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Chapter Five:
Encounters with the Ghosts of Old Fort Davis: Interpretation and Resource Management, 1966-1980

As Superintendent Frank Smith and his staff folded the chairs and took down the bunting from the highly successful dedication ceremonies of Fort Davis, they could take pride in the swift work of restoration at the "best preserved frontier military post" in the National Park Service. The record throng gathered on the old parade ground had been given a glimpse not only of the wonders of the past restored, but also of what the park service could accomplish when the nation's leaders provided it with sufficient resources and guidance. The next 15 years, by comparison, would witness in the Davis Mountains the challenge that the NPS faced in bringing its standards and strategies to bear upon a facility that would not attract such notoriety again, nor would it be graced with the presence of such dignitaries as the First Lady, Secretary of the Interior, and the governor of the state of Texas. Finally, the decline of fiscal support in the late 1960s and early 1970s would make Fort Davis yearn for the heady days of generous budgets, and would influence matters of administration, resource management, historic structure interpretation, and visitor services.

Where the NPS and Fort Davis promoters benefitted from the nascent liberalization of American politics in the first half of the 1960s, forces at home and abroad in the latter half of the decade shifted the nation toward more conservative and combative postures in matters of public service and financing of national parks. The escalation of the conflict in Vietnam required more monies to be diverted from domestic concerns, even as the rising casualties in Southeast Asia made many citizens suspicious of the federal government's role in public affairs. Added to this was the downturn in race relations, despite federal regulations requiring more access to employment of women and minorities. Riots in major American cities over issues of fairness and equity did not touch far west Texas, but the heritage of Fort Davis (a black post in a white ranching community with awkward relations between Anglos and Hispanics) brought home the question of balance and accuracy that would shape interpretive programs at the historic site once the "easy" work of building restoration concluded.

Fort Davis would be led by two superintendents of differing character and training in the years 1966-1980: Frank Smith, who would remain after the dedication for another five years, and Derek O. Hambly, who managed the facility from 1971-1978. The former was interested in the evocative power of the park, and worked most on its museum and retreat parade (especially its music). The latter, a naturalist and biologist by training, would be remembered by staff for his desire to delegate to his employees the course of park interpretation, and for his efforts to round out the park's boundaries and find its identity as an historic site. In neither case, however, did the Park Service place an historian in charge to guide the unit as it searched for the right combination of data and interpretation that would satisfy the varied constituency of Fort Davis: the national perspective of the NPS, the local concerns of the community, and the growing awareness by scholars of the role of race and ethnicity in public affairs and private life.

The historian Michael Kammen spoke to the problems that Fort Davis and its parent agency would have in moving through the thicket of public opinion and scholarly debate as a repository of the nation's frontier past. "The differences . . . between the roles of tradition and memory," said Kammen, "have less to do with what is remembered, or how traditions are transmitted, and more to do with the politics of culture, with the American quest for consensus and stability, and with the broad acceptance of the notion that government's role as a custodian of memory ought to be comparatively modest." That had not been the case in the first five years of Fort Davis' existence as a national park, but would loom large as superintendents Smith and Hambly juggled NPS directives, regional sentiments, and congressional constraints on development of a park that had enchanted so many park service professionals in its formative stages. [1]

Superintendent Smith became aware of the new realities descending upon his park within days of the departure of Lady Bird Johnson and her entourage. By May 1966, Smith had been informed of the reduction of staff at Fort Davis, just as the visitor season had begun. He informed the SWR director that his park could anticipate visitation in excess of 250,000 in the next two years, given the potential for auto travel to Texas and Mexico for the 1967 San Antonio Hemisfair and the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Smith also had too many facilities to supervise for the staff allocated in 1966; a year when President Lyndon Johnson reduced non-military expenditures to subsidize over 500,000 uniformed personnel stationed in Southeast Asia. Matters only worsened as Smith developed his budgets for fiscal year 1969, realizing that he could not meet the plans of the early 1960s with the funds at hand (he had hoped to have trails ready and work done on the original fort [1854-1861]). [2]

Concern about visitation would accelerate throughout 1967 and beyond for Smith, as each month saw increases (despite the bulge created in the records by the dedication ceremonies). Fort Davis did not charge admission in these years, nor did it have an accurate method of assessing visitor totals. Smith used a multiplier of automobiles counted in the parking lot, the average of 3.5 to 3.7 persons per car, and the number of hours estimated that each visitor spent on site. Easter Sunday 1967 set a record of 2,676 visitors, with 4,793 people coming to the park on the four-day Easter weekend. Variables like hot weather would cause declines in a particular month, but the superintendent reported to his superiors in Santa Fe that interest and attention in his park continued to grow as more individuals became aware of its existence, or stopped en route to other NPS attractions at Big Bend or Carlsbad Caverns national parks. [3]

Cooperative Education Students
Figure 39. Richard Razo (on right) and other Cooperative Education Students performing curatorial work (early 1970s).
Courtesy Fort Davis NHS.

Supt. Smith and Pablo Bencomo
Figure 40. Superintendent Frank Smith giving Superior Performance Award to Pablo Bencomo (July 1968).
Courtesy Fort Davis NHS.

The issue of hiring at Fort Davis occupied the thoughts of Frank Smith a good deal in the spring and summer of 1966, as he looked back upon the changes that were sweeping the park service that decade. In