BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Exhibits at the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum are getting a makeover from a Broadway stage manager who calls the Big Apple his home.
Brian Rardin, who graduated from Baxter Springs High School in 1981, has been working for more than a year on the project, both remotely from his apartment in New York City and on trips home to Baxter Springs to visit his mother, Judy Wilson.
His theatrical credits include “Amadeus,” “Equus,” “Frost-Nixon,” “Showboat” and many other Broadway and off-Broadway shows, but what he’s most proud of this summer are displays detailing the early history of the area that eventually would become the first Kansas cow town.
Rardin had played as a child on the spot on which the museum now stands. When he was in Baxter Springs about a year and a half ago, he took a look around.
“I noticed the signage and the displays and thought perhaps I could help take them to the next level,” he said.
His former high school theater teacher, Phyllis Abbott, is an active volunteer at the museum, and she welcomed Rardin’s creativity and his expertise as a former graphic arts major at the University of Kansas.
When museum volunteers and staff members began gearing up for the October observance of the 150th anniversary on the attack on Fort Blair and the Massacre of Baxter Springs, Rardin’s offer came just in time.
Last December, he began six months of historical research on the area’s early days, wading through piles of special collections documents, visiting New York museums and libraries, and searching online archives.
“He did graduate-level research for this,” said Larry O’Neal, a member of the Baxter Springs Historical Society and a museum volunteer.
Rardin then began assembling historical facts, maps — some never before publicly displayed — photographs and illustrations using the computer software application Photoshop. When he was finished, he sent digital files to sign makers to be produced.
Perhaps one of the most complicated pieces he created is a 40-inch by 72-inch timeline printed on a light box similar to that used for movie posters. Divided into sections, the detailed timeline features the years leading up to the Civil War, including the story of American Indians, of the military and of the Border Wars.
In another display, he created an enlarged locator map, particularly aimed at the many out-of-state visitors the museum gets from Route 66. It is based on a 21-piece pocket map of Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, that was published in 1866.
Some maps took hours of painstaking tracing or enhancing, because original versions were so faded or crumbling that the outlines or printing could barely be discerned.
Rardin worked with Brian Shivley from Prime Elements in Carthage, Mo., to fabricate each panel and display in the exhibit. Shivley’s previous work at the museum includes large murals in the baseball and mining sections.
Last week, Rardin completed a month of work at the museum installing signs, arranging displays and working with the museum staff to feature important artifacts.
“He’s been working day and night on it,” O’Neal said.
Rardin is perhaps most proud, he said, of his work on the Border Wars display.
“It really tells an important story between Missouri and Kansas, and what was at stake,” he said.
Another pride and joy is a photographic rendering of what Fort Blair — now surrounded by homes and city streets just a block northwest of the museum — might have looked like during a temporary encampment in 1863 before an attack by Quantrill’s Raiders.
“I took photographs from many different places and put them together as a sort of representative illustration,” Rardin said. “It was prairie here then — no town. It’s hard for people to imagine it, hard to visualize, and I think this helps.”
The Baxter Springs Historical Society provided funding for Rardin’s work, and O’Neal said the group hopes to apply for grants to finish off the rest of the Civil War-era and Border War-era exhibits.
Rardin also plans to transfer to the museum’s archives all of the research he conducted in order to prepare the displays. While he had to return to New York to prepare for a Broadway show that opens this fall, he said he will continue to work remotely on displays and will send them to Shivley to install.
“I just did it for the love of Baxter,” he said. “This is an amazing museum. With over 7,000 categorized artifacts — well, museums in New York City don’t even have the kinds of special collections you have here.”
O’Neal is grateful for his help.
“It’s a great impact to us, the history that’s being told here with his help,” he said. “Generations to come will be able to appreciate it.”
THE MUSEUM COMPLEX, located at 740 East Ave., is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays.