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    Iolan Helen Ambler reads comments to Iola City Council members Monday, asking them to rename Coon Creek to its original moniker, Small Creek. Council members later approved the change. Listening are, from left, Councilman Aaron Franklin and Spencer Ambler, Helen’s husband. REGISTER/RICHARD LUKEN

'Small Creek' rises

'Coon Creek' name removed
The Iola Register

Iola City Council members agreed with a group of residents who said Iola’s Coon Creek should be renamed.

Council members eventually voted 5-0, in one of the more bizarre city meetings in recent memory, to return Coon Creek to its original moniker, Small Creek.

The history behind the creek’s name was brought to the Council’s attention in November by Iola teen Alllie Utley, who found old newspaper articles indicating the waterway was not named after raccoons, but instead was almost certainly a slur against the African American population.

The waterway, which zigzags its way through the heart of Iola, was named Coon Creek sometime around 1900, about the same time African American families began settling in neighborhoods near the creek.

Iolan Helen Ambler, the community’s second-oldest black female (behind Rosemary Bass) told Council members she counted herself among those who originally assumed the name was for the animal, and not a derogatory nickname.

“I was appalled when I found out,” she said. 

Ambler noted none of her children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren had ever asked her about the origins of the creek’s name.

“Now I’m glad they didn’t,” she said, adding that reverting the name back to Small Creek “is the right thing to do.”

Ambler’s husband, Spencer, admits the creek’s name had bothered him for years. “It bothered me then. It bothers me now. … We’re better than that.”


WHILE almost all of those who spoke Monday, including former city commissioner Gary McIntosh, Iolans Raymond Cooper and Donna Houser and Allen Community College student Lexy Turntine, spoke out in favor of removing the Coon Creek name, it appeared for the better part of 30 minutes the Council would be unable to meet their requests, or at least not immediately.

That’s because only four of the eight Council members were in attendance, not enough for a quorum to even start the meeting.

Council members Kim Peterson and Gene Myrick had notified the others previously they would be absent from Monday’s meeting. When members Ron Ballard and Daniel Mathew also failed to show without explanation, it left the Council one member shy of a quorum.

It was wasn’t until Myrick, who was out of town to broadcast an Iola High School basketball game earlier in the evening, called via speaker phone, that the Council could vote on renaming the creek.

Myrick joined Nancy Ford, Aaron Franklin, Chase Martin and Mark Peters in the 5-0 vote to rename the waterway Small Creek.

The only objections to the vote came from Cooper, who had urged the Council to eschew the Small Creek moniker and instead name the waterway after John Silas Bass, a prominent African-American doctor in Iola’s early years. Also objecting was Iolan Richard Zajic, who said the name should be put up to a public referendum.

“Let the people vote on it,” he said, “not just seven people.”


HOUSER, a local historian, had originally been against removing the Coon Creek name, but has since relented after discovering the ignominious history behind the name.

“I’m sorry to say that the powers that be probably named it Coon Creek, without any vote or anything,” Houser wrote in an email to the Council.

“It is time to change it,” she concluded.

Turntine told Council members she and Utley had helped secure the signatures of more than 100 ACC students imploring the Council to change the creek’s name.

“As students of color moving to Iola, minority students at Allen are used to being made uncomfortable,” Turntine said. “We’re often prepared for the glares we get at Walmart, for the all-too attentive gas station employees who follow us around.

We’ve grown to expect it.”

The most disheartening response, Turntine said, was from visiting with students about signing the petition. 

“The reaction we received again and again was ‘It’s Iola, Kansas. What do you expect?’

“I’m not local,” she continued. “Most minority students at ACCC aren’t. We didn’t grow up in Iola, and we’re not likely to grow old in Iola. You tell me, what should we expect in Iola? Should we expect an ally, a city focused on moving forward?”


BECAUSE the creek has no signage, the officIal renaming will occur only when new plats are drawn or legal property descriptions are given, Mayor Jon Wells said.

Likewise, because the creek is fed almost entirely from stormwater drainage, and is not spring-fed, there is no need to notify the county or state.

“We’re not going to rename all of our maps all at once,” Wells said. “It’s going to be a slow process, but this is an official recognition of the change.”

Martin was the most outspoken of those who voted in favor of Small Creek, apologizing to the large audience when it appeared the Council would be unable to vote.

“It’s a damn shame,” he said. “We tried to make sure the Council was here.”

He also was highly critical of those complaining on social media about getting rid of the Coon Creek name.

“You can blame this on the generation being soft, you can blame it on whatever you like, but it’s damned easy to sit there and be an Internet warrior and say people are just being sensitive,” Martin said. “It is not the same thing. I applaud you people who did come out tonight. Shame on you, those who did not show up tonight. To say this is because a generation is soft or everyone is too sensitive, how dare you. It makes me sick. Iolans, every one of us, should want this change.”


MYRICK’S phone call also saved the Council from having to reschedule multiple special meetings to wrap up the 2019 fiscal year.

Without Monday’s meeting, the Council would have had to reschedule a special meeting just to reset the budget hearing, City Administrator Sid Fleming said, to discuss year-end budget transfers for the library, stores, electric and convention and tourism funds.

With Myrick on hand, however, the Council was able to approve the transfers without another meeting.

The $22,621 transfer into the library fund matches expenditures with the amount levied 18 months ago, Fleming noted. The city added $10,000 to its convention and tourism fund, from $80,000 to $90,000, and transferred funds from the electric fund to the stores fund to better reflect purchases made for the electric department  that had not yet been utilized. The transfer does not affect the electric fund’s bottom line, Fleming noted.


COUNCIL members also approved cereal malt beverage licenses for 2020 for Pump ‘N Pete’s stores at 709 N. State and 206 S. State St., Jump Start Travel Center, Walmart, Casey’s, G&W Foods, China Palace, Denny’s Sports Center and Pizza Hut. Provisional approval also was given to Coronado’s, El Jimador and Dudley’s Done Right, provided those three businesses return their applications in a timely manner.

The Council also approved CMB licenses for the Pump ‘N Pete’s at 206 S. State and Dollar General for the rest of 2019. Pete’s is acquiring Ray’s Mini Mart later this month.


THE COUNCIL also approved a request to provide information to representatives with the Iola Vespers Choir in order for the choir to apply for convention and tourism funding on an annual basis.

Vespers was formerly sponsored by the Iola Music Club and then the Southeast Kansas Christian Artists Series, both of which have since disbanded.


COUNCIL members approved a request to replat the old Tramec Sloan properties in the Davis Addition, splitting the property into three parcels. The land is owned by Iola Industries, Inc. The split was unanimously endorsed by Iola’s Planning Commission, Fleming said.


WHILE Monday’s meeting was the final scheduled meeting of the year for the Council, members scheduled a special meeting for 7 p.m. next Monday, in case more than five members show up at a town hall gathering hosted by Allen Community College to discuss public interest in a new student activities building. College officials have reached out to the city, county and other entities about a collaborative project.

The Iola Council will not meet as a group, but would need the special meeting notification is five or more members partake in the discussion.


The Iola Register

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