The first volley of shots in Westport rings out around 11:30 in the morning.
At the Harris-Kearney House, a group of Union soldiers notices a border ruffian amid the crowd that has gathered on the lawn. It's a sunny but chilly Saturday in late October, and a ceremony has just designated the oldest remaining brick house in Kansas City as an official stop on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. Afterward, people hang around to enjoy some cake decorated to look like a wagon wheel. Nearby, three little girls in long prairie-style dresses sell cups of hot cider from a Crock-Pot.
The crowd includes dignitaries from the past and present. Re-enactors in period garb portray Alexander Majors, Westport founder John McCoy and a few other historic local figures. Jan Marcason, a current City Council member, gives a little speech. The dedication is part of Westport's 175th birthday celebration, an all-day event in different locations around the neighborhood.
Before the day can proceed, something must be done about that border ruffian. Six men — some in Union uniforms, others in Old West-style clothes — surround him as he stands under a tree with vibrant yellow leaves. They hassle him for being in enemy territory. Suddenly, the ruffian evades their grasp and escapes through the front gate of the Harris-Kearney House, turning onto the side street that passes Pryde's. The Union men follow at a brisk pace, but not too fast — the purpose of the skit is to get the audience to follow them, Pied Piper-like, into Westport toward the other activities. One of the Union soldiers, Mark "Tic Tac" Keith, takes a shortcut to try to intercept the ruffian.
Once they get away from the crowd, the men start firing their guns. Puffs of white smoke mark their trail, which turns onto Westport Road. Two mules pull a covered wagon and clip-clop by, leading a long line of cars. Nearby, a Star 102 van is parked outside the Westport Library for a live broadcast. Latin crooner Marc Anthony sings his sultry "I Need to Know" in the background.
"Hang him!" cries a woman in an old-fashioned striped dress with a hoop skirt.
The pursuers catch the ruffian right by the Westport Presbyterian Church, near a storefront that displays shirtless beefcake calendars with such titles as "Bear Men" and "Naked and Exposed." A small crowd of spectators catches up to the action. After a short discussion, the Union soldiers decide to let the guy go. "We'll get him later," one of the soldiers says. The crowd disperses.
Afterward, Keith is psyched by the success of the skit. "We're just like one big family. Just a bunch of kids playing and doing this right in the middle of Westport. That cracks me up," he says.
He and his fellow re-enactors still have a long day ahead of them. In the afternoon, they're scheduled to perform a shotgun-wedding skit, followed by a saloon brawl. Also on the skit list is a re-enactment of Order No. 11 — a major event in local history. In his book, Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865, Thomas Goodrich, editor of the Kansas Journal of Military History, describes it as "perhaps the harshest act of the U.S. government against its own people in American history."
A few days earlier, around 20 people met at the Presbyterian church to go over last-minute details of Westport 175, the birthday celebration for West Port (as it used to be called). On that rainy Wednesday evening, the mood of the room was fairly calm — even as meteorologists predicted a chance of snow on Saturday.
Westport 175 would be a big event for the neighborhood, both geographically and logistically. The free activities were set to take place at seven locations. The church would be the kid-friendly spot, with its craft tables, a G-rated haunted house and a book giveaway. A covered wagon would give rides between the Harris-Kearney House and the Buzzard Beach parking lot. Guided walking tours, music and dance demonstrations, and a brown-and-white ox would add to the festivities.
By scattering the activities, organizers wanted to highlight the walkability factor and the neighborhood aspect of Westport. They also saw this as a chance to heal their own border rift — the one caused by Broadway cutting the neighborhood into an eastern half and a western half.
Toward the end of the meeting, the discussion turned to the covered wagon. Richard Heaviland, the owner of Frame Works, who sports a long, almost rectangular beard, was concerned about how he and his fellow re-enactors were going to rob the wagon. One problem was that Westport Road wasn't going to be blocked off, so he was worried that the robberies would stop traffic.
"Lalalala," said Jamie Rich of the Westport Center for the Arts. Rich, a friendly, funny guy, pretended that he didn't want to hear about the robbery. "I'm just so afraid some lady will go like ... " he gave an exaggerated gasp while clutching his heart. "Try to figure it out, please."
Heaviland outlined two possible robbery skits. One involved a Union soldier dragging a border ruffian off the wagon. In the other one, they would hide a bag of money under a seat.
