For thousands of years, springs have served as natural gathering places for people, plants and animals.

Springs quenched the thirst of trail-weary Native Americans, pioneers, and cowboys and often determined the locations for hunting expeditions, trails and settlement sites.

The health conscious touted the benefits of the “healing waters” of the mineral springs.

And the springs provided a place for recreation, a refuge for wildlife and a habitat for plants.

In many parts of the country, springs have been casualties of cultivation and construction. Western Kansas has lost many of its springs as a result of the lowered water table caused by the pumping of the Ogallala aquifer.

But in the Flint Hills, where irrigation is uncommon and the area is relatively undisturbed, springs continue to flow, creating oases on the prairie.

Today, most springs are on private property and even local townsfolk aren’t sure where they are.

Landowners are excited to talk about the springs and show them to people who have an interest, but they are concerned about preserving the springs for the future and want to avoid the abuse that often comes with public access.

This Memorial Day, people will have a rare chance to visit several of Marion County’s finest springs on a bus tour sponsored by the Peabody Historical Society.

Local historian Marilyn Jones will lead the tour, which will cover springs from the Watchorn area in the southern part of the county to the Chingawassa Springs north of Marion.

Jones said most of the springs are on private land and special arrangements have been made with landowners or caretakers.

All springs on the tour are gravity springs, where water flows to the surface through the action of gravity (versus artesian springs where water is forced to the surface by artesian pressure).

“An artesian spring would shoot up rather than flow gently,” Jones said.

Each spring is unique and has its own character, Jones said.

Some springs bubble up from the ground in a gentle flow; others roar forcefully out of rock formations.

Some are freshwater springs; others are mineral springs.

Water from the springs creates a wetlands community that supports different animals and vegetation and appears as a lush landscape not often seen in this part of Kansas.

“It’s an oasis in the Kansas landscape,” Jones said.

The Marion County tour includes these nine springs.

— Watchorn Spring. This spring in the southern part of the county was a water source for Watchorn residents during the oil boom of 1918-22. The town died when the oil boom ended, but the spring is still providing clear, cold water to cattle on the Wilson Ranch.

As with many springs, Watchorn Spring is an abundant source of watercress, Jones said.

“Watercress makes a delicious salad, but it is not native to Kansas,” she said. “It was introduced by the army in Civil War times to provide vitamins for soldiers and prevent scurvy.”

— Lee Spring. This spring is a “bubbler” and you might walk right over it if you didn’t know it was there. The water bubbles up on land farmed by Dale Buller east of Peabody.

“Legend has it that the Indians used the waters for medicinal purposes and therapeutic baths,” Jones said.

Buller reports that the water is slightly salty, and cattle prefer it to a salt block. The water is deep and cattle will not walk across the emergence site.

At one point, the water at this spring flowed several hundred gallons per minute, Jones said.

— Allison Spring. This spring pumps water into Spring Creek at the rate of 1,000 gallons per minute during the spring months, said landowner Les Allison.

Allison lives near the spring in a large stone house built when his family homesteaded the property west of Florence in 1860.

He said the spring has been put to a variety of uses over the years. It provided running water for the house, kept milk and butter cool, and provided ice during the winter that was stored in an icehouse and sold during the summer.

“There was a water wheel, and my great-grandfather used it as a power source for grinding,” he said. “Then, during the oil boom, Allison Springs Water Company supplied water for oil wells in the area.”

— Coyne Springs. These springs, west of Florence, are described as “pool springs” that come up from the bottom and form a pool before moving into a nearby stream.

Jones said area hotels and restaurants advertised “Coyne Springs water” in the 1920s, and the city of Peabody once considered piping water to Peabody from this spring.

Coyne Springs is located down a winding lane in a heavily wooded setting that looks more like Minnesota than Kansas.

— Miller Spring. This spring is tucked into a gently rolling Flint Hills pasture southeast of Florence.

Landowner Pat Sauble said the spring is named “Miller Spring” after its first owner, Billy Miller, who was also a miller by trade.

Miller Spring gushes water at a rate once measured at 1,800 gallons per minute.

In the early 20th century, the abundant spring water flowed into nearby Lake Tahoe, where there were lake cabins and a dance hall. The facility operated until the early 1920s, when it fell into disrepair during the war because they failed to divert the water.

n Crystal Spring. This spring, north of Florence, has supplied the city with water since 1920. The water tower boasts the water is “99.96 percent” pure water-which is fairly accurate, according to a Kansas Geological Survey report.

The water is pumped in a concrete pump house built near the spring in the side of a hill.

With a flow rate of about 3,000 gallons a minute, Crystal Spring is considered the largest spring in the state.

— Central Park Spring. Early settlers found this spring and decided it was an ideal place to make camp. The spring flows out of the side of a hill on the east side of what is now Marion City Park.

The area around the spring was renovated and landscaped in 2001with funds provided by Paul Brooker in recognition of his father, Charles Brooker, a long-time mayor of Marion.

— Chingawassa Springs. Formerly known as Carter’s Springs for the man who homesteaded the land, Chingawassa Springs is actually a group of more than 50 springs located north of Marion.

Most are freshwater springs, but there are also a few mineral springs. It was the mineral springs that made the springs famous.

From 1889 to 1893, Chingawassa Springs operated as a resort and health spa and was one of several springs across the state known for its “healing waters.”

The resort was a major tourist attraction and had a hotel, dining hall, dance hall and camping ground. The complex could reportedly shelter 5,000 people.

A specially built railroad carried visitors from Marion to Chingawassa Springs.

Today, the Chingawassa Springs area is heavily wooded, and there is nothing left to suggest that a resort once existed there.

— Summervill Spring. This spring is located south of the Marion County Lake dam on property owned by Mick and Marge Summervill.

The spring runs through a springhouse and then into a lake, where the Summervills have rainbow trout. The springhouse is a great place to cool watermelons in the summer, according to Marge.

— Other springs

Other well-known springs in the county that are not part of the tour are Lost Spring, west of the town of Lost Springs, and Elm Springs near Durham. Lost Spring was on the Santa Fe Trail and Elm Springs was on the Chisholm Trail.

Elm Springs is known for its waterfall.

“This was where cows and cowboys refreshed themselves before going on into Abilene,” said Jones.

Jones said there are also several artesian springs in the county and several houses that have spring water running through them.

“We wish we could visit them all,” she said, “but we simply don’t have time.”

Jones advises tour participants to wear long pants and comfortable walking shoes.

“Prepare to hike a bit,” she said. “Not all springs are near roads.”

Jones said the tour offers people a chance to get off the beaten path and see some beautiful parts of the county they may not know existed.

For tour reservations or more information, call 620-983-2438 or 620-983-2815.

Sources: Kansas Geological Survey; Marion County Historical Society; Peabody Historical Society.

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