Missouri News

Battle of Athens State Historic Site losing its loyal support group

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 29, 2017 9:55 pm

ATHENS, Mo. -- One of Northeast Missouri's most popular attractions -- the Battle of Athens State Historic Site -- is losing one of its biggest sources of support.

The Friends of Athens, which was formed in 2004 to lend a hand at the Civil War site in northern Clark County, has announced plans to disband after providing 13 years of volunteer service and financial help.

The group is going out in style, however. It recently donated a $20,000 Civil War replica cannon for permanent display at the historic site.

The cannon has already been placed on the battlefield and will be dedicated at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, in a farewell ceremony hosted by the Friends of Athens.

"Then that will be the end" for the organization, said Marilyn Ekle of Farmington, Iowa, the group's president.

Ekle said the group voted to disband in December because of dwindling membership.

"We were down to four members who were fairly active, and two of them are rather disabled physically," she said. "That left myself and another person, and we just couldn't maintain the type of activities we'd been doing."

So the group decided to "call it a day," Ekle said.

"I'm sad about it, but we couldn't continue," she said. "We just didn't have any willing people to help. I think everybody enjoyed being together and working together. It's just that we ran out of woman-power."

Since its inception, the Friends of Athens provided all kinds of help for the state-owned historic site where the northernmost Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River took place on Aug. 5, 1861.

According to Ekle, the group conducted numerous fundraisers to help finance amenities and maintenance work for the site's various buildings, including the historic Thome-Benning Cannonball house, which features a hole in one wall from a cannon fired during the battle.

"We sold baked goods by the ton," Ekle said.

The Friends of Athens also helped get the park ready for the tourist season each year by cleaning buildings, picking up debris and trash along hiking trails and roadsides, hand-stitching curtains, weeding flower beds and taking on other tasks.

In addition, the Friends of Athens helped with the Civil War re-enactments held on the grounds every three years, including the most recent one in 2016. Members would dress in period costumes and operate a general store while also giving demonstrations on weaving, chair caning, quilting, soap making and other Civil War-era crafts.

Jo Bryant of Revere, the volunteer head of the Clark County History Museum in Kahoka, previously worked 15 years at the Battle of Athens State Historic Site, inventorying and curating the site's exhibits. She founded the Friends of Athens group in 2004 before she began working full time at the site.

"We had a really good membership to start with," she said.

"We raised a lot of money and bought a lot of things and had a lot of fundraisers and events. But some things just run their course, and I think that's the case with Friends of Athens as everybody aged and found it difficult to do things. It just became too much for the few people who were left."

Bryant believes the park is going to miss having a support group.

"There were a lot of things that the Friends of Athens was able to do that the state just didn't have the funding and the personnel to do," she said. "It's a great loss for the park."

Jerry Toops, site superintendent, agrees the historic site is going to miss the Friends of Athens.

"Financially they supported us with different things that I would have trouble doing without them," he said.

For example, Toops said there's no way he could have found the money in his budget to buy a big-ticket item like a cannon.

The cannon, installed in June, has since become a popular attraction that helps tell the story of what took place during the Battle of Athens, during which Union forces crushed the less-equipped Confederate rebels, resulting in the preservation of northern Missouri as Union territory.

Toops said the Friends of Athens helped in many ways, but he feels the historic site will be able to soldier on without the group's support.

"We won't stop anything that we're doing," he said.

Toops said the historic site -- open from April through October -- draws more than 100,000 visitors a year for tours of the grounds, camping, fishing and hiking.

"We're kind of off the beaten path, and people don't know how much is here. But people really love this park when they find it out," he said.

More information is available at mostateparks.com/park/battle-athens-state-historic-site/

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