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Reprint with permission from “Hometown” magazine, Fall 1991. Copyright 1991 by Ohnick Enterprises

 

How Meade State Lake Was Won!

by Nancy Ohnick

For those of us who have lived in Meade all our lives, the State Lake southwest of town is a fixture. It’s always been part of us and we often take it for granted.

For me the lake holds many happy childhood memories of long summer days fishing with my folks, and picnics and swimming with my brothers and cousins. My Dad has the same kind of memories, as do my own children. Mention of the “lake” just seems to bring on a feeling of peace, family and fun for all of us, and opens a “Pandora’s box” of stories (for we all have favorite “lake” stories to tell). Multiply this by all the generations of all the families who have had good times around this little oasis on the prairie, and you might have some inkling of what the Meade State Lake has meant to our town and all the visitors it has drawn here.

It was sixty-six years ago when the Kansas State Legislature of 1925 created the State Forestry, Fish and Game Commission, consisting of the Governor, the State Fish and Game Warden, and three members appointed by the Governor. Among the powers given this Commission was the authority to acquire lands and to establish parks, lakes, recreation grounds, and game preserves.

Businessmen in Meade knew what an asset just such a park and lake would be to our area. Their organization at the time was called the Commercial Club, and it didn’t take this bunch long to take action and get the Governor’s attention.

Many other counties were scrambling for the state parks, but we had several things in our favor. Some fourteen years earlier some sportsmen of Meade had organized a Country Club and constructed a lake of approximately thirty acres on the Crooked L Ranch south of town, which was testimony of how good hunting and fishing could be in Meade County. We also had a friend on the commission in Mr. Lee Larrabbee who was from Liberal, and very sympathetic to our needs. Last, but not least, we had the perfect location.

At this time the property where the lake is now located was a part of Turkey Track Ranch belonging to Andy J. Austin. Mr. Larrabbee was aware of the site and the date of October 15, 1925, was set for Governor Ben S. Paulen and the rest of the commission to view it with him. The Commercial Club certainly had a job to do!

At this time Meade had no adequate hotel accommodations or fancy place in which to entertain a governor. Some members of the Country Club were discussing what could be done and it was suggested that a meal be prepared and served there. The Commercial Club formed a committee. Buck Buise, Tayor Boyd, Frank Sullivan and Willis Wolfe were named to procure and prepare a fish and game dinner. Frank was put in charge of getting the ducks and Buck was chairman of the fish committee, both with power to choose their assistants. The ladies of the club were to prepare the meal.

The morning of the fifteenth dawned a beautiful October day. The Governor and his commission were put into the capable hands of Willis Wolfe for the trip to Turkey Track Ranch. Not only was Willis the best salesman Meade had to offer, but he was an avid outdoorsman with a fierce belief in Meade. Besides, his seven-passenger Lincoln was the only car in town big enough to accommodate the governor’s group.

The thirteen miles of unimproved roads to the ranch gave Willis enough time to impress upon the governor the virtues of Southwest Kansas for hunting and fishing. When they arrived at the site he suggested a walk. Frank Sullivan told the story beautifully in his History of Meade County, “The commissioners soon found themselves in a beautiful valley, gazing upon a sea of blue-stem and three cornered swamp grass. Along the south bank of Stumpy Arroyo, artesian springs issued clear and cold, forming what impressed the commissioners as a never-failing stream. Here willow and mulberry trees grew in profusion, as did locust, catalpa, elm and tamarisk. Majestic cottonwoods arched high overhead. An abundance of sweet clover lay scattered about the commissioners’ feet.”

As they hiked, Willis was the master salesman making his finest pitch. “Look how Mother Nature has blessed this one small parcel of otherwise parched land with rolling hills and sand dunes; with creek and bog, pond and grove. How might a forward-looking people ensure that such a place remain unspoiled, a place where future generations might find respite from perennial dust and wind?”

Meanwhile, back at the Country Club cabin, it was a flurry of activity. Frank Sullivan recalled, “Everything was in readiness, the biscuits were mixed and ready to be shoved into the oven when I saw the van of the procession turn in at the club gate; I gave the order ‘Put ‘em in,’ meaning that the time for putting the biscuits in the oven had arrived.

