US Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Rural Development Visits Honey Springs Battlefield
RENTIESVILLE, Okla. — Lisa Mensah, under secretary for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made a visit to Honey Springs Battlefield today to dedicate the new visitor center building. Tyson Young, owner of Zenith Construction of Tahlequah, officially handed over the keys to the building to Gary Nichols, president of the Friends of Honey Springs Battlefield (Friends).
According to Mensah, “This is an impressive multimillion dollar partnership between four federal agencies, two state agencies, McIntosh County, Chickasaw Nation, several local businesses and a nonprofit organization, and it is all taking place in Rentiesville, a historic community founded as a ‘black town.’ This is a great example of what small communities can accomplish.”
Rentiesville is one of 50 rural All-Black towns that emerged in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma, in the post-Civil War era as African Americans sought to escape persecution and build new lives. Today, Rentiesville is a very small rural community of about 130 people. “Although it lacks financial resources,” said Ryan McMullen, state director of USDA Rural Development, “the community possesses distinct historic and cultural assets that provide opportunities to reverse decades of decline and poverty. It is home to a major Civil War battlefield, blues legend D.C. Minner, scholar and civil rights leader John Hope Franklin, and the region’s largest blues festival.”
USDA Rural Development was the lead investor in the visitor center, providing a Community Facilities (CF) Direct Loan, a CF Guaranteed Loan, one business Development Grant, and one CF Grant totaling nearly $500,000 in grant funds and more than $600,000 in financing. A portion of the financing includes a guaranteed loan through Peoples National Bank in Checotah. The project also benefits from recent Rural Utilities Service investments that have improved high-speed internet access to the area.
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, said, “All partners have a vital role in the project, but the heart of the project is the Friends. This nonprofit membership organization handled all the grant funding and most importantly the USDA loan to make the project happen. The OHS owns and manages the 1,100-acre battlefield site, but as a part of the state of Oklahoma the OHS cannot borrow funds, so the new center belongs to the Friends. The operation of the center will be through a continuing partnership between the Friends and the OHS.”
Another key component of the overall project is the investment of thousands of dollars in road improvements by McIntosh County. Former County Commissioner Bobby James began the project to pave two miles of county roadway and rebuild a bridge to provide access to the site. The county is using funding from the County Improvements for Roads and Bridges (CIRB) program, which provides state construction funding for high-priority county roads or bridges. “There are lots of people in our community who have been working hard on this for years and years,” James said. “I picked this project for [CIRB] funding because I felt it was something we really needed because of the importance of the battlefield.” The road project is continuing under James’s successor Bill Phillips. “The construction temporarily makes it a little difficult to reach the main battlefield, but the improved roads will be a tremendous asset for the battlefield,” said Blackburn. “We are so thankful for this support.”
McMullen said, “Working alone USDA Rural Development could not make such a large project happen in such a small, impoverished community. But with plenty of creativity and enough partners, it is still possible to make big things happen in small towns.”
“Another vital contributor to the project,” continued Blackburn, “has been the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT). In the 1990s, the OHS received a federal highway enhancement grant with the support of then Governor David Walters, making it possible to construct the access road through the battlefield and, most importantly, the bridge over Elk Creek. ODOT is continuing their commitment to the battlefield. The OHS recently received notification of a $280,000 Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) grant toward exhibits in the new center and trail improvements.”
Though the building construction work is completed, the project is far from finished. Now that the building has been turned over to the Friends work will begin on the exhibit construction and completion of the library, which will include free community internet access. Community members will be able to access Ancestry.com in the library to research their individual family histories. Two Civil War and military history book collections have already been donated to the new library, which will be named in honor of the late Dr. LeRoy Fischer, Oklahoma State University history professor and long-time OHS board member. “Dr. Fischer was one of the individuals in the fight from the very beginning in the 1960s to preserve this site. Given his dedication to the site and his love of historical research it seemed fitting to name the library in his honor,” said Blackburn.
Gary Nichols, president of the Friends, announced a fundraising goal of $600,000. According to Nichols, “The funds are necessary to complete the exhibit construction, and there are important aspects of the building that had to be cut due to budget. The building is designed for a large patio off the back to serve as event space. We hope to be able to add this back to the project at some point. To date we have a TAP grant for $280,000 and a $100,000 donation from the Chickasaw Nation in recognition of the sacrifices of the brave men of the Chickasaw Nation who fought here. We have not yet set the opening date for the new center, but we will announce the date as we move into the exhibit construction phase.”
The Battle of Honey Springs was the largest of 107 documented hostile encounters in Indian Territory during the Civil War, and the nation’s largest battle in which African American, American Indian, and Anglo American soldiers engaged. The heroics of the Civil War’s first African American regiment, the First Kansas Colored, were largely responsible for the Union’s victory there. The Confederate defeat at Honey Springs opened the way for Union occupation of Fort Smith and later Union victories in the Red River Valley.
Honey Springs Battlefield is a division of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The mission of the Oklahoma Historical Society is to collect, preserve and share the history and culture of the state of Oklahoma. Founded in 1893 by members of the Territorial Press Association, the OHS maintains museums, historic sites and affiliates across the state. Through its research archives, exhibits, educational programs and publications the OHS chronicles the rich history of Oklahoma. For more information about the OHS, please visit www.okhistory.org.