• Local woman’s art to help tell Independence’s story at McCoy Park

  • In the same day that the brand-new historic interpretative panels went up at McCoy Park, Sharon Snyder witnessed a moment that moved her to tears.

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  • In the same day that the brand-new historic interpretative panels went up at McCoy Park, Sharon Snyder witnessed a moment that moved her to tears.
    Two “beautiful little African-American children” rode by the five panels Wednesday on their bicycles – but they also stopped and read the panels.
    But more importantly, they looked over the accompanying paintings and saw the bigger stories told in the images.
    “It was so heartening for me to see these children,” Snyder said. “They were so excited, and they go, ‘I know Cheryl Harness!’ It was just the excitement and the beauty in their voices.”
    The official unveiling of the five panels at McCoy Park, including three that feature the original artwork of Independence author and illustrator Cheryl Harness, will take place at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the corner of Bess Wallace Truman Parkway and College Street.
    Snyder, who lives in the Owens-McCoy House at 410 W. Farmer St., said the project began three years ago, although the vision for such panels circulated on and off for two decades. She remembers an early meeting about the project didn’t go well – a lack of available funds left some people skeptical it would get off of the ground.
    “In fact, I was bawling and crying,” Snyder said. “Of course, as Cheryl knows, I can whine and cry better than anyone.”
    But hope did exist. Travis Boley, who manages the day-to-day operations of the Independence-based Oregon-California Trails Association, offered grant writing assistance, if Snyder formed a committee of supporters for the historic interpretative panels project.
    So, she recruited well-known local historians Bill and Annette Curtis and Nancy Erlich; David Jackson, director of archives and education for the Jackson County Historical Society; and Pat O’Brien, a historian at the National Park Service.
    As a result, the project received about $20,000 in grant funding from the National Trails System, within the National Park Service. Local in-kind matching for the grant took place, and Snyder credits volunteers who gave freely of their time (including Harness and her artwork) to make the project a success.
    Later on, Eric Urfer, the city’s director of Parks and Recreation, and Cori Day, director of the Tourism Department, also provided their support. When Day started in Independence in late 2010, she began working on an African-American Walking Trail brochure to ensure tourists would touch upon that sector of Independence history when visiting. While the brochure isn’t quite complete, the panels tie in with that goal, Day said.
    “That’s a cool story; that’s really what makes Independence unique,” Day said of the African-American contribution to Independence history, which she said isn’t always as prominent or well-known as the Truman and Mormon components. “It just tied in so beautifully with the brochure. It is absolutely a story that we want to tell and share with our visitors – the panels just bring it all together.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Originally envisioned as just one panel, the project expanded to include five, after the National Park Service fell in love with Harness’ first pen-and-ink drawing, Snyder said. Harness conducted extensive research to ensure the historical accuracy of her contribution.
    The National Park Service also asked organizers to limit each panel to 200 words of description, so Harness was able to capture “the complete story” in her paintings, Snyder said.
    Two panels showcase “Independence Square 1850” from the Jackson County Historical Society and “Trails Leaving Independence” by Charles Goslin. The following three original mixed-media prints by Harness are currently on display at Main Street Coffee House on the Square:
    • “On the Train Up From the Landing”: The image depicts mule-drawn wagon trains during the 1840s. One woman is walking alongside her cow. A dog is barking at a mule. Harness said she wanted to make the painting as lively as possible, although sometimes she says she receives criticism for trying to put too much in her paintings.
    “I don’t think less is more,” she said. “I think more is more.”
    • “Hiram Young’s Manufactory”: This one is Harness’ and Snyder’s favorite, they said. Hiram Young, who was born sometime around 1812, was a successful African-American wagon manufacturer who ran Hiram Young & Co. in Independence. Young first bought his wife, and then himself, out of slavery so that their daughter, Amanda, could be born free. Amanda attended Oberlin College in Ohio and returned to the Kansas City and Independence area as an educator.
    “This is where I get the goose bumps because I don’t think these little African-American children have seen African-Americans portrayed in paintings,” Snyder said. “I don’t think that’s really been portrayed in history books, and that’s the beauty that Cheryl captures in her painting.”
    “What touched me even more than that was that they are going to tell all of their friends, and each child read each one of the panels,” Snyder said of Wednesday’s two young visitors. “They were just mesmerized. I think that was the first time that, maybe in their concept of study, there were African-Americans in a painting.”
    • “Queen City of the Trails”: With the historic Square Courthouse and a summary of action among saloons, banks, hotels and churches, this image depicts the original Santa-Cali-Gon Days, as settlers headed out of town on the three respective trails “on the adventure of their lives,” Harness said.
    As viewers read the panels and take in their images, both women want people to understand what a big deal Independence was in the mid-19th century as an epicenter of international commerce.
    “It’s so disheartening to hear people say, ‘I didn’t know that,’” Snyder said. “We step up and share what we know. It was so heartwarming about these young children who read the panels – that’s the generation that we need to educate.”

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