‘Master storyteller’ Leo Benton honored
The late Leo G. Benton, a dedicated volunteer tour guide and ‘master storyteller’ in Corydon for about 20 years, was remembered fondly when a memorial stone and bald spruce tree were dedicated Sunday at noon at a place he knew well, the Civil War Battle of Corydon Park.
Leo’s widow, Mary Benton, and one of their sons, John Benton of Huntingburg, and her good friend and neighbor, Thelma Sgouros of Corydon, were present for the ceremony, which included a group of Civil War reenactors from Michigan and elsewhere who were in town for the Battle of Corydon reenactment later that day at Hayswood Nature Reserve about a mile away.
Andrew Best, the president of the Harrison County Historical Society, recounted Benton’s career as a volunteer tour guide and storyteller for groups of tourists and schoolchildren who wanted to see the sights in Indiana’s first capital.
Benton was a retired insurance man who died May 31, 2001, at age 83. Best said Benton was ‘a prime mover’ in telling the story of Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate Raiders move through Harrison County. Benton helped organize the biannual reenactment of the skirmish and helped bring the battle site off Old S.R. 135 into the Harrison County Park Dept. He also told the story of historic Corydon to thousands of schoolchildren, especially fourth graders, who come from all over the state to see the birthplace of the state of Indiana. Benton eagerly stepped onto the school buses and ‘created living history,’ Best said.
Benton was an enthusiastic teacher and he had a sense of humor. Bill Brockman, manager of the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site, said Benton usually wore a cap that said, ‘tour gide,’ and waited for the first fourth grader to notice.
Best said when he and his wife, Doris, moved to Corydon in 1982, he heard about Benton from the late Blaine Wiseman, a banker who was always interested in promoting Corydon and Harrison County. Wiseman told Best, who had an interest in local history, that there were three people he needed to get to know right away: the late attorney Arville L. Funk, who was an historian, prolific author and expert in Civil War history, particularly in Indiana; Frederick P. Griffin, the Harrison County historian and genealogist par excellence, and Leo Benton.
Best said Funk was ‘the writer,’ Griffin was ‘the compiler and editor,’ and Benton was ‘the voice’ of Harrison County history.
Best said he and Benton talked frequently about the best way to tell the story of Morgan’s Raid here on July 9, 1863, only the second battle fought on northern soil after Gettysburg. Four hundred and fifty members of the Harrison County Home Guard were hopelessly outmanned and outgunned by Morgan’s 2,400 Confederate guerrilla fighters.
Benton knew of an ‘electric map’ that showed troop movements at Gettysburg and another at the Virginia Military Institute in Leesburg, Va.
When the Filson Club of Louisville sponsored a 30-day celebration of Morgan at the Kintner House B and B in Corydon, Benton developed a four-by-eight-foot electric map that detailed the movement of Morgan’s troops through Harrison County. It was on display at the Kintner House, which Wiseman helped develop in Corydon.
The map ‘needs a home that will grow into an interpretive center, telling the historic stories,’ Best said Sunday, obviously aiming to plant an idea among his listeners.
‘It can be done,’ Best said later. ‘It’s just a question of someone providing the leadership. We’ve got to keep people here more than two hours. It’s a great visitor opportunity.’
‘The Civil War cannon is here (at the park) because Leo believed there was a need to visualize the artillery,’ Best said.
The memorial service was dramatized considerably by the presence of Civil War reenactors with the Second Kentucky and 39th Tennessee infantry units. They were accompanied by two ‘widows’ dressed in black who placed a wreath at the Civil War monument in memory of all the men and women and children who lost their lives in the war between the states.
Following a loud gun salute, which caused one child in attendance to say, ‘I don’t think I’m going to like this,’ the Rev. June Fields of West Point, Ky., offered a word of prayer. He said Benton ‘loved this place’ and his influence among people was ‘like a ripple in the water that just keeps going out.’
Fields, with a mustache, long white hair, and knee-high black boots, is a pastor with the New Covenant Christian Church. He doesn’t have a church but he preaches and acts as a chaplain at re-enactments.
The marker beneath the spruce tree says, ‘This tree is in honor of Leo G. Benton, Jan. 2, 1918 – May 31, 2001, the master story teller of the Battle of Corydon and historic site.’