One of the most prominent attractions at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is the Ray House, a silent witness to the bloody battle there on August 10, 1861. The home of John Ray and his family, the historic house is currently used to teach visitors about nineteenth century farm life.
Much of the credit for preserving the Ray House goes to Mrs. Bessie McElhaney. In order to preserve its historical integrity, Mrs. McElhaney lived in the primitive home for years, without making modern improvements. In 1956 she worried the battlefield would never be preserved and was tempted to renovate the house. She held off, however, and on August 10, 1961, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield became a unit of the National Park Service. Today, the Ray House and adjoining battlefield offer a wonderful environment for visitors to learn about life in Missouri during the Civil War.
"Historic Home May Die Soon," March 20, 1956, Springfield (Mo.) Leader & Press
One of Greene County’s oldest homes, a structure that should be of national interest, may pass from the scene because of long-time public indifference to its preservation.
The house is a four room frame structure built about 1850 on the trail later to be known as "the Old Wire Road" and as the "Butterfield Trail." It overlooks the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield with a sweeping view of the countryside and is the only building standing today that went through the battle.
Known as the "Old Ray House," it is owned by Mrs. Bessie McElhaney who inherited it from her father, John A. McConnell. For years Mrs. McElhaney has given the historic house loving care and refused to change its original lines because she recognized its potential interest to the state and nation, as well as to the Springfield community.
"Now I’m beginning to get discouraged about the battlefield site ever being made a park" said Mrs. McElhaney. "I am thinking I should go ahead and rebuild the house so I could live more comfortably."
Mrs. McElhaney added that she would continue to keep the house as it is could she have any assurance that within the reasonably near future it would be taken over by the state or nation.
"I want them to have it if they want it," she said. "If they don’t, I feel that I should remodel it."
The old house was built by W.F. Steele, who became ill while campaigning for governor and died shortly afterwards. His widow, Mrs. Rosanna Steele, married J.A. Ray and the family was living in the house August 10, 1861, when guns roared over Wilson’s Creek.
After General Nathaniel Lyon was killed, his body was taken to the Ray House and the federal surgeon examined it and prepared it for transfer to Springfield.
The Ray place also was a stage coach stop and tradition has it that Butterfield stages stopped there for a quick change of horses, although it was not listed on the official schedule. At any rate, whether a stop or not, the trans-continental stages swung down the road in the bend around the hillside on which the house stands. This is one of the few bits of the Butterfield trail that has continued to be traveled in Greene County until the present.
The Missouri State Park Board, which is empowered by the constitution to take over historical sites and preserve them, has expressed some interest in Wilson’s Creek Battlefield. It has indicated, however, it will not purchase the land, but will take over the tract if it is given to the state. Thus far, however, it has not taken the public park of 37 acres purchased by the Wilson’s Creek Battlefield Foundation four years ago from Mrs. Myrtle McClure, sister of Mrs. McElhaney.
Recent efforts of the Disabled American Veterans, assisted by the Jaycees to purchase the Dick O’Connor Museum and erect a museum on five acres of his farm adjoining the 37 acres has stimulated interest in the project. It has not been enough, however, to get help from the state or national governments in a project for honoring the historic ground.
Loss of the old Ray House would be a serious blow to individuals and organizations who have had a long-time hope, for preserving the few remaining structures of historical interest in this region.
Monday, August 10, 2009, the park will commemorate the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Wilson's Creek. See their website for a schedule of events during the weekend and for more information about the battle.
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