Two articles about Phyllis Yeager and Eastern Legacy

Two articles about Phyllis Yeager and others involved in the Eastern Legacy and the celebration of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial from 2003 to 2006:

Published Jan. 6, 2003, in the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky:

Former Montanan revives local interest in Lewis and Clark
By Meghan Hoyer 
mhoyer@courier-journal.com
The Courier-JournalAfter Phyllis Yeager moved from Montana to Southern Indiana 20 years ago, she made sure to take visiting family and friends to the riverfront in Clarksville, where she would show them a small historical marker.

It wasn’t much, the sign that marked the site where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off from the Falls of the Ohio on their historic exploration of the Northwest.

But coming from Lewis-and-Clarkcrazy Montana, Yeager was eager to show her guests Clarksville’s ties to the journey.

”In the West, they think they have all the rights to Lewis and Clark,” she said. ”People don’t realize what’s here in our own backyards. That sign just intrigued me.”

Yeager, who lives in Floyds Knobs, is now deeply involved in local and national efforts to mark the bicentennial of the explorers’ journey. The four years of commemorative events begin next week in Virginia, at the Monticello estate of Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the expedition as president in 1803.

Yeager, a member of national, statewide and local committees organizing the bicentennial, will be in Virginia — and at all 14 national ”signature” events following it.

”It’s going to be so exciting for the next few years,” she said.

She certainly isn’t the only local person involved in promoting or planning the Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration. Dozens of others — from tourism officials to the director of the Clarksville Riverfront Foundation — have spent thousands of hours working on the event as well.

But among local residents, Yeager does have the biggest hand in planning bicentennial events — not only here but also across the country. And local officials who’ve worked with her also say she was instrumental in getting Clarksville the recognition it needed.

”She’s been at the forefront of getting us on the map,” said Jim Keith, executive director of the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau. Yeager has been a member of the bureau’s board for years and is now president-elect.

”She develops a cause and she works it,” Keith added. ”She has a lot of tenacity.”

For three years, Yeager has been the bicentennial’s tireless promoter.

Sparked by Stephen Ambrose’s book ”Undaunted Courage,” about the Lewis and Clark exploration, and her curiosity about the local connection to it, she’s done everything from traveling across the country promoting Clarksville’s contribution to the journey to quietly prodding some people to donate money for the local events.

”She’ll take every opportunity to share the story,” Keith said. ”Everybody who will listen will hear the story.”

Yeager, 57, said she was spurred to action a few years ago when she saw that bicentennial preparations already were underway in Montana, where she and her husband, Ray, still own a cattle ranch. The couple also owns the Days Inn in Sellersburg.

”I knew how big this was going to be because I saw it happening in Montana,” she said. ”And I didn’t see that happening here.”

So one spring she took a group of local tourism officials to Great Falls, Mont., to see that city’s annual Lewis and Clark festival. They were so inspired that a few months later, Clarksville staged its own version — now an annual event.

She and the Convention and Tourism Board also invited dozens of national Lewis and Clark organizers to the area for the Kentucky Derby, in hopes of capturing their attention and promoting the local ties to the exploration.

That was when Landon Jones, vice president of the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council, decided Yeager needed to be part of the national council organizing the bicentennial. She was chosen for it soon thereafter.

”She’s a natural phenomenon of energy,” said Jones, who is a former editor at Time and People magazines. ”Phyllis has put more ideas on the table than just about anybody — she will put a thousand ideas on the table. And we can’t do them all. But in those are some good ideas that we can focus on.”

The national post catapulted Yeager into contact with all sorts of people interested in Lewis and Clark.

With a huge base of contacts, she now sends out thousands of e-mail messages promoting Lewis and Clark and bicentennial events. The messages, sometimes as many as six a day, go to nearly 700 people around the country.

They range from the obscure — an ancient Indian artifact found in Idaho that may be linked to Lewis and Clark’s journey — to the events planned at Monticello.

Keith and Jones said the e-mail makes sure the bicentennial is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and keeps people across the country apprised of what’s happening in other cities.

”She’s sort of the glue that keeps a lot of people together,” Jones said.

That’s how Yeager likes to be thought of.

”That is how I see myself — reaching out all over the country and letting people know about us (in Indiana),” she said. ”I’m a go-between. I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s why it’s fun.”

The sign she’s visited so many times is still on the riverfront in Clarksville, but thanks to local efforts and the interest in Lewis and Clark in recent years, there’s now a re-creation of George Rogers Clark’s riverside log cabin there.

Organizers eventually hope to build a $6.5 million plaza and amphitheater on the spot highlighting Lewis and Clark’s journey.

”What we’re doing is creating a destination,” Yeager said. ”We’re putting Clarksville and Louisville on the national map forever.”

