Marion County Park and Lake
Marion County is located in central Kansas, with the county seat of Marion being approximately 43 miles northeast of Wichita (see Figure 7). Two famous trails dating back to the early days of westward expansion intersect in Marion County. Thousands of head of cattle were driven north along the Chisholm Trail through the county on their way from Texas to Abilene, while traders and settlers followed the Santa Fe Trail west through the county on their way from St. Louis to Mexico and later New Mexico. The first settlement is reported to have been made in Marion County in 1860. During the 1870s the county was located on the edge of the western frontier and attracted a large number of European immigrants, mainly Dutch and German, to its fertile land. Soon after the county became known as a thriving agricultural area (Van Meter, 1972).
In the early 1930s local residents, including many sportsmen, became interested in building a recreational park featuring a lake. A park committee was formed in 1935 whose goal was to produce “a recreational center that cannot be excelled anywhere in the country” (Marion Record, March 30, 1939). The federal government agreed to cover virtually all of the costs, presumably as a flood control project and as a way to put people to work following the great depression. A site was chosen 3 miles southeast of Marion. Plans for the dam were drawn by the Kansas State Fish and Game Commission and approved by the Division of Water Resources of the State Department of Agriculture. Construction began in February of 1936 (see Figure 8). The dam, spillway and stilling basin which created the lake were built by 200-300 “combined colored veteran and junior members” of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp supervised by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) branch of the federal government (Marion Record, March 30, 1939).
The county park committee worked with the Marion County Board of Commissioners, the SCS and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to bring the project to completion in 1939. When finished, the new recreational center named Marion County Park and Lake featured an 80 acre lake 35 feet deep at the dam, 39 concrete picnic tables, a golf course, a baseball diamond, tennis courts, shuffleboard courts, a roller skating rink, croquet grounds and a fly casting course (Marion Record, May 23, 1940).
Jerry E. Mullikin, a former-peace officer who had a lifelong interest in fish and game conservation, was selected by the board of commissioners as the first Park and Lake Supervisor (Marion Record, March 30, 1939), and the park was opened on a limited basis for boating and picnicking before the end of 1939. Fishing was intended to be the primary attraction of the park and during its three years of construction the lake had been stocked with 80,000 fish (Van Meter, 1972 and Waner, 1992). These included bass, crappie, channel cat, bluegill and striped perch (see Figure 9).
It was announced that at 5:30 a.m. on May 26, 1940, a starting gun would be fired to signal the official opening of the lake to fishermen (Marion Record, may, 1940). This was a widely anticipated event (see figure 10), and by early morning on the 26th 10,000 people had jammed the park and 2,000 licensed fishermen from 35 countries and 8 states lined the banks of the lake. To put this in perspective, the population of the town of Marion numbered about 2,000 and the entire county about 20,000 at the time. According to an excerpt from the front page of the local newspaper, the Marion Record, “when the starting bomb exploded promptly at 5:30, hundreds of fishers lining almost all available spots about the lake were poised with hooks baited, fly rods ready or cane poles strung up waiting for the sound and the water’s top was immediately lashed with the plunk of hundreds of lures, minnows, shrimp tails, gobs of melt and squirming angle worms” (Marion Record, may 30, 1940).
The celebration extended to nearby Marion, where county and state officials gave speeches, bands played and a parade marched through the town. A large number of fish were caught that day and everyone had a splendid time (see Figure 11). The Record reported that the biggest catch of the day was a catfish caught by Ed Navrat, “a blue which tipped the scales at 9 1/4 lbs.”
So began the great infatuation with “the lake” that extended well beyond the county’s borders and which lasted for the better part of three decades. Lake news was carried on the front page of the Record in a column first entitled “ On the Fishing Front” and subsequently changed to “On the Sports Front” after duck hunting was permitted on the lake. The column often referred to sportsmen by name and provided statistical information on their day’s catch. Soon word of the popular lake spread to surrounding states and eventually across the country. County records showed that as recently as 1971 fishermen visited from twenty-one states from New York to Alaska (Marion County Record, September 23, 1971). A recent photo of the lake can be seen in Figure 12.
There have now been five supervisors since the lake’s completion. Jerry Mullikin held the position until his death in February 1956, after which time his wife Verona took over temporarily until John Waner could succeed Mullikin in April of that same year. Dale Snelling succeeded Waner in late 1964 and retired in 2007. Steve Hudson succeeded Snelling and is now the current supervisor (Van Meter, 1972 , Waner, 1992 and Hudson, 2015).