Let there be no doubt that Lawrence knew how to market itself in 1882.
Back then, the powers that be had no time for little slogans like the "City of the Arts," or press releases about Forbes magazine ranking us the 10th-best metro area for affordable wagon train trips. (I'm just assuming we made that list.)
No, back in 1882, drumming up interest in Lawrence was done a bit differently.
Lawrence leaders arranged to have posters put up all over the Midwest that made a simple, bold promise: Come to Lawrence to "see the grandest sights ever witnessed in the West."
We're not talking just about the grandest in Kansas. Or the second grandest in the West. No, we mean the grandest sights EVER in the West.
Folks, that's marketing.
What was this great sight? It was an event called the Western National Fair, sometimes called the Great Fair of the West. It was held in north Lawrence on property known as Bismarck Grove. You may know that area now as the Nunemaker-Ross Farms, where lots of people go out to buy sweet corn every summer.
There were horse races and vendors and temperance movements and singing, and, well, all sorts of sights that could be considered great, if put into the hands of a marketer with a poster-making press.
But in 1882, there was a sight that, if not great, was at least unique: A regatta on the Kansas River. The posters roared: "Grand Rowing Regatta. Competition open to the World!" The broadsides went on to say the regatta was the first rowing competition west of the Mississippi River.
Great is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but 8,000 to 10,000 people reportedly lined the banks of the Kansas River on the day of the main race.
Maybe a poster with an exclamation mark really is the key to successful tourism. Well, Rob Catloth is not promising 8,000 to 10,000 people will line the banks of the Kaw later this month, but he is betting Lawrence residents will be interested in reconnecting with a piece of the city's past by bringing a regatta back to the Kaw.
Catloth, head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks women's rowing team, is organizing the Jayhawk Jamboree, a rowing regatta and community festival set for Oct. 20 on the banks of the Kansas River in Burcham Park.
Fifty to 60 boats from five college rowing programs are expected to compete in the rowing events. And the athletic department is working to have a kids' play zone, food vendors and live music for the folks on shore.
"We think it is going to be very cool for people to sit in a beautiful park and watch the boats go by," Catloth said, "and have a real picnic in the park."
That does sound lovely, although the word "greatest" and a few exclamation points could be useful to enhance this description. One of Catloth's rowers, Claudijah Lever, helps him out. She points out that rowing events are rare in this part of the country, and even rarer on the Kansas River.
"You know, this may be a once-in-lifetime-opportunity," Lever said. "People need to get out here and see this."
Now, there's a marketer in the making.
Time: Noon to 4 p.m.
When: Oct. 20
Where: Burcham Park, near Second and Indiana streets
What: More than 50 boats from five collegiate rowing teams will row in competition on the Kansas River. On shore, festivities will include kids' games, food vendors, and live music. Free admission.
KU officials hope the Jayhawk Jamboree becomes an annual event, but the point still is well taken: It has been quite a while since there's been a true rowing competition on the Kaw. Kansas Athletics spent $6 million in 2009 to build a state-of-the-art boathouse in Burcham Park for the rowing program. However, it has yet to host an actual competition. (Rowers do routinely use it for daily practices.)
Water levels in the river have been a problem, and construction projects both upstream and downstream of the boathouse — the Kansas Turnpike river bridge project and the Bowersock Mils power plant — have been less than ideal for competition.
But the stretch of river along Burcham Park is on the upswing now. Both construction projects are completed, and the Bowersock Power plant has provided a real boost to the rowing team's fortunes. The project included improvements to the Bowersock Dam, which has increased the depth of the Kansas River by about 18 inches along the Burcham Park stretch. The river isn't wide enough to host some of the large head-to-head races where six or more lanes are needed side by side. But it does work well for time-trial-type racing where boats go off in staggered starts.
"The improvements to the dam have helped us immensely," Catloth said. "It really has made for a three-mile stretch of river that has very little current, which makes for a great rowing environment."
But Catloth hopes Lawrence residents begin to appreciate the stretch of river as more than just a great place to row. He hopes they recognize it simply as a great place.
"You could have a Fourth of July celebration here, a regatta, and maybe a couple of other events,' Catloth said. "If you had people getting down here for three or four events a year, you would build up a connection with the river again."
Catloth has been in town long enough to know that there used to be a stronger connection to the river than there is today. He was a rower for KU in the early 1980s, and has been the school's rowing coach for the past 19 years.
"We used to have the moniker of River City, but we really don't do a lot with the river anymore," Catloth said.
He noted that if wasn't for the Kansas River, settlers probably wouldn't have chosen this spot to create the town of Lawrence.
"It is just so much a part of our heritage, but right now, most people probably think it is just something you cross to get to I-70," he said.
Other cities already have picked up on the possibilities. Rowing is a big attraction on the east coast. The Head of the Charles rowing regatta in Boston routinely attracts 300,000 people to shore for a real party atmosphere, Catloth said. The Head of the Hooch in Chattanooga, Tenn., attracts more than 1,500 boats. Closer by, Oklahoma City has built an entire fall festival for the city around its regatta.
Catloth hopes a good crowd will turn out for the Jayhawk Jamboree on Oct. 20, but he's also hoping for more than that. He hopes that people will remember that there is a good reason why the river is such an important piece of the city's history, and that there is no reason why a bit of our heritage shouldn't still flow through us.
"It is just a beautiful area," Catloth said. "Just the other day, we were rowing and we looked over to the shore and saw a deer running on the bank, keeping pace with the boat for 40 or 50 yards. It was just beautiful. This is a great place to see sights like that."
Well, there you go. Maybe our forefathers were right. Maybe the grandest sights of the West really are out there to be seen.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.