More than Just a Civil War Battle Site—Wilson’s Creek Preserving the Cultural History of the Ozarks

Jun 24, 2015

Wilson’s Creek Battlefield is well recognized for its link to the site of the third major battle of the Civil War, which happened on these grounds in 1861.  The National Park Service cares for and maintains this historic land.  But as Ted Hillmer, superintendent for the NPS at Wilson’s Creek explains, there is much more here to preserve and share.

“It is a national battlefield, but it is also a cultural resource.  And because it is a cultural resource there’s things out here that we want to preserve,” Hillmer says.

One of those is what is known as the Ray House. Hillmer shares the structure was one of the only buildings not burned during the Civil War, and was left standing in what was known as Wilson’s Creek Township—a town of around 150 people in those days. Mr. John Ray had been a farmer, but he was also a Federal employee as his home doubled as the local post office. After the battle, the Ray House became a makeshift hospital. 

Telling story of battle is important, says Hillmer, but so is the ability to preserve the time, place and landscape as it was back at the time of the battle. This area had been a small community of mainly farmers who were very self-sufficient and were able to meet most of their own needs themselves. Hillmer shares that the area which became the battlefield had been open farmland, which in those days was the traditional European style of battle. 

“But these open areas, especially Bloody Hill where the battle took place, we try to keep these an open area,” Hillmer explains.

The parks service maintains open fields to this day, typically by mowing and prescribed burns.

In addition to keeping the battlefield clear and reminiscent of how it looked in the mid-1800s, efforts are also made to preserve other native flora.  Hillmer says that one native species of oak maintained here could tell the story of the battle—if only trees could talk.

“We have Chinkapin Oaks here, which is a branch off of the oak tree, but they are 160 years old,” says Hillmer. 

In addition to preserving these treasured oaks, the park service also works to preserve a protected plant species—the bladderpod.  The bladderpod is a threatened species of annual plant that grows to be between 4 to 8 inches tall.  It is known for its distinct small canary-yellow flowers

These native plants were part of the landscape over 150 years ago and are protected today in an effort to preserve a “real-life” snapshot of what life was like during that time. 

“So therefore we’re here to help explain with the Bladderpod is for us—the state of Missouri—the Chickapin Oaks, the Telegraph Road that’s very important for the cultural landscape.  Butterfield Overland Stagecoach route…very important for solving the west problem and getting mail to California.  That’s part of this cultural landscape plan too,” shares Hillmer.

Telegraph or Wire Road, as it was named for being lined with telegraph poles, connected Rolla to Fayetteville in those days, explains Hillmer.  Part of the road remains today in front of the Ray House.  This little town of Wilson’s Creek Township was also a stop along the route of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach which made its stops at the Ray House, in part to transport the mail.

Maintaining a piece of history and remembering the past is part of their mission, explains Hillmer, but learning from the past and how it applies to today is another part. 

“The cultural landscape resource is being used today by are soldiers in the army to protect the United States,” Hillmer says.

Ft. Leonard Wood has three colleges, explains Hillmer, and often troops will take field trips out to Wilson’s Creek Battlefield and practice maneuvers in the open fields.  Hillmer shares that modern day technology can make a person become reliant, but what happens when these things fail?

“Having the soldiers out here and having them think like [General] Lyon had to do—on his feet—because he had to make those snap decisions too, they might remember certain things when they are out there in the field protecting the United States and thinking about what happened,” Hillmer explains.

One of the biggest challenges, explains Hillmer, is keeping history alive for future generations.  He shares his own passion began as a child vacationing and camping with his family.  He adds that this passion followed him into adulthood as his own family traveled to national parks   learning about history and what different places had to offer. Hillmer says things are very different now.

“So how do we get that next generation interested so they can protect this valuable resource that I have spent the last 38 years trying to protect? Well, you do that by this thing [points to smart phone] through social media and you do a lot of your promotion to then next generation,” says Hillmer.

Preserving history as accurately as possible, while recreating new ways to attract future generations, provide a platform for Hillmer and others to share a significant piece of our past.

“To me it’s a wonderful story.  So history can be taught and learned from—but you have to get people out here to do that,” Hillmer says.