Journal admitted that "Lake Shawnee is a Big Drink" as water lapped only about two feet from the top of the spillway. An editorial in that same issue smugly reported that certain citizens "are wondering if they'll have to keep their 1939 promises to drink all the water that ever would run over the spillway."
A September 5 headline cried, "Lake Shawnee Slops Over!" but it was just at one corner. The main body of water still had one and 3/4 inches to go.
On September 7, a headline reported the news, "Lake Shawnee Finally Goes Over Spillway Last Night." Lake Shawnee began discharging its surplus waters over the spillway about 5:30 p.m. on September 6, 1942 — the first time since the lake was started seven years before. Thousands flocked to the spillway to witness the spectacle.
The lake itself stored two and one-half billion gallons of water. But hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that flowed over the spillway that Labor Day weekend in 1942, was far too much — as the name of my paper suggests — too much to drink.