Lecompton icon makes way home

Descendants turn over portrait of Sen. Jim Lane

This portrait of Wild Sen. James Lane has been donated to the Lecompton Historical Society. The painting of Lane, a free-state firebrand who lived in Lecompton in the Civil War era, had been kept in his family and most recently had hung in a home in the eastern United States.

It’s the eyes that get you. They’re known for being “wild” — just like the man.

“Wild Jim Lane,” an 1890 painting of Kansas’ first senator, has recently been donated to Lecompton’s Historical Society and will be unveiled as part of a special “Bleeding Kansas” history lecture series on Feb. 5.

Lane was an important figure in Kansas’ territorial history — a celebrated, if divisive, orator, militarily active Free State Jayhawk and friend to Abraham Lincoln. His name isn’t as well-known in Douglas County today as perhaps William Quantrill, but historians say that without agitation of Missouri bushwhackers under his leadership, the famous Lawrence raid may not have taken place.

Lane fought to keep Kansas a free state and may have even had aspirations to run for president himself, but ultimately was “painted” by political detractors as a bit on the loony side, said Tim Rues, site administrator at Lecompton’s Constitutional Hall.

Robert Swain, a restorer with Beauchamp’s Art Gallery in Topeka, worked on the painting, beginning in September.

“The most interesting part is the way his eyes are painted,” Swain said. “There’s this crazy look.”

Swain said the process took several months because the painting wasn’t in good shape — there were scratches, about 50 holes where it had been tacked to a canvas backing and other damage – but the “details really came out” after cleaning and restoration.

The portrait was donated by Lane’s direct descendent James Shaler, of Billerica, Mass., whose childhood bedroom was its home for more than 50 years. After his mother’s death, Shaler and his sisters decided it deserved a grander location. They first contacted the U.S. Senate’s historical portrait gallery but eventually found the Lecompton Historical Society, whose building, like Shaler, is named for Lane.

“I had this dark, glowering, supposedly kinda nuts guy, and I woke up looking at that every morning. I thought, ‘So I really want that every day of my life?'” Shaler said.

Shaler has learned a lot about Lane and other interesting characters in his lineage, and a sister, “the family historian,” is working on publishing letters between Lane and his wife, he said.

For now, he’s happy with the portrait’s new location.

“I’m pleased that we have gotten him where he belongs,” Shaler said.

And so is Lecompton Historical Society President Paul Bahnmaier, who Shaler said “practically jumped through the phone line” with excitement when contacted about a donation.

“We’re thrilled to have Lane back in Lecompton,” Bahnmaier said.

He’s passionate about Kansas’ territorial history and “Wild” Jim Lane’s connections to it.

“It’s important to understand and appreciate our history,” he said. “It’s what we’re all about.”