Resurrecting History

Resurrecting History

State park restoring Prairie Grove Battle diorama

By Lynn Kutter
Special to The Free Weekly

The Free Weekly / LYNN KUTTER
Bart Taylor, park interpreter with Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, is leading a project to restore a diorama of the Battle of Prairie Grove.

Bart Taylor, park interpreter for Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, was a boy when he first saw a diorama of the Civil War battle at Prairie Grove at the park’s visitor center.

Today, Taylor is leading an effort to restore the 25-year-old diorama to bring it back to share with the public.

“It’s one of those things that got me hooked on Civil War history when I saw it when I was 10 years old,” Taylor says, marveling at the journey that has brought him back to the diorama as an adult.

“It’s weird that I’m working on it. That’s full circle,” he says. “It got me into buying my own soldiers, which got me into where I am today.”

The diorama had four panels, each one about 71 inches by 46 inches. Three of the panels have been disassembled and placed in storage for now.

One was left intact, and this is the panel that Taylor, three college interns and several volunteers are restoring in a maintenance building located in another area on park property.

The Free Weekly / LYNN KUTTER
Jim Spillars, a Civil War re-enactor and also band director for Farmington High School Band, is volunteering his time, along with that of his son Jacob, to work on the Battle of Prairie Grove diorama.

When the diorama is finished, it will be placed in Hindman Hall Museum at the state park as a new temporary exhibit. Eventually, Taylor says, the state park plans to find a permanent spot for the diorama. One idea is to place it in the Borden House. Another idea, he says, is to place the structure on wheels and use it as a program in schools.

The long-term plan, Taylor says, is to restore the other three panels, and all will be on display at some point in the future. When will depend on time and money.

Taylor says he believes the diorama is important for several reasons. For one, it is nostalgic. Another reason is to continue to tell the story for future generations.

The new display will have a 1 to 72 scale and show the scene of the Battle of Prairie Grove about mid-morning during the first run up the ridge to the Borden House. Taylor says about 50 percent of the casualties occurred during this time.

There will be some changes in the diorama to make it more historically accurate, Taylor says. One change will be to add the First National Flag of the Confederacy. Other work will include filling in the ground cover and adding more trees.

This diorama was created by former park interpreter David Shepherd of Fayetteville, but Shepherd says it is not the first one that was at the park. The original diorama had been completely disassembled when former park Superintendent Ed Smith asked Shepherd if he was interested in making a new one.

The Free Weekly / LYNN KUTTER
The details of the Borden House that is part of a diorama of the Battle of Prairie Grove even show that the windows have been broken during the Civil War battle. The house is made from balsa wood.

Shepherd says he was given the go-ahead to create the project however he wanted to do it.

“This one was completely from scratch,” Shepherd says by phone. “It had all new figures and new landscaping.”

Shepherd says he worked for the park from 1989 to 1994 and was a part-time employee working on the weekends. He had a full-time job during the week.

He worked on the diorama as he had time on the weekends and if he had a chance during the week. He says it took him more than three years to complete all four panels.

Shepherd ordered the figures — soldiers, horses, artillery and wagons — and these were made of soft metal. He sprayed primer on the figures and then painted each by hand using “very, very” small paintbrushes and a circular lamp with a magnifying glass. Shepherd’s work shows such meticulous details as the buttons on the uniforms.

The Free Weekly / LYNN KUTTER
One of the scenes from a 25-year-old diorama of the Battle of Prairie Grove shows soldiers made of soft metal and hand-painted by David Shepherd of Fayetteville, a former park interpreter.

He guesses there were more than 300 figures on the diorama, and the majority of his time was spent painting the figures.

The foundation of the diorama is foam, covered with a thick type of modeling paint. Shepherd then used anything he could find to make the soil for the ground cover, including pencil shavings, dirt and sawdust. For trees, he used weeds and flowers scavenged from the park and from his home. The buildings, such as the Borden House, were made from balsa wood.

The scale for Shepherd’s four-panel diorama was 10 to one for soldiers and horses.

“The scale was a compromise,” he says. “I couldn’t do a total number of soldiers in each unit. There wouldn’t have been room for anything else.”

Shepherd says the project was a “labor of love” for him, and he was happy to hear the Battlefield State Park was restoring the diorama for the public. He’s been to the park to see some of the work.

“I would hate for it to be stored forever, so I’m glad they are doing it,” he says. “It’s really nice to see these guys directing this, and it will be nice to see it finished.”

Taylor says he hopes the project will be ready to unveil by spring break in March. The original diorama was enclosed. The restored panel will have Plexiglas around the edges but will be open on the top.



Prairie Grove Battlefield

State Park

WHAT — More than 900 acres commemorating the Civil War Battle of Prairie Grove on Dec. 7, 1862, the last major engagement in Northwest Arkansas, and the Hindman Hall Museum.

WHEN — 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s

WHERE — 506 E. Douglas St. in Prairie Grove

COST — Free

INFO — 846-2990 or

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