Thursday, April 2, 2009

Signs of the Times: State of the KY Historical Marker Program

(published in the Spring 2006 The Lost Cause)

By Don Shelton and Nancy Hitt

On August 15th, 1864, three Confederates — John Lingenfelter, William Lingenfelter, and George Wainscott—were executed in Grant County by order of Stephen “Butcher” Burbridge without trial as revenge for the deaths of two Unionists, one of whom was brother-in-law to the Lingenfelter brothers. Apparently one of the Lingenfelters was present at each of the killings, but neither confessed to murder. Years later a historical maker was placed near their graves in Owen County so that the executions and victims would not be forgotten. While the marker somewhat incorrectly identified the victims’ unit as the “ 1st Batt. Ky. Inf. CSA” (the unit was actually the 1st Battalion Kentucky Mounted Rifles), it made sure that the period of brutal military occupation in Kentucky by the federals, and the tragically fratricidal nature of the war in Kentucky, would not be lost to those concerned enough to stop and read in Owen County. Problem is, this sign is no longer standing, and the state didn’t seem to know it. In addition, there is another Owen County Confederate sign, about a stop John Hunt Morgan made at the home of J. Alexander after his prison escape, that is also down.

Last year the marker depicted on our cover (above), for John C. Breckinridge, suddenly disappeared. Alarmed, the members of the John C. Breckinridge Camp began to investigate. According to sources at the Lexington History Museum (which occupies the old courthouse next to the Breckinridge monument and marker) the sign had been pulled up by vandals, apparently by wrapping a chain around it and ripping it out. A sense of panic set in for camp members—just where was the marker? Could it be repaired? Would we face opposition to placing it again? Camp commander Sam Flora made contact with Stuart Sanders, manager of the Kentucky Historical Marker Program. Stuart had just recently been placed in that position, so this was one of his first “repair” issues to deal with. While determining exact location and status of a marker is apparently not very easy once it is returned to the Transportation Department’s hands, Sanders was aware the marker had been returned for repairs. Flora described Sanders as “someone I think we can really work with” on the marker program. In fact, Sanders brings an impressive resume’ to the post, including overseeing the large expansion acquisitions at Perryville as Executive Director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association, founding the Central Kentucky Civil War Heritage Trail annual tour, and writing the 40-plus interpretive signs at Perryville, among other things. This past January, Flora received an email from Sanders informing him that the marker had been repaired and would be put back up within a few days. In the end, the marker was replaced just as we would have hoped, and the panic may have been without foundation. Sanders emphasized to Flora for the SCV to let him know “any time we see a marker missing or damaged,” and added that the Kentucky Historical Society wanted to make sure that War Between the States markers were in good shape for the upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary.

So, just what shape is Kentucky’s Historical Marker Program really in? With the quick action seen on the Breckinridge marker and yet the neglect on the ones in Owen County, one can see that the answer isn’t simple. It will require understanding the program’s structure and how it is intended to function. Begun in 1949 (marker #1 is for Ashland, home of Henry Clay), the program is administered jointly by the Transportation Department and the Kentucky Historical Society. There is a manager for the marker program, who is a paid staffer with the KHS, but who also wears many other hats (Stuart Sanders, for instance, is also the KHS Civil War History and Heritage Tourism Specialist, and a manager in the Community Services Program). Dianne Wells held the manager position for many years prior to Sanders’ appointment. The state, however, does not pay for the markers (typically a new marker costs $1,700 to $1,800), and generally doesn’t pay for repairs to the markers. Those costs are paid by private groups and individuals. In essence, the erection or repair of a sign requires a private sponsor. The Transportation Department does absorb some installation and storage (and occasionally very minor repair) costs, but that’s all. Today there are over 1,850 signs erected, according to the KHS. The program also calls for a volunteer coordinator in each county. The County Coordinator, according to Sam Hatcher, who serves in that capacity for Floyd County, is approved by the County Judge Executive, and upon appointment is given a loose-leaf binder with guidelines and applications—mostly concerning what to do to erect a new marker. The most visible aspect of the program to the public—other than the signs themselves—is a page on the KHS website where markers can be searched by county, subject or keyword. Dianne Wells has also compiled a book, Roadside History: A Guide to Kentucky Highway Markers (2002), which is essentially the text of all the signs with information on their locations. So, while the program is administered by the state, it otherwise relies almost entirely on volunteers to pay for and coordinate the signs.

When Dianne Wells retired a letter was sent, according to Hatcher, letting the Coordinators know that the program was in “abeyance” for the time being, until another program manager could be found, but that otherwise there hasn’t been much communication from Frankfort to the Coordinators over the years. When asked if Frankfort checked with him as coordinator to make sure he was still living, still residing in his county and still willing to be the Coordinator, Hatcher said that it hadn’t been done in the several years since he was appointed. Then asked if there were signs missing or damaged in his county, “Oh, yes,” was his quick reply, and he named four signs which are down or missing entirely in Floyd County, and have been reported to Frankfort. One sign, which talks about the house that Colonel (and later President) Garfield used as headquarters after the Battle of Middle Creek has been missing “at least 20 years”. Another marker, which explains the “Little Floyd” section of the county has been missing since at least the mid-90’s, when Hatcher first inventoried the signs in the county. Markers for the Battles of Middle Creek and Ivy Mountain are both down also, though there are other signs and monuments now standing to denote the sites. However, when you go to the KHS website and look up all these signs, their text and locations are given as if they are still there.

In Meade County, Nancy Hitt found that a sign denoting the capture site of Sue Mundy (Jerome Clarke) is down. In discussions with Sanders, she found the sign is in storage, but could be restored if someone would pay for the $129 cost of a new post. The problem with a situation like this is that there is no mechanism in the Historical Marker Program to let the public know that a sign is down, or that it could be re-erected if someone would care enough to donate $129.

When asked about the condition of markers in Fayette County, Sam Flora was aware of three damaged markers at present, one of which (for John Hunt Morgan) he has reported to Sanders and is being looked into. The other two (one at the Hunt-Morgan House and the other at the old Jefferson Davis Inn denoting the President’s residency there while a student at Transylvania) have faded to the point of being illegible and need to be repainted.

With these anecdotal stories of markers down and damaged in several counties, the next step was to ask for an inventory of missing and damaged signs (focusing for now on Confederate ones) from current program manager Stuart Sanders, to measure the extent of the problem. After two months of research, Sanders has still not been able to finish compiling the list as of press time, and while that leaves us unsure as to the full extent of missing and damaged markers (but indeed suspecting that the problem is widespread with it taking this long), it points up a significant long-term difficulty: the program obviously doesn’t have a functioning mechanism for maintaining status conditions on the markers. When asked if the County Coordinator materials included a form for reporting missing and damaged markers, Sam Hatcher indicated that it did not. To complicate matters, the Transportation Department stores markers that are in need of repair, and the KHS often doesn’t know which storage facility they’re in without having to make their own inquiries of the Transportation Department (as in the case of the Breckinridge marker). The KHS thinks that it has 1,850 markers up, but the real number may fall far short. KHS records show 11 markers in Floyd County. With four of those being down the real number is 36% below what the KHS thinks it is. Is 36% being down typical across the state? If so, then the program would obviously be in real trouble
Getting New Signs
If it is difficult to get a handle on how wide-spread problems are with existing signs, how are things with getting new signs up? Sam Flora, Nancy Hitt and Sam Hatcher all have experience going through the process, but with somewhat different results. Sam Hatcher was involved in getting a sign erected for Col. Andrew Jackson May. Hatcher described the process as moving at a typically bureaucratic pace (indeed the process takes a year or even longer), and there was some back-and-forth on the wording before approval was granted, but that the procedure worked reasonably well. In fact, all applications now go before a review committee, currently headed by Dr. Nelson Dawson, a staff member at the KHS. Other review committee positions are rotated among KHS staff. A committee to approve the applications only meets every six months (application deadlines of 4/1 and 10/1), and is limited to approving a maximum of 15 markers at each meeting. In reality, the fiscal limitations of the Transportation Department may limit the number more than that.

Sam Flora reported no problems in getting markers erected for Gen. John Hunt Morgan at his statue on the old Fayette County courthouse lawn, and for Gen. Basil Duke at the Scott County courthouse. However, Flora recalled then-manager Wells expressing concern over accuracy and wording of the text, so—being experienced in many similar bureaucratic efforts—Flora enlisted respected historians James Rammage and Lowell Harrison to review, and then attach letters of endorsements to, the respective monument texts. This move apparently headed off any concerns and back-and-forth with the review committee.

Nancy Hitt worked for three years on the erection of three markers, but none was ever erected. She was able to raise the money for one marker—denoting the first burial site of William Quantrill in the St. Johns Cemetery in Louisville. The marker was actually approved and cast after a three-year wait, but a local persona became aware of the effort and began inserting himself into the project - apparently for self-promotion—to the point that he was asked to back off. At that point he became an avowed enemy of the marker placement, and stirred controversy with everyone he could. This included Rep. Paul Bather (infamous for introducing the resolution to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from the capitol rotunda in Frankfort). The pressure became such that the Diocese withdrew its approval to have the marker placed in their cemetery. During this controversy, newly appointed Executive Director of the KHS, Kent Whitworth, took a neutral stance on the marker placement. Whitworth, of course, is now infamous for his vote on the Kentucky Military History Commission to not protect the Jefferson Davis statue in Frankfort. To Whitworth’s credit, though, when it became clear that the Diocese was not going to change its mind on granting permission for marker placement, he offered to have the KHS reimburse the money that had been raised to pay for the sign. The sign now languishes in storage. On two other signs, both for victims of Burbridge executions—one in Jeffersontown and the other in Osceola (see last issue) - Hitt ran into so much trouble with the review committee rewriting the proposed text that she felt the only text the committee would approve was too “politically correct” and eventually she dropped the applications. “There’s no point in raising $1,800 if the sign won’t say what it should,” she said, and opted instead to erect private signs.

Political Correctness?
In recent years the marker program has adopted “priority subjects” for markers, including “Women in Kentucky History”, “Kentucky African American History” and “Lewis and Clark in Kentucky”. The marker application states plainly that these “priority subjects” markers will be approved before all others if there is a conflict with the 15 marker limitation. While not expressed, obviously the limited Transportation Department funds will be used to erect “priority subject” markers before any others as well. It appears that this prejudicial policy has not yet caused a sign to be denied. While simply pointing out subject areas that need more emphasis to the public is a reasonably important function of the KHS in the program, this first step of political prejudicial preference is an anathema to serious historians. It also lends some credence to perceptions like Hitt’s, that the approval process may have developed PC problems.

Solutions to the Problems: What the State Can Do While the condition of Kentucky’s Historical Marker Program is mixed, it is far from all bad, as the current manager displays a sincere desire to work towards good maintenance of the markers, and the good news is that many solutions can be arrived at without expending much of the one thing the program doesn’t have: money.

* The first and most important thing for the program to do is get a firm grip on the status of its markers. This can be achieved by sending a notice to all County Coordinators that they need to do a physical inventory of every marker in their county within a reasonable period of time. The inventory needs to include notations on the condition of each marker, and any imminent threats to the marker (tree roots pushing on it, etc.). This should be repeated on a regular basis, probably every two or three years at least.

* Replace County Coordinators that don’t follow through on the physical inventory. While it’s a volunteer position, it doesn’t help if the volunteer is no longer able or willing to do something that can probably be done in one or two afternoons.

* Use the power of the internet. The marker application form says to contact the local County Coordinator when interested in placing a marker, but the KHS does not publish this list anywhere. They should simply put contact information for County Coordinators on the KHS website so they can be contacted by people interested in new signs, or who have seen a maintenance issue with an existing one.

