For many years, Pratt County 4-H'ers have attended camp at Rock Springs 4-H Center near Junction City, stayed in tent cabins or air conditioned facilities, ate meals family style at Williams Dining Hall, swam in the oldest Olympic-sized pool in the state, and played in the second-largest natural spring in Kansas.
In about 1883, the landowner replaced an 1857 log cabin with a ranch house next to the spring and installed a water wheel to power a creamery in the house. Building on the spring may have seemed a good idea at the time, said Gordon Hibbard, president of the Kansas 4-H Foundation, which owns the facility, but over time running water has contributed to mold, mildew, rot and structural issues.
Doing nothing is not an option, Hibbard said. A Rock Springs advisory board to the Foundation has determined that the house should be demolished, and the water wheel replaced and elevated as the centerpiece of a plaza with shade structures and interpretive signage.
Mark Ploger, a Kansas State Research and Extension agent for Pratt County, was on the advisory panel until about five years ago. He has been to the camp several years as an agent, as before that as a young 4-H'er — he was one of those kids playing in the 54-degree springs on a hot day. The ranch house is part of the memories, and he acknowledges that some people may feel sentimental about it. It's outlived its usefulness, he said, and the plans to showcase the water wheel "really look nice."
There is opposition to plans to demolish the house.
"It's important to keep a gem such as the ranch house that's been there so long," said Mel Borst, a Manhattan resident described as a historic preservation expert by the Manhattan/Riley County Preservation Alliance. The water-powered ranch house may be the only one in existence, and he feels current and future generations will benefit from having it restored and put back into actual use. During his school days, he worked as summer staff for Rock Springs, and lived in the ranch house. He hopes for a time when kids can run in and out the screen doors, sit on the porch and play in the water channel — to have the experience of staying there and learning history.
In 2011, Borst prepared an estimate of $240,000 for repairs to the house and some nearby structures that would contribute to its use. Through his efforts the Kansas Preservation Alliance has added the ranch house to the state's Endangered Historic Places list.
The house is not listed on a historic register, but Borst believes it is eligible. If listed, restoration work would potentially qualify for up to $198,000 in grants and an estimated $240,000 in tax credits.
An architect for the 4-H Foundation estimated repairs would be close to half a million, Hibbard said, and the house has no practical purpose for Rock Springs. Rooms are small and with 800 beds — more beds than guests — the space is not needed.
"I'm sorry some feel we're destroying Kansas history by taking down the house, but we feel we're enhancing the fuller history before the European settlers," he said.
The site contains some of the camp's oldest trees, has a wonderful geological story, access to water and the power of a spring bubbling up 1,000 gallons a minute, and spiritual significance to native Americans. All that will be interpreted with signage.
Plans are being finalized, but the hope is that work could be completed before summer camping season begins in 2014.
The 735-acre camp and year-round conference and retreat center will receive at least $5.5 million for a variety of improvements from a $10 million 4-H Foundation Growing Kansas Leaders capital campaign.
The swimming pool and bathhouse were refurbished prior to the 2013 camping season. Other renovations include installing insulated windows in the dining hall, building an activity pavilion on the backside of the dining hall to provide a space for rainy day camp activities, and resurfacing roadways and parking lots. The last project will be new auditorium seats and restrooms in Heritage Hall.