“The Rifleman” stands on the north side of the Barton County Courthouse, vigilantly facing south to protect the Union. Before the sculpture of a Civil War soldier turns 100 years old in November it is getting a professional makeover.
Wednesday morning, national restoration experts Ron Harvey and Dr. Dennis Montagna examined the sculpture and the scaffold set up by Great Bend’s Public Lands Director Scott Keeler for their work. They plan to clean the 8-foot tall bronze sculpture and its accompanying plaques, then add a coat of wax that will protect it from the elements.
“Maintenance should occur every year,” Harvey said, explaining the statue should be washed and the wax coating replenished. The Principal at Tuckerbrook Conservation in Lincolnville, Maine, Harvey has restored monuments across the country. This project is being sponsored by the City of Great Bend and The Barton County Historical Society.
“We haven’t altered the surface at all,” Harvey said. They aren’t trying to create a shiny new Rifleman. Rather, the work is meant to bring out the sculpture’s historic patina, as the artist intended it to be seen. The wax coating, besides adding a layer of protection, will make the coloring appear more even and pick up the light and shadows.
Montagna, who is director of Monument Research and Preservation for the National Park Service, inspected the statue in 2011 and is here this time as a volunteer. He noted that “The Rifleman” is in good condition overall, with none of the pitting that is common in areas with more pollution or ocean air.
Also here for the project is Tracy K. Aris, a historic preservation planning consultant from Chicago. She would like the city and county to become partners in a plan for listing and preserving local landmarks.
“We want a monument plan and a maintenance plan,” Aris said. “There’s such a rich history here that is untapped.”
“The Rifleman” was commissioned by Great Bend resident Ira D. Brougher, Commander of the Department of Kansas, Grand Army of the Republic, and a former member of the Kansas House of Representatives. It’s a mystery how Brougher came to meet nationally prominent sculptor Frederick C. Hibbard from Chicago, Aris said.
However, Hibbard produced more than 70 major sculptures in his lifetime, including the monumental equestrian statue of General Ulysses S. Grant, which overlooks the battlefield at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the Confederate Monument at Shiloh Battlefield in Tennessee.
“Most towns our size don’t have something this beautiful,” Aris said.
Art instructors from area high schools and Barton Community College have been invited to bring their students to the courthouse square to watch the restoration going on and chat with Harvey and Montagna. The public can also catch the work in progress for the rest of the week.
Barton County Historical Society Director Beverly Komarek said planning for the future care of our public art is essential.
“We need more conservators,” Komarek said, noting the recent restoration that was done on the B-29 memorial at the Great Bend Airport. “We are trying to raise the awareness of all of the treasures we have and why they’re important.”
“The Rifleman” is an important piece of art, and a slice of history, Aris said. The plaques list the names of G.A.R. officers and members up to the time the monument was erected. The names include many of the pioneer settlers of Barton County. As one of the few integrated monuments, it lists the names of black and white soldiers from many states.
“This (sculpture) tells a soldier’s story from all these different perspectives,” she said. “How all these people left the war and came to central Kansas to start a new life.”
How the community cares for such treasures also tells a story, she noted. “It represents the community, the community pride and its civic commitment.”