Lawrence festival to celebrate the history of the Kaw

photo by: Libby Stanford

The Kansas River, also known as the Kaw, flows through Lawrence on July 12, 2018. The Living River Festival will celebrate the Kaw and its history Friday, July 20, to Sunday, July 22.

Barbara Higgins-Dover is the descendant of river royalty.

Her grandfather fished commercially on the Kansas and Missouri rivers in the early 20th century, a time when commercial fishing was illegal in Kansas. Higgins-Dover hopes to honor that history at the Living River Festival, which she is organizing.

The three-day festival, from Friday to Sunday, will be a “celebration of the human-river connection,” Higgins-Dover said.

“There are a lot of different ways that we utilize (the river) as a resource, and it deserves respect,” she said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and it becomes overpolluted like it is now.”

The festival opens at 6 p.m. Friday with a screening of the film “When Kings Reigned” in the ballroom of SpringHill Suites by Marriott, 1 Riverfront Plaza. “When Kings Reigned” is a documentary produced by Higgins-Dover about the first so-called “river kings,” Abe Burns and Jake Washington, the namesakes of Lawrence event space “Abe & Jake’s Landing.”

“River kings” refers to a group of men who made their living on the Kansas River by catching fish and occasionally running rescue operations on the water.

On Saturday, festival-goers can expect an array of activities at SpringHill Suites, including poems, activity tables, presentations and a walk along the river, which is just north of the hotel. The festival closes Sunday with another screening and discussion of “When Kings Reigned” at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St.

Everyone participating in the festival has a connection to the river in some way. Kerry Altenbernd, who will be performing as notorious abolitionist John Brown, grew up on a farm near the Kaw.

“Living in the river valley, you’re always thinking about the course of the stream or how things relate to the river,” Altenbernd said. “I seem to have an affinity for rivers. I don’t know why, exactly, I’m drawn to flowing water.”

Annette Billings will be reading poetry about rivers and other nature themes.

“I love to write about nature,” Billings said. “The rivers call us and connect us and inspire us.”

Although Higgins-Dover is the director of the festival, Humanities Kansas and Friends of the Kaw helped provide funding. Freedom’s Frontier and SpringHill Suites donated their spaces to the festival, which is free and open to the public.

Higgins-Dover has devoted much of her life to sharing the history of the river. In 2007, she published a children’s book called “Catfish Cookies.” Now, she’s the curator of the Kansas Riverkings Museum, which has two locations: at SpringHill Suites and at Highland Community College Perry Center, 203 W. Bridge St. in Perry.

She hopes to continue the Living River Festival for years to come.

“Because of my feeling that I was always tied to that side of my family’s heritage, it instilled in me a desire to do more research, dig a little deeper, uncover who all these men were and what their lives were like,” Higgins-Dover said.

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