Kaskaskia Island: Tenacity, tradition, tribulations

Written by Andrew B Church on .

The sound of a thousand mosquitoes buzzed in their ears as they pushed their way through the thick woods and un­derbrush of southern Illinois along the Mississippi River. Sweat stung their eyes as they peered toward the Kaskaskia Native American village on the other side, just visible through a gap in the thick foliage of elms and oaks impeding their movement toward the east bank of the river. Wriggling tails of campfire smoke rose slowly toward the moody sky, which promised the imminent return of rain.

It had been raining sporadically but torrentially for nearly a week as Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, a Catholic missionary, and French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet hewed their way from their overnight campsite toward the river bank, back to their worthy boat and across the Mississippi toward the village.

They were hungry. They were tired. And everything they had was wet.

The year was 1675, and only two years had slid by before Father Marquette and Jolliet made their missionary return to this area. The Kaskaskia natives and French traders eagerly awaited their arrival.

The boat carrying the weary two gently ran aground on the bank of the Mississippi, lurching the passengers slightly forward. Jolliet jumped out and into the sticky clay, water up to his knees, to help pilot the boat further inland. Marquette couldn’t help a slight grin as he watched the natives’ excitement. Presently, Jolliet pulled the boat far enough ashore to secure it, and both disembarked onto solid ground. The missionary and his companion explorer were greeted warmly and provided shelter and warmth.

* * *

Later, Marquette would proclaim the nascent church in the village as the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. Although he died on his way back to Quebec, in 1703 other French Jesuits transferred their Illinois Native American mission from the Illinois River near Starved Rock to Kas­kaskia in present-day Randolph County, Ill.

“When the French first came (to Kaskaskia Island), they had to start from scratch with whatever they had,” said Emily Lyons, Kaskaskia historian and former Island of Kaskaskia primary school teacher. “They built it up until it was the most prosperous town in the whole area for many years.”

Kaskaskia had by then become a relatively well-known trade and agricul­tural stop along the Mississippi River. The relationship between Kaskaskia natives and French traders was peaceful and neighborly, punctuated by fair dealing and brotherly love.

Because the river’s path has changed over time, Kaskaskia Island is the only inhabited piece of Illinois land west of the Mississippi. Hundreds of years ago, the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers were slower moving and created a peninsula at Kaskaskia. In 1881, a harsh win­ter froze the Mississippi, creating an ice dam that dredged through that peninsula. Today, those rivers have changed so much that Kaskaskia is now considered an island, separat­ing it geographically from the rest of Illinois and Missouri.

Islanders grew so prosperous after Western settlement that Kaskaskia was the home of Illinois’ first territorial capitol in 1809 and first state capitol in 1818, after Illinois became the 21st state. Despite Kaskaskia’s historical pros­perity, the island has seen multiple, devastating flooding events, often resulting in major reconstruction, restoration and rebuilding efforts. The first village, closer to north end of the island, is partially buried under river sediment or washed away. The only hint of the old town’s original 325 acres is whispered by clusters of standing trees, marking probable structural foundations of houses or businesses. Most recently the great flood of 1993, which submerged parts of the new town in water, reduced the population on the island to a mere fraction of what it once was.

Dan Lankford is one of the last full-time residents on the island. He and his son, Alex, tend more than 1,200 acres of farmland in Kaskaskia—mostly corn and soybean. Lankford also served 12 years as levee commissioner.

“I had 13 feet of water in my house in ’93,” Lank­ford said. “But it was still standing. We just had to put in some insulation, sheetrock and fix it back up. So that’s what we did.”

Other farmers who did not have as much resolve or resiliency were forced to the surrounding areas. But islanders had seen a perhaps even more devastating flood in 1973, during which the school, homes, busi­nesses and other structures were mostly or entirely destroyed.

“In ’73 there were over 300 (residents of Kaskaskia),” Lankford said. That particular flood destroyed large portions of the new town.

At the same time, as farms and farming equipment expanded in size, the number of farmers needed to do the work shrunk, Lyons said. Many residents found work elsewhere, and an 8-to-5 job displaced full-time farming as a way of life.

The cost to rebuild is still another obstacle to remaining on Kaskaskia Island. Flood insurance is often economically pro­hibitive, said Lyons. Insurance and FEMA payouts are often not enough to entirely compensate for a total or even partial loss of farm equipment and inputs or rebuilding essential farming structures. And even though some Kaskaskia farmers continue to toil and till, their children may have explored other educa­tional and career opportunities.

Today, Lankford said he is one of the last full-time farmers and only one of about 50 residents who still live on the island. Records show just 11 island farmers continue to grow the Missouri and Illinois favorites there: corn, wheat and soybean. These farmers also rent acreage from several landowners.

So, if flooding continues to decimate crops and property on Kaskaskia Island, why do people persist in farming the land?

