Diane Eickhoff and her husband, Aaron Barnhart, are the authors of "The Big Divide," a guide to historic sites along the Missouri-Kansas border.  SUBMITTED BY MARY JO DRAPER
Diane Eickhoff and her husband, Aaron Barnhart, are the authors of "The Big Divide," a guide to historic sites along the Missouri-Kansas border. SUBMITTED BY MARY JO DRAPER
Wykoff native Diane Eickhoff thinks there is another reason besides the entertainment in Branson for area residents to head south - the Missouri-Kansas border region, "the most influential, controversial and tumultuous border in U.S. History."

For those willing to give history travel a go, she and her husband, Aaron Barnhart, who live in Kansas City, Mo., have written "The Big Divide: A Travel Guide to Historic and Civil War Sites in the Missouri-Kansas Border Region," now available for Minnesotans to read, enjoy and use on explorations of the Missouri-Kansas border's historic sites.

"The Missouri-Kansas border region is a wonderful history travel destination within easy driving distance of southern Minnesota," said Eickhoff. "There is an abundance of worthwhile sites to visit. History travel is a terrific and fun way to learn the history of this border region."

The couple's home address is so close to the Missouri-Kansas state line that they can walk to Kansas, and they are proud to be able to do so. They've lived in Kansas City, Mo., for 16 years, having moved two blocks from State Line Road, the dividing line between the states, when Barnhart was offered a job as television and media critic for the Kansas City Star. He chose to quit the paper last September in order to write the book and pursue other writing interests.

Eickhoff's career encompasses time spent as a copy editor, but was first recognized for her writing while still at Wykoff High School.

"I'm a graduate of Wykoff High School who is proud to call Fillmore County her home. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Knutsen, read my themes aloud to the class and helped me believe I could write something others might enjoy," she stated, adding that her brothers, Virgil and Donald, and their wives, Marva and Lila, are still Wykoff residents, and her aunt and uncle, Beatrice and Everett Eickhoff, live on a farm outside Fountain.

Her first book was "Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women's Rights." She has written and edited scores of textbooks and other material for the educational publishing industry.

Her passion for Kansas and Big Divide history was ignited when she wrote "Revolutionary Heart," and it eventually led her to author "The Big Divide."

"'Revolutionary Heart,' my biography of suffragist-pioneer Clarina Nichols, drew me into Kansas history. I began doing first-person portrayals of her and giving talks for the Kansas Humanities Council, which brought me to big and small towns across Kansas," she said. "Since I have low vision, my husband became my driver, and on long treks across the state, we talked about the unique things we were learning about the region. And when the Missouri-Kansas border region was declared a National Heritage Area - named 'Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area' through an act of Congress - we began exploring Missouri as well and quickly realized that writing a travel guide of the region was a great idea.

"Kansans know their side of the story during the tumultuous border war and civil war eras but don't know much about Missouri during that time period, and vice versa. Yet the histories of these two areas are inextricably connected. There is a cause-and-effect relationship that crosses boundaries and makes for a fascinating story."

The couple filled up their gas tank more than once while researching "The Big Divide," and "started writing the book in earnest last fall, but this was preceded by a couple of years of thinking and talking about the book, some site visits and lots of notes."

They traveled 4,000 miles up and down the border and visited perhaps 200 sites. They ended up including 130 historic sites - museums, historic homes, battlefields, monuments and nature sites in the travel guide. They have eight driving tours in the book, and one highlights the 16 sites that they call "Big Divide Top Sites."

She noted that "The Big Divide" is a unique travel guide due to its order of organization.

"Instead of organizing our sites geographically as most travel guides do, we organized the sites historically divided into nine chapters," she said. "Each chapter begins with a mini-history that places the sites into their historical context and explains how the sites in that chapter are related to each other. The first chapter, for example, is called 'The Land,' and includes prairie parks, natural history museums and nature centers."

The second chapter, entitled "First People," shares information related to Native American sites, Indian missions and historic forts, while the third chapter is called "Trails West" "because all the important westward trails - the California, Oregon, Santa Fe and Mormon trails all started or passed through this region, as well as the Pony Express.

Eickhoff related, "There are wonderful sites that take visitors along these storied routes. There are four chapters that delve into the tumultuous Bleeding Kansas era and the Civil War, as well as chapters that highlight the war's aftermath - the explosion of homesteading, railroading, et cetera - and a final chapter that includes 20th and 21st century sites that we call our 'Liberty and Justice' sites, including the National World War I Museum, Harry Truman sites, Brown vs. Board of Education and the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. We wanted to tell the history of this region through its historic sites, but we also wanted to provide a user-friendly guide for our readers."

