What should Civil War Days be when it returns in 2020?

  • Lake County Forest Preserve District leaders decided Monday to bring back Civil War Days after a controversial one-year hiatus this year. Now comes the hard part of deciding how the event should tell the story of the Civil War and Lake County's part in it.

    Lake County Forest Preserve District leaders decided Monday to bring back Civil War Days after a controversial one-year hiatus this year. Now comes the hard part of deciding how the event should tell the story of the Civil War and Lake County's part in it. Daily Herald file photo, 2010

 
 
Posted8/7/2019 5:30 AM

What the Lake County Forest Preserve District's Civil War Days will look like when it returns next summer after a controversial one-year hiatus is a work in progress, with even decisions about who should weigh in on that question yet to be determined.

"We don't have the 'Now what?'" figured out yet," Nan Buckardt, the district's education director, said Tuesday, a day after a more than 4-hour marathon board meeting to discuss the event and hear public comment from an audience of about 100.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We're still working on that -- who are those people we need to have a conversation with and what will that conversation look like?" she added.

The deep pool of possibilities includes re-enactors who advised the district during Civil War Days' 27-year run before this year's cancellation. Supporters who consider the event a valuable educational experience and those who have been critical of what they describe as its racial insensitivity also are expected to be at the table.

Fores preserve district Board President Angelo Kyle said he has gotten several calls, including from black re-enactors who wanted to participate and a professor of history at Northwestern University who offered to speak with the district about finding common ground on such events.

Kyle created a firestorm in June when he unilaterally canceled the event, then reversed his stance within 48 hours after blowback from fellow board commissioners.

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After the situation generated an avalanche of public remarks, the forest preserve district staff canceled the event, citing safety concerns.

There are lingering questions among some board members and the public about what happened and why. But the consensus is to move on.

Despite falling attendance and a less-than-desirable return on investment, forest board commissioners now support bringing back a revised version of Civil War Days in 2020.

"I 100% would like to see Civil War Days continue," Commissioner Linda Pedersen said.

"I think we have a golden opportunity here," added Commissioner Judy Martini.

Commissioner John Wasik urged the district to engage advisers and others to develop an "enhanced, augmented format" for Civil War Days.

Statistics presented Monday show attendance has dropped from a peak of about 6,000 in 2009 to 1,913 last year. The latter figure was due to "miserably hot" weather, Buckardt noted, saying the working attendance average for planning purposes is about 4,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"People have a lot more options easily available," she said. "And the choices are easier to find -- it's in the palm of your hand."

Civil War Days is considered a special event among the volume of education programs run by the district, which drew 51,226 participants the past year through June 30.

It is included in a category of programs that under district policy are supposed to have a 50% cost recovery, a measure of revenue versus staff time and other expenses. The cost recovery for Civil War Days was 24.1% percent in 2017 and 9.6% last year.

Besides weather, other challenges for Civil War Days include a larger crowd, the fact that people are at the site for two days, and a much larger footprint than most events, Buckardt said.

The emphasis the past five years has been on local history and explaining Lake County's connection to the Civil War, she added.

The stated goals of Civil War Days are to educate visitors about the involvement of Lake County residents in the war on the front lines and at home; to help visitors gain a deeper understanding of Lake County's past by putting it into the context of national events; and to provide "engaging and captivating" educational programing.

As with other programs, considering cultural sensitivity is part of the process.

"Some people view it as we're still talking in a racist way," Buckardt said. "We don't want to ever have anybody think we're attacking whatever their position is."

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