- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

RANDOLPH, Kan. (AP) - Like generations of Randolph residents before him, Rabern Vawter uses his legal name only for legal purposes. For everything else, he goes by “Possie.”

The fact that many people don’t even know his real name is a sign he was born and raised in old Randolph, where according to Vawter and other town historians, “if you didn’t have a nickname, you didn’t amount to s–.”

Now 92 and among Randolph’s oldest lifelong residents, Vawter said he has been Possie for almost as long as he can remember. He opened a bar and restaurant called Possie’s Place in 1955 that remains in business today.

Vawter said his nickname came about after the town baker taught him the German expression “pass auf,” which means “watch out,” and he started saying it frequently.

Little did he know at the time, but a few decades later the whole town would have plenty to watch out for - Randolph was one of 10 communities in the Blue River Valley that experienced flooding after construction of Tuttle Creek Dam in 1962.

Out of four towns that were completely inundated, Randolph was the only one to relocate and rebuild. Its main streets are named for the other lost towns, Cleburne, Garrison Cross and Stockdale.

The decision to make way for floodwaters didn’t come easily to Randolph residents, who spent years organizing protests and political maneuvers in an effort to stop the dam before choosing to move their town about two miles east of the reservoir.

With a history of land disputes, residents had been fighting for their town for generations before the move took place.

The Manhattan Mercury (https://bit.ly/1NJU5LT ) reports the land surrounding old Randolph was in high demand among settlers because of the crops it could produce. According to a 1930s study, the soil there was second only to Egypt’s Nile River Valley in terms of fertility.

The first settler in the area was a man named Gardner Randolph. He arrived in 1855 and tried to claim all the land within 5 miles of Fancy Creek - a clear violation of federal land settlement regulations of the time. To lend legitimacy to his claim, he established a town site and named it after himself.

Randolph’s hope was to model his property after a southern plantation and advocate for the extension of slavery into Kansas. He met his match in J. K. Whitson, who arrived in the area three years after Randolph and announced his abolitionist views. Then Whitson built a cabin on a portion of the land Randolph had claimed and refused to leave.

According to historical accounts, the two men took their dispute to the federal land office in Ogden, where an agent told them neither had a legitimate claim but the first to officially settle the property would take possession.

A race from Ogden to Randolph ensued, and Whitson won.

Having essentially conquered the town, Whitson’s first act was to change its name to Waterville, which lasted until 1876 when another town by the same name in Marshall County became more prominent.

By the time the town reverted back to its original name, it was home to multiple general stores, a hotel, lumberyard, blacksmith shop, attorney’s office and furniture manufacturing business, among others.

The Blue River branch of the Union Pacific Railroad, which ran between Manhattan and Lincoln, Nebraska, added a stop in Randolph in 1886.

Randolph’s first bank was established the same year, followed by another in 1905. Those banks, Vawter said, were key to the town’s early success.

“It had two strong banks,” he said. “That’s what holds a town together. One of them was a German bank, and one of them was a Swiss bank.”

Vawter’s grandparents came to the United States from Switzerland and were among the town’s first settlers. Almost exactly 100 years after they arrived, the family’s 1,500 acres of farmland slowly sank underwater, never to re-emerge.

When plans for Tuttle Creek Lake emerged after severe floods in 1951, families like Vawter’s led the charge in protesting the project.

Instead of one huge reservoir in their backyards, they proposed many smaller retention ponds starting farther upstream - a position they expressed under the slogan, “Let’s quit this dam foolishness.”

Opponents of the dam also brought their cause to the attention of political leaders. In doing so, they helped elect a Democrat to represent Kansas’ first congressional district for the first time in state history.

For two years the dam was put on hold, but in 1954 Congress approved funding for the project.

At that point, the only choices Randolph residents had were where and when to move. Some took their houses or businesses with them and relocated in nearby towns, but many took their government buyouts and left.

Donna Baer, a current Randolph City Council member, lives in a house whose original owner moved from old Randolph to Lindsborg after the dam was built. Baer said the man was one of many who left the area entirely when the town was destroyed. “They were so disturbed by the process that they had just gone through in fighting the dam that they said they didn’t want any part of this entire part of the state,” she said.

Then there were others who decided to stick around.

“Those people believed the town could be reborn on the top of the hill,” Baer said. “So they got together and went through the legal process of annexing a strip (of land) so that they could take the town from one (location) to the other.”

A group of volunteers purchased and platted land for the new town site, and in spite of their efforts, Randolph’s population fell during the transition from around 400 in 1950 to just over 100 in 1970.

Vawter was among the supporters of new Randolph.

“We did fight to beat hell,” Vawter said. “But the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) won out. A lot of old people lived here, and they hate to give up, but that’s the way it goes.”

Despite the circumstances, Vawter said moving into the new town worked out well for him in the end. He opened his restaurant shortly after moving, which allowed him to take advantage of an influx of workers in the area, first during construction of the dam and later during construction of mile-long bridge across the reservoir only a few miles from Randolph.

“This place has been awful good to me,” Vawter said. “I can’t complain. I’ve sold a lot of beer here, and a lot of food.”

Another business that hasn’t been so lucky is a marina on Tuttle Creek Lake, which closed decades ago after too much silt in the reservoir made boating next to impossible. Randolph’s current mayor, Bruce Zimmer, moved to town because his parents purchased the marina not long after the dam was built and when the reservoir was still navigable.

“Where there’s silt now at the marina cove, that used to be 20 feet deep,” Zimmer said. “It was like a little town down there every weekend.”

While Fancy Creek State Park continues to draw campers to the area, floods in 1993 wiped out the campground’s water system, which residents said has yet to be repaired because of a lack of state funding.

They said one feature that does continue to attract visitors is a series of off-road vehicle trails southeast of town that have been rated among the best in the country.

Despite having lost almost three-quarters of its population when new Randolph was established, the town retained some important staples, like a bank, post office and school.

Since then it has experienced modest growth - the current population is around 170 - and has ushered in a new generation of residents who are too young to have experienced the transition from old to new Randolph.

Within the past decade or so, the town has gained several new families, and community leaders said their focus has been on accommodating a younger population through events like the annual Fourth of July celebration and initiatives like improving the town’s park.

Janie Dunstan, city council member and president of a group called Randolph Pride, said she and her husband moved to Randolph from Manhattan about 10 years ago because they wanted a close-knit, affordable community in which to raise their family.

“We lived in a trailer park, (right next) to our neighbors, and they could care less to meet us,” she said. “When we moved up here, the guy we bought the house from took us across the street and introduced us. three days later, we went over and asked to borrow a hammer, and next thing you know, we’re basically family.”

Dunstan, who has three children of her own, said the number of young children in town has increased significantly in recent years, which is a good sign for the school system. The preschool, middle school and high school for USD 384 are all in Randolph, and residents described them as a longstanding cornerstone of the community.

More than half a century after events that threatened to wipe out their town completely, residents said it’s time to look ahead, and focusing on children’s resources is one way they’re doing that.

Local pastor and area historian Kevin Larson said their forward-thinking approach is precisely why he sees a bright future for Randolph.

“I think you have to acknowledge the history, but you don’t live in the past,” he said. “That’s the key here is that there’s a group of people dedicated to making sure the town has a future.”

The mile-long bridge leads to town across Tuttle Creek on Highway Kansas Highway 16.


Information from: The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, https://www.themercury.com

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