|Vol. IV, No. 4, Spring 1991 / Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1991|
by Jeanette Collins
"Why is the Ray House bare of furniture?" Of the more than 350,000 visitors to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield Park each year, thousands are school children, and they keep asking that question. Karen Sweeney and I, both Life members of the of Wilson' s Creek National Battlefield Foundation, asked ourselves that question too, and decided to try to do something about the empty rooms of that special house.
The Ray House is the only remaining structure at the Wilson's Creek Battle site contemporaneous to 1861. It was built in the 1850s; and in 1985 the National Park Service restored it to its condition as of August 10, 1861, the day of the battle. The NPS Interpretive Use Plan provides guidelines for appropriate furnishing and interpretation--but no funds.
We decided we would organize a Second Penny Brigade. We would utilize the model and the successful tradition of the First Penny Brigade, which mobilized the coins of thousands of local school children in the 1950s and '60s to begin purchasing the land that formed Wilson's Creek Battlefield Park. We would enlist the interest and participation of both students and teachers by taking the story of the Ray family' s experience that fateful day into classrooms, and dramatizing it right there.
Karen and I have long been interested in the history of women in this area. At Drury College I wrote an M.A. thesis entitled "Women of the Civil War to 1875 in Greene and Christian Counties." One of them was Roxanna Ray, the wife and mother of the Ray House. Karen has accumulated an extensive collection of costumes and other artifacts associated with pioneer women (her husband, Dr. Thomas Sweeney, is a major Civil War collector and expert on medical aspects of the War).
Karen dons the appropriate costume and portrays Roxanna Ray (her awesome full name was Roxanna Grizzard Neal Steele Ray) telling the family's story. When possible she is accompanied in the presentation by Park Historian Rick Hatcher, also in period costume, portraying either a Confederate foot soldier or Union Captain James Totten, a participant in the battle. Hatcher is a big man, handsome and bearded, who in his small, gold-rimmed glasses and Civil War uniform, side arms, and scabbard, is very believable indeed! On the occasion of performances before civic groups or other evening audiences, appropriate Civil War music is provided by the famed folk music artists Art Galbraith, fiddle, and Gordon McCann, guitar.
Audiences have a notable readiness to receive and be fascinated by the program. Interest of teachers in local history is strong and growing; and particular interest in the Civil War has been keen since the Centennial of the 1960s. Scholastic visitation at the Park, already active, can be even greater, and certainly better served, when the Ray House is furnished to becomes an educational interpretive center. Here, young listeners will relate to the story of the 13 children who huddled together in the cellar that morning of August 10, 1861. They will peek out the window when they hear how Olivia, one of the children, was sent early that morning to gather the horses, and raced back with the warning that a great battle was about to begin. They can glimpse the civilian population coping with the trauma of Civil War. Rick Hatcher tells about the role of youth in battle, reciting exploits of participants who were 15 years of age or younger. They are stories to which children and youth respond with fascination. As word spread about our project and its goal to furnish historic Ray House, thousands of pennies (and larger donations) have poured in from all over the region. School groups of all levels, civic and community groups, as well as tourist and convention groups have witnessed Karen's dramatic portrayal of Roxanna Ray. To date, approximately $12,000 has been raised to procure furnishings.
In March, 1990, the first room was furnished, and opening ceremonies were held with several descendants of Roxanna and John Ray present. Since the March 1990 ceremonies, Roxanna's descendants have presented family heirlooms to be used in the house. Approval for furnishings of the last two rooms is now in place. We hope to have them completed by spring, 1991, in time for the thousands of students who tour our Park each spring.
For three years we have taken Roxanna's story to the people. In school multipurpose rooms, private homes, on tour busses, on theater stage, people have enjoyed and responded to her story, and have offered their pennies to furnish historic Ray House to the 1850s and 1860s period.
In the successful completion of this goal, another has emerged. People will come to the Park to experience the furnished house first hand. Therefore, a trained docent staff will be needed each and every day that the Park is open to the public, to keep alive and vital Roxanna Ray's story:
I stand alone, gazing down at Wilson's Creek, and in my memory I see the battle raging...I hear the cannons firing...I smell the stench of gun powder...I remember taking the children to the cellar and the fear that gripped us. Our life seemed so simple. We worked hard but we had lots of happy times. We never dreamed that our home would be a part of a major battle in the Civil War...a battle that was very important for the Union, even though they lost to the South. I felt the pain as the wounded were brought to my home. Our family....my children...the house we lived...our land...are forever etched in history.
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