Harry Strunk and the RVCA

Monday, October 5, 2009
Harry Strunk

Each summer the Great Lakes in Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas become the playground for countless numbers of fishermen, boating enthusiasts, and picnickers. This is to say nothing of the primary beneficiaries of the lakes -- the area irrigators, and citizens who are protected from the ravages of floods from the region's rivers and streams. All of these people owe a debt of gratitude to four stubborn, far-seeing businessmen, living in Republican River Valley towns in 1940. These men, Wade Martin, Stratton, Carl Swanson, Culbertson, A.B. Wood, Bartley, and Harry Strunk, McCook, were members of the Resolutions Committee of the newly formed Republican Valley Conservation Association. They were responsible for changing the entire Republican River Valley, and bettering the lives of all of us who have lived here during the last 60 plus years.

After the devastating Republican River floods in 1935, which resulted in the loss of 112 lives, and the destruction of millions of dollars of property, there was a concerted effort by many in our area to do something that would eliminate these deadly floods in the future. These efforts culminated, in 1940, in a sweeping study by the U.S. Engineers, which concluded that there were no good sites for reservoirs on the Republican, or its tributaries, upstream, above Republican City.

This report greatly angered these four men, who noted that every one of the 112 lives lost, and the bulk of property loss, in the 1935 flood had occurred on the upper reaches of the Republican. They responded to the engineers' report with a forceful call to the Engineers Corps, the Governors of Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado, elected members of Congress and the Senate, and newspapers across the region -- to consider the entire drainage area, "from its southern extremities, to its headwaters as a single flood control unit, for which a comprehensive flood control program shall be developed for the protection of the lives of all the people and property in the entire Republican River drainage basin."

To this end they embarked upon an energetic lobbying campaign. At first they were not taken seriously, if noticed at all. On one trip to Washington, Strunk and three others asked to see the District Engineer, explaining that they were from the Republican River Valley in Nebraska. The secretary replied that they could not see the District Engineer. "We do not engage in discussions of politics, either Republican or Democrat." It was apparent that she had never even heard of the Republican River. Strunk, with dogged persistence would change that attitude over the course of the next years. The district engineer, Congressmen, even the president would come to take Harry seriously and accept his calls, even if they came in the middle of the night.

Harry Strunk, founder of the McCook Gazette, was the first president of the RVCA, beginning in 1940 and served in that office for the next 20 years, until his death in August 1960. The McCook connection continued with State Sen. Don Thompson, from McCook, who served as Secretary of the RVCA for 13 years.

By 1965, the 25th anniversary of the RVCA, backers could point with pride to major accomplishments constructed in the Republican River Valley basin -- the Trenton Dam and Swanson Lake, Enders Dam and Lake, Bonney Dam, near St. Francis, Medicine Creek Dam and Harry Strunk Lake, north of Cambridge, Red Willow Dam and Hugh Butler Lake, north of McCook, Norton Dam, and the reservoir structure on Beaver Creek, near Herndon.

At the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the RVCA Senator Carl T. Curtis from Minden, paid tribute to the founders of the RVCA, and outlined the accomplishments of the organization in a speech at McCook:

1. The group brought about effective and friendly cooperation between the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau, to do a job that had never been accomplished before.

2. The local communities placed the welfare of the entire basin first and their own interests second, and all pulled together in support of a common goal.

3. The RVCA led the way, not only in the Missouri River Basin, but throughout the nation in carrying out a program of flood control, irrigation, and soil conservation ...

4. Their work has been a success because their mission has been accomplished ... there is still much to be done and always will be, but the valley is protected from the ravages of floods that destroyed land, washed away buildings, highways, railroads, and worst of all ... human life.

In a 1967 edition of the McCook Gazette, honoring the 100th birthday of Nebraska's statehood, there was an Honor Roll of hard working individuals who had contributed so much in time and talent to the success of the RVCA. That list, referred to as "a few of the main figures in the RVCA's 27 year history included Mr. Strunk, Mr. Ryan, Mr. Swanson, Clyde Paine, Harold Sutton, H.C. Clapp, F.E. Dillman, Ralph G. Stevens, Ray Search, Judge Victor Westermark, Andy Alberts, Jake Bauer, Joe Crews, Sen. Curtis, Lt. Gen. Guy Henninger, Dan Jones, Mack Lord, George Minick, Tom Minick and Walter Stephenson. Doubtless, many more that were worthy of the honor, were not so recognized.

Harry Strunk is remembered for his work in the RVCA -- and really the entire Republican Valley project is a monument to his memory, and his 20 years of work on the RVCA project. He has been also been honored by having the lake formed by the Medicine Creek Dam at Cambridge named after him.

Art Hermann, a McCook Funeral Director and a long time friend of Harry Strunk (They delighted in pulling practical jokes on one another -- but more about those another time) was quoted, "Harry really needed no monument to him ... he built his while he was living." Nevertheless, Art spearheaded the memorial for Harry Strunk, "the reclamation workhorse," which stands two miles east of McCook as part of the Harry Strunk Memorial Park (popularly known as the Strunk Rest Area).

This monument overlooks the rich irrigated fields along the Republican River, a tiny bit of the lasting legacy, for which Harry Strunk did so much to create.

Source: 1967 Nebraska Centennial edition.

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