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December 8, 2004

Making a documentary

Cowley employee working to bring story of 'Bleeding Kansas' to film

Making a documentaryKen Spurgeon outlines the upcoming shot and the placement of people and weapons during filming of the Battle (Burning) of Osawatomie, 1856. Filming took place in August 2004 near Canton, Kan.

Talking to Ken Spurgeon about his work to create a documentary on the turbulent time known as “Bleeding Kansas,” one gets the idea that he was born about 150 years too late.

Spurgeon, Director of Instructional Services at Cowley College’s Southside Education Center, and two other men have been working on a documentary that tells the story of the unsettled period in the territory’s history, from 1854-1861.

For the last couple of years, Spurgeon has gone back to a critical period of Kansas’ history. Books have been written on “Bleeding Kansas,” but it hasn’t made it to film. Until now.

Spurgeon, Jonathon Goering and Nathan Miller have conducted countless hours of research, interviews and reenactments to put together a documentary titled “Touched By Fire, Bleeding Kansas.” A friendship between Goering and Spurgeon linked the two men, while Miller was the videographer for Goering’s wedding. He was asked to join the crew for his filmmaking expertise.

Spurgeon, who holds bachelor and master’s degrees in U.S. History, has a deeper, more personal tie to the story.

“I’ve been fascinated with Kansas during this period before and during the Civil War,” Spurgeon said. “One of my motivations is that I have unique Kansas connections.”

Spurgeon is the direct descendant (grandson or nephew) of 13 Civil War veterans, 10 Union and three Confederate. His paternal great-great-grandfather, Joseph Madison Spurgeon, served in the 9th Kansas Cavalry, Company E, during the Civil War. He came to the area in 1857 at age 15, settling near Iola. He died at age 35.

“I have his rifle,” Spurgeon said. “There was something about his life and the stories and the one rifle that he carried that I now own. That all has flipped my switch.

“He was just an average guy. I don’t have any letters or diaries. To me, he speaks to many settlers who made it happen.”

From 1854-1861, the territory that is now Kansas was unsettled on a couple of fronts. First, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established the territorial boundaries of Kansas and Nebraska and opened the land to legal settlement. It allowed residents of these territories to decide by popular vote whether their state would be free or slave. In Kansas, people on both sides of this controversial issue flooded the territory, trying to influence the vote in their favor.

Rival territorial governments, election fraud, and squabbles over land claims all contributed to the violence of this era.

Three distinct political groups occupied Kansas: pro-slavers, free-staters and abolitionists. Violence broke out immediately between these opposing factions and continued until 1861 when Kansas entered the Union as a free state on Jan. 29. This era became forever known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Spurgeon, a historian whose major areas of study are early America, slavery, and the Civil War, has written stories, given talks and participated in reenactments on “Bleeding Kansas.” But he wanted to do something unique that would help keep the memory alive.

“I knew that we were coming up on the 150th anniversary of the Kansas territory, and that made me think about this more than usual,” he said. “I read some books in the last six to 10 years, so I could see there was a renewed interest in it scholarship wise.

“What dawned on me a couple of years ago is that I needed to marry the history background with the interpretation of it to a film path.”

Enter Goering, who has a communications background.

“He was very excited,” Spurgeon said. “He had a similar interest in that he’s a history nut. And he believed the story had not been told. I asked the question, ‘If not me, who?’ I have the contacts. I know the historians and the sites to go to. I have access to photos.”

There was just one piece missing: A filmmaker.

Making a documentaryRe-enactors portray John Brown's men fighting at the Battle of Black Jack, 1856. Filming of the scene took place in June 2004 near Overbrook, Kan.

Enter Miller. In September 2003, Spurgeon and Goering met with Miller to discuss the project. They reviewed a rough draft Spurgeon had written and rewritten during the six months prior to the meeting. A graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, Miller was interested in doing special interest stories involving Kansas.

“We (Spurgeon and Goering) thought this is a guy who would be a great fit,” Spurgeon said. “We called him and had the ‘this sounds crazy, but’ speech. He thought it was a dynamite idea.”

The three have acted as producers and writers, while Miller has taken on the additional role of director. Filming began in March and ended in November.

The documentary contains reenactments, historical photographs and interviews with five historians. Once filming was completed, the project contained about 16 hours of unedited footage.

“It’s been bigger than we thought,” Spurgeon said.

Historians interviewed include Dr. Craig Miner, distinguished professor of history at Wichita State University, a leading Kansas historian who recently wrote the history of Kansas commissioned by the University of Kansas. Another interviewed was Dr. Nicole Etcheson, associate professor at the University of Texas-El Paso. She grew up in Indiana, but has written about Bleeding Kansas.

Also interviewed was Tom Goodrich, a native Kansan who wrote a book about 10 years ago on the social militaristic history. KU Associate Professor Dr. Rita Napier was interviewed, as was Dr. John Sacher, assistant professor of history at Emporia State University. Sacher is an early American historian, specifically a slave historian, Spurgeon said.

Reenactments were filmed a variety of places, including two farms and at Old Cowtown in Wichita. Most of the nearly four hours of footage was shot on private property. One reenactment was the hanging of John Brown.

“We’ll probably crunch that down into 20 minutes,” Spurgeon said. Footage also included a woman hoeing in a field, two men talking on a street, printing presses, and a pastor in a church, in addition to battle scenes.

“We filmed at three historic sites,” Spurgeon said. “We filmed at Lecompton near Lawrence and near the Battle of Black Jack near Overbrook around Topeka.”

All of the 100-150 re-enactors were volunteers and included full-time and part-time faculty, Spurgeon said.

Marketing the documentary wasn’t going to start until the film was finished. But word got out, and the men received a phone call from Kansas City Public Television in late September.

“We met with them in October, and they liked it,” Spurgeon said. “We prepared a trailer and about four minutes out of the heart of it. They said they wanted to see it completed more.”

Spurgeon said no deal had been signed.

“We’ll be discussing it with KCPT,” Spurgeon said. “They’ll have the first crack at it.”

Target date for completion is Jan. 31. The film runs about 80 minutes, but Spurgeon said it likely would be edited to 55 to 60 minutes. KCPT said the documentary needed to be one hour or two hours in length.

“We need to play it out and we’ll either edit it or add to it,” Spurgeon said. “We have enough historians to go either way.”

Spurgeon said the group used the Library of Congress, the Kansas State Historical Society, individuals, and photograph collectors to supplement the interviews and reenactments.

“I love to research,” Spurgeon said. “I want to turn over every rock every time. There are times when you say there may be more out there. There may be an individual who has something that I don’t know about. But I’ve asked questions of people who would know like curators and archivists. If it’s out there, they don’t know about it either.”

Spurgeon knows a thing or two about historic films. He was a close-up extra in the scene titled “Camp Mason” with Jeff Daniels and C. Thomas Howell in the movie “Gods and Generals,” released in February 2003, and he’s been in three documentaries in the last 10 years.

“I did these things on the side as a fun thing to do,” Spurgeon said. “I have the clothing (from that era), I’ve done some stunt work, and I used to ride horses quite a bit.”

Spurgeon is a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and the 8th Kansas Volunteer Infantry, Company A, Civil War Re-enactors. He grew up in Wichita and now lives in Andover. He has been a full-time Cowley employee since June 2002.

Besides interest from KCPT, Spurgeon said the film would be shown in the Brown Grand Theatre in Concordia on April 9.

“We know we’re going to produce it on a DVD,” Spurgeon said. “There’s a market to sell the product. We know it will be carried at the Kansas State Historical Society and in school bookstores.”

Spurgeon said before the end of the year, he and his partners would sit down and add music and sound to the tract.

“This has been a great experience,” Spurgeon said. “It’s been like a second job, but it will be worth it.”