“Conditions were ideal for the successful culmination of our purpose, which was to high-power the Commission. Here was a bunch of indoor men with outdoor provlibities who had just had a long ride on a beautiful October morning, a long hike over the ground, just the proper twang in the crisp air to exhilarate the spirit and sharpen the appetite. As the parties alighted from the cars they faced a shimmering sheen of water expanded over thirty acres. Six hundred yards away a thousand ducks sported the water, and another thousand in the air above it. As the guests turned from viewing this sight, a sight that would quicken the pulse of any sportsman, in response to the call, ‘Come and get it,’ they looked upon a cozy clubhouse set in a grove of trees whose leaves tinged with scarlet and gold, fluttered in the mild breeze and could but realize that a bunch of sportsmen who could create such a paradise in an arid country were the real sort and entitled to recognition. And the whole party, consisting of fifty men, with Governor Ben S. Paulen and the head of the tables seated themselves to a most sumptuous dinner. A whole roast duck, with dressing, and all the garnishment, appurtenances and hereiditaments thereunto belonging, was set before each guest. This was followed by fish, deliciously prepared, the diner having his choice between bass, crappie, and drum, with shoestring potatoes, biscuits as light as thistle down, coffee like Mother used to make, pumpkin pie, the kind that makes Thanksgiving worthwhile, jellies, preserves, and relishes until there was scarcely room for an elbow on the table.

“No mention was made of the proposed park during the dinner, but everyone talked. We talked of fishing, of shooting, of the propagation and conservation of fish and game. One member of the Commission, George Clark, a veteran sportsman and former Secretary of State, recalled that thirty years before he had hunted duck along the stream that fed our lake, and that a boy, whose name he had forgotten but whose services as a guide he well remembered, had accompanied him. This boy, still a boy in spite of his graying temples, was Roy Twist, known to everyone as  ‘Twister,” sat just across the table from Mr. Clark.

“There is an old saying which must have originated with some wise She to the effect that if one expects favors from a man, one ‘must feed the brute.’ Whether there by truth in this adage I know not. But I do know that at the next meeting of this Commission, following the dinner at the Meade Country Club, Meade County was awarded a State Park.

“It cannot be safely asserted that especial credit is due any person, or any particular number of persons for bringing this park to Meade County; we all worked for it, each in his own way. If it might not be considered lese majesty I would say that to the ladies, God bless ‘em, who prepared this feast for the Commission, thus enlisting gastronomic science in our behalf belongs no small amount of credit.”

In the Meade Globe News dated October 22, along with the report of the Governor’s visit a small article appeared about naming the lake. “…Mr. Larrabbee of Liberal, was the first to find the site, and in the event that Meade County is fortunate in securing the coveted prize, the honor of naming the lake ‘Larrabbee Lake’ would be a just honor to Mr. Larrabbee. Everyone seems to be in favor of the lake, and it is said that a pledge will be made that all roads leading to it will be kept up and maintained by the people of the county.

It was March, 1927, before the State actually purchased the land for the park. Wheels were put in motion at the same time to purchase land near Scott City, but the location at Meade became the first park and lake to start construction under this new program.

The Meade Globe News carried the story. “When A.J. Austin was in the House of Representatives, he advocated taking private lakes and making the public playgrounds knowing full well that his ranch would be the first to go. He made a real sacrifice in price, but his heart has been on state lakes for Western Kansas for years. He feels amply repaid for his sacrifice because of the establishment of the lake, and the people of this part of the state owe much to Mr. Austin and much commendation for his unselfish action in the matter.

“Mr. Austin received $28,000 for 920 acres. He owns 2,220 acres. The part taken is shaped like an “L” and takes in four springs. While it cuts his ranch considerable, he still has left just as good land and springs. The commission state that approximately $60,000 would be spent on the project the coming year. The first thing to be done is to build a dam, after which will come the landscape artist and architect for boat and bath houses. The lake will be approximately 200 acres and will be as much as thirty feet deep near the dam site.”

By late summer, 1927, the construction on the lake had begun. Roads to the lake site were started and in the spring of 1928, 10,000 evergreen trees were purchased by the Fish & Game Commission to be planted at the lake site. Houses were constructed for park personnel and barns were built to accommodate the wildlife hatchery, all supplied with running water from the artesian wells. By August the lake was filling and covered fifty acres of land. People were coming far and wide to spend the day at the lake.

By September, 1928, ads were appearing in the Meade Globe News selling lots at the Meade State Lake Resort for “so low a price as $75 and none over $150.”  Mr. Ben Bolen, the sales agent in charge reported receiving inquiries from as far away as Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Hutchinson, Wichita, Pratt and Greensburg as well as having sold some lots to residents of this county.

In April, 1929, the Meade Globe News reported: “C.A. Marrs and J.W. Cooper have the concession right to the park and are now spending several thousands of dollars for equipment to make the park just what the people intended when it was decided that the state should go into the park business.

