Plans in works to mark raid on Lawrence

Quantrill attacked city almost 150 years ago

Maybe it was a bout of early-morning grogginess, or perhaps a more constant affliction of eternal optimism, that clouded the judgement of Ralph Dix.

Whatever the case, at 5 a.m. Aug. 21, 1863, Dix thought he could reason with the armed visitors to his town.

“Ralph wanted to think well of people,” said Pat Kehde, Lawrence resident and local historian. “He thought reason would triumph.”

If you have lived in Lawrence long, perhaps you recognize the date. On that day in 1863, a band of “border ruffians” led by Missouri raider William Quantrill burned large swaths of the city. His raiders left more than 180 men and boys dead, indiscriminately killing some men they encountered and leaving others untouched.

If you look closely at Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery, you will find a monument to those killed on Lawrence’s bloodiest day.

Kehde, though, doesn’t have to travel to the cemetery to remember. A walk to the Lawrence Public Library will suffice. Ralph Dix was Kehde’s great-grandfather, and he went to reason with Quantrill’s raiders at about the spot where the library’s parking lot sits today.

Whenever she walks across the parking lot, Kehde remembers that her family’s history forever changed on this spot.

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Not everybody has a spot that causes them to remember Quantrill’s Raid. A group of community leaders, though, are beginning to formulate a plan to change that.

City commissioners at their Tuesday meeting are scheduled to create a new task force that will come up with suggestions on how the community should remember the 150th anniversary of the attack and the rebuilding that followed.

The task force will be in addition to efforts already under way by local historians that likely will include a year’s worth of educational events and exhibits.

“It certainly warrants that,” said Steve Nowak, executive director of the Watkins Community Museum of History. “Quantrill’s Raid and the events around it really are this part of the country’s Gettysburg.”

The commemoration, though, may go beyond educational events. Fred Conboy, president and CEO of Destination Management Inc., which manages the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area and the local convention and visitors bureau, said there has been informal talk of a more permanent memorial.

“What shape that takes, I’m not sure,” Conboy said. “But I think people would like to see it be something other than a stone statue of a historical figure. I think there is thought of a living, breathing memorial that really can be a place for the life of the community.”

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Ralph Dix didn’t come to Lawrence to be an abolitionist as much as to be a businessman.

Kehde, who is a self-professed “Quantrill’s Raid junkie,” said her grandfather opened a blacksmith’s shop on Vermont Street and was doing quite well. Just before the attack, he had signed a deal to make more than 300 “prairie plows.”

It was perhaps with that in mind that Dix thought he could overcome any problem Quantrill’s men would present. After all, he was not a Lawrence firebrand. The Missouri ruffians should have no score to settle with him.

His wife — just 19, with three children — begged him to run, not reason.

“She knew right away,” Kehde said.

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When it comes to Lawrence residents knowing about the history surrounding Quantrill’s Raid, local historians aren’t sure the knowledge level is very high anymore.

“I’ve known people who have moved here from somewhere else, and they get confused and think Quantrill was the good guy,” Kehde said.

Leaders at the Watkins Museum hope the next year will help clear up any confusion about what Kehde regards as the “most significant event in the history of Lawrence and maybe the most important in the state.”

Nowak said the museum currently is working on a new permanent display about Quantrill’s Raid that will be housed on the library’s second floor. He predicts it will be the most ambitious exhibit ever undertaken by the museum, incorporating audio and video presentations and showcasing a recently loaned piece of art, Ernst Ulmer’s “Blood-Stained Dawn.”

Nowak said the exhibit will be open by August 2013 in time for the 150th commemoration.

“I think it is incredibly important that we have something that educates and helps us remember,” Nowak said. “That event was a turning point for Lawrence. It was an occasion where the community made a commitment to not only survive but thrive.”

Conboy said he expects a full year’s worth of events in the 41-county Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. The heritage area includes counties on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border, and Conboy said he expects to have events that put the raid in broader context.

For example, Conboy said, not always told is the story of the sacking of Osceola, Mo., led by Lawrence leader James Lane about two years before Quantrill’s Raid.

Beyond the details, local historians hope the public gains a better understanding of just how pivotal the events of the day were in shaping the country’s history.

“People today probably think that Kansas was paid attention to back then like Kansas is paid attention to now,” Nowak said. “But that’s not the case. Very important people in every major seaport on the East Coast were paying attention to Kansas on a daily basis. Quantrill’s Raid was front-page news.”

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Ralph Dix did not pay attention to his wife. He tried to reason instead of run. He met the raiders outside of his shop on Vermont Street.

“He didn’t want to believe it,” Kehde said. “He didn’t get it. He only got it once it was too late.”

Come next year it will be 150 years since Dix went to go reason with men in no mood to reason. The passing of time means that Kehde doesn’t ever become overwrought by the thought of what happened to her great-grandfather, but she still does think of it.

“When I go to the public library, I remind myself that I’m walking on the ground that my great-grandfather was walking on when he was shot in cold blood,” Kehde said.

But the thought doesn’t usually stop there. She remembers her great-grandmother preserved as a young woman, running a boarding house for more than 20 men. She remembers how the community quickly rebuilt and seemed to adopt an even greater resolve to fight for the end of slavery.

“It seems to me that there is still something in the air that says we are here because of an idea, and we are going to do the best we can for people,” Kehde said.

Kehde said that occasionally a shorter thought comes to mind about the man who led the raiders who killed her great-grandfather.

“We’re not going to let that S.O.B. get rid of us,” Kehde said. “I know that’s what so many people were thinking after that day.”