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Teens triumph with Civil War diorama

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Posted: Friday, October 2, 2009 8:31 pm

A second diorama version of the detailed Battle of Palmito Ranch scene is finished after a year of after-school and summer work by about 150 Highland High School students and history teacher Glen Frakes.

http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/page/slideshowfull/1843" onclick= "window.open(">SLIDESHOW: Civil War Diorama

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The 5-foot-by-10-foot diorama featuring a paddle-wheel riverboat and 700 soldiers and 200 horses in varying forms of battle can be seen throughout October at the Gilbert Historical Museum. The handcrafted diorama shows the last land battle of the Civil War, which was fought along the banks of the Rio Grande River on May 13, 1865.

The 500-pound diorama will then be crated and shipped to the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where it will be displayed in January next to other Battle of Palmito Ranch items the museum already has. The Texas Civil War Museum is paying $25,000 for materials and shipping.

"I'm very proud of the kids," Frakes said. "Considering the way the last one was destroyed, this is closure."

The finished diorama brings an end to a heart-wrenching situation after the students' original Civil War diorama sent in 2007 was deemed inaccurate and changed dramatically by the museum director of the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas.

Museum director Jeff Hunt, who wrote a book on the battle, tore the diorama apart, "fixed" the soldiers and steamboat to what he believed was historically accurate and put the altered diorama back on display in July 2008. Hunt would not return the diorama so the students could fix it themselves, and has never been held accountable for his actions, Frakes said.

The battle was originally thought to be spelled "Palmetto" Ranch according to Hunt's book, but Texas historians confirmed that it should be spelled "Palmito," Frakes said.

Jack Savoy, a volunteer docent at the Texas Military Forces Museum, drove from Austin to see the finished work Friday.

"I thought it was a shame the first diorama was dismantled and I came to support the rebuilding," said Savoy, 71, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "I think the new diorama is excellent, outstanding. I want to compliment Glen on all of his dioramas. He's an excellent historian and diorama builder and he contributes a great deal to maintaining awareness of history with the students he teaches."

The Texas Civil War Museum heard about the students' plight. After they were denied by the Camp Mabry museum to pay to move the diorama to the Fort Worth museum, a Civil War Times magazine columnist who has followed the story convinced Frakes to build another diorama of the same battle.

Ray Richey, curator and founder of the Texas Civil War Museum, was visiting Gilbert for the second time Friday to see the diorama.

"It's just fabulous," Richey said. "I was stunned when I first walked in the room. It's the absolute best that I've ever seen. We're very excited to be able to have it."

Frakes originally said he was retiring from diorama-making after overseeing 21 dioramas of American battles over his 36 years of teaching history.

Frakes was laid off in May from Highland High after 29 years with the district because of budget cuts. He is now teaching history at Mesa Community College.

Gilbert district substitute teacher Leesa Hamblin painted the diorama's backdrop mural of mountains, sky and land, and glistening, waving water.

Highland High graduate Alyssa Baxter worked on the first Battle of Palmito Ranch diorama, and the new diorama. The 18-year-old is now a freshman at Arizona State University. Her 16-year-old sister, Molly Baxter, is a Highland High junior and also worked on the new diorama.

About 200 Highland students and four teachers originally spent more than three years and more than 6,000 hours donating their time to paint, assemble and construct the original Battle of Palmito Ranch diorama.

"I'm so happy with it," said Alyssa Baxter. "It's a relief and a blessing to have this done. It's going to a good place. I believe it's better than the original."

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