Fort Scott (pop. 8000) lies 90 minutes south of Kansas City, where Highway 69 narrows from four lanes to two. Pedestrian bridges span the highway, an endearing gesture of defiance against the big road that splits the town. Church bells play “O Come O Come Emmanuel” at midday in December. The place is as charming as a Hallmark Christmas movie.
But there’s more to Fort Scott than meets the eye.
I visited on business. A lovely downtown bookstore called Hedgehog Ink keeps shelf space for local authors. I had an appointment with owner Jan Hedges to see if I qualify as ‘local’ (I do!) Hedgehog Ink carries a good mix of used and new books, and a nice variety of locally made goods. The shop is not far off the highway, and well-worth a look.
With business out of the way, I set out to do a little sight-seeing. The gorgeous and helpful Visit Fort Scott website helped me choose three destinations: the Gordon Parks Museum, the Fort Scott National Historic Site, and the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes.
Gordon Parks is a name every Kansan should know but doesn’t. Born in Fort Scott in 1912 and educated in the town’s segregated schools, Parks became a renowned photographer, author, and filmmaker who used his gifts to expose racism and poverty around the world. Yet as the 20th Century gave way to the 21st, his accomplishments faded from public consciousness.
The Gordon Parks Museum tells his story with depth and eloquence. His photographs alone are well worth the visit, and they’re just a small part of this remarkable collection of artifacts.
My next destination took me much farther back in history. Fort Scott was established in 1842 to help enforce the “permanent frontier” between land-hungry white settlers to the east and Indian territory to the west. The Fort Scott National Historic Site is a replica of the original fort. It takes visitors through the site’s history first as a frontier fort, then as a center of Bleeding Kansas hostilities, and finally as a part of the ever-changing growth of the town of Fort Scott.
The grounds are beautifully tended, and I could take pictures of the symmetrical buildings all day long. Anyone interested in military or Civil War history should consider spending a few hours here, but it’s also just a beautiful place for a walk in the sunshine.
The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes is an interesting find. More than a museum, it’s an ongoing educational project. Each year high school students from around the country develop projects highlighting an unsung hero from an era in history. They enter their projects in the center’s Unsung Heroes Discovery Competition, and the winner is rewarded with a professionally designed museum exhibit. Those exhibits form the core of the Center for Unsung Heroes, and they are well worth a look.
The idea for the Center for Unsung Heroes originated in a National History Day project about Irina Sendler, a Polish woman who smuggled many Jewish children out of Warsaw during World War II. You can read about her, and about the young women who rediscovered her heroism, in the book, Life in a Jar, by Jack Mayer. Sendler’s story is also told at the Center, which is run by former high school teacher Norm Conard, and Megan Felt, one of the students from the book.
As with most small towns, Fort Scott’s sleepy exterior hides an interesting past. The town does a better job than most of putting that past on display. I highly recommend spending a day here.