Playing 'Taps' for the reenactment
By Cindy Lutzi
dailygate.com, October 15, 2014
The next Civil War Reenactment in Keokuk (Iowa) will be the grand finale of an event that has been held for more than a quarter century in Rand Park. The cessation of the reenactment in 2015 will dovetail with the end of the Civil War in 1865, 150 years ago. “This spring will be the last one,” said Wes Pohorsky. “It’s been a difficult decision.”
Pohorsky’s late wife Marilyn along with Mark Brown, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Keokuk, played an integral part in the creation of the annual event. The reenactment of the Battle of Pea Ridge attracted hundreds of reenactors in its early years. Reenactor tents dotted the park and open campfires lit the night as they might have in the days of the Civil War.
Confederate and Union soldiers, their wives and children walked the walk, talked the talk, dressed the part, cooked in cast iron pots over the fire and reunited with fellow reenactors over the battle weekend. Crowds flocked to Rand Park annually to watch the battle, flinch at the sound of cannon fire, shop at sutler stores and vendors’ booths, eat fair food and dress in the style of the 1860s. Gradually the numbers of reenactors who made the annual trip to Keokuk decreased until it became apparent it would be difficult to continue.
“It’s a lack of reenactor people,” said longtime tourism committee member Bob Schieffer. “It’s a very expensive hobby. Young people can’t afford to get into it.” Schieffer also believes young reenactors these days prefer to be a part of World War II events and ride in tanks and use other military equipment.
Pohorsky’s brother Dick has been a reenactor for years and has watched the number of participants drop off – including the reenactment events that are every two or five years. “It’s kind of foolish to have reenactments without reenactors,” Pohorsky said. The event in Keokuk has always drawn large crowds, but in 2013, only one sutler tent, a couple of food vendors and a small force on the Union and Confederate sides were at the park. “There used to be 35 to 40 sutlers,” Schieffer said. “People really enjoyed looking at things to buy. They could spend the day doing that.”
The tourism board chose the Battle of Pea Ridge for Keokuk because the terrain of Rand Park would lend itself to the intricacies of the battle. Five or six reenactors came to the tourism board meeting dressed in full regalia. “They came in and told us a story, what they needed and what our responsibilities would be,” Schieffer said. “The first year, community-wise, it was a big success. You couldn’t believe all the people that were here.”
Pohorsky remembers hundreds of tents in the park and people walking around among the tents that first year. Just what the final reenactment will be about hasn’t been determined. One thing is for sure, the last battle will not include the South’s surrender in 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. “If you want a reenactment with the South and any Confederate reenactors, there won’t be a surrender,” Pohorsky said, noting that many have not accepted Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. “There will be some surprises to end on a high note,” said tourism Executive Director Kirk Brandenberger. “We’ve started working on this already. We will meet in November or December with Dick (Pohorsky) and Jons Olsson and one or two from Burlington and Cedar Rapids. They are veteran reenactors. What people don’t realize is most reenactors are history buffs. One of the men who brings a cannon has written two books (about the Civil War).”
Schieffer said the tourism board is putting some thought into events that could replace Keokuk’s reenactment. “Putting on events is not our stated purpose,” Pohorsky said. “Our primary function is to bring people to Keokuk.” Schieffer said the reenactment has run its course. When it was first produced, the people who started it believed it would last for four or five years. “The reenactment has proven to be a tremendous boost to the economy and interest in the history of the community,” said Brandenberger. “But as it grew smaller and smaller, the importance of this event to the local economy decreased. It turned into more of a local event and the number of people who came in overnight dwindled.”
Many of the 300 hotel rooms in town were not being filled for the reenactment, until the hotel revenue fell to about $10,000 or less per year, Brandenberger said. Pohorsky said it was important to him that more than 900 area students traveled to the reenactment last year – some from as far away as Story City – to hear reenactors explain the Civil War to them.
Also, the Sunday morning service typically held at the Keokuk National Cemetery was, he believes is a highlight of the weekend. “This year we will have it at the park, he said. “Jons Olsson puts it together. One year, Lincoln, Jons Olsson and Dick Pohorsky talked about the Navy. To me the educational part has been important.”
Brandenberger said the reenactment was unique because it mixed the educational aspect with entertainment at no cost. “You rarely see that,” he added. “A few years ago we had a group from inner-city Chicago. They were in awe of the horses and the battles. It was fantastic. They’d never seen it before.”