"I think I'm more concerned about firing weapons at people," said one of the re-enactors, who wore a navy military coat with his jeans. Even though the re-enactors used blanks, they still needed a safe distance of 15–20 feet for a pistol or 50 feet for a rifle.
Someone brought up the possibility of robbing the wagon at both of its stops. But Heaviland worried that dragging the guys between both stops over and over again would be too time-consuming.
On the other side of the table sat Sean Richardson, who wore a black wool coat. The handsome 25-year-old, who volunteers with the Harris-Kearney House, just started getting into the world of living history. Westport 175 was going to be his second event.
Richardson grew up in San Diego but moved to Lawrence to play baseball at the University of Kansas. After he graduated in summer 2007, he took a job in Overland Park as a financial adviser. Last spring, he and his girlfriend moved to Westport, where she had grown up, and he started learning more about local history. He joined the Westport Historical Society, where he met Heaviland.
Richardson has always been interested in history. Richardson's parents had taken him and his siblings to places like Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg when he was growing up. When he moved to Lawrence, which he calls a "history hot spot," his interest grew. "Being at KU helped out a lot. Just going up and down Mass Street — a lot of the buildings are over 100 years old."
For graduation, he took a trip to Gettysburg, where his interest in the Civil War intensified. Then his uncle in New Jersey, a longtime Revolutionary War re-enactor, encouraged him to give re-enactments a shot. So last summer, Richardson and his uncle went back to Gettysburg, where they spent a weekend re-creating battles.
They camped out and dressed in period clothing. They walked through the streets and saw the hallowed grounds. For Richardson, the best thing was being around so many people who knew so many details about the Civil War — personal stories that he didn't read about in books. "All these guys were just a wealth of knowledge. Just listening to them talk was great," he said.
On the last day of the trip, Richardson made a charge as part of the Irish Brigade. A barrage of shots assaulted them. Even though the guns fired blanks from 30 yards away, he got a small glimpse of what the actual battle was like.
"You're out there in the summer. It was hot, mid-90s. You're hot and sweaty; you're doing the same thing they were doing ... it's just a unique experience."
Now he's a freelancer, a re-enactor who isn't tied to a unit. To him, it doesn't matter whether he joins a Union or Confederate group. Some re-enactors have both uniforms in case the numbers are uneven between the sides. Others refuse to don the other side's uniform. "I would really like to have both uniforms," Richardson said. "It's important to see both sides of the story."
After the Harris-Kearney House skit, "Tic Tac" Keith and a couple of other Union guys head toward Broadway. Along the way, a man with shoulder-length black hair and a goatee stops them. He's wearing a black leather jacket and blue jeans and has a long black scarf tied around his head. Remnants of black fingernail polish linger on his fingernails. A scent of patchouli hangs around him.
He says he's been trying to get ahold of someone ever since early October, when a re-enactor at Gladstone's Gladfest told him that he could borrow a uniform to participate. Now when he hears he can borrow an outfit, he does an enthusiastic fist pump. "As long as I get me a bushwhacker, I don't care!" he says.
After that exchange, the group disperses, and Keith crosses Broadway. The 55-year-old re-enactment veteran is on the lookout for women to marry.
In real life, Keith lives with his wife of 31 years in an Excelsior Springs house that resembles a log cabin. In the re-enactment world, he has more than 50 wives.
At events, he carries around photocopies of a Massachusetts marriage license from 1866 that he has doctored so it appears to be from 1865 Missouri. He asks women to marry him, or he requests permission from girls' parents. If a woman or girl agrees, he signs his name on the license, then asks his bride to sign her name. He requests a hug, which makes it official. Then the new wife gets to keep the license as a souvenir.
If people accuse him of robbing the cradle, he'll sometimes reply, "Hey, you're on my turf: 1865. This is what they did back then."
Earlier, he got turned down at the Harris-Kearney House by a petite brunette in a brown corduroy jacket. "Not even for a joke?" he wheedled.
"Not even for a joke, I don't do it," she replied with a tight smile. "It's a sensitive area."
"That's fine," he said to her. "This is what I do."
It's a phrase Keith uses a lot. It sums up his role as a Civil War ambassador, a term he recently coined.
"I guess some people can play the part real well," he says. "And thank you to the Lord, 'cause I look like it, I act like it, I have a gray beard. Some people are meant to play a certain part, and looks drove me to this certain part and this is what I do. And I do it 100 percent to my ability."