Article published in Electric Consumer in October 2006:

Two decades ago, Ray and Phyllis Yeager moved from Montana where they’d lived most of their lives to the knobs of Southern Indiana. Sometime later, Phyllis came across a historical marker on the banks of the Ohio River in Clarksville that piqued her interest.

The marker stood seemingly unnoticed by most passersby and isolated — all but for an occasional piece of driftwood or debris the river would deposit. The marker simply stated that near that spot on Oct. 26, 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off together with the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery to explore the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest.

For Yeager, a Harrison REMC consumer, it was more than a mere curiosity.

All her life she grew up with the Lewis and Clark legacy all around her in Montana’s Big Sky Country. Her grandfather told her the stories of the extraordinary expedition. National forests and mountain peaks she could see from her ranch were named for the famed explorers and members of the Corps. And now here, near her Indiana home, was the headwater, the launch site, of this historic “Voyage of Discovery.”

While few but the hardcore Lewis and Clark enthusiasts and history buffs locally seemed aware or to care, Yeager took great pride in showing visiting friends and relatives from back home this newfound piece of Lewis and Clark lore. She said some, though, would almost scoff at the notion. How can that be? What does Indiana have to do with Lewis and Clark?

The answer: a lot. That’s what most people near the Falls of the Ohio, around Indiana and across the nation have learned the last few years.

The journey begins

Though it was practically overlooked until the Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial Commemoration rolled around in 2003, Meriwether Lewis first met up with his handpicked co-leader of the expedition, William Clark, at the Falls of the Ohio. Here, their two names became linked for the first time — and forever after.

Conceptually, the military expedition began in the mind of Thomas Jefferson many years earlier. Jefferson wanted the uncharted parts of the continent to the Pacific Ocean thoroughly explored. After becoming president in 1801, he put the expedition in motion. In 1802, he asked Lewis, his 28-year-old close friend and aide, to lead it.

In June of 1803, Lewis wrote Clark, his friend, and former rifle company commander, asking him to join the expedition as co-captain. Clark accepted the offer.

At the time, Clark, 32, was living in a cabin atop a bluff overlooking the Ohio River in Clarksville with his older brother, Revolutionary War hero Gen. George Rogers Clark. While waiting for Lewis to arrive from Pittsburgh with boats and provisions for the expedition, he began recruiting frontiersmen from the Louisville-Clarksville area.

Lewis arrived at the Falls of the Ohio on Oct. 14, 1803. The next day, once around the river’s tricky series of drops, he tied up at the mouth of Mill Creek in Clarksville, and went to greet Clark at his brother’s cabin. Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in “Undaunted Courage,” his 1996 bestselling book on the expedition, that this is when and where the expedition began.

Two weeks later, the captains and the core of the Corps of Discovery shoved off to begin their epic odyssey (see map).

Three years later, with almost 8,000 miles and the remarkable exploration behind them, Lewis and Clark and several of the Corps members returned to Clarksville. That was Nov. 5, 1806. They said their goodbyes at one final celebration at a Clark family estate in Louisville on Nov. 8, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition was history.

Likewise, the bicentennial becomes history next month at the Falls of the Ohio. A three-day “homecoming” celebration at Clarksville is planned for Nov. 3-5 (see sidebar). Events are planned for Louisville, too.

The last of the “national signature” bicentennial events was held in St. Louis last month where the Corps arrived in triumph 200 years ago. The first was at Jefferson’s Monticello home in January 2003, and the second was at the Falls of the Ohio in October 2003. The bicentennial commemoration brought renewed interest in America’s great sweeping and sublime adventure that opened the way West.

But perhaps one of the most lasting legacies for Hoosiers is how the bicentennial opened up the East. The bicentennial raised awareness that the Lewis and Clark story didn’t all just happen west of the Mississippi River. The significance the Falls of the Ohio as the expedition’s starting point has been validated. The roles Corps members from both sides of the Falls of the Ohio River played in the expedition’s success has been recognized, too.

The recognition didn’t come easily or overnight. Groups of Hoosiers pooled their resources and pushed to make sure Indiana would not be left out of the history books again.

One of those instrumental folks was Yeager. She became active on the national, state and local levels in the bicentennial planning. As president of the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau at the time, she joined a coalition of others from Clarksville and Louisville to make sure the Falls of the Ohio was included on the national stage. “From the moment I read Stephen Ambrose’s words — ‘When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began.’— my life changed,” she said.

That was in January 2000. She said she realized the bicentennial was approaching and that Clarksville might be left out. “That started my journey, and it hasn’t ended,” she said.

Yeager has a photo of that historical marker by the river she’d show her Montana friends. In the photo, dated 1997, high water had left caked mud all around the marker and an old car tire beside it. “We’ve come a long way,” she said. “But to the men of the expedition, I’ll bet they wonder why it took 200 years.”

