New Visitor Center Under Construction
Rentiesville, Okla.-Construction of the long anticipated visitor center at Honey Springs Battlefield is underway, Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) announced. "It has been a complicated process to get the project off the ground," said Blackburn. "The center is a multimillion dollar development partnership between four federal agencies, a state agency, McIntosh County, several local businesses and a nonprofit organization. Federal involvement includes the National Park Service, as well as all three agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development-Rural Business Service, Rural Utilities Service and Rural Housing Service."
"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," said Blackburn.
The new visitor center is being built in Rentiesville, one of thirteen remaining All-Black towns populated by former slaves after the Civil War. In addition to being home to noted historian John Hope Franklin, blues legend D. C. Minner and Rentiesville's annual Blues Festival, the town is home to Oklahoma's largest military engagement. Ryan McMullen, state director of USDA Rural Development, said, "The community has a high level of poverty, but does have some historic and cultural assets that provide opportunities for tourism, which the new center will capitalize on. In addition to exhibits, the center will offer library space with collections focusing on Indian Territory, the Civil War and the community. The library also will provide computers for community internet access," continued McMullen.
According to McMullen, "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 benefits from recent Rural Utilities Service investments that have improved high-speed internet access to the area."
Blackburn said, "The state, through the Oklahoma Historical Society that owns the battlefield, has contributed over $1 million in site development and architectural service fees. The OHS will continue to be involved providing in-kind services to monitor construction of the building and to provide design and construction services for the completion of the museum exhibits for the new center."
McIntosh County is working to improve the roads leading up to the center and the access road to the battlefield walking trails. This includes replacement of a bridge and blacktopping the dirt access road.
All the partners have a vital role in the project, but the heart of the project, according to Blackburn, are the members of the Friends of Honey Springs Battlefield. "This nonprofit membership organization is handling all the grant funding and, most importantly, the USDA loans to make the project happen. The OHS cannot borrow funds so the visitor center will belong to the Friends. The operation of the center will be through a continuing partnership between the Friends and the OHS," said Blackburn.
"The project is underway but we still have a lot of work to do," said Friends president Gary Nichols of Checotah. "We are launching our fundraising efforts to raise the funds needed for exhibit development and to possibly add some elements back to the building that were cut to bring the project into budget." Nichols continued, "We also hope to retire the debt well ahead of the 40 year term."
The building was designed by ADG of Oklahoma City. The construction contract was awarded to Zenith Construction of Tahlequah. Company President Tyson Young was critical to getting the project underway, according to Blackburn. "The low bid was out of the money, but Young worked with the OHS Construction Manager Rillis Howard and the project architect, J. C. Witcher of ADG, to value engineer the project to get it within budget," said Blackburn.
McMullen said, "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's still possible to make big things happen in small towns."
The visitor center has been a dream since the first land was acquired to secure the battlefield in 1964. Over the years many individuals have contributed to securing the land, developing a road and walking trails through the site. The battlefield was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2013 in recognition of its historical importance. National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. The program, established in 1935, is administered by the National Park Service. Currently there are 2,540 designated National Historic Landmarks.
The Battle of Honey Springs was the largest engagement of the American Civil War fought in Indian Territory, and it had far-reaching impact on Indian Territory, American national development and the future state of Oklahoma. The Battle of Honey Springs (also called Elk Creek) was a turning point for the war in the Trans-Mississippi West. Prior to the battle on July 17, 1863, the Confederate forces were in full control of the areas below the Arkansas River and the areas north of the Arkansas River were in dispute. After the battle, the Federals controlled the area north on the Canadian River and the area between it and the Red River was placed in dispute. The Confederate loss at Honey Springs led to the loss of Fort Smith and western Arkansas. Honey Springs was the largest battle in which American Indians, blacks, and whites fought with and against one another. It was the first major engagement where black troops carried the day and perhaps the first major engagement where ex-slaves fought against their masters.
If you would like to contribute toward the building construction, exhibit development or to retire the building debt, contact OHS Museums and Sites Director Kathy Dickson at 405-522-5231 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Sponsorship opportunities are available.
Honey Springs Battlefield Historic Site 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 31 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.