He became interested in the Civil War during high school. Keith grew up north of the river, and one day, a teacher wanted him to write a book report.
"On what?" he asked.
"That's your problem," she replied.
He went to the library but didn't know what to pick. So he put his hand out behind him, backed up until he felt a book and pulled it off the shelf. He was in the history section, and the book was about the Civil War.
"I hadn't really thought anything about anything until I grabbed that book," he says.
He wrote the report, got a good grade, then started collecting artifacts. After high school, he married a woman who worked in a bank, and some of her friends were re-enactors. She took him to his first re-enactment at Shoal Creek in Liberty.
He has always been a Union soldier. Currently he's a corporal with the 7th Missouri Irish Brigade. A green shamrock on his jacket signifies that he's a veteran — he has attended five events with that group and has all his gear, which includes, among other things, a gun, rifle, tent, shoes, haversack and bedroll. "You might have 1,000 medals on you, but the shamrock means more because it's a personal pride to have one," he says.
After 18 years of re-enactment work, though, he's thinking about retiring — in about five years. The battles, as well has his regular job with Asplundh Tree Expert Co., are starting to take a toll on his body.
"You have a pass to go out shooting, lay down dead, run around, [but] you're like a sports guy. You got a time limit," he says. "As much as your mind wants to say, Let's go, your body says, No way I'm going to do that! And I don't like the idea of doing that because I love it so much."
Keith earned the nickname Tic Tac after figuring out a way to add some realism to re-enactments with hospital scenes. Usually, people got shot through their arms and legs, and he wanted to make things more interesting.
Finally he had an idea. He took out his false teeth and put a boxful of cinnamon Tic Tacs in his mouth. After 30 seconds, he started drooling a thick, viscous liquid that looked like blood. Then he spit out the candies, which looked like broken and chipped teeth.
Sometimes, the cinnamon's hotness makes him throw up a little bit, which just adds to the realism of the battlefield.
"I've been tossed into real ambulances 'cause they thought I was really hurt," he claims. Once, a Confederate soldier and a Union surgeon came out on the battlefield. One guy grabbed his arms and the other his legs. They both wanted him on their respective sides for the hospital skit.
Another time, a nurse nearly passed out from seeing his trick. The attending doctor knew about Tic Tac and watched as Keith held his hand over his mouth. When the nurse asked how she could help, Keith spat his teeth into her hand.
As it turned out, she was studying to be a nurse in real life. "She thought she'd seen everything, and she said, 'You just freaked me out.' "
Keith says other re-enactors have asked if they can copy his trick. Some have offered to use corn, but he says he has granted them permission to use Tic Tacs. The only thing they cannot do is use his name.
"The rule goes that I'm the only Tic Tac around on both sides of the line."
"It's crazy Saturday," says a redheaded bartender to a friend at Dave's Stagecoach, as about 12 re-enactors enter the bar and sit at the low tables lining one wall. All morning, gunshots have pierced the air over Westport.
"Last time I was here, there was a pub crawl," the bartender continues, referring to the previous weekend's Crawl for Cancer, which brought a different group of costumed marauders into the area.
In Dave's, the guys sit and wait for the clock to hit 1 p.m. so they can start the saloon brawl. They've gone over the plan outside the bar: Basically, two guys are going to start a fight; Keith and Richardson are supposed to break it up and tell them to take it outside. Once outside, they'll face off and start trading shots — and manage to hit everyone but their opponent. Once everyone is down, they'll decide to go back in the bar for a drink.
"I haven't done this before," Keith says. "This is going to be cool!"
Inside Dave's, a few regulars sit at the bar. A couple of people have ordered the special: tacos served in red-plastic baskets. Meanwhile, the other bartender, a blonde in a black CBGB T-shirt, goes over to the jukebox to pick out some appropriate western-sounding music.
Tom Waits' "The Piano Has Been Drinking" is apparently close enough. The fight breaks out at one of the tables toward the back. Keith and Richardson rush over to break it up. A faux melee ensues.
"Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!" chants the red-haired bartender.
"Come back in when you're bruised," yells the CBGB blonde, shaking a martini shaker like maracas.
Johnny Cash's "Big River" is playing as the guys clear the place. Two regulars follow them out. The fight veers over toward Pioneer Park, the triangle around the statue in front of the Corner Restaurant, where the little side street has been blocked off. The brawlers split into groups of six and face one another there.
The rest of the skit goes as planned. One by one, the men fall to the ground — except one instance when one shot fells two men and a boy in period clothes.
"Three with one! Three with one! That's real good," says a guy in the crowd.
The re-enactors get up slowly. They walk back to Frame Works (their base for the day) to get ready for Order No. 11.
Four days after William Quantrill's August 21, 1863, raid on Lawrence, Gen. Thomas Ewing issued the order that turned a vast swath of western Missouri into a wasteland.
Signed by Ewing at the Pacific House Hotel at Fourth Street and Delaware (though an 1895 article claims it was signed at the Duke Simpson House in Westport, which is now the parking lot by Dave's and Frame Works), Order No. 11 decreed that everyone living in Jackson, Cass, Bates and half of Vernon counties had 15 days to pack their belongings and leave their homes. The purpose was to flush out the people in Missouri who were harboring Quantrill and his men. Only those who lived near Independence, Westport and Harrisonville and a few other towns — and could prove their loyalty to the Union — were allowed to stay.
About 20,000 families fled; many returned to Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas. Troops from both sides harassed and robbed the fleeing families.
Those who resisted leaving their homes were killed. Soldiers burned their houses and crops.
"They referred to this area for many years after as the Burnt District because they burned every dadgum thing," says Gregg Higginbotham, a re-enactor who lectures at schools and libraries about Order No. 11 and Jackson County history. He also works for Wide Awake Films as a historical adviser. At Westport 175, he's portraying John McCoy.
"I always like to point out that there was bad blood; there had been since 1855. And it never really ended," Higginbotham says. "And it's still not over. They still talk [about] football games and basketball games as the border wars ... that kind of stuff."
At the Westport re-enactment of Order No. 11, however, bad blood is on hold. The man portraying Gen. Ewing is jovial before he steps up to read the order to the crowd.
Before the skit starts, a man wearing a black kilt approaches Ewing. He's the one from Gladfest, who wanted to borrow an extra uniform. In addition to the kilt, he's wearing a dark-colored vest and a white linen shirt. A pewter Celtic cross hangs on a chain around his neck, and a black scarf is tied around his forehead.
"Wrong war," Ewing tells him.
"I'm just trying to help any way I can," he replies, a little testily.
Someone hands him a Union jacket and a cap, so he puts it on.
"It's not the 7th, but it'll work," Keith says.
A crowd is growing on the sidewalk. The spectators, about 50, include some hipsters, folks in period costumes, families with kids, and a woman who asks Ewing if she can get a copy of Order No. 11 for her scrapbook.
A Q104 van, also doing a live remote, has turned down its music. Gen. Ewing, flanked by Keith, Richardson, the man in the kilt and a couple of others, stands behind a small wooden table. "Company, fall in!" he orders.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have important news." As he reads the decree, other re-enactors in the crowd yell insults. "Rebel scum," says a woman in a hoop skirt.
"You dang guerrillas came to Kansas," another man says.
"Rebel trash!" the woman yells again.
The insults grow louder, and the guns come out. Someone fires a shot in the air, which makes the spectators jump.
"One of you guys is going down," Keith threatens. A struggle begins between some Union soldiers and hecklers in period dress. More gunshots echo off the buildings. A few people cover their ears.
Just then, the sound of a bugle wafts out from another part of the parking lot. "Hey, guys, the cavalry's coming," Heaviland exclaims.
The crowd giggles, and the Irish guy waves his flag.
A man in a Union uniform lies on his back on the ground. Keith kneels near his fallen comrade and places the man's cap over his face.
The Irish guy also kneels a few feet behind the dead guy's head. He holds his cap in one hand and the green flag in the other. Tears spill out of his eyes.
After the skit, some people linger on the sidewalk. A toddler in a stroller keeps repeating, "Trying to kill a big man." Cars slowly drive by. An African-American couple in an SUV looks slightly disturbed at the sight of the Civil War garb.
Then comes the covered wagon, trailed by a long line of cars. Directly behind it is a beige minivan with Illinois license plates. Two young women are in the front, laughing at the wagon. The passenger, who sports a gray T-shirt with "Missouri" in yellow letters, tries to take a picture of the unusual scene.
The re-enactors gather their stuff from Frame Works and say their goodbyes.
And by 4:45, Westport is back to normal.
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