Charles Staats, Labadie, has a theory. “If you don’t share history, it’s lost.”
So he’s doing just that, sharing history with as many people as are interested and going beyond the typical lecture to capture the attention of everyone else.
Staats’ era of choice is the 1860s, paricularly the four years of the Civil War — 1861-’65.
One way he attracts attention is by looking the part. Wearing a Union blue Civil War uniform and with his handlebar mustache curled up at the ends, it’s easy to believe Staats could have just ridden off a battlefield somewhere.
Next, he brings on the props, period pieces that are original implements from 150 years ago or ones he hand crafted from official specifications found in history books.
These days, Staats’ star prop is an 1860 ambulance he built to such authentic specifications that filmmaker Steven Spielberg featured it in his Acadamy Award-winning movie, “Lincoln,” that was released last year.
The ambulance hadn’t been seen outside of the movie until last month when Staats took it to the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia.
Later this month, it will again be on display at the fourth annual Civil War Days at Hermann Farm, located just off of Highway 100 as you drive west into Hermann.
The two-day event is set for Sept. 21-22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days.
Curator of Antique Equipment
Staats has long been interested in history, but it’s been more recent that he’s taken that interest to the level of restoring wagons and such.
His day job was as a liturgical artist making church windows for a studio in St. Louis.
Staats moved from Kirkwood to Labadie in 1988, when he bought a circa 1850s home that he “modernized to the 1860s.” When his wife was alive, they ran a bed and breakfast on the property, Staats Waterford Estate.
Fast-forward to 2001 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Staats lost four friends when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
Moved by the actions that day of all the first responders and the everyday citizens who were in the buildings, Staats decided he wanted to do something to honor them.
His friend Randall Andrae, Marthasville, had given him an old pump off of an 1860 fire wagon to restore.
“It was all that was left of that apparatus,” said Staats. “It was known as a piano box squirrel-tail pumper.”
Staats got to work restoring the pumper under the company name, Boles Fire Company No. 1, 1860. Since then, Staats, who serves as historian/curator of antique equipment for the company, has restored several other fire apparatus — hose reel cart, a water wagon (water buffalo) and chief’s buggy.
He takes them to parades and firefighter conventions, traveling around the state so others can see them up close and appreciate them. Many times Staats brings home trophies for his restored apparatus, which he promptly hands over to firefighters in the Boles Fire Protection District.
Building the Ambulance
The 1860 ambulance that Staats built, the one that was featured in “Lincoln,” is something he went looking to add to his collection.
“I wanted an ambulance, I was looking for the running gear — a springboard chassis,” he said. “I came across this one made in Washington, Mo., I couldn’t believe the connection.
“We’re Boles Fire Company, and this is from Washington, right down the street, where wagons (were) made.”
A plate on the back of the wagon reads, “Mft’d by H.J. Buhr & Co., Washington, Mo.”
The rest of the ambulance, Staats built following military regulations he found in history books.
“All the stays had to be made period. The top had to be made period,” said Staats, noting he received help from Judy Wicks, Lonedell, who sewed all of the side drops and curtains.
“All of the buckling on this is horse furniture. Everything leather had to be hand-stitched.”
Staats did all of that and the leather work himself.
Inside the ambulance is an original 1860 stretchboard and actual crutches from the Civil War.
Coming to Hermann
Staats will be portraying Mjr. Charles Staats, commander, St. Louis Department of Medicine, when he comes to the Civil War Days in Hermann later this month.
He’ll set up his ambulance to mirror an 1861 photograph he has of a Civil War surgeon. He’ll have a surgical table standing in front of the ambulance with a dummy-friend of 35 years playing the patient. Throughout the day, Staats will give an open-ended in-character presentation about the work of a Civil War surgeon.
“I am going to bring pharmaceutical, surgical and dental implements that were used in the period of time, 1861-65, of the Civil War,” said Staats. “I’ll have them all laid out.”
In many ways, Staats (who is 70 years old and the youngest of 10 children) said he feels like he’s portraying his grandfather, who was a trumpeter/bugler in the Civil War, but also assisted in the hospital, taking care of the wounded.
“Musicians were always assigned to the Medical Service,” said Staats. “We play the instruments for marching, whatever, but if we have a chance, the command always says, ‘Go to the hospital and help.’ ”
Ambulance Helped Movie Win Academy Award for Props
The Staats family is known in Hollywood circles for its ownership and knowledge of historical props. The family’s involvement in Civil War-era movies, in particular, goes back decades to The Blue and The Gray, as well as North and South.
“We supply wagons, accoutrements, horses and knowledge of how to do things on any period movies,” said Staats.
So it came as no surprise to Staats that Steven Spielberg would be interested in the 1860 horse-drawn ambulance he had built.
Staats noted that he had another Civil War-era ambulances featured in “Lincoln,” one that is kept in Richmond, Va., and has been previously featured in a number of movies.
At Spielberg’s request, Staats’ son, C.J. Staats, who works as a professional stuntman and was hired as both a stuntman and wrangler for “Lincoln,” loaded up the new 1860 ambulance along with two other military supply wagons and transported them for filming.
When Oscar time rolled around and “Lincoln” was nominated for and won a number of Academy Awards, including for props and sets, Staats felt a sense of pride because his ambulance and wagons were a part of that.
Both Charles and C.J. Staats received credit lines for their work in “Lincoln.”
Sharing the History
Staats enjoys sharing all of his historical knowledge with anyone who’s interested — he’s even spoken at medical schools — because he believes his props make learning more fun and memorable.
“Young people today get these textbooks, and read chapter after chapter, but they can’t retain it,” he said. “But you give them a visual aid — say, this is a Civil War ambulance. That is a knapsack that was carried by the steward on his back into battle to help a fallen comrade. These are crutches that were used . . . we didn’t have a drugstore, we had to make our own herbs, our own material out of herbs . . .’ and they will always remember that.”
Staats gives lectures and educational presentations to any group (students, clubs, adults . . . ) who request them. People can contact him either for presentation or group tours of his historical collection by calling 314-795-2826.