Archive for Thursday, June 8, 2006

After celebration, battlefield efforts move to next level

June 8, 2006

When people now walk into the cool silence of the towering maple grove, all of the historical gunfire and violence of the Black Jack Battlefield has washed away.

Sitting across a rickety bridge just 50 yards away from where abolitionist John Brown and pro-slave sacker Henry Clay Pate exchanged the first formal shots of a proto-Civil War 150 years ago, the grove sat open and manicured thanks to Karl Gridley, vice president of the Black Jack Battlefield Trust.

"It's like going into a cathedral," Gridley said Saturday.

And he was right. The trees from which former property owner and Brown comrade Robert Hall Pearson collected sap years ago still stand tall in perfect rows. The canopy creates an archway to what, for many Kansans, has become a sacred place.

Sacred because The Battle of Black Jack -- named for the once-booming Santa Fe Trail village of Black Jack just east of Baldwin -- has been widely recognized as the first formal fighting between pro- and anti-slavery forces, triggering a series of events that ignited the powder keg of the Civil War.

All weekend, members of the Black Jack Trust -- which now owns the land -- have given tours, played music and re-enacted important characters and moments from the historic battle.

Members of the Blue and Gray Brigade perform a song during a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Black Jack. The two-day event concluded on Saturday with a morning breakfast, character portrayals and guided tours. The site is home to the first documented clash between pro- and anti-slavery forces, which ultimately led to the Civil War.

Now, as the sesquicentennial events wrapped up Saturday, Gridley and the rest of the Black Jack Trust focused on what may come of the historic site after the visitors leave.

"It's a challenge with all history that's this specific to a single event," Gridley said.

The idea, trust president Ramon Powers said, will be to develop a battlefield site with possibly a nature park attached.

The idea, of course, will be to attract visitors without the celebrations, bands and events.

"There's some major work under way," Powers said. "We have a wonderful setting, as you can tell."

The work is under way on two fronts, trust officers said Saturday. First, research will continue on the site to find more artifacts and learn the exact nature of the fighting here 150 years ago. Researchers will look at historical records and physical evidence to better understand the historic facts of the heavily documented battle.

"That's in part why we are having this extensive study of the battle," Powers said.

Besides further study of the area, the battlefield may soon become part of a Bleeding Kansas Heritage Area in northeast Kansas that would allow federal recognition of several Civil War-era battles.

Deborah Barker, director of the Franklin County Historical Society, said the area would encompass sites in 23 Kansas counties and others in Missouri, adding $10 million in federal funding to link many pre-Civil War battle sites for tourists and visitors from across the country.

"This is a big thing," Barker said.

Gridley agreed the historical linkage would mean a lot to Black Jack. With the historical designation in place, the area would be officially linked to other sites from the era in Lawrence and Lecompton.

"It's another major part of the story," Gridley said.

But even with the federal recognition, the history can sometimes lose its allure with older folks. Gridley said some can get "jaded" to the historical importance of sites like this.

But if the trustees and others keep plugging away at making the site better and more visitor-friendly, Gridley hoped a new generation of Kansans would arrive with fresh eyes, ready to take in the historic sites, majestic groves and all.

"With them," Gridley said, "it's all brand new."

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