Artist driven to keep western Kansas artifacts here at home.
SCOTT CITY — With a gallery full of paintings depicting historical events and a collection of artifacts, Jerry Thomas is determined to bring Western Kansas history back to Western Kansas.
So, what do you say to the Smithsonian when they ask for your one-of-a-kind artifacts?
If you're Thomas, the answer is "I'm flattered, truthfully." But according to him, they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
"This is a big deal of mine," Thomas said as he walked around his Scott City gallery, the Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection, containing his artwork and collection. "We need to protect our heritage. It's ours. Our fossils are going all over the place. Why don't we have them in our museums? Sternberg (Museum in Hays), here, wherever — showcase our beautiful byways and this beautiful heritage here. Capitalize on what we have."
His gallery is filled with accurate historic renderings painted by Thomas and artifacts that he has collected through years of research.
It was through research and a lot of phone calls that the artist came across a photo of Lt.-Colonel William H. Lewis, the only U.S. military fatality in the Battle of Punished Woman's Fork, which celebrated its 135th anniversary in Scott County, in 2013.
"When you put your life, like Jerry has, into history, into Scott County and into the history of the west and native wars, when you find something like that, that's another one of those things that words can't even put in," said Tina Walker, marketing director for Jerry Thomas Gallery & Collection & El Quartelejo Museum. "For awhile, you are just in disbelief. And when it finally seeps in, you know his hard work and all the phone calls and everything paid off."
The photograph, which is the only known photograph of Lewis in existence, was found by the grandson of Mary Leefe. Leefe was 6 years old and living at Fort Dodge at the time of Lewis' death. She had written a book in the mid 1940s that led Thomas on a multi-year journey that took him through the eastern United States and across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, where the photograph was eventually found by Leefe's grandson, who was living in London, at the bottom of a box that was to be thrown in the trash.
"It's here in Scott City," Thomas said. "It's the only place in the world that has a picture. The Smithsonian would like to have it. Out in Durango (Colo.), there is Fort Lewis College named after him. The president called me, and she said, "We would really love to have that. Would you give that to us in public interest?" And I said 'Well, I'd love to, but that ain't going to happen.' So we will have to see, but that is the original picture," he said, pointing to the black and white photo on display in an airtight glass case. "It is in a safe place."
Shortly after finding the photo, Thomas received a call from an individual in Chicago who had found Lewis' sword in an old collection. The artifact hangs in the encased glass above the original photo and painted rendition done by Thomas.
The Lewis collection was revealed by Thomas as a surprise during last year's Punished Woman's Fork Symposium. For Scott City resident Jerry Snyder, who nominated Battle Canyon as a National Historic Site and had been studying the battle since 1970, finally seeing a photo of Lewis was a memorable moment.
"I got pretty emotional," he said, recalling the surprise reveal in September. "In fact, I got real emotional. You know, we've been looking for a photo of Col. William Lewis since probably the early 1970s, and we just pretty much didn't think we were ever going to find one because we checked so many different places."
While other places are interested in obtaining the entire collection of Lewis items, Thomas wants to make sure that Kansans have the chance to see the Kansas artifacts.
Thomas' dedication to preserving the history of southwestern Kansas has had him going to great lengths to bring home the region's treasures.
"North of the (Scott) Park, we had some folks show up, and they did some artifact hunting, but they were thieves," Thomas said explaining that the individuals were supposed to hand the items over for archival purposes and instead took them. "So they went off with about 4,000 items, and some of these were in a museum down in Texas. That was one that is priceless," he said, pointing to a silver bracelet probably worn by a tribal leader, from 1815 with a coat of arms from the monarchy of either King George the III or King George the IV, a period encompassing 1801-1837. "It was here. Why would it go to Texas?"
Snyder also agrees with the importance of keeping Western Kansas artifacts, like the Lewis collection, here in the region.
"Sometimes we have things that go out from our counties that people come in and excavate, and once there gone, they're gone," he said. "We've had that happen at the park a number of times, and yet here at our museum, we have very little of those kind of artifacts. So this is real significant that we are still able to find some things and bring it back here and have them here where it happened."
For Thomas, sending artifacts back to their place of origin is just as important as bringing Kansas treasures home.
"We got a good network of friends. I might collect (an artifact) that might not fit here that would be good in the Dakotas, and there is stuff that we are working on getting right now," he said.
Walker hopes that Thomas' mission — bringing artifacts back to their place of origin — will help future generations remember the past.
"I know that Jerry is working on some things to try to get things back to Scott County. It's very important for everyone, our young kids, our historical societies, the community and the county," Walker said. "I don't care if it's Scott County or any county across the United States, getting that history back in to where it came from should be very important, because one day, nobody will know about it if you don't. If someone doesn't do it, it could be a piece of lost history"
While Thomas continues to search for more of the past, Scott City residents and visitors have the opportunity to see what he already has found.
"We're not shy about saying we're world class," Thomas said. "You know, we worked at this so hard. And to have this in Western Kansas, to have what we have, what a dream. We've just got to get the people here."
El Quartelejo Museum and The Jerry Thomas Gallery is located at 902 W. Kansas Highway 96 in Scott City. The museum and gallery are open 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.