“The gentlemen have had hundreds of loads of sand hauled into the lake and up on the beach that a playground for the people may be had. By the time the lake is filled to the spillway height the beach will be 100 feet wide and 400 feet long, extending into the lake to a depth of six feet. Even now the water is so clear that you can tell the demarcation of the sand in the water. The beach is in the northeast corner of the lake.

“The bath house 12 x 72 feet will be erected with quarters for the men on one end and the ladies on the other. In the center of the building will be the office rooms, closets for bathing suits, etc. The basket system will be used in the bath house. The checking room will also be in the office part where your valuables will be cared for. This system is used in the big bath houses in cities.

"Just north of the bath house will be a building 24 x 24 and will house the refreshment quarters. Fridgidaire and Delco equipment will be installed. The Delco system will be of sufficient size to light all of the buildings and the beach which permits bathing in the evening. The beach will care for 300 bathers at one time.

“Shallow pools will be fixed for children. Water equipment will be in abundance for children. A pier will be built into the water for those who want to do high diving.

“There will be number of row boats and at least one motor boat on the lake. These will be for rent to responsible parties.

“Another thing that will be of interest to parents, is a playground built away from the water and fenced, so that there will be no danger of their children getting down to the water’s edge. The grounds will be equipped for the amusement of the smaller children.

“The state forestry commission plans on another road going completely around the lake. This will be a gravel road and will relieve the congestion at the beach.

“That the whole proposition is beginning to take form is evidenced by the fact that lots around the state property are being sold almost every day. There will be some cabins built this summer and many more next summer when fishing will be permitted. Last week four Dodge City people bought lots and expect to erect cabins.

“The rain of last week brought the water up to within about eighteen inches of the top of the spillway. The wave action has been so great on the northeast corner that thousands of yards of dirt have tumbled into the lake. The state commission has hauled more than three hundred old auto bodies, chassis and tractors and riprapped the bank. This looks a little out of place with such a fine body of water, yet it has served two purposes. Has stopped the bank from caving in and has made an extra fine place for channel catfish to spawn.

“Some of the ponds have been drained and the larger fish put into the lake. As fast as the hatchery at Pratt can spare fish, more will be brought to the ponds. Lee Larrabbee says that those who favor frog fishing will have much sport as he intends to see that some tadpoles are put in the lake this spring.

“It is hard for some to visualize the Meade County State Park fifteen years from now. With the number of trees, shrubs, flowers that have been planted a country already beautiful in its virgin state, will be transformed into a great recreational park more beautiful than their fondest dreams. Trees and parks of this kind mean permanency to a county that left its aridness and is now a country of soundness and taking its full share of the responsibilities laid upon a permanent country abounding in good home with a love of nature’s grandeur.”

By May 16, the lake was splashing over the spillway and plans were being made for a grand opening. A golf course was being completed and cabins were being built.

C.C. Wilson was put in charge of a committee to plan the opening day, June 5, 1929. Events for the day included a basket lunch, ball game, bands, golf, boating, and swimming. Two airplanes offered rides through the day and a fireworks display was planned for the evening.

 When the day finally came it was estimated that 5,000 people passed through the park in spite of a chilly day, heavy clouds and slippery roads. The Meade Globe News quoted a Mr. Pedigo who was treasurer of the Southwest Telephone Company and had made his way from Pratt to attend the opening: “…I am proud that our legislators saw fit to establish these state parks for they will mean much to the people and will result in much favorable advertising for the state. For a people to go out onto the plains and build recreational grounds and bring them up to such beauty spots means more than those states that have natural places because it show determination of the people to have those things in life that mean so much. I am glad I live so close to the park and I congratulate the people of this corner of the state.”

An event to top this event, however, was the opening day of fishing at Lake Larrabbee in May, 1930. Nearly 8,000 people lined the shores of the lake starting from three o’clock in the morning and ending late at night. Mr. Marrs and Mr. Cooper were well established in their business by now and quite capable of taking care of large crowds. Lee Larrabbee was in attendance all day and was quoted as saying, “I have waited 45 years for this day and if the people here today enjoy it as much as I do, the continued growth and improvement in this park will never be in jeopardy.”

The Meade State Lake and Park have survived a lot over the last sixty-six years, and yes, Mr. Larrabbee, it has been in jeopardy a time or two, but it still stands. How the lake has progressed through the years is a history in itself—perhaps one for future issues—but somehow just knowing about it’s beginnings gives this writer a new respect for the old place. I wish I could have known those wonderful hometown people who worked so hard that we might have it to enjoy today—making memories to enjoy forever.

Photo Gallery of Meade State Lake

 

 

 

 

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