When Larry and Marilyn Hamler of McPherson bought a house at Marion County Park and Lake about 15 years ago, it was to be primarily for weekend retreats and vacations.
“We never thought we were going to come out and get involved with neighbors,” Marilyn said. “We were just looking for a getaway.”
That was before they encountered lake residents Dwight and Helen Beckham, and Helen’s dream to create a museum about the Civilian Conservation Corps, the 1930s Depression-era program responsible for building the lake.
“We became friends of the Beckhams, and it’s tough to be Helen’s friend because she asked you to do things,” Larry said, smiling.
When Helen asked the Hamlers to help put together a museum, there was just one acceptable response.
“If you knew Helen,” Marilyn began, “You didn’t have a choice,” Larry finished.
The Beckhams moved to Hesston in 2009, and Helen died in 2014; now, the Hamlers are caretakers of the realization of that dream: Marion County Park and Lake Museum.
CCC and lake memorabilia are kept in the only building remaining from the camp that housed CCC Company V4755, a little 12’ x 18’ limestone structure that was the camp laundry, just west of the present-day lake office.
It didn’t look anything like a museum or a laundry to start; rather, Marilyn said, it looked like what it recently had been, a home for pigeons and mud daubers.
“The first day she walked me into this place with no windows, it was full of wasps and everything else,” she said. “Helen said, ‘I think we ought to make a museum out of this,’ and I thought ‘Whoa, Helen.’ But guess what? She did it.”
Larry had a friend who provided new windows, the roof was re-shingled, and Dwight built a new door and had electricity run to the building.
“Then we started collecting things,” Larry said. “Some things we got on eBay, and some were donated by local residents.”
Inside the museum
The museum’s weathered wood sign includes a nod to one of the laundry’s founders and operator: Boo Boo Skaggs, washer woman.
However, that wasn’t the real name of the man who did the washing, and the picture hanging above two wooden ironing boards clearly is not that of a woman.
“They didn’t have to be politically correct back then,” Larry said.
Boo Boo and Skaggs were nicknames for Henry Reed, a World War I veteran who was part of the all-black CCC company that built the lake. Reed, James Warren, and Argo Bedford built the laundry, with off-hours assistance from other workers.
Reed did the washing and pressing. Company members paid 50 cents a month to have work clothes washed. For $1.25 a month, Reed would clean and press two dress uniforms twice, as well as wash all clothing.
The ironing boards and irons aren’t original to the camp laundry, but like most of the memorabilia are from around the time period of the camp.
The walls are plastered with pictures, maps, and blueprints, most of which relate to building the lake. However, in places there are things that relate to lake history, such as a menu from the original Kingfisher Inn when their famous fried chicken meal cost $2.35.
A display tower in the middle of the small room holds CCC insignia, a Works Progress Administration medical kit, and other items. There, too, is more lake history, including a Chat and Dine club recipe book from the mid 1970s.
Among Larry’s favorite items are antique curved-back wooden folding chairs that came from the office of former Florence physician John Slifer. They provide seating for people to look through thick notebooks of pictures, camp newspapers, and history compiled mostly by the Beckhams.
There’s also an old picture of a group posing by the north shelter house that’s proved to be a stumper.
“Somebody donated the picture, and nobody knows anybody that’s in it,” Marilyn said.
The museum doesn’t have regular hours, but is open by appointment, or by getting a key from the lake office. A visitor’s log revealed curious guests from Maine to Oregon, and one from England, have dropped in.
Marilyn said she would like to see more people get involved in taking care of the museum and its visitors.
“We spend a lot of time up here, but it doesn’t mean we get over here enough,” she said. “Whe have to get some other people interested.”
Waving a hand toward the nearby trailer park, she said, “Somebody who lived up in here would be super.”