Evolution of the System
The flood of 1927 and the Great Depression changed the ownership of much of the land within the District. Many landowners lost their holdings during the period for a variety of reasons, while a handful of buyers and mortgage holders acquired large tracts. From this group, there emerged new leadership for the District.
One of those new leaders was Maxwell Williams, a young man just beyond his twenty-first birthday, newly arrived in the Missouri Bootheel from Nashville, Tennessee. The Missouri State Life Insurance Company sent Williams to southeast Missouri to oversee and operate thousands of acres of farmland on which the company had foreclosed in Missouri and northeast Arkansas. The company had a district office in Kennett, managed by Charles B. Baker. Both Williams and Baker assumed active roles in the affairs of The Little River Drainage District because its’ elaborate system of ditches drained much of the land they managed. When the District’s landowners elected Baker to the Board of Supervisors in 1942, his election represented a swing away from control of the timber companies. Williams also joined the Board in 1964, replacing Sterling Price “S.P.” Reynolds, the last remaining original Board member.
The control of the District’s Board of Supervisors passed entirely from timber landowners to agriculture landowners on its fiftieth anniversary at the Annual Landowners Meeting in 1957. A large crowd of landowners gathered to vote on two new members for the Board of Supervisors. When nominations opened during the 1957 meeting, Supervisor David M. Barton nominated Everett B. Gee, Sr. who subsequently nominated W. Pinnell Hunter. Both Gee and Hunter were elected, which proved agriculture had become the principle economy in the District.
Also in 1957, The Little River Drainage District’s 50 year Charter expired and the Butler County Circuit Court extended it into perpetuity.
Although the District finished or ended most of the construction in 1928, it has made a number of changes and improvements since then. In his 1973 historical sketch, Chief Engineer Earl Schultz noted that since the end of WWII the District made four modifications to the Original Plan for Drainage / Improved and Equalized Plan. These supplements were approved by the Board of Supervisors and filed by the Butler County Circuit Court on May 12, 1947; February 15, 1952; October 11, 1954; and November 9, 1965. The work involved enlarging ditches, strengthening levees, and protecting them from bank erosion.
1967 Inspection of Big Lake area. Left to right: J.L. Rainbolt, guide; Alva W. Goff, guide; Maxwell Williams, LRDD Supervisor (in back); Everett B. Gee, Sr., LRDD Supervisor (center); W.P. Hunter, LRDD Vice President; Earl Schultz, LRDD Chief Engineer. Picture taken by E.B. Gee, Jr.
Larry D. Dowdy, who began working for the District under Chief Engineer Earl Schultz in 1970, experienced the flood of 1973. The Mississippi River rose to a record height and threatened the Headwater Diversion Channel Levee. Dowdy recalls, “The Levee had been neglected and was not in good condition at that time. We had numerous weak spots that needed immediate attention.” Dowdy became Chief Engineer in 1975 and under his direction, the District had greatly improved the Levee.
Dowdy recognized several challenges for the District. The first one being governmental regulations that try to restrict how the District maintains the ditches. The second challenge, and one that is long-term, is retaining the annual assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in maintaining the Headwater Diversion Channel and Levee and the lower channels that collect all of the District’s water to discharge it at the Arkansas line. Dowdy commented, “Without the USACE the District would be forced to raise the drainage fees considerably to pay for the additional equipment and staff to provide this maintenance.” Dowdy retired from The Little River Drainage District in 2016.
L-R: Andy Halter, LRDD North Foreman; Larry D. Dowdy, Chief Engineer; Col. O’Brene Richardson, USACE; Donald Boatwright, LRDD South Foreman
Since the early construction the USACE have constructed a series of relief wells on the protected side of the mainline levee south of the Headwater Diversion Channel, the work was completed in 1985. This project relieves pressure on the levee during high water.
Dr. Sam M. Hunter, President of The Little River Drainage District Board of Supervisors says, “The composition of the Board has totally changed since I joined. We naturally miss the experience and the institutional memory of those older members whom we have replaced. Problems within the District tend to reoccur, not year to year, but from generation to generation. We also find that we must take a larger role in the total design for flood control and drainage in the St. Francis Basin of Missouri and Arkansas, as well as the entire lower Mississippi valley.
The Little River Drainage District changed the face of southeast Missouri. This region was once a swamp, a no-man’s land. Today, a traveler driving across the area would never know of this as they passed field after field. The swamp does not sleep and labors to regain itself, held at bay by the leadership of the Board of Supervisors, the support of our landowners, and the never-ending work of the men and women of The Little River Drainage District.
If you would like more information about The Little River Drainage District or have any questions, please feel free to visit us at our office in Cape Girardeau or call (573) 335-3439.