BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Day by day for the past year, Baxter Springs residents have been turning the clock back to the Civil War era.
They’ve been creating period costumes, restoring one of the town’s oldest surviving Civil War-era homes and learning how to dance the Virginia Reel.
In about two weeks from now, visitors will be transported to a time in 1863 when ladies and gentlemen attended grand balls, when Missouri was known as a slave state and Kansas a free state, and when William Quantrill and his men forever changed the fate of the Kansas Colored Infantry and the Wisconsin Cavalry encamped at a military outpost at the edge of the quiet cow town.
On Oct. 4-6, the Baxter Springs Sesquicentennial Civil War observance will be put on at the historic Fort Blair and the Baxter Springs Heritage Center & Museum.
“It’s been months and months of preparation,” said Linda Kennedy, who manages the museum.
In February, Kennedy selected a historic pattern for a Civil War-era afternoon tea dress and began working with Pam Paxson, of rural Columbus, who offered her sewing expertise.
On Oct. 5, she’ll wear it to a 3 p.m. tea at one of the town’s oldest homes, The Cooper House, which is under restoration in preparation for the tea and for an evening ball.
“Women have been coming in right and left picking out dresses from our rack of period costumes,” said Larry O’Neal, local historian who also has played a key role in the coordination of the event. “We want all our docents and helpers — everyone — that weekend to be dressed appropriately. No flip-flops and jeans.”
O’Neal is considering wearing a West Point officer’s uniform that was donated to the museum.
“We already have reservations for 50 for the ball, plus we’ll have all the re-enactors and their wives who will be here for the encampment,” O’Neal said. “They come prepared and know the protocol; they take playing the part very seriously.
“I’m excited; I’ve been working on this a long time.”
So is Phyllis Abbott, who with her husband, Bob, and their sons, Kelly and Darren, have been putting in long hours restoring the home, which is their former funeral home at 519 E. 12th St.
“It’s all about the preservation,” Abbott said of the work on the home, which will become a permanent event center.
It was completed in 1870 as the home for John M. Cooper, a Civil War veteran and prominent merchant and banker, his wife, Emily Cooper, and their four children. Built in the Classic Italianate style with local red brick and cut stone, it was considered at the time to be the grandest structure in Baxter Springs and occupied the full block of what was then called River Street.
It had the first interior running water in town, and in 1893 had the first residential telephone.
On at least one occasion, former Civil War soldiers dined there. Cooper invited members of his old army unit, the 16th Illinois Volunteers, Company K, to a luncheon during the week of the annual Civil War Reunion.
Now, it includes a staging area where a period band called Camp Followers will play Civil War-era music. Ten couples have been meeting for weeks to learn period dances for the gala event.
Furthering the historic look and focus of the weekend will be dozens of presenters and participants in a military encampment on the grounds of Fort Blair.
The camp will open at 8 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 4, to school groups from throughout the Four-State Area. Activities that day are to include a Holmes Union Infantry Brigade demonstration, a presentation about Civil War medical procedures, a Landis Confederate Artillery demonstration, a Robinson Light Artillery Union demonstration, a presentation about the Underground Railroad, and an area set up by sutlers and vendors.
At 8 p.m., the public may attend “Voices from the Grave,” a living history event to be held at Baxter Springs National Plot, where soldiers who died in the battle and the massacre were buried.
The event will feature history enthusiasts portraying key figures, including Johnny Fry, the first Pony Express rider who also bears the distinction of being one of the first two men killed by Quantrill during the attack on Fort Blair, and James O’Neill, a journalist who died in the attack at Fort Blair and was the only war correspondent killed during the Civil War.
“It will also be a tribute to all Americans who died in wars all over the world,” O’Neal said.
Brigadier Gen. James AuBuchon, a Baxter Springs native and longtime Pittsburg resident, will place a wreath accompanied by two veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Saturday, Oct. 5, the camp will be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The day’s activities will include the infantry and artillery demonstrations by the Union and Confederate forces, musical presentations by Central Elementary choir, Galena choir and Baxter Springs High School band, period children’s games and activities, the Underground Railroad presentation, the tea and the ball. Sutlers and vendors also will be on site.
Inside the museum, which will remain open until 7 p.m., visitors may see the grand opening of the Civil War exhibit and Dan Woodward’s art exhibit, “Impressions of the Civil War in the West,” which includes 50 paintings and sketches of the Civil War in Missouri and Kansas.
On Sunday, Oct. 6, a non-denominational church service will be held at the Fort Blair site at 8 a.m. The Baxter High School choir will perform. Camp will be open from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The morning will include artillery and infantry demonstrations by Union and Confederate forces and the Underground Railroad presentation.
Following the battle of Fort Blair on Oct. 6, 1863, the site was decommissioned and the fort was demolished. The area was then just a wayside stop on the Military Road between Fort Scott and Fort Gibson until after the Civil War. The town was incorporated as Baxter Springs in 1868.