Making the Bootheel
by Jamie Johansen and Kelly Marshall, Honey Creek Media
Kansas City is known as the city of fountains and St. Louis boasts the beauty of the arch, but one of Missouri’s most amazing feats is the wonder of man-made farmland.
Travel south – and then keep going. You’ll find the state’s Bootheel, a place likely unrecognizable to citizens of a hundred years ago.
The land from Cape Girardeau to the Arkansas border was once swampland- just water and trees, said W. Dustin Boatwright, executive vice president and chief engineer of The Little River Drainage District. Today, the seven southeastern-most counties that make up the Bootheel are some of the most productive land in the state.
“In any given year, a third of the agriculture production in the state comes from this small area in Missouri,” Boatwright said.
Several of Missouri’s top soybean-producing counties are within the region.
The story begins with the Swamp Act of 1850– a mandate from the federal government to the states to make swampland productive in exchange for ownership of the acres. Missouri sold the land to counties and counties sold it to private landowners.
From 1850 to around 1900, the acres that make up the Bootheel were valued for their bottomland hardwood timber; only 5 percent of the land could be farmed. During that fifty-year time frame, timber companies harvested the trees. In the process of doing that, they also provided a service that would be important in the next phase of developing the region- infrastructure. The timber landowners brought in the railroad investors and operators.
The business model worked, for a while. Then timber ran out and taxes were comparatively high on what was otherwise unprofitable ground. The government mandate to create productive land was still in place and the United States Congress would take control of the land if it wasn’t made to fulfill some useful propose. A new approach was needed.
“It’s interesting because actually it was a group of timber landowners around the turn of the century that came up with this idea of ‘Hey, let’s come in and drain this swampland and either make it more productive for timber production or turn it into agricultural land.’” Boatwright said.
Some organization was necessary to allow the people to work together, developing and implementing the plant to drain the swampy region.
In 1907, organization came in the form of The Little River Drainage District. The District created a cohesive body to make decisions which would benefit the multiple landowners. It was set up so three commissioners (appointed by the courts) determined the percentage each landowner must pay for a project based on an assessed benefit on each 40 acre tract. The Board of Supervisors, selected in an election where each acre gets one vote, then oversee the policies and functions of the fund.
That structure allowed such a massive undertaking to begin taking shape.
Construction on what was dubbed the “Plan for Drainage” lasted from roughly 1914 to 1928. It consisted of approximately 300 miles of levees, 1,000 miles of ditches and six detention basins.
“There are two things that we claim,” said E.B. Gee Jr., former president of The Little River Drainage District board who served on the board for more than thirty years. “We claim to be the largest drainage district in the world and no one has ever disputed that claim, and we also claim to have excavated more dirt than in the original building of the Panama Canal. Those are two outstanding claims. I think everybody in the Bootheel of Missouri should be proud of those accomplishments and the service that is rendered by The Little River Drainage District.”
The transition was not instantaneous. As World War II turned the nation’s focus overseas, Southeast Missouri began to produce crops especially useful for the times, said Dr. Sam M. Hunter, the current president of the District board.
Hunter’s father was among those involved. He began clearing land and growing crops near Sikeston in 1940.
“[The war effort] needed everything they could grow; cotton, grain, anything useful for the war movement. Southeast Missouri did their part,” he said.
By 1957, all five of the board members were predominantly involved in agriculture.
“You’d be surprised at how many diverse crops we grow in Southeast Missouri,” Hunter said. “The world wants it and we supply that want.”
In addition to growing crops, the Little River Drainage Distract has also grown family legacies.
“[The Little River Drainage District is] very generational- a lot of history with my family and we’re very proud of the system that’s been put together over the years,” said Boatwright, whose father and grandfather worked on the ditches and levees before him. In 1953, his grandfather took a job as a dragline operator and later became a foreman; his father did the same.
Boatwright grew up planning to follow in their footsteps. “I wanted to be a foreman,” he said. “I wanted to work on the ground; I wanted to be out every day, have my hands dirty. I wanted to do the same type of work I grew up around those guys doing. They, on the other hand, had different plans for me. Early on in life they really pushed me to spend a lot of time with the 5th Chief Engineer, Larry D. Dowdy.”
Boatwright credits his role as the district’s 6th Chief Engineer to the encouragement of Dowdy, although he never doubted that The Little River Drainage District was where he would come home to.
E.B. Gee Jr. came from a legacy as well.
“I succeeded my father on the Little River board. It’s something we have always been interested in as a family…because of the drainage Little River provided us farmers in the Bootheel, we could produce cotton, corn, soybeans and, in later years, rice.”
Gee even goes so far as to call himself a “Little River Brat” because he grew up following his father to board meetings. He recalls an early memory of taking a boat trip down a drainage ditch (Ditch No. 1) that went into Arkansas. “[We] found many brush piles that were stopping the drainage down there. We took pictures and talked to the Corps of Engineers about it and they put it in their program to eliminate those debris piles which were blocking the water from flowing through the Big Lake channels.”
Dr. Hunter’s father also served on the board, putting in 37 years before asking his son to run in his place.
“To me that was the greatest thing in the world to be on the board of Little River. I’d been going to all of their annual meeting since 1976, mostly because of him, but I learned an awful lot too, so it was natural that I would take his place.”
Hunter is preparing his own handoff by encouraging his two children to attend annual meetings and asking them to think about serving the people of The Little River Drainage District.
“I think I’m getting some positive feedback,” Hunter said. “Hopefully in the next 6, 8, 10 years one of them will come to me and say, ‘Dad, we’d like to serve on the board.’”
Preparing for the future is something The Little River Drainage District has handled well in the past and is something they are intentional about for the next generation. Early on, the Board of Supervisors faced changes in its relationship with the Federal government. A devastating flood in 1927 led to the 1928 Flood Control Act which was the birth of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T). The MR&T project created a partnership between the drainage districts (local people), the United States Congress and the Mississippi River Commission. Enter here the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the President of the Mississippi River Commission is also the Commanding General for the Mississippi Valley Division Corps.
“[In] our role with the Corps, we are partners,” Boatwright explained. “On a daily basis, on a weekly basis we have contact with them. There are times where we have disagreements like you would have with any partnership; you’re not going to agree all the time, but ultimately we work together for the goal of providing the people and property of the Mississippi Valley flood control (drainage) and navigation benefits for the benefit of our nation and to feed the rest of the world- Protection of 16.8 million acres of land from Cape Girardeau down to the Gulf.”
The Little River Drainage District has also seen the formation of the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association. This grassroots organization unites districts throughout the Mississippi Valley and beyond, to offer a broader multi-state voice when dealing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies. Their main challenge today is to educate citizens and decision-makers about the importance of flood control and navigation.
It’s a constant education process, said Boatwright.
“If we go back to the 1927 flood, our country lost one-third of the GDP just in that year. The devastating flood destroyed 45,000 businesses, displaced 750,000 people, killed 500 people, destroyed 2500 miles of roadways and 3500 miles of railways.”
Today’s decisions need to include that kind of knowledge, as well as a focus on environmental and property rights concerns.
“We all have to work together,” Boatwright said.
The District must also adapt to agriculture policy changes with each farm bill that addresses Wetland Reserve Properties (WRP) or the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Boatwright said some people are surprised to learn The Little River Drainage District has adapted to these kinds of changes by finding common ground with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
It’s hard to argue with the results of their partnerships though. A working relationship with the Missouri Department of Conservation has turned out to have great advantages.
“We have very different end goals,” Boatwright said. “Our main prerogative is flood control and drainage and of course MDC’s goal is managing or conserving the wildlife and the habitat within the state.”
Projects like planting native and warm season grasses on channels allow both groups to meet their goals. The grasses provide erosion control and cost less to maintain.
“We all have constraints we have to work within,” said Boatwright, “but we are going to work together to come out with something that, in the end, is going to be beneficial to all involved.”
It will take everything the District has learned about adapting and changing to overcome their newest challenge. Mother Nature is battering the channels in the form of high-intensity, short-duration rainfall events.
“In recorded history we are seeing that more right now, than any time in the past. How are we going to adapt, how are we going to maintain the system that we have to accommodate that change, those are the questions we must ask and act upon,” said Boatwright.
View the rest of this issue in the magazine here.