Thursday night, guided by handheld and cell phone flashlights through brisk air and barely-there rain, a bundled-up group of about 30 Finney County residents approached a dark figure standing alongside a headstone in Valley View Cemetery.
The sight was far from frightening. Twice a night Thursday, Friday and Saturday, groups, guided by Finney County Historical Society Education Coordinator Johnetta Hebrlee, came to the cemetery to meet volunteers pretending to be local historical figures, all now placed to rest at the cemetery. For the fifth year in a row, all shows were sold out.
In the middle of October, the event, co-organized by the cemetery, could easily be mistaken for something more ghoulish, but it was far from it. For these three nights, the living dead intended only to teach.
“It makes it come alive, and then they care,” Hebrlee said of the guests.
At the head of the groups is Hebrlee, a fifth-generation Finney County resident who has heard these stories since she was a little girl and tells them as if she had been there.
Hebrelee heard about cemetery walking tours at a Kansas Museums Associations meeting, hearing about expansive, big-budget productions in Kansas City and Wichita. She wanted to bring something similar, though smaller, to Garden City.
There would be about five to six actors, she suggested to the historical society’s director at the time. They would need to revolve which historical figures would be present, or at least approach a different side of their story, she said.
For the walking tours, she became both guide and casting director, matching volunteers to the people she thinks will serve them best.
“Primarily, I look up the history, give them historical documents, and that kind of thing, and kind of give them my vision,” Hebrlee said. “I have a story about a young man that I am dying to tell, but until I find the right person, it’s not going to mean anything...”
“Anybody can read the history,” she said. “You have to read between the lines and you got to see. If I was this person, how would that have affected me?”
This year, a revolving cast of 11 reenactors take on the mantle of prominent Finney County figures, each telling their story and how it intersects with Garden City. In a long, red dress covered in the back with a veil, Kim Nading became Maria Menke, a sharp-witted society woman and wife of the second owner of the Windsor Hotel, still standing on Main Street. Synthia Preston, receptionist at the Finney County Historical Museum, becomes the mother of the Fleagle brothers, heartbroken, protective and indignant, Hebrlee said.
Hebrlee introduces the actors to their historical figure, but what they say and how they say it is up to them. And the experiences vary for each.
Abel Loza, in a straw hat, flannel and overalls greeted guests as a young Ignacio “Rudy” Valenzuela, a Mexican immigrant who came to Garden City at a young age, saw his family push against the city’s discrimination and segregation laws and became a prominent leader in the community.
Loza holds bachelor and master’s degrees in history, but had never been into theater, he said. When the historical society asked if he wanted to tell Valenzuela’s story, he agreed, seeing it as an important chance to share diverse stories. Three years later, he’s still coming back.
“With him being a Mexican immigrant and my parents being Mexican immigrants, as well, I can relate to that story. I didn’t have quite the experience he had … but being out here in southwestern Kansas and being of Mexican descent … I felt really connected as far as that goes to the story. And I know at the time (the tours) didn’t have anybody like that,” Loza said.
Further on in the tour, if it’s warm enough, guests encounter a Buffalo Jones played by Lary Cole, head to toe in a cowboy hat, purple neckerchief, chaps, boots and spurs. He didn’t buy the outfit for the gig. Cole and his wife are 20-year veterans of Cowboy Action Shooting, a test of marksmanship with dress and guns from the turn of the century.
The experience gives him a frame of reference for Jones’ hunting, but his research gave him an appreciation for the man’s intelligence, energy and drive. Even apart from the tours, Cole has played Jones on occasion at other events around the area. After the tours, he’s happy to speak to eager guests interested in learning more.
The portrayals are not just about information, but also emotion, and the latter was the calling card for Bill Knight. Knight, fire chief at the Holcomb Fire Department, played George Runnels, father of Mitchal Runnels, a teenager who died when his trademark car was hit by a train on the edge of town. To this day, Mitchal’s gravestone is topped with the motor of his car.
Knight, performing at the tours for the first time, began gathering research with Hebrlee two days before his first tour, diving into the details and testing different angles that would keep the audience engaged, just as his favorite teachers had done when he was in high school or college.
Thursday, after telling his story of broken laws, rusty cars and sudden tragedy, Knight, as Runnels, absentmindedly polished the motor with a workman’s rag and quietly asked if he could spend some time with his boy.
Between stops on the tours, Hebrlee points her flashlight and speaks to the stories of silent graves — those of Bonnie, Herbert, Kenyon and Nancy Clutter and Alvin Dewey of the case that inspired “in Cold Blood,” or Garden City area founders John Stevens and William and James Fulton, or others, depending on the night. When there are more reenactments, she said she talks less so they can be the stars. It’s not about her, she said, but the history.
Eventually, somehow, she said she wants the popular event to grow beyond her, that the cemetery would have so many actors that guests would wander through a maze of in-person Finney County history.
Whatever happens, whether it’s this year or last year or the ones to come, Hebrlee hopes it inspires people, particularly young people to take ownership of their history and show pride, respect and enthusiasm for the town that came of it.
“If this gets a young person involved in history or it gives somebody the realization that history is so important and that our historical society is so important,” Hebrlee said. “Because, if someone isn’t telling this history, it goes to the wayside … We had a lot of cool stuff that happened here. And when kids tell me they’re bored, I’m like ‘You don’t know your Garden City history. Because there is nothing boring about Garden City history, at all.”
Contact Amber Friend at email@example.com.