board and staff exhibits underground railroad feature donation gallery

Brief History of Clinton Lake Historical Society Inc., Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum
& The Freedom's Light Sculpture

Martha Parker, January 2008

Although rumors of damming the Wakarusa River had persisted since the early 1900’s, the potential impact on the farmers of the valley was not taken seriously until the Corps began buying property for the project in the mid 1960’s. As families who had tilled the land for several generations were forced to sell and move out, the Corps came to be regarded as much as the invading Missouri ruffians were thought of by the settlers over a century earlier. And like their ancestors, they banded together for their mutual protection. Only this time they called their group the Clinton Lake Landowners Association.

Some of the organization’s members were concerned about the potential loss of their identity and the valley’s history along with their land. Thus the association formed an auxiliary group, the Historical Committee that undertook to address that particular concern. Of special interest was a red brick house located high on a hill above and east of the town of Clinton. It was acquired by the Corps in February of 1972 and scheduled for demolition.

Over 200 members of the landowners petitioned the Corps to stop the destruction and save the house for use as a museum. A tremendous amount of research found the house of Col. J.C. Stelle to be of ‘historic’ interest, and 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 abolitionist, mostly Quakers, who paid with their lives to make Kansas free.

Meeting the criteria posed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers was no easy task. The Society was incorporated in 1979, and the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plans were made for developing the house; an architect and a consultant were hired to develop the house as a tourist attraction under the auspices of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The citizens of the lake were elated to hear from Col. W.R. Needham, dated 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”. “Promises made and promise broken”! The house was dismantled in 1981. The Clinton Lake Historical Society opened their museum in restored milk shed in 1983.

After 25 years, the board of directors made the decision that a new modern museum must be built to collect and interpret the history of the 10 communities affected by the construction of Clinton Lake. The board hired an architect and a consultant to write a professional report and draw up a master plan.

Through many discussions with members of the society, fundraising activities have continued to increase. The idea of the “guiding light” to give symbolism to the “light” that was destroyed with the destruction of the Steele House was born. It was agreeded that a tower could encompass a sculpture to be located just north of the Steele House. Local UGRR history and Clinton Lake seemed to call out the idea of “guiding light”. It is said that the North Star, candles in the window, and the sun on sheets drying at cabins of antislavery settlers, were all guides in safe flight from slavery. This idea has been encompassed in the master plan. The idea of the “guiding light” has an architectural form tied to the river symbol and to local history. Members of the society and friends from afar hope that “Freedom Rings" will become the virtual anchor for telling the valley history that has been theirs for generations.

To view Stephen’s website