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Wilson’s Creek visitor center reopens

Delays push $4.5M renovation project into 2021

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After a longer-than-expected $4.5 million renovation and expansion project, the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield museum and visitor center is again welcoming the public.

The center at 6424 W. Farm Road 182 in Republic reopened May 28 after 18 months of construction. The center welcomes guests to the park’s 2,010 acres.

The project added roughly 1,800 square feet of museum exhibit space to spotlight the park’s collection of Civil War-era artifacts. New displays include a collection of edged weapons and firearms and the original bed where Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was laid after his death during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in 1861.

Improvements redesigned the bookstore, information desk and bathrooms, while curatorial storage, employee workspaces and a new HVAC system were added.

“We didn’t grow out, but we made much better use of the space here,” said Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Foundation President Garin Ferguson.

Foundation officials previously said the project doubles available exhibit space and the park has over 8,000 artifacts in frequent rotation.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Superintendent Sarah Cunningham said putting more artifacts on display was an important goal.

“Traditionally, museums can’t display their entire collection,” she said. “Visitors will see approximately 90% of all edged weapons and firearms from the park’s collection.”

Cunningham took over the superintendent role in September 2020, succeeding 16-year leader Ted Hillmer, who retired early last year. She started her career 16 years earlier as an interpretive park ranger at Wilson’s Creek.

Under construction
Roughly $3.5 million of the project is for construction and another $1 million for components, such as the audio-visual content, as well as expanded conservation and moving of artifacts, Cunningham said.

General contractor was Chicago-based Blinderman Construction Co. Inc., while Omaha, Nebraska-based HDR Inc. served as architect, Cunningham said.

Over 75% of the project’s funding was provided by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation, which left the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield Foundation responsible for $1 million, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. Foundation officials previously said $700,000 was acquired when the National Park Foundation matched an estate donation in 2017 upon the death of Springfield resident Ralph Shreeve.

Ferguson said the Wilson’s Creek foundation met a May 2019 deadline to raise the additional $300,000, noting most of the funds came from private donors. Bass Pro Shops supplied $25,000 of the total, according to past reporting. The National Park Foundation needed the funds by May 31, 2019, in order to assure the project would be included in its next fiscal year, officials said.

As the project started construction in late 2019, Ferguson said hopes were for it to finish by the end of 2020. The coronavirus pandemic upended those plans, he said.

“COVID hit, and that’s why we’re a year and a half later,” he said.

Cunningham said undertaking such large construction projects can result in delays, even without a pandemic.

“There were some supply chain issues with being able to get some of the materials in on time,” she said. “So, that was a factor in the timeline.”

New audio-visual content was provided by Kansas City-based Wide Awake Films LLC, Cunningham said, noting one of the six videos involved 19th century firearms technology. Eight shooting demonstrations are provided in the video by a marksman with the Missouri National Guard. All the guns are reproductions of ones on display at the park, she said. Cost for the videos was estimated at $180,000, according to Wilson’s Creek foundation’s annual report released last year.

“The National Park Service is in the forever business and so being able to conserve and have this here for generations of visitors to come is really exciting,” Cunningham said. “It’s been a real blessing to come in and see the end of the project.”

The upgrade of the building’s heating and air conditioning systems was a necessity to help protect fragile artifacts, Ferguson said. The prior HVAC equipment was around 30 years old, he said.

“Now everything is in a climate-controlled environment, and that’s important to preserve these artifacts,” he said, noting the new system digitally monitors humidity.

Returning visitors
Park officials are optimistic the museum and visitor center improvements will help boost attendance, which annually draws roughly 200,000 people. However, officials declined to make visitor projections.

Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO, Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., said the park has a draw that extends far beyond Greene County.

“There are certainly Civil War enthusiasts that make it a point to go to cities with Civil War parks,” he said.

Kimberlin was among attendees at the visitor center and museum’s May 28 reopening.

“The visitor center is a really important part of the entire attraction,” he said. “The new center is far superior to what they had there – not that what they had there was bad. This is just a significant improvement.”

Cunningham said park fees, which were suspended for visitors beginning in March 2020 amid the pandemic, were reinstated late last month.

“There’s a lot of curious folks, Civil War historians and people interested in learning more and are excited about being able to see more stuff on display,” Cunningham said. “I do expect we’ll have some repeat visitors and new visitors just curious to see what’s here now.”

The center’s exhibits document one of the earliest battles of the Civil War, which involved 17,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. The Aug. 10, 1861, battle was the first major conflict fought west of the Mississippi River.

Ferguson, who became president of the historic battlefield’s foundation in August 2020, said it’s likely many people like himself who were raised in the area took the park for granted when growing up.

“It’s one of the most well-preserved battlefields in the entire U.S.,” he said. “We have the best Trans-Mississippi collection in the United States in a public collection. This restructuring of the visitor center gives the public an opportunity to see artifacts that have been in drawers and closets. We haven’t been able to have a lot of this on display for years.”

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