In this aerial view of Gardner Lake, taken circa 1939, the footprint of Transient Camp #9 is still visible on Lake Road 5. The mess hall and recreation center remained at this time. There are still some huts on the rising shoreline which may have been used as tourist cabins, but the barracks buildings have been removed to the Johnson County Fair Grounds. Photo courtesy of the Gardner Historical Museum
Special to The Gardner News
As seasons change, we are careening towards a new year as well as a new decade. Articles reflecting on this waning year’s accomplishments and changes may become almost cliche. It will be curious to see if there will be tired puns linking the coming year to perfect eyesight.
To make the spilling of ink more significant, let’s look back 85 years at what was being accomplished two miles north of our quiet town at the Gardner State Lake, as it came to be known.
Framing up the local situation in 1934, remember that the United States was in the clutches of what was to become known as the Great Depression. The Midwest had been in an agricultural depression that emerged in the previous decade and was being fueled by record droughts, bank failures and the shortage of
Gardner, a country town of 500, was surviving better than most as citizens bartered with commodities from their gardens and sweat from their brow.
Progressive President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been inaugurated for the first time the previous year and was implementing broad and sweeping experiments to curb the national situation. He was not particularly popular in this local Republican stronghold in Johnson County except with a handful of Democrats who struggled for a toehold in local politics.
Gardner druggist E.F. Alexander was one of those men. The influential Alexander had won the confidence of five other leaders who had supported him in a tireless effort to secure government funding and private land for the proposed 125-acre man-made lake, intended to supply both critically needed water and recreation to the area. The population eventually fell in line behind the efforts of these men and championed what was to be the largest work-relief program in Johnson County, but the project would teetered on collapse even after the construction was underway.
Organized as a State Fish and Game Commission project, the construction of the Gardner State Lake was financed with federal funds implemented by the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee in 1934. During this pivotal year the landscape north of Gardner changed dramatically, although often tentatively.
The bar was quite high during this year. Alexander’s team formed the Gardner Lake Corporation and was tasked with raising the money to purchase the land to be donated to the State Fish and Game Commission for the completion of the project. One hundred theoretical lake lots had to be sold for $100 each on land the GLA didn’t own to raise the necessary funds to purchase that same land. Bear in mind, this was a time of total financial upheaval that cannot even be imagined by future generations. The first 40 lots sold relatively quickly, but even with generous terms of $10.00 down and low monthly installments they couldn’t cover the land purchase. When it was learned that an additional 50 lots would need to be sold to cover materials, the plea for support was spread throughout the Greater Kansas City area. Olathe and Kansas City, Kansas, committed to selling 25 lots each to make up the difference. Still short of funds, board members were forced to mortgage their homes to cover the remaining balance.
What occurred in the summer of 1934 was a coming-together of Gardner citizens, local farmers and urban neighbors in an unprecedented display of support for the emerging lake project.
The ensuing project required the construction of a work camp to house and feed first dozens, then hundreds of relief workers, including destitute, unattached men from all vocations and a large number of mature and even aging WWI veterans. They were mostly Kansas City and Topeka residents but many of them came from hobo camps at railroad junctions. Some of the men stayed for just a few days, but many of them stayed for years being bound there by the promise of a few dollars a week, plus food and board — an improvement over their former situation.
Work began in April of 1934 with the necessary surveys to determine the shorelines and runoff potential. The following month, materials started arriving to build a modern, if not comfortable, camp to house the necessary workers forecasted to number 300. This camp, located on what is now Lake Road 5, came to be known as Transient Camp #9. Wells were being dug to no avail as a water supply was a constant issue.
Two or three dozen men were now constructing temporary bunkers and outbuildings at the camp and the town was abuzz with optimism. Local merchants hustled to fill food and supply orders. By October, a mess hall and recreation center became ready for occupancy. The population of the camp grew rapidly to meet the demands for labor. By November, 10 bunkhouses had been completed and connected by a network of stone walks. Footings for an office were laid out and constructed.
In the following month of December, a warm reception was planned by the camp administrators and town leaders for the first of many Christmas celebrations to occur at Transient Camp #9. By this time, the citizens had fully embraced the project and supported the men with simple Christmas gifts, evening entertainment and weekend visits to fend off the loneliness and tedium of their current plight.
The camp remained a hub of activity until its final closure in 1939 and the removal of the larger bunkhouses to the Johnson County Fair Grounds. The smaller huts were purchased and repositioned around the lake to serve as fishing cottages or weekend retreats. The remaining building, the large mess hall and recreation center, served the community for another 24 years as The Gardner Lake Resort, a roller rink and juke joint with a history as rich as that of Transient Camp #9.