A new $300,000 permanent exhibit at the Watkins Museum of History, which will be unveiled to the public on Saturday, highlights Quantrill's Raid survival stories both small and large.
Take, for example, an antique chair that's housed in a set of new displays at Watkins, 1047 Massachusetts St. The chair had the misfortune of being in the Free State Hotel during the 1856 sacking of Lawrence. The hotel was destroyed, but, somehow, the chair was not. Then five years later, the chair was in the Eldridge Hotel when William Quantrill and his raiders destroyed the hotel, much of the city, and killed more than 180 men and boys.
Maybe the chair was made from Lawrence lumber because it survived that as well. Of course, so too did the city. Lawrence's propensity to survive and thrive is a major point of the new exhibit that occupies much of the second floor of the historic Watkins building, said museum director Steve Nowak.
"We hope this exhibit is an opportunity for all types of people to get a better understanding of the forces that shaped Lawrence and helped make us what we are today," Nowak said.
The exhibit will be unveiled Friday evening at an invitation-only gala, and then opened to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Visitors will see a variety of displays and artifacts from the Civil War and Bleeding Kansas eras, but also will notice pieces that date to the early 1970s when Lawrence was still dealing with civil unrest.
"I think people will be surprised that we don't just end the story at the point that Kansas became a free state," Nowak said. "We look at that 100-year period that it took to really ensure freedom for everyone."
Quantrill's Raid, though, captures much attention. Ernst Ulmer's 4-by-6-foot canvas painting depicting Quantrill's Raid — a loaned piece valued at about $30,000 — greets visitors as they enter the exhibit.
A more modern twist on the raid can be found in a newly constructed booth that houses a large touch-screen television that allows visitors to point to places on a digital map of Lawrence. Different points on the map tell different stories, both in pictures and audio.
Watkins raised both public and private money to fund the new exhibit, which has been in the planning stages since at least 2010, Nowak said. The museum hired a consultant to develop displays that tell a story about the Bleeding Kansas period before the Civil War, Quantrill's raid on the city, the rebuilding of the community, and the major civil rights movements that occurred on the Kansas University campus and in the community in the decades that followed.
The displays feature prominent figures from the day such as James Lane, John Brown and Charles Robinson. But Nowak said special attention was given to highlight residents who had lesser known roles.
"We do want people to understand that there were ordinary people here who did extraordinary things," Nowak said.
The exhibit uses artifacts that the Douglas County Historical Society — which has been collecting since the 1930s — has acquired over the years and also newer pieces.
Among the artifacts:
• An original copy of the Aug. 22, 1863, New York Times detailing the raid, and original pages from the Harper's Weekly that showed illustrations of the damage.
• Several items that survived the raid, including an 1850s clock from downtown Lawrence's Marks Jewelers, wooden drawers that a family pulled full of possessions from their burning home, and remnants of several other buildings that did not survive.
• A printing press from one of Lawrence's early abolitionist newspapers, and "Old Sacramento," a Civil War cannon that met an odd fate in Lawrence near the turn of the 20th century.
The museum also has an 1867 elementary school term paper on Quantrill's Raid. The museum has used that term paper to develop a history curriculum that is designed to be used by third-grade students across the city and possibly the state, Nowak said.
"We think field trips to the museum will increase significantly with this exhibit," Nowak said.
Community leaders also are expecting the exhibit to help attract Civil War history buffs who are looking for sites that go beyond the traditional battlefields of the East.
"These events that happened here are in the history books, but often times they are only a couple of sentences," said Judy Billings, the retired leader of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau and longtime proponent of boosting the city's historical tourism offerings. "There are lots of people out there who want more information, and now they can get it here."