Ten years after I was hired as the library media specialist at Jim Bridger Eighth Grade Center in Independence, a neighbor stopped by to chat with my husband, who was mowing the yard. "Guess you folks know that you're livin' on Bridger's old farm," he said. My husband rushed into the house to tell me, igniting a journey that included extensive research, trips to the Old West, new friendships, deep disappointments, and thrilling victories. The startling discovery that I lived on the former farm of my school's namesake fueled my interest in the mountain man who previously was of little interest to me.
I began researching his life, using books and the Internet to find information about this man who had walked on the same ground on which I was walking. As I learned about the intrepid frontiersman who guided more wagon trains out west than all the other scouts combined, I began wondering about his descendants. I discovered that three of his great-grandchildren were still living - one in Modesto, California, one in Belle Plaine, Kansas, and one in Columbus, Kansas.
I joined the Westport Historical Society and met their historian, Peggy Smith, another Bridger enthusiast. She told me that Bridger's granddaughter, Louise Lightle Wachsman, was buried in an unmarked grave at Mount St. Mary's Cemetery. With the support of my principal, G. W. Gelven, I initiated a fund-raising campaign with Bridger students that allowed us to dedicate Louise's headstone within a school year. This event whetted my appetite for more opportunities to educate the community about the unknown hero who had played such a key role in the Westward expansion.
Several years later, two groups of gifted students from Jim Bridger Eighth Grade Center raised $26,000 during a two year period to commission a statue of Jim Bridger by renowned sculptor, Tom Beard. The completed work (at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence) was unveiled by two of Bridger's great grandchildren at a reception held a few days before the Old Scout's 200th birthday.
I am now the library media specialist at Bishop Miege High School in Shawnee Mission, KS. My former history club members were part of the findagrave.com team. During my club sponsorship, the students adopted the children's section of Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City. Once a month, they cleaned the area and raised funds to purchase headstones for children in unmarked graves (http://www.theleaven.com/past_issues/_pdf/v31/Leaven10-30-09.pdf).