* Really use the power of the internet: The searchable database of markers on the KHS website is a great tool. It needs to be made even better by informing of the status of markers and what can be done to improve the status of damaged/missing markers. For example, the information on the Sue Mundy surrender marker in Meade County should have, in addition to text and location, information about its currently being in storage, the need for repair, and what someone can do to help (in this case, cut a check for $129). This simple step will get the public involved. If people can see that their help is needed, they are likely to respond. If this website information is kept up-to-date, it becomes an always available inventory and status report.

* Really, really use the power of the internet: put an easy-to-find link on the KHS website where County Coordinators and citizens can report problems with the markers. There is an e-mail link to Stuart Sanders, but it’s not clear that the KHS is inviting the public to report on the marker conditions. An announcement asking for the public’s help and a link to a simple form that asks basic questions about the type of damage, time noticed, and contact information for the person reporting the problem, etc. will make sure that the County Coordinator and Program Manager get all the information needed the first time around.

* Ask the Transportation Department to develop a more responsive method of inventory tracking for signs in storage. Surely in our computer age a bar code printer and reader or something similar could be used to give the program manager instant information on what storage facility the markers are in. It wouldn’t hurt to physically inventory these signs occasionally as well. Things can disappear from storage warehouses.

* Drop the budding political correctness. Encouraging signs for under-covered subjects is great; granting favored status for some historical subjects over others is pure poison that can lead people to mistrust motives and lose faith in the program. It’s also quite possibly illegal (14th amendment) because the KHS is a government actor in what amounts to viewpoint discrimination.

* Explore the possibility of insurance for markers that have been stolen. Until we inventory missing markers and compare that with what the Transportation Department has in storage, it can’t be known if any have been stolen, but the possibility seems likely since the program does not do physical inventories. A fund could be established where insurance could be purchased for markers (again by private individuals and groups), and replacement costs for signs that are stolen or damaged beyond repair can be taken from this fund.

Solutions to the Problems: What the SCV Can Do It’s only fair if we’re constructively criticizing the program, that we examine what the SCV can do to help:

* Get involved by volunteering to be County Coordinators.

* If the KHS isn’t able to get its County Coordinators to physically inventory markers regularly, then we should help out by simply doing it for them, and turning the information over to Stuart Sanders. There are, according to the KHS, 300 “civil war” related markers and 122 of those specifically have the word “Confederate” on them. There are around 800 members in our division; inventorying these 300 markers is something we’re capable of doing.

* Then follow through by raising funds for repairs, and working with Sanders. We may have to be squeaky wheels (polite, but squeaky) a little bit, but if a sign is down and one of us isn’t “riding” the situation as a local contact for the state, it may get lost in the shuffle of so many other priorities.

* If the state won’t use the KHS website to post up-to-date marker conditions, then we should use our division site to help them out and provide it there. At the least, we can post articles about the most dire situations needing help for Confederate-related markers.

* Politely complain to the KHS and our legislators about the “priority subjects” political correctness.

* Appoint a division Historic Marker Coordinator, if necessary, to organize our efforts at inventory, fundraising and working with Stuart Sanders.

It’s very likely that every camp in the state has at least one (and more likely several) Confederate/WBTS markers in need of repair in their area. Repairing a marker is an ideal camp project; it’s good public relations, it’s a task that can be undertaken by any size camp, it’s true to our mission, and can often be done for relatively small sums—what camp couldn’t raise $129 to get a marker back up? It’s time for our division to become active in the “private” side of the program, and help the state do its part, or the memory of our Confederate heritage in the Kentucky Historic Marker Program is indeed in danger.


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The Gray Ghost said...

I am still Floyd County Coordinator, although I live in Pike County. I still have not heard directly from the State Historical Society Marker Director in a number of years. They evidently assume that I am still living as the Floyd County Judge-Executive has contacted me a couple of time about submitting an application for a marker.

The Garfield Marker and the "Little Floyd" markers are still missing in action. The Battle of Middle Creek Marker was reportedly in Frankfort a number of years ago for repair, but the owner of the Battlefield wanted to use private signage rather than the marker.