It was late August when the woman came into the museum asking for a drink of water. She and her husband were the new owners of the house across the street, she said, and their water was still shut off.
Six months later, remembering that day, Alinda Miller, the director of the Lone Jack Civil War Museum, knows their meeting was more than just coincidence. That encounter led to the museum buying the house in December.
The house is a historical site, one that the museum coveted for more than a decade. But the previous owner wasn’t interested in selling — for years he had rented it to a beauty shop owner until she retired.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the house was a portion of the now infamous Cave Hotel, where a gruesome 1862 battle caused the village streets to run red with blood.
According to historians and newspaper accounts, 806 Union soldiers took over the Cave Hotel and the grounds nearby. But before the sun rose the next day, 3,000 Confederate troops attacked.
In the fighting, the family who owned the hotel fled into the underbrush. Lucinda Cave, a 29-year-old mother, told her two little boys — William, 10, and Jesse, 5 — to lie still and keep their heads down. But after a time, her baby girl, Phenella, cried. When the mom raised up on her side to nurse, a Minié ball pinged into her chest.
Five days later, she died. It was another civilian death among thousands, showing the brutality of Civil War and how strong women had to be to keep families alive.
Most of the Cave Hotel was destroyed by the fire that started during the battle. The west wing was totally burned away and the roof caved in. After the battle, the men of the town returned.
(During the war, civilian men often fled before approaching armies to stay safe. Kidnappings and executions of males were common. Women and children were usually not harmed.)
A grieving Bartlett Cave buried his wife, hugged his children and rebuilt a place for them to live from the ruins of his hotel. His baby girl died a year later. Cave remarried and soon moved away.
Miller smiles as she tells the story. Yes, she’s certain the house is a part of the old hotel. She knows because an expert, an architect from the National Park Service in St. Louis, inspected the house.
His eyes saw specially milled oak ceiling beams, floorboards aligned with hand-forged nails, indentations where walls and rooms existed before.
“All clues,” says Miller, that the structure was built between 1850 and 1870.
The architect found bits of foundation some 40 feet west of the house’s walls. He told Miller the roof line was too low and had been altered. The second floor windows were too low to the floor.
“He’s confident this structure is part of the hotel,” she says.
In November, the couple who had bought the $65,000 house returned it to the first owner, says Miller. When she learned that it was probably for sale once more, Miller started calling philanthropists.
One anonymous source agreed to lend the Lone Jack Historical Society $45,000.
“I then called the seller and told him I had $45,000 in cash we could offer and that I knew we’d get the rest, if we could work something out.”
He accepted the offer, even dropping the price a couple of thousand dollars. A few more donations came in as well.
And just like that, after 11 years of asking, the structure now belongs to the Lone Jack Civil War Museum.
“Yes, there were a lot of high-fives and happy dances that day,” she says, smiling again.
But the Historical Society still has to raise some $11,000. And that’s not counting the money for construction to re-create the historical accuracy, she says. Currently the house’s first floor walls are a dirty aquarium green. Upstairs, the walls are burn scar pink.
Miller says the Historical Society will be holding several fundraisers, including big events this summer memorializing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Lone Jack.
“We want to tell Lucinda’s story,” she says. “It’s the story of families. Of a Missouri mama in the middle of the Civil War and how dangerous this area was.”
She says the museum hopes to re-create what the rooms would have looked like, what daily life might have been like.
And the view from behind the Cave house is of 27 acres of unplowed farmland, looking nearly exactly as it did 150 years before. It’s another parcel of the past the museum wants. Right now, the price of $1.6 million is too high.
Miller sighs just as the wind cuts through the house’s floorboards.
“There’s not very many Civil War battlefields left like this in the entire country,” she says. “We have worked hard for people to take us seriously. With our websites and events and sending letters, we’re here. We want to preserve the history of Lone Jack for future generations. We have faith we’ll get that battlefield too.
“We won’t give up.”