Treasure in the attic

As far back as 1981, Clarksville began to recognize it had one of the best-kept secrets in American history. Carl Kramer, a local historian, was asked to study Clarksville as the commemoration of the state’s American Revolution Bicentennial was winding down.

As he researched George Rogers Clark, he became aware that William Clark was living with George at the cabin at the Falls. “We were starting to realize that William Clark and Meriwether Lewis got together at the Falls, and the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery came from here,” Kramer said.

That research led to the 1981 historical marker at “Clark’s Point” on the river that would soon come to intrigue Phyllis Yeager.

As the Lewis and Clark bicentennial approached, individuals and groups, like the Ohio River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail Foundation, the local tourism bureau and lawmakers, started putting their heads together in the late 1990s to make sure the Falls of the Ohio would be included in the bicentennial.

John Gilkey, now director of communications for the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau, was senior editor with the Jeffersonville Evening News when the bicentennial was approaching. He wrote extensively as the local movement began to gain traction.

He grew up in the area, but this profound bit of history was new to him. “I don’t think in my entire educational experience we covered more than a paragraph on Lewis and Clark,” he said, “and there was no reference to the Falls of the Ohio. It just wasn’t on the radar screen.”

Even the county’s “definitive” history books had no mention of Lewis and Clark.

To help put Indiana on the Lewis and Clark map, Yeager turned to contacts in Montana she knew, while she and other delegates from the area made multiple trips to Washington in the early 2000s to present the state’s historical case. They succeeded. The original starting date for the bicentennial, 2004, was changed to 2003 to acknowledge Thomas Jefferson’s contribution as the originator of the expedition, and the planning, recruiting and training phases of the expedition before it started up the Missouri River in the spring of 1804.

The crowning achievement of the local effort came when the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial awarded Clarksville and Louisville one of the 15 national signature events. The two cities straddling the Falls of the Ohio hosted the second event Oct. 14-26, 2003. An estimated 100,000 people attended.

Now “Lewis and Clarkies” from around the world trek to Clark’s Point, part of the Falls of the Ohio State Park, as they retrace the Lewis and Clark experience. In 2001, the state moved an 1830s-era cabin, an almost exact copy of George Rogers Clark’s original, to the bluff where the Clark cabin stood.

The Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau also sponsored a special recognition state license plate, still available from the BMV, that featured Lewis and Clark.

Ever since the national signature event in 2003, the names Lewis and Clark have been popping up all over Clarksville. Jim Keith, executive director of the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau and a Clark County REMC consumer, said the community has come to embrace this newfound part of its history. Most significantly, the town renamed a major thoroughfare through the business district, “The Lewis and Clark Parkway.” A bronze statue of the two captains meeting was also commissioned and completed. It was installed and dedicated at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

A new permanent exhibit on Lewis and Clark is being planned at the interpretive center at the state park, which is known for its exposed fossil beds. Plans still call for a plaza and a park to be dedicated near the site.

“It’s like you went up in your attic and you find this great treasure that you can now show to everybody,” said Gilkey. “And the momentum just keeps building.”

Lasting legacies

For many in Indiana, the truest lasting legacy would have the National Park Service extend the National Historic Lewis and Clark Trail from “sea to sea” — and include Indiana. Presently, the national trail runs west to the Pacific from Camp River Dubois in Illinois. That’s where the expedition spent the winter of 1803-04 after leaving Clarksville. Bills have been introduced recently in both houses of the U.S. Congress to add the “Eastern Legacy” to the trail. Lewis and Clark enthusiasts are asking Indiana’s representatives and senators to support the bills.

A hearing with Indiana U.S. Rep. Mike Sodrel, who represents the Clarksville area, and Kentucky Rep. Anne Northrup is scheduled at the Clarksville Town Hall for Oct. 4, 8:30-11:30 a.m.

Whether the extension to the Historic Trail happens anytime soon, Indiana will maintain a permanent Lewis and Clark presence. Indiana’s Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission is the only state commission of its kind, so far at least, to be turned into an ongoing foundation.

“The past three years have created the opportunity for Indiana to tell our story,” said Keith. “I don’t view this — 2006 — as an end at all. It’s the beginning.”

Story by Richard G. Biever, senior editor of Electric Consumer, rbiever@indremcs.org, with additional source material provided by John Gilkey, director of communications, Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau. Electric Consumer featured Lewis and Clark in its February 2003 issue. To revisit that article, see our Web site: http://www.electricconsumer.org.

For more information about Lewis and Clark, check out these additional Web sites: http://www.lewisandclark.org; http://www.fallsoftheohio.org; http://www.lewisandclark200.org; http://www.nps.gov/lecl; ; http://www.lewisandclark.in.gov; http://www.locustgrove.org