When white settlers first arrived in Douglas County, the rural area directly south of Lawrence in Wakarusa Township was probably among the most desirable places to live and farm.
“There are some very fine, level, rich fields in Wakarusa Township on both sides of the river that were kind of created by the river and the creeks that feed into it,” said Dale Nimz, a historic preservation consultant. “There is some very good land, and there were some good farms. Some of the barns and houses are larger and higher quality, and they reflect that.”
But as modern urban development in Lawrence spreads south, Nimz said, many of the old farmsteads are being lost. And much of what remains of the older houses and farm structures that were once central to the county’s agriculture-based economy is now threatened because of years of neglect or the mere fact that they are no longer useful in today’s way of life.
For the last several months, Nimz and his colleague Susan Ford have been traveling the back roads of Wakarusa Township, conducting a survey of the natural and historical assets of the area.
The survey is part of an ongoing project by the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council to document the history and resources of each township in the county. The first survey was completed last year on Eudora Township.
This year, Nimz and Ford are completing surveys of Kanwaka and Wakarusa townships.
“In the end, we hope to have an inventory, not only of our historic places, but also our natural resources,” said Jeannette Blackmar, who staffs the conservation council. “Douglas County is really unique in this way. It’s about connecting stories, not only historic places themselves but also how they connect on the landscape. So we hope with the inventory to have a better understanding of our heritage through this project.”
Blackmar said the survey project is proceeding one township at a time, with priority given to rural areas where historical resources are most threatened by urban development.
Much of Wakarusa Township has been annexed into the city of Lawrence. The rural township extends south from the city limits to North 900 Road, with the east and west boundaries roughly parallel to the city’s east and west edges.
The area includes Wells Overlook, as well as the unincorporated villages of Sibleyville due south of Lawrence, and Franklin, much of which has been annexed into southeast Lawrence.
Besides urban growth, Nimz said Douglas County’s rural landscape has also changed because of the evolving nature of agriculture itself, which for many years was the main economic activity outside the city of Lawrence.
Barns, chicken coops and other kinds of outbuildings were designed to support a more diversified kind of farming, where a single family would raise both food crops and livestock.
“Each outbuilding had a purpose and a function,” he said. “Almost all of those functions no longer apply. On the historic farms, the set of historic farm buildings is more complex, whereas modern farms tend to simplify. So where there might have been eight or 10 buildings on an old farm, most likely they’ll be reduced down to two or three or four today.”
The meeting on the Kanwaka Township survey will be at 7 p.m. Monday, at the Stull United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, 1596 East 250 Road.
The Wakarusa Township survey meeting is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, 1263 North 1100 Road.