September 16, 2014

Students relive history through cemetery walk

Amy Cunningham
submissions@gardnernews.com

The 1918 flu pandemic wreaked havoc on the world, killing an somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, and little Spring Hill, Kan. wasn’t isolated enough to escape the devastation; the flu struck down Sister Frances Day, one of the town’s former citizens portrayed in Talking Tombstones on Tuesday, Oct. 12.

Emily Simmons portrays a townswoman whose husband was a customer of Jeremiah McCanse during the annual Spring Hill Cemetery Walk Tuesday evening. McCanse was a freed slave who came to Spring Hill and owned a barber shop. He also served on the school board. Staff photo by Amy Cunningham

Interesting historical facts like these were presented by student volunteers from Christine Hecke’s seventh grade history classes at Spring Hill Middle School during the annual cemetery tour, now in its seventh year.

Students from Hecke’s classes take on a character from Spring Hill’s storied past, researching facts about their lives, composing a historically accurate presentation and creating costumes appropriate for portraying each character. Preparation for the tour takes a month.

For student Mikaela Crotchett, getting ready for her performance as Day was a family affair. Her grandmother, Kim Thompson, created a period dress, hat and shawl and her mother, Tara Crotchett, helped with her look.

“My grandma made this dress especially for this occasion and I’m very glad, I think it looks so realistic and sophisticated,” she said. “And my mother helped me with my make-up. She told me, since my character died of the flu, I should color my nose red.”

This year Hecke only had female students sign up to participate in the event, which called for some creative adjustment. While some of the characters portrayed were female, she also wanted to make sure that male citizens were represented. We had them act as sisters, mothers and wives of the deceased, she explained.

One of the characters portrayed was Ernestine Kerr, sister of Tommy Smith, who died as a young paratrooper in WWII. Ernestine, who passed away nearly six months ago, recently donated Tommy’s medals and the flag that draped his coffin to the Spring Hill American Legion. The student portraying Ernestine recalled her brother’s life growing up in a small town along side his best friend, Paul Medlin, and his brave sacrifice as a member of the military.

“I just decided to come along on the tour,” said Loveta Medlin, Paul’s wife, “I had no idea they were going to mention my husband’s name.”

Emily Simmons portrayed a townsperson and the wife of a customer of Jeremiah McCanse, to tell the story of him as a freed slave turn Spring Hill business owner and barber. McCanse eventually became a member of the school’s Board of Education.

Simmons wove a tale about McCanse, someone the townspeople respected, who rose from the bonds of slavery to become a prominent member of the community.

“I’m really interested in history and it was fun to learn about a person I’d never heard about,” said Simmons, talking about the research that went into her project. “We used the newspaper, they did articles on him and that’s where I did the most research. I learned that Spring Hill has a very, very interesting past for such a small town.”

All of this information might not be available if not for members of the Spring Hill Historical Society who have worked to preserve the precious materials containing keys to this town’s storied past. Many members came out Tuesday evening to watch the student’s performance.

Mikaela Crotchett portrays Sister Francis Day, who was struck down during the Spanish Flu epidemic. All of the actors were volunteers from Christine Hecke’s seventh grade history class. Staff photo by Amy Cunningham

“We have such a blessing in Christine Hecke and her seventh graders, they have all worked their tails off. This is what education is all about,” said Jim Wilson, of the historical society, gesturing towards the students at their locations around the cemetery, “this makes learning fun and exciting for these kids. This brings history alive.  They get so much out of this.  For some of them, they might’ve been afraid of the cemetery – but, through this, they’re not so afraid anymore, they realize what’s important – the stories and the memories.”

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