If you weren’t looking for Rocky Ford, you might not find it – which is ironic, because back in the mid 1800s, it was a pretty sought-after place.
Rocky Ford is known in the area as a fishing spot, tucked away down a dirt road between a couple of fields 3 miles north of Manhattan. Water falls over the dam quietly and keeps the fish biting. But in addition to being a destination for anglers, it has been many other things throughout its history.
Rocky Ford was first known as a place where settlers and those stationed at Fort Riley could ford the Big Blue River.
The spot has a cottonwood limestone base, which created a natural place to cross when the water was low. Riley County Historical Museum Director Cheryl Collin said Rocky Ford was essential for life before the railroad.
“The ford was pretty important,” Collins said. “Of course they did have the crossing at a bridge nearby, but it went out. Fords were important for transportation to get across.” Collins said that the crossing was a huge part of transportation until the first bridge was constructed in Riley County in 1871.
But some people thought the had the potential to be more than just a crossing.
The first mill
In 1865, a man named C.R. Barnes raised funds to build a dam in the area. The goal was keeping the Big Blue — which was notorious for flooding — from overrunning its banks. The once the dam was built, though, Barnes realized Rocky Ford was a good place to build a mill. He constructed a saw mill along with a water-powered grist mill that could ground wheat into flour.
The original dam and mills were destroyed in a flood shortly thereafter.
The milling company
The property was sold to the Higinbothams brothers in 1867. G.W. and W.P. Higinbothams created the Rocky Ford Milling Company that same year. The brothers rebuilt the mill for $3,000 and opened the new and improved version for business in 1869.
The new mill could grind 1,000 bushels of wheat and 500 bushels of corn a day. It operated for 20 years under the brother’s supervision. Rocky Ford came to be seen as a recreation area for residents nearby. It was also established for the first time as a popular fishing area. In 1870, it was reported that more than 400 pounds of catfish were caught in one day.
A new dam
In 1908, a new dam was created at Rocky Ford by C.K. Roberts and Harry Pierce of Junction City. With $50,000 in capital they created the 283-foot-long and 12-foot-high dam. In 1909, the original mill was converted into a power plant generating 450 kilos of power from the dam. Even though the mill was converted, it still did some milling of grains. In 1910 the mill was officially closed.
The power plant
In 1917, the plant was purchased by Cleyson Brown of United Power and Light. In 1919, the original mill from the 1800s burned to the ground and then was washed out by a flood. The company considered closing it down for good, but in the 1920s the company decided to move the dam 3 miles downstream from its original site to the place it occupies today.
The new dam and mill cost around $200,000 and featured a new gate that helped water flow during floods and a new 8-by-9 tunnel that helped workers carry supplies and themselves across either side of the dam. In 1922 a $500,000 power plant was added. It was one of the largest power plants in Kansas at the time. It carried power to Wamego, Alma, St. Marys, Big and Little Blue valleys, and also Manhattan. The area also grew into a vacation destination for more than just those who lived in the area — so much so that Union Pacific established a station there.
But the new plant was also subject to substantial flooding. In 1935 the plant closed because of flood waters, and in 1941 the power plant was knocked out for two months for the same reason. But the building was always cleaned out, and it was used as a power plant for almost 30 years.
The next chapter
In May of 1964, the plant generated its last kilowatt and was shut down. The question became “What should we do with the area?”
Three years later, Kansas Power and Light gave the site to the Kansas Fish and Game Commission, which had plans to turn the site back into what it had always been used for unofficially: recreation. They revamped the area, pulling down the old plant and mill but keeping the dam.
On Wednesday, three fishermen in parkas and jackets leaned over the railing getting sprayed by both the falls and the rain.
Riley County recently finished improvements to the west side of the ford, now officially called Rocky Ford Recreation Area. The county added a new staircase and gravel path to make the spot more accessible, as well as benches, signs and historical markers.
On a landing by the falls, people can see the area where the old power plant and mill once stood. The signs are just a small reminder of the vast history of a place that, for most people, is just a spot to hang their fishing lines for an afternoon.
Most of the information in this story was compiled by the Riley County Historical Society.