WALLACE — With a gentle breeze rolling over the grasses of the western Kansas prairie and three Native Americans — feathers in their hair — sitting astride their paint horses, the scene outside Wallace was something straight out of the past.
And that’s exactly what Brenda Tropf was after.
“The only thing I’m worried about at this location is snakes,” the Sharon Springs art teacher said. “This looks like it’s snake country. I’m going to have some of my students on snake patrol.”
Tropf, along with Deb Goodrich, historian, screenwriter and director of the project, as well as many other volunteers, contributors and benefactors — and with the support of the Fort Wallace Museum board — are producing a documentary to showcase the history of Dr. Theophilus “Thof” H. Turner and his discovery near Fort Wallace in 1867.
Turner, who was a U.S. Army surgeon assigned to the fort, happened across one of the most significant discoveries in paleontology in Kansas — a 40-foot fossil of an Elasmosaurus Platyurus.
The 80-million-year-old plesiosaur swam in the region when it was an ocean during the late Cretaceous period.
Following Turner’s discovery, the fossil was transported to Philadelphia where it was studied and now is housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University. A replica of the fossil hangs in the museum at Fort Wallace.
Fundraising began in the fall to assist with the filming of the documentary, and so far, a few scenes have been filmed.
Tropf and Goodrich spoke with the foundations for Logan and Wallace counties to secure extra funding for the project. While they haven’t raised the $5,000 donation goal they set when they started the process, they hope to eventually meet that mark.
“Thank goodness our volunteers have agreed to help,” Tropf said. “Other than that, it’s been rounding people up, figuring out a free weekend so we can shoot a scene here and there.”
Several of Tropf’s art students work as gofers — bringing her different cameras and helping with costumes and special effects.
On July 8, the scene was specifically chosen to coincide with the Great 1867 Fort Wallace and Western Kansas Exposition, as there would be many re-enactors in town to use in the documentary.
Three of those re-enactors — David and Joshua White, Wyo., and Matt Thomas, Okla. — represented members of the Cheyenne tribe in the documentary.
“I enjoy it,” Thomas said of re-enacting historical events throughout the country.
Others, like Ethan Riggs, Oakley, who portrayed William Comstock, were new to acting. Goodrich approached Riggs at a wedding last year.
“She just thought I had the look,” Riggs said with a laugh.
“We are filming William Comstock’s death scene,” Tropf said. “There are a couple different scenarios of what happened to him, so we are filming both.”
Comstock was a scout who assisted Turner with the discovery of the Elasmosaurus fossil, and Tropf said his death had a significant effect on the relations in the region, so that’s why they decided to include the scene.
“One theory said that he and another scout went to visit a chief about relations between the natives and the soldiers,” Tropf said. “When they left the camp, it was said that some younger Cheyenne rode up and shot Comstock in the back.”
The scene was filmed July 8 just north of Wallace. While they only have a few minutes of footage at this point, their goal is to produce an hour-long documentary.
“The whole thing is a learning process,” Goodrich said. “I’ve been involved in more than 20 documentaries, either as a talking head or a consultant. But to take charge of the whole story is pretty daunting. It’s a really important story.”
Goodrich said they have hundreds of volunteer hours invested in the project, and there will be hundreds more before the project is completed.
“Everybody just wants to tell the story so badly that they’re willing to do just about anything to get it done,” Goodrich said.
Once the film is finished, the plan is to show it at Fort Wallace, and the ultimate goal would be to have a screening of “Resurrecting Thof’s Dragon” in Philadelphia where the original fossil is housed.