The authors gave extra substance to the book with "meaty introductions to each chapter" and a line at the front of each review that "reviewed the site in a nutshell" entitled "Our Take," as well as likely being "the only travel book you'll find that has a bibliography," suggestions for books and movies that will enhance understanding of the Big Divide border region, advice for parents and teachers on how to make history travel interesting for children, over 100 illustrations and maps and a four-page timeline. Furthermore, the travel guide's history has been reviewed by four historians who know the details of the sites that Eickhoff and Barnhart visited, and they feel it adds credibility to the book.

"We only included sites we really liked, but I'd say that the Watkins Woolen Mill in Lawton, Mo., was one of my very favorite sites. It is the only surviving woolen mill - dating back to Civil War days - that has all of its original machinery intact. It's like walking into a time warp, only the workers are missing, sort of like they just stepped out for lunch. There's also an antebellum house to visit, and the whole site is inside a beautiful state park," said Eickhoff.

Some of the other sites that Eickhoff and Barnhart especially liked were the Arabia Steamboat Museum - a cross between a 19th century Walmart and a Crate & Barrel store, with all of its original inventory on the shelves, thousands of boots, buttons, guns, pickles, dolls, coins, perfume bottles, nails, china, on and on, pulled out of the Missouri River bottoms in the 1980s, restored to near-mint condition and put on "dazzling display," Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge battlefields, and the Shawnee Indian Mission. In addition to the Watkins Woolen Mill, Eickhoff called these sites a "must-see."

She also said that she never thought of herself as someone who would enjoy visiting Civil War battlefields, but we have some "wonderful sites here. If you never get to Gettysburg and other sites out east, you still have an opportunity to see two Class A battlefields that are spectacular - Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge. I was dazzled by both these sites. Finally, I really like the Shawnee Indian Mission, which is very close to where we live in Kansas City. This museum focuses on the Indian children who came to the mission and will help you understand the complex nature of the relationship between Indians and the missionaries who sought to help them but were sometimes misguided."

Eickhoff commented that the Kansas-Missouri Big Divide has a "very complicated history...there are still hard feelings on both sides of the border that date back to the Civil War era" and that "the Civil War in Missouri was the most challenging history to write" due to its divided government during the Civil War, "a star on both the Union and Confederate flags, the most vicious guerrilla warfare ever seen in the United States, German immigrants who were stoutly pro-Union and anti-slavery living alongside people whose Southern heritage included acceptance of slavery even if they themselves did not own slaves...the country had 4 million enslaved blacks, and we as a nation and a region are still struggling with that legacy." Across the border is another complicated story. Put them together, and you have an epic struggle that is hard to encapsulate in a brief number of pages - but that is what we tried to do, and if our reviewers are to be trusted, we pulled it off."

The authors never had a real "first draft" of "The Big Divide," as it underwent continuous changes as they drove across the states and wrote, rewriting "until we were satisfied with the result.

"That whole process was about six months of work, including weekends and late nights. As we approached our self-appointed deadlines, the tempo accelerated. I stayed up one night until 4 a.m. working on the 12-page index we included, but I can honestly say that even that part was fun. Writing and publishing this book has been very gratifying. It is always satisfying to see the finished product in any endeavor, and we were very happy when we saw the final result. The response has been fantastic. It feels like people have just been waiting for this book."

Barnhart and Eickhoff would like visitors from other states to tour the Big Divide and take in Missouri and Kansas history just as they have, witnessing the sights at the historic sites that mark significant places and events in time, all 130 places easily visited for under $200 in entrance fees.

"We have heard that people in southern Minnesota are big fans of Branson and make many trips to that entertainment center," said Eickhoff. "We're hoping our book will provide travelers from Spring Valley, Wykoff, Lanesboro and the surrounding area with interesting places to visit while traveling to or from Branson - not that making a trip into this area just to visit historic sites would not also be a fun and worthwhile vacation."

"The Big Divide" is available as a 250-page paperback or as a Kindle book, and interested readers can order it from Amazon.com at a deep discount. For people that do not have Internet access or want an autographed copy, they can call the publisher, Quindaro Press, at (816) 200-2276.