“You’re never going to find better dirt anywhere,” said Mary Sulser, full-time island resident and Village treasurer. That dirt is classified as “gumbo,” a heavy, sticky, clay soil that is rich in free-ion potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium—nutri­ents essential to healthy crop growth. Kaskaskia’s relatively high water table, in concert with its abundantly fertile soil, helps feed and water hungry crops. Farming on the island can mean big yields and big profits for farmers.

That is, when the Mississippi River doesn’t interrupt agricul­tural efforts on the island.

To that end, a 21-mile-long levee was built around a major­ity of the farmland on Kaskaskia by the Army Corps of Engi­neers in 1916, Lyons said. After the 1973 flood, the levee was reinforced to its present height. Additionally, the section of the Mississippi that curves around the island was dredged and channeled to help mitigate heavy floods, Lyons said. However, that increased river water velocity. So now if it floods, faster, more furious river water pours over the levees of Kaskaskia.

“We came very close to a (levee) breach in 2019,” Sulser said. That year Missouri and Illinois saw record flooding, resulting in devastating losses for many river towns. In Kaskaskia, volunteer sandbaggers and workers helped keep the levee together and the swelling Mississippi River out.

“We don’t always get along, but when push comes to shove, Kaskaskians come together,” Sulser said.

In fact, almost all public service on the island is comprised of volunteers. “We all volunteer in some way,” Sulser said, whether that be maintaining the levee or organizing several village-wide celebration and tourism opportunities. The Independence Day and Labor Day gatherings are boons for the village’s economy. Lyons manages tours of historic properties, such as the Kas­kaskia Immaculate Conception Church and nearby Liberty Bell of the West Shrine. And although maintaining accurate histor­ical records, archiving data and the conservation of physical artifacts of the past is a full-time occupation, she doesn’t get paid a gumbo cent to do it.

“It’s a 24/7 job,” Lyons said. “These old places take a lot of maintenance, and there’s always the fundraising to keep that maintenance (going). You answer phones and emails at all hours, and you have to adapt to whatever is going on right now.”

Conservation of the few standing historic sites on the island requires a lot of work and money, especially after major flood­ing, either from non-draining rain or levee breach, Lyons said. The 1993 flood forced the Kaskaskia church to temporarily relocate its icons. In the flood’s aftermath, the parish made major renovations to the church’s woodwork, altar and interior accouterments involved in Catholic worship and service.

After the 2019 flooding, the historic church rectory partially sank into the ground, said MFA Precision Agriculture Specialist Rob Rickenburg, who grew up in the area. Rickenburg is now assigned to the MFA agricultural district that services Kaskaskia Island.

“I actually watched contractors drill into the bedrock of the island to install lifts under the rectory’s foundation,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what they were able to do. It took a while, but they got it back right.” Retired MFA employee Tom Sutterer volunteered two weekends to reinforce the rectory by filling its basement with concrete, Rickenburg said.

Today, the Kaskaskia Immaculate Conception Church still holds regu­lar services. Inside, various relics and religious artifacts dating back to the early 18th century continue to adorn the bright white walls and complement the intricate stained glass windows. An elaborately hand-crafted baptismal font nestles in the corner of the chancel, near the sanctuary. The ornately hand-carved altar also was restored by professional woodworkers who specialize in historical carpentry. And the original pipe organ with its glinting, polished brass still yawns its hollow tubes toward the vaulted ceiling.

“I just like to make sure that the history of our ancestors and the history and contributions that Kaskaskia has given to the whole state of Illinois are still out there,” Lyons said. “I feel it’s part of my experience or my representation to make sure that the story is told truthfully. There are so many wild stories. There’s some people who are good storytellers but never let the facts keep them down.”

On the other hand, there are some residents of Kaskaskia who never let a good flood keep them down. Mary Sulser and her husband, Mike, the village president, refuse to relocate off the island. They completely rebuilt their home using their original floor plan after the 1993 flooding—but this time on 18-foot-tall stilts. It’s the only house in Kaskaskia built that high off the ground.

“It’s a sense of freedom,” Sulser said. “You don’t have to worry about raising your kids. It’s not like the bigger towns and cities.”

Kaskaskia children attend school in the nearby town, Ches­ter, Ill., and violent crime rates and other criminal predation is relatively low, according to several state data-reporting sites. Children and grandchildren may play outside, explore the island, ride bikes and generally have the idyllic rural childhood.

It’s not just the relatively low crime rate, or the fertile soil or the rich history that draw people to the island. Maybe it’s also a handshake and a trustworthy smile. Or maybe that it’s a geographical ornament, suspended between two rivers full of fish, where the Milky Way can still be seen at night. What­ever “it” may be, there seems to be something about Kaskaskia that draws people to it through space and time, whether it’s to celebrate special times of year or to stand on the ground where others survived flood, fire and famine.

Kaskaskia’s gravitational pull that beckoned Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet centuries ago and built a classic American town endures just as strong today.

This is Andrew B. Church's first article with Today's Farmer magazine. We are looking forward to his contributions to the magazine.

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