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ISSN: 1936-0479

The Kansas Riverkings: Life on the Kaw
By Barbara Higgins-Dover MS. Ed.

Higgins-Dover is the granddaughter of one of the Riverkings and the curator of the Watkins Museum exhibit. For more information about the Kansas Riverkings project contact her at bhigginsdover@gmail.com.

"Kansas Riverking,” a name or title that could mean a variety of different things to different people. It is however a term that categorizes a specific population of people, living in a very specific way, at a certain time in history. The Kansas Riverkings were a group of men who were born in the late 19 th and into the mid-20 th centuries; they were great adventurers whose lives were spent on and around the Kansas “Kaw” River. They were rulers of their own domain, passers of great knowledge, and outdoorsmen fighting to care for themselves and their community. They knew about determination, perseverance, and the will to succeed. They were known by many as amazing commercial fishermen, but, they were also boat builders, net weavers, and trappers. The story of the Kansas Riverkings begins in 1896 Lawrence, Kansas, just east of the Kansas River Dam, a structure that divides north Lawrence from the rest of the town. The lives of these men and the unique stories about them were recently displayed in a 2013 Watkins Community Museum of History exhibit in Lawrence and, with the help of a Kansas Humanities Grant, will soon become part of a lecture/public presentation appearing at other towns in Kansas.

The earliest of the Riverkings, Abe Burns and Jake Washington were African American, living in post-Civil War, free-state Kansas in the late 1800s. Abe Burns and Jake Washington are of particular interest as they are the first of those known to fish commercially in the area and to have, by example, taught others that came afterward. They lived in a small fishing shack just east of the Dam and just below what was once a barbed wire plant. Today that structure is named in honor of the two and is known as Abe and Jakes Landing. Burns and Washington were originally attracted to the area because of a mill pond that had formed. In that location, large fish came to feed off the many grains that fell into the water. As commercial fishermen, they worked tirelessly noodling with gaff hooks in hopes of hooking into one of the biggest of fish. Although the image of the two is very recognizable today, not much else of their lives has been discovered.

Abe Burns and Jake Washington
Abe Burns and Jake Washington

One news report published in Burns and Washington’s time reflects the productive, plentiful waters that they fished upon.

JUNE 6, 1896 Lawrence newspaper printed comment by Topeka Mail and Breeze

“Lawrence is a great catfish town. The way to become hero down there is to catch a catfish larger than anyone else has caught. In fact a man can get into good society quicker by catching a 100-pound catfish than by any other way, unless it may be by proving that he had some kin shot in the raid. The other day a 200-pound catfish was caught and bet people in town held a ratification meeting. Resolutions were passed and a committee appointed to wait on the University people to see if it could not be embalmed. The University people refused to embalm even a catfish and so it was buried as something too sacred to eat.”

The second in the series of Riverkings was most likely one who impacted the greatest amount of lives. There is a great deal of documentation kept in the archives about Gustave “Dolly” Graeber (better known as “Old Man River”). Graeber, the son of Prussian immigrants, moved to Lawrence as a boy in 1857. Quickly learning to love the Kaw River, he spent a great deal of time there. As an adult he began renting out boats and operating an ice rink in the winter. He was, however, most known for being an amazing fisherman and a heroic figure rescuing thousands during the 1903 flood in Lawrence. Graeber was often written about in Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City newspapers. One such interview with Graeber later in his life brings to light the important role the Kansas River had played for him:

Story-quote (Kansas City Journal Post, July 20, 1930)

“The Kaw is just like us people,” Graeber remarked as he looked over his memoirs the other evening. “It’s got its moods. Sometimes it’s smooth and peaceful and serene. Then other times it’s like a bad boy and cuts up all kinds of capers. Some people don’t understand it. I’ve watched that river since Quantrill turned Lawrence into a bloody slaughter house and I’ve learned to love it.”

 Graeber stands in front of the boat in 1903
Graeber stands in front of the boat in 1903

The turn of the 20 th century brings with it a focus on two brothers, Richard and Fred Higgins. Richard, born in 1910, owned and operated a bait shop and fish market very near the river front. He spent all of his life on the Kansas “Kaw” River, but also held license in the Missouri River’s Kickapoo Bottoms area. This allowed him to bring in nets full of fish on a regular basis while continuing to spend much time on the Kansas River that he loved and knew so well. His expert knowledge of the river meant that city law enforcement would regularly call upon him when drownings occurred. Once told where an individual had fallen in, he could determine exactly where to search. Despite his own knowledge, he could ultimately not prevent the drowning of his own son while on a fishing excursion near the dam in Lawrence. His brother Fred, born in 1908, had problems of his own fighting against the strict laws that prevented him from fishing the waters legally and in the way he had always done before. After years of trying to maintain this way of life, Fred packed up his family and headed to Illinois where he spent the rest of his life fishing commercially. After his death, he was buried in Lawrence.

Richiard Higgins pictured in middle in 1963
Richard Higgins is pictured in the middle in 1963

Born in 1919, Tom Burns learned much of what he knew from river man Charles “Pug” Saunders. From boyhood, Burns learned the ins and outs of bringing in the big ones. He sold a lot of what he caught to fish markets and restaurants. He was known most for taking others under his wing to pass on such knowledge. Late in life, Burns obtained a special permit to share the knowledge of the river, the fish that lived there, and the techniques used by the Riverkings. His concern was that the history of the men who lived this way of life would be lost. During a specific time of demonstration, he brought in nets full of fish, only to let them go back into the muddy waters of the Kaw. Friend to Burns, Maurice “Catfish” Wustefeld is one of the only surviving Kansas Riverkings, near 80 years of age and living in the country just west of Lawrence. He is a mild mannered, gentle man who refuses to take credit for the role he played in Kansas River history. Kansas Riverkings were known for making their own equipment, grabbing or snagging hooks, hoop nets, weights, and more. Wustefeld accumulated many of these tools of the trade over the years. But now up in years, has given almost everything to others. An empty shed is all that remains today of what was once a storage place for everything he owned. At one recent interview Wustefeld remembered an active time of fishing when all other commercial fishermen on the Kaw were jealous of each other. “I had boats stolen and burned because of that hatred. They were all out for the sale of the fish, brothers turned brothers in, Wustefeld says.”

Maurice "Catfish" Wustefeld

Kansas Riverking, Terry Shelby was born in 1947 in Kansas City, Missouri. He moved to Lawrence at age of 12 and settled in a home at North 6th St. in North Lawrence, which was in close proximity to the Kansas River. As a young man he quickly discovered the Kansas “Kaw” River to be a wonderful resource. In young adulthood Shelby met Tom Burns who taught him to weave nets, build boats, and fish using various techniques. They spent much time on the Kaw and the Missouri using these fine-tuned skills to bring in the big ones.  During the winter months, Shelby spent time ice fishing with spears on Mud Creek. This fishing technique requires the use of a long 20 + foot pole attached to a sharp spearhead. Using an axe to chop a hole, Shelby would then place his spear down into the opening in hopes of spearing into a very large "muddy" flathead catfish.

These are but a few of the many men who deserve the title given to them. Those described represent the most well-known of their time. Their lives bring to the forefront ideas of social and cultural difference as well as economic hardship and survival. They were rugged, heroic, and at times quite mischievous. Each man, in his own way, rightfully deserves to be called a Kansas Riverking.


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Last Updated May 6, 2013
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