Lovers of everything connected to the Old West, the couple bought the ornately framed print 20 years ago at an auction for a high bid of $75 thinking it was a photo from the Santa Fe Trail days. It turns out, they were wrong.
What they had wasn’t an old picture dating to the 1870s, but a promotional still from a 1933 Western film, “The Big Trail,” that cast John Wayne. They left the photo on the wall, all the same.
Then last summer, Donna Vanhorn discovered something unexpected when she took the picture down to dust it. The nails holding a piece of the wood on the back of the frame were about to fall out, Ronald Vanhorn said.
“Lo and behold, there was another item behind the Western picture,” he aid. “She called me into the room and showed me an old, unusual drawing of fort.” The words “Fort Abbott” identified the 20- by 30-inch drawing.
In a computer search aimed at identifying the hand-drawn sketch this fall, he Vanhorns learned there were five Civil War “Star Forts” built in Virginia designed to keep Confederate troops from stealing Union Army cattle and one was known as Fort Abbott.
That discovery led the Vanhorns to Topeka book and map dealer Lloyd Zimmer. “The whole thing makes a wonderful story,” Zimmer said. “Being in the Midwest and not a Civil War expert, I thought it was probably one of a kind. s it turns out, it is the only existing one.”
Two factors will help determine the value of the map: its significance to he war effort and whether there was any activity that linked it to President Abraham Lincoln, he said. “The map is extremely rare, but it represents a fort that didn’t have a significant role in the Civil War,” Zimmer said.
The auction value would be determined by whether there were two people bidding who wanted it. A museum benefactor might run the bid to $10,000, 15,000 or $20,000, or the Vanhorns might not be able to get even $1,000, he said.
The Fort Abbott map is one of the few real finds he has seen, he said. As often as three times a week, people bring in what they think are copies of the Bill of Rights or the U.S. Constitution. They appear to be genuine, but are reproductions.
“When the Vanhorns brought the carefully wrapped map, I was confident that it was a 19th century piece,” Zimmer said.
A Virginia museum curator was able to identify minor details on the map that indicate it was drawn by someone who was there. How the map came to Kansas remains a point of speculation.
“For some reason, somebody wanted to transport it safely 100 to 150 years ago, but didn’t want a lot of people knowing they were transporting it,” Zimmer said.
With the value of the map still undetermined, the Vanhorns have agreed to loan it to the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Pamplin Park, Va.