Keen on capturing Kansas history

When the curtain rises at the Brown Grand Theatre in Concordia on April 9, it will be the culmination of a dream for Tabor College graduate Jonathon Goering and friends Ken Spurgeon and Nathan Miller.

The threesome have poured their hearts, souls and countless hours into the creation of “Touched By Fire-Bleeding Kansas” a film documenting the tumultuous period in Kansas history when the territory was a battleground between those who supported and those who opposed slavery.

Goering credits Spurgeon with the inspiration for the film.

“For a long, long time, he had the idea of creating a ‘Bleeding Kansas’ documentary,” he said. “It finally came to the point where he said, ‘Let’s do it.'”

The idea grew from a love of Civil War history and a love for Kansas.

“It’s a film about Kansas made by Kansans,” Goering said. “All three of us are Kansans, so we feel like we have a pretty good grasp of the story.”

Goering grew up in Inman and received a communications degree with an emphasis in journalism from Tabor College in Hillsboro. He is the marketing training coordinator at Kansas Trane in Wichita and lives in Newton with wife Betsey.

Civil War history is a passion that began as a child.

“My family vacationed in northwest Arkansas just down the road from Pea Ridge battlefield, so we used to tour that battlefield quite a bit in the summer,” he said.

Both Goering and Spurgeon are Civil War re-enactors with the Eighth Kansas Infantry Regiment. For them, the film was a way to share their passion for Kansas Civil War history.

“This is one of the most compelling stories in our nation’s history and it happened right here in Kansas,” Goering said. “I would imagine that very few folks truly understand it. They’ve heard the term ‘Bleeding Kansas,’ but do they know what it meant?”

Kansas Territory saw the first armed conflict leading up to the Civil War.

“It could be argued that the Civil War started here, long before Fort Sumter was fired upon,” he said.

The timing of the film seemed perfect in light of the 2004 celebration of Kansas’ sesquicentennial, Goering said.

They were also motivated by the lack of other films about the subject

“PBS aired a John Brown documentary that addressed Brown and touched some on ‘Bleeding Kansas,'” Goering said. “Ken Burns did a documentary on the west and he touched briefly on ‘Bleeding Kansas,’ but nothing in great detail.”

The process

Goering said the film has been a year and a half in the making.

“It’s been a long, long process,” he said. “We started seriously talking about it in the fall of 2003. That’s when we first approached Nathan Miller about directing it. Ken and I didn’t have the expertise.”

Miller graduated from the University of Southern California’s film school and then returned to Kansas.

He did both the filming and directing of the documentary.

“He’s very talented and he’s brought some great ideas to the film,” Goering said. “We couldn’t be happier. I don’t know that it would have worked with anyone else.”

Spurgeon did most of the writing, Goering said.

“He created the outline that we based the film on,” he said.

Goering helped with the research and some of the writing.

“It’s just a monstrous process,” he said. “There are so many stories within it that could be documentaries themselves. The hard part is picking and choosing what you are going to include.”

Since “Bleeding Kansas” covered a seven-year period from 1854 to 1861, there was plenty of material.

“That was one of the most challenging things,” he said. “You don’t want to tackle all these rabbit trails, but some need mentioning, some don’t.”

Filming for the documentary was done at a variety of locations.

“We filmed near Inman, in Wichita at Old Cowtown Museum, near Lawrence, near Greeley in southeastern Kansas, and up by Canton. We were all over the place,” he said.

After the filming, Goering said they would watch the footage and continue to build on the outline and the research.

“One of the things that we learned as we went along was that we’d see holes in the film and say, ‘We don’t have a lot of visual here, we need to capture something.’ So we’d go out and do that.”

Interviews with historians were sprinkled throughout the filming process, he said.

“The film features music, local, state and regional historians, and reenactment footage,” Goering said. “It’s got narration as well.”

All in all, at least 100 people were involved in the project, Goering said, most of them volunteers.

“We used a guy out of Emporia for John Brown,” he said. “He bears a striking resemblance which we thought added to the credibility of what we were trying to do.”

They also tapped into the 8th Kansas Infantry Regiment re-enactor group for help with scenes. Peabody mayor and Civil War re-enactor Tom Schmidt appeared in a couple scenes, and Goering and Spurgeon also donned their Civil War costumes for reenactments.

“We did participate, but you won’t see us as much,” Goering said. “We tried to stay behind the scenes.”

Special touches

Goering’s 19th-century music group, the Free Staters, provided music for the film.

The Free Staters use vintage reproduction instruments to play Civil War, minstrel and other songs from the 19th century.

“We recorded most of the music,” he said. “We also used a minstrel band out of the Kansas City area and a group out of Wichita that sings traditional Negro songs.”

The authentic period music is just one of several touches that make the film unique.

“One of the cool things about the film is that it features more than 100 historical photographs,” Goering said.

The photos came from several places, including the Kansas State Historical Society, the Spencer Research Library in Lawrence, and the West Virginia State Archives.

“That added a lot to the film because you’re seeing some images that you have probably never seen before,” he said.

Goering said viewers would also appreciate the special techniques Miller used with the photographs.

“Most of the time on documentaries you’ll see historical photographs, black and white, maybe in the frame, maybe not,” he said. “He’s taken it a step beyond and he has animated the photographs. It’s a technique you don’t see too often. It gives photographs a 3-D effect.”

Goering is proud of the end product they achieved.

“It’s so different-the way we’ve approached it, the way the film has been created, and with the photographs animated,” he said. “It’s not your run-of-the-mill documentary.”

The premiere

Viewers will have the opportunity to see for themselves at the film’s premiere Saturday, April 9.

“It’s an evening of Kansas history and music,” Goering said. “The evening will begin at 6:30 with the Free Staters playing a 30-minute concert with songs from the soundtrack. The film will run shortly after 7 p.m. and will last about an hour. And then we’ll have a question-and-answer session with Ken, Nate and I, where we’ll talk about the film.”

The event is open to the public and tickets are available from the Brown Grand Theatre in Concordia at 785-243-2553. The cost is $7 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under.

“It will hold 600,” he said. “We’d love to pack it!”

What next

Goering said that although work on the documentary has taken longer than anticipated, the film would be ready for the premiere.

“Everything’s done with the exception of the credits,” he said.

The only disappointment is that the DVD and soundtrack will not be ready by April 9, he said. But they will take preorders for both.

Goering said they have already begun finding additional venues and audiences for the documentary. They are planning to show the film at the Warren Theater in Wichita and are also working with the Orpheum Theater in Wichita and the Fox Theater in Hutchinson.

No dates have yet been set for those shows.

They are looking at regional and national opportunities too.

“Tomorrow Ken and I go to KPTS in Wichita, and we’ll talk with the station about possibly airing it,” Goering said last week. “We’re excited about that.”

He said they are also working with an organization in northeast Kansas to discuss showing the film in counties that played a role in “Bleeding Kansas.”

“And from there we’ll see,” he said. “There’s the possibility of it being carried regionally and nationally on PBS. Then there’s always the possibility of other entities picking it up, say the History Channel. Those are all options and arenas we’ll have to explore.”

Goering said there might also be opportunities for the film in the educational arena.

“We’ll approach public schools, colleges and universities about purchasing the film and showing it in their classes,” he said.

Energized by their work on “Bleeding Kansas,” the men plan to work on another documentary after they take a breather.

“This film is part of a trilogy, so there are other films on the way,” Goering said. “The next film we plan to tackle is about Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence in August of 1863.”

Although the first project was at times “daunting,” Goering said it was a great experience and they have learned a lot.

“I’ve got to hand it to Ken,” he said. “He’s dreamed this dream for a long time, and he made it happen.

“We’ve met some of the most amazing people through this. It’s changed all of us. We aren’t the same people coming out as we were going in.”

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