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Kankakee Marsh: A tragic and fascinating story

Lily pads Black Oak Bayou. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media

Lily pads in Black Oak Bayou. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media

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Watch

What: “Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand
Kankakee Marsh”

When: 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5

How: Lakeshore Public
Television, WYIN, Channel 56

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Updated: December 5, 2012 6:07AM



Mark your calendars. Prepare to DVR “Monday Night Football.”

Because on Nov. 5 Northwest Indiana can watch itself on TV.

It’s a story about a local river with a tortured past and four filmmakers who waded through its colorful history to craft a biographical documentary.

The film, “Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh,” premiers at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5, on Lakeshore Public Television Channel 56. It explores how the once meandering 250-mile stream was painfully transformed into the 90-mile drainage ditch that exists today. While the process destroyed thousands of acres of wildlife-rich wetlands and most of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, it created some of the most fertile farmland in America and permanently altered the landscape of South Lake County and neighboring regions.

The 1-hour film is the brainchild of two former steelworkers: Post-Tribune columnist Jeff Manes, a Lowell resident who grew up along the banks of the Kankakee, and Patty Wisniewski of Valparaiso, a local writer and independent film producer. Three years ago they began the long process of assembling the tragic and fascinating story of the river, which drew kings and presidents to hunt and fish in its bountiful waters.

A rich history

When Manes and Wisniewski began exploring the river’s past they were astonished by the richness of the characters and the role the river played in the formation of the United States. They borrowed a camera and began filming a shorter version of the documentary to elicit interest.

“I was amazed at the history of the Kankakee,” said Wisniewski. “I never knew any of this existed and here it was right in my backyard. It has this romantic mystery about it. It was one of the voyageur water highways leading to the Mississippi.”

Manes said he grew up in Sumava Resorts and Lake Village hearing tales of counterfeiters, dreamers and flimflam men.

“Kids today should know this history,” said Manes, who sees the Grand Kankakee Marsh as a cautionary environmental tale that examines what happens when man messes with Mother Nature.

“This was a million-acre swamp and an ecological marvel,” he said. “Now that much of that is gone, we realize the importance of wetlands. They’re nature’s kidneys.”

Cinematic muscle

One year into the project the two realized that completing their vision required more cinematic muscle. “We were on our own,” Manes recalled. So they enlisted former Cedar Lake resident Brian Kallies and Hersher, Ill., native Tom Desch, veteran documentarians who met Wisniewski when they worked together years earlier at Lakeshore TV.

Desch and Kallies, now Chicago residents and independent film producers and editors, helped to shoot, produce, edit and shape the film.

“Patty knew they had the chops to get this project done right,” Manes said

Eventually the team purchased professional equipment and secured grant money needed to support the production, snagging sponsorships from foundations, environmental organizations, businesses and individuals.

‘The Wild West’

The film synopsizes 300 years of history, starting with how the Potawatomi Indians and other Native American tribes lived richly on the Kankakee’s shores, and relating how French explorers like LaSalle were dumbstruck by its beauty and bounty. The region was once ruled by France and later Great Britain before it became American soil. It was also home to many scurrilous fellows, knaves, crooks, charlatans and land speculators who found refuge in the secluded, swampy environs.

“It was the Wild West before the Wild West existed,” explained Manes, who wrote the documentary. “It was America’s western frontier.”

The filmmakers pored through legend and lore to unearth historical nuggets in researching the river’s story, combing through library microfiche of old newspapers and dusty books and befriending local historians. They filmed eagle and beaver, crane and river otter from shorelines, boats and even helicopter. “This still is a really enchanted place,” Wisniewski said.

They interviewed farmers, environmentalists, conservationists and historians and learned that once the Indians were forcibly removed to reservations, entrepreneurs and developers began eying the land’s vast potential. Hunting lodges erected along the shores attracted prominent writers like Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace (author of “Ben Hur”) and U.S. presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland to hunt and fish.

“Early reports document that the marsh was home to millions of waterfowl and to passenger pigeons that blackened the skies for miles,” Manes said.

Land sold for $1.25 an acre under the Swampland Act of 1850, which transferred federal land to states if they drained them.

“The Grand Kankakee Marsh is the only place you could buy land by the gallon,” Manes chuckled.

1900 ‘development’

Developers seeking to tame the river failed for 50 years until technology and state and private funding conspired to seal its fate.

“The swamp was in their way,” Wisniewski said. “It’s sad then that we didn’t know what we had.”

Developers transformed the lush river and surrounding marshlands using massive steam dredgers so big that their operating crews lived on them.

Starting in 1900, they removed 2,500 oxbows, lake-like bends where vast seas of duck, geese, cranes and other migratory birds gathered and nested. They also drained Beaver Lake, one of the state’s largest natural lakes. The river never recovered and only a sliver of the massive marshland — less than 5 percent of its original size — survives.

However, in straightening and draining the marsh, developers and the state of Indiana created thousands of acres of prime farmland that has fed America for nearly a century. But the film doesn’t depict farmers as villains. The agricultural foothold led to progress and economic development.

Manes said the Kankakee story needed to be told to educate future generations.

The team has developed educational materials to accompany the DVD for school curricula and hopes for a December commercial DVD release.

An overlooked story

Wisniewski and Manes said the filmmakers were glad to bring together environmentalists, farmers and historians to share their stories.

“It was an honor to be their megaphone,” added co-producer Kallies, 39, who grew up in Cedar Lake. He said the story of the Kankakee is often heard, but seldom documented in America’s schizophrenic relationship with its environment. He said Midwestern stories are often overlooked.

“We’re called flyover states and it’s time to bring out the stories that helped build this country,” Kallies said. “Being from the area, I have a lot of pride. We have a rich history worthy of sharing.”

Kallies, an admitted “treehugger,” said he’s saddened when a national treasure like the marsh is lost.

“It was considered a useless swamp, a malaria pit to be conquered and filled in, because that’s progress, right? But you can’t blame anyone. Back then almost everyone thought that way.”

Co-producer Desch, 32, grew up near the Illinois banks of the Kankakee. He said though the river has been shackled and straightened, without pumping stations it would revert to its old habits.

“Farmers and environmentalists told us that’s what it wants to do, to find its way back. The marsh can never be restored to what it was. But we can restore pieces of it. Even in its current state it’s pretty extraordinary to see. I hope people come out and explore it for themselves.”

Desch hopes viewers will leave with a greater appreciation for what they have in their own backyard.

“I grew up around it and took it for granted,” he said.



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