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New bridge at Bartlett Arboretum upholds tradition

It’s been three years since Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine won a $25,000 grant from a California winery to clean out the Euphrates Creek that often floods the property and surrounding area. But the work has only now started.

Why the wait?

“We couldn’t do anything about it while it was flooding,” arboretum steward Robin Macy said.

There was no problem with that this year.

“The creek is completely dry,” Macy said. “There’s been one other time since I’ve been here that it’s been that dry, but it doesn’t happen very often. … We’re trying to make something good from it. That’s been a metaphor for this place for years.”

The long-awaited repairs have started with the building of a concrete bridge to replace two wooden foot bridges that had deteriorated. When the bridge is completed it will allow visitors to once again circumnavigate the whole arboretum. Pulling silt out of the creek bed is also planned.

“The dredging will help abate some of the low-water flooding around the arb,” Macy said, and the new bridge will allow water to flow over it and through its hand rails rather than acting as a dam.

And while the $25,000 grant from Markham Vineyards will be used for the project, the money won’t be enough. So the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is making a return appearance to the arboretum Nov. 13 to raise money toward completing the work. The band did another fundraiser for the arboretum in 2009.

“I don’t want these people to see (the creek) all dry like this, but it’s even better because they can see how incredibly beautiful this is if only we can dredge this.”

The concert will be at 3:30 p.m. outdoors at the arboretum unless the weather is inclement. In that case it will be moved to the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita. Tickets are $25, or $100 for other perks, including a pre-concert gala.

After the concert, a documentary about the arboretum financed by the Kansas Humanities Council as part of Kansas’ sesquicentennial will make its premiere. “Uncommon Ground” by Jaime Green is part of an initiative called “Kansans Tell Their Stories.”

The last time the creek was dredged, in the 1950s, the organic matter from the creek bed was carried to a clearing in the arboretum’s stately trees. A broad zoysia lawn, affectionately known as “the Big Z,” was then planted on top.

“So about every 50 years it looks like the arb’s going to need to be dredged,” Macy said.

When the silt is pulled out of the creek this time, it will go to build up a prairie on the edge of the property where passing trains come into view.

“It’s great organic matter,” Macy said. “It has to break down, but we’ll spread it and do berms and help buffer the train whistle.”

As she goes along, Macy is trying to build things, including bridges, that will stand the test of time at the arboretum. Ironically, even though the arboretum’s crowning glory is its trees, this translates into not building with wood. The new, elliptical bridge will be built of concrete and rebar, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be charming. Bruce Bourget of Augusta, a self-made architect and engineer whom Macy calls the “Michelangelo of the woods,” came up with the conceptual design.

“It was really important to me that it looks like it lives here, like it’s something from the turn of the century and not a new improvement,” Macy said of the new bridge. The hand rails will be a rusty kind of wrought iron.

“It was a big dream for the arb.”

Macy hopes the dredging and bridge construction will be done by the big spring event, Art at the Arb, in April, during Belle Plaine’s Tulip Time.

As a casino and other development are built north of the arboretum in Mulvane, Macy hopes that precautions are being taken to prevent more run-off. She’s grateful that the farmer south of her has dredged his section of the creek, helping not only the arboretum but surrounding housing developments.

“It cycles around,” Macy said.