Peggy Bair/Special at the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
Deep under the ground in western Kansas are shark fossils.
Bison bladders were once used as water bottles.
The oldest building still standing in Kansas is at Fort Leavenworth.
These facts were among some of the revelations experienced firsthand by students attending the Fort Leavenworth Unified School District 207 Kansas Day event on January 26 at Old Patton Junior High School. The event coincided with Kansas’ 162nd anniversary of statehood, having entered the Union on January 29, 1861.
The event returned after a two-year hiatus in 2021 and 2022 when it had to be suspended due to COVID-19 precautions.
Nearly 650 third, fourth, fifth and seventh graders from US$207 schools attended the event.
The event featured 17 interactive learning stations staffed by over 30 volunteer protesters from across the area.
“This (Kansas Day) is another way for (students) to study history and experience some hands-on learning,” said Amanda Nonnemaker, director of military affairs, USD 207.
George Pettigrew, executive vice president of the Alexander/Madison Chapter – Greater Kansas City/Leavenworth Area 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association, was one of the volunteer presenters at the Buffalo Soldiers learning station.
Pettigrew said his approach was to create an inviting display that sparked questions from students.
Pettigrew explained that “Buffalo Soldier” was a name given by Native Americans to describe black soldiers.
“Actually, they called (them) ‘Wild Buffaloes.’ Over time and in print, it became “Buffalo Soldiers”. The most famous (unit) of all the Buffalo Soldiers was the 10th Calvary. They grew up right here (in) Fort Leavenworth,” Pettigrew said.
At an adjacent learning station, Deena Gardner, an executive administrative assistant for $207, displayed a travel trunk donated by the Kansas Historical Society of Topeka with parts of a bison used by Native Americans to make objects, such as purses, moccasins, and even the tail to use as a fly swatter.
Nine-year-old Alexandra Burridge, a fourth-grade student at MacArthur Elementary School, asked, after learning that a bison bladder was being used as a water bottle “Isn’t that…disgusting?”
Gardner assured her that Native Americans knew exactly how to operate the process so that it was clean.
master sergeant. Aaron Donatto and Sgt. First Class Bikash Raut, both from the Mission Command Training Program, supervised the cutting station where students were given the opportunity to cut pieces of wood with large cross saws.
Nonnemaker said the volunteer soldiers are part of the Unified School District 207 partnership.
“While their mission comes first, those who are willing and able to commit their time are welcome to participate in student events,” Nonnemaker said.
Some of the volunteers were from the Fort Leavenworth Adopt-a-School program, run by the school liaison officer. Soldiers may volunteer for programs offered, such as the Kansas Day event, depending on their mission and availability.
“The purpose is a positive interaction with our students, really supporting and strengthening the community. If they (the military volunteers) can, they’ll go out and help us. Pretty cool,” Nonnemaker said.
Jackie Williams, parent volunteer, former school teacher and $207 Board of Education member, asked students local history questions at her Fort Leavenworth learning station. In discussing the answers with them, he shared interesting facts about the history of Kansas and Fort Leavenworth, including that the Rookery, the oldest continuously occupied building in Kansas that is now used as family lodgings at Fort Leavenworth, once served as state capital building.
“It’s not as cool as the capital building used to be and the governor worked there,” Williams told the students. “And then they found a new building, then they were like, ‘You know, it’s a really important building. What can we do with it? We can let families live in it.’ And it’s the oldest building in the state of Kansas still standing, and you can go see it.
Nine-year-old Jasanie Dunning, a third grader at Eisenhower Elementary School, met Kansas Historical Society demonstrator Vivian Ross at one of the learning stations. Ross represented the 1847 Mexican War era lifestyle to the students with a washboard demonstration. Dunning said she didn’t think she would actually want to wash her clothes like that every day, but then she stopped for a moment.
“It would be a fun workout. Maybe that’s how I could get my work done every day,” she said.
The students also visited a prehistoric learning station to make fossil footprints and sift through rock-filled compartments, using magnifying glasses to sort through their fossil finds.
“Before Kansas was a prairie, it was an inland sea,” said demonstrator Cheri Miller, district director of the Wyandotte County Conservation District. “This is why we have so many shark tooth fossils in western Kansas.”
Kaitlyn Nitz, a fourth grade teacher at MacArthur Elementary School, said Kansas Day can make a big difference for students.
“I like that it’s very practical,” Nitz said. “Some guys, if I just told them, they’d be like, ‘Okay, I get it,’ but then there are (there are) some guys who are ‘I actually need to see this for myself and experience doing it. ‘”
Jacob Schoffer, 10, a fourth grader at Bradley Elementary School, shared his observations on the .50 carbine breech-loading rifle he got to wield, with supervision, at the Civil War Learning Station.
“The whole butt is metal and the front (stock) is wood, so you don’t get as much weight in the rear as you do in the front,” Schoffer said. “I guess it was a lot of work reloading and shooting. But it’s pretty cool, in the end, no matter how much it weighs or how poorly designed it was, it’s still a pretty cool weapon.
Baldwin City, Kan. Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War volunteer Mike Todd, who helped station staff learn about the Civil War, said many of the items at Kansas Day were replicas because real items are for mostly in museums.
“We take this stuff out so the kids can see what kind of gear they had back then. They can pick it up and feel it and touch it, so it’s not just looking through the glass. They can ask questions, which will hopefully spark interest and build a little more intrigue with them, so they’ll want to know more about the Civil War.”
Nonnemaker said there were many behind-the-scenes efforts by fort staff and protesters to help make USD 207 Kansas Day a success.
“They all came together, and it’s wonderful to see,” she said. “It’s for one purpose: I’m here for the kids. I’m here to interact and engage and share the story, and that’s great.”