Monday, April 27, 2015

The Cemetery Diaries

From this little alcove in my bedroom, I look up to Mausoleum Row and the Hurley Monument. The sun rises above them -- every day -- and rouses me awake.

When I moved to Topeka in 1992, I came to know the community through the cemetery. I joke, but it is true, that we Southerners "love dead people." I walked through the grounds, noting the street names and important folks, and then stumbled, literally, over the marker for Cyrus K. Holliday (below, with my red slippers).

Now many folks in Kansas know Holliday because he is the founder of Topeka, founder of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and of Merchants Bank. I knew him because of the movie, Santa Fe Trail.

Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Ronald Reagan. Raymond Massey. And Henry O'Neill as Cyrus K. Holliday.

The list of historical inaccuracies is too long to repeat but the facts are these: J. E. B. Stuart (of my hometown, Ararat, Virginia) was in the Kansas Territory the same time as John Brown and Cyrus Holliday. Holliday, however, would not have been the old man that was depicted in the film. Only seven years Stuart's senior, Holliday would have been 30 years old in 1856, an optimistic, enterprising young man himself.

No matter. The film captured my imagination and when I stumbled over that grave marker, a modest memorial to such an incredible man, I knew I was meant to be in Kansas. Jeb had been here. Here. Right here. John Brown had been here. And, yes, even Custer though not at the same time! I looked around at the graves of people who, like Holliday, were not born in Kansas but made their marks here. I knew I could, too.

As fate would have it, I now live in this historic site. The home built by Pennsylvanian Franklin Crane in 1857 houses the cemetery offices and the second floor is an apartment where I am pleased to be the resident historian. It is sometimes more ruin than historic, but we are actively raising funds for the countless projects. This is truly sacred ground. More than two thousand Civil War veterans rest here, including at least three Confederates. Hundreds more join them, from every era, every conflict since the War of 1812.

A couple of weeks ago, Tiffany Rocque from CSpan visited me here and we filmed a couple of segments at the graves of Holliday and Vice President Charles Curtis. Those segments air on May 2 and 3. I am thrilled that this historic ground, often overlooked through the years, is once again getting the attention it deserves. The community deserves to know about it and its residents
as well.

I am privileged to live in such an historic place. It comforts and inspires me. While the focus of this blog is primarily historical exploits and adventures, I have started another blog that allows me to write creative nonfiction and try to make some sense of life. I hope you will visit and let me know what you think. I will be starting yet another blog for my TV show, Around Kansas, and will share that link with you as well.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Face of Kansas

He has become the face of Kansas, and perhaps the West. Robert Cowboy Culbertson lives in Easton, Kansas, which is west of Weston as the joke goes (Weston being on the Missouri side of the line even though the towns are both in striking distance of Leavenworth.

I am privileged to call Cowboy my friend, and am thrilled to share this segment of Around Kansas with you. You can find Cowboy and/or American Frontier Productions on Facebook. Give them a like and tell him Deb sent you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Glory, Glory

It had been a week of unparalleled, uninterrupted jubilation. Across its length and breadth, the Federal Union celebrated like it had never celebrated before. Millions of flags, great and small, were hoisted; hundreds of miles of bunting were draped or hung; cannons roared, rockets soared; men and women danced and sang, kissed and cried. After four bloody years of fear, pain, and frustration, the inevitable yet somehow startling words struck the country "like a thunderbolt."

"RICHMOND IS OURS," blared the headlines. "The Old Flag Floats over the Rebel Capital. . . VICTORY! THE UNION WILL BE PRESERVED!!"

"The news sped through the country on the wings of lightning," exulted the Chicago Tribune, "and lighted up the nation with a blaze of glory."

                  ~The Day Dixie Died, pp 3-4

With the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, the North began the celebration. Years of war, war with its fear, anxiety, grief, expense, loss, and more losses--war that seemed it would never end. I heard a man from the Middle East comment the other day that he feared tomorrow. Tomorrow is a terrible thought. Americans had lived that way for four years. With the fall of Richmond, the end was within sight. With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, seemingly invincible, peace was at hand. The relief was simply, overwhelming.

And there, in the midst of it all, stood Lincoln. Reviled, ridiculed, and insulted on every hand throughout the ordeal, he had kept his promise to preserve the Union, and in the process, had brought an end to American slavery.

Maybe he was okay after all. There was a spirit of forgiveness, of forgiving the president for the ordeal of the war. Throughout the North, there was hope and anticipation for the first time in what seemed like forever.

Then he was gone.

Walt Whitman put that profound grief into poetry:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
From When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Take the time today to read this piece in its entirety.

Detail of Thomas Nast illustration for Harper's Weekly- Columbia mourning
the death of Abraham Lincoln (plus excerpt from Whitman's poem)

It is impossible to describe the reaction of America, the depths of grief and guilt and anger. The night of April 14, Northerners took to their beds with their cities illuminated and their spirits buoyed. They awoke to dread, a renewed anxiety that shook the foundations of not only the Republic, but faith itself.

How could this be? Why? Why? Why? Why was he taken now? We didn't have the chance to embrace him, to express our gratitude. And now it is too late.

We build him monuments and hope that he somehow knew.