USDA Rural Development
Public Affairs Specialist Kathleen James
For Immediate Release
Visitors' Center Developed for State's Largest Civil War Battlefield
An impressive multi-million dollar partnership between four federal agencies, a state agency, McIntosh County, several local businesses, and a non-profit organization will provide funding, infrastructure and in-kind services to construct a visitors' center at the historic site of Oklahoma's largest military engagement, The Battle of Honey Springs.
The federal involvement includes the National Park Service, as well as all three agencies of USDA Rural Development - Rural Business Service, Rural Utilities Service and Rural Housing Service.
"With increasingly scarce resources, such an ambitious project is only possible with many public and private partners," said Ryan McMullen, State Director of USDA Rural Development. "The partnership recognizes that rural areas should increasingly capitalize on the tourism industry. The development of this attraction will create jobs, as well as educate visitors on one of Oklahoma's most historic sites."
The Battle of Honey Springs was the largest of the 107 documented hostile encounters in Indian Territory during the Civil War and the nation's largest battle in which African American, American Indian, Hispanic 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. Often referred to as the "Gettysburg of the West," the Confederate defeat at Honey Springs opened the way for Union occupation of Fort Smith and later Union victories in the Red River Valley.
Bob Blackburn, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, is among many that worked for years to preserve and share the historic nature of the site.
"Since July 17, 1863, the Honey Springs Battlefield has been hallowed ground where patriots on both sides of the conflict died for a cause they believed in," said Blackburn. "To commemorate the significance of the battle, the Oklahoma Historical Society starting buying land there in the 1960s and followed with the development of a bridge, roads, and interpretive trails in the 1990s. The visitor center will complete the master plan for making the site accessible to the greatest number of people. We owe that to the men who fought and died there."
Today, the 1,100-acre battlefield site is owned by the Oklahoma Historical Society and features six walking trails with 55 interpretive signs. The site sits next to the historic African-American community of Rentiesville, straddling the Muskogee and McIntosh County line.
The site offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy hiking and area wildlife, while learning about the Battle of Honey Springs and the impact of the Civil War on American Indians living in Indian Territory. The Civil War's toll on life and property was greater per-capita in what is present-day Oklahoma than any state in the country.
The Friends of Honey Springs organization will lease the land from the Oklahoma Historical Society to construct the new visitors' center. It will not only offer engaging educational exhibits about the 9,000 soldiers that fought there, but will serve as a library and a community center for the residents of Rentiesville, McMullen said.
Upon completion of the 5,000 square foot visitors' center, the National Park Service predicts an annual visitation of 150,000 people, which would represent $9 million in tourism revenues for the state, said Emmy Stidham of Checotah, President of the Oklahoma Historical Society Board of Directors. Stidham said the location of the battlefield is a benefit, as well.
"Honey Springs is a perfect stop for people traveling between Oklahoma City and Little Rock or between Kansas City, Tulsa and Dallas," Stidham said. "It's a good stopping point, easily accessible from I-40 and Highway 69. Our area is known for hospitality, and we'd love more people to come."
USDA Rural Development has awarded nearly $500,000 in grant funds and over $600,000 in financing through the Rural Business Enterprise Grant and Community Facilities programs. A portion of the financing includes a guaranteed loan through Peoples National Bank in Checotah. The project also includes a Rural Utilities Service award to Cross Telephone Cooperative to extend high speed internet access to the area as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
State and local funds will come from $800,000 worth of site development and in-kind services from the Oklahoma Historical Society and thousands more in road improvements from McIntosh County. Commissioner Bobby James plans to pave two miles of county roadway and rebuild a bridge to provide better access to the site. James will use 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 like it was something we really needed because of the importance of the battlefield."
McMullen said the Friends of Honey Springs plan to complete the visitors' center by July of 2013, marking the 150th anniversary of the battle.