Northwest Kansas farmer Mark Berry has been practicing a long time for his role as Sharp Grover, the post-Civil War frontier scout he will portray this weekend at Historic Fort Hays.
“I’ve been doing it since I was three years old,” said Berry, a native of Logan County who graduated from Fort Hays State University in 1972 with a degree in history. “We always played cowboys and Indians when I was growing up.”
It’s not that simple now. Lots of research goes into his portrayals, whether his character is Wild Bill Hickok, General George Custer, or a lesser known person like Grover.
“There’s not much known about him,” said Berry, who is part of the program Sept. 1 and 2 when Fort Hays hosts two-days of activities to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Beecher Island, a famous battle on the border of Kansas and Colorado. A small band of 50 prairie scouts were ambushed by as many as a thousand Native Americans in defense of the territory.
The Grand Reunion of Forsyth Scouts is a joint presentation in Kansas and Colorado of Fort Harker, Fort Hays, Fort Wallace and Beecher Island Battle Memorial. Each site is hosting entertainment, re-enactments and talks on various weekends. The events at Fort Hays are free to the public and start Saturday morning at 10 a.m. and run through Sunday afternoon.
While Berry’s Grover was one of the few to survive the bloody Beecher battle, he died the next year in a saloon in Palm City near Fort Wallace. Grover laid his pistols on the bar to attend to drinking and wound up shot and killed during a fight with another cowboy over a horse halter, Berry said.
Like Grover, Berry will wear a buckskin coat and a big hat, and sleep on the ground at the fort under the stars and the moon on Friday and Saturday nights, hoping it doesn’t rain. And as might have happened on the frontier, he’ll attend the Military & Citizens’ Hop Saturday evening from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The area band Blackwolf, which in the ‘80s and ’90s earned a reputation for playing old-time frontier tunes, is reuniting for the dance after a couple decades apart.
The last time the six-person band played at Fort Hays was probably around 1998, said Todd Toman, Hill City, fiddler and mandolin player. Back in the day, Blackwolf played all over the state at cowboy balls, mountain men rendezvous and re-enactment events. There were even some period weddings, including one in particular with the bridal party in Union uniforms and the band told to wear Confederate leftovers, he recalled. “They teased us that we were prisoners of war.”
Others in Blackwolf also play fiddle and mandolin, as well as banjo, guitar, bass and washboard. Instrumental pieces will include Arkansas Traveler, Turkey in the Straw, Liberty and Westphalia Waltz for square dancing, line dancing, round dancing and waltzes, Toman said. Callers will instruct how to do the dances.
Other tunes will include Amazing Grace, the Star Spangled Banner and Dixie.
As in the past, the band members plan to wear period clothing, and thankfully “everybody can still fit in their hats,” Toman said.
He hopes the band’s reunion this weekend isn’t short lived. “I’m hoping we’ll start back up,” Toman said. “We’ve had too much fun the last two weekends practicing and telling old war stories.”
Anyone wanting the chance to sing along with Blackwolf can do so during a chuck wagon feed from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Saturday. The supper is a fundraiser for the Hays Wrestling Club. For $7, guests get pulled pork, potato salad, baked beans, cobbler and a soft drink, said Marla Matkin, Hill City, an independent historian and presenter who helped organize the state and local events. As part of the supper entertainment, Blackwolf will play the favorite Kansas song that originated in Smith County, Home on the Range.
Last weekend at Fort Harker, re-enactor Ian Trevethan, Hays, played frontier U.S. Army surgeon George M. Sternberg, who was posted at that frontier fort. Sternberg went on to become a noted bacteriologist in the fight against infectious disease and a renowned U.S. Army Surgeon General.
For the Fort Hays activities, Trevethan will portray the Army surgeon who was posted at Fort Hays, John H. Mooers.
The outreach education coordinator for Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Trevethan said surgeons played a unique roll on the frontier – not only doctors, but also naturalists.
“They were tasked with all the geological information, all the weather information, and all the ecological information,” he said. They had to be experts in botany, agriculture, meteorology and other natural sciences.
A retired military surgeon, Mooers had a valiant record in the Civil War, Trevethan said. He signed up with the scouts at Fort Hays and rode to Beecher. Mooers, 43, was one of the early wounded, shot in the head, but surviving in agony on the battlefield for awhile.
“It was a pretty grim way to go,” Trevethan said.
Some of the funding for the statewide commemoration events was provided by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, which asked that the events also portray the Native American side of the story, Matkin said.
“Everybody is trying to be more open and more inclusive,” she said. “In year’s past it’s just been the white man’s side of the story.”
Noted historian John Monnett, Denver, will speak on the Native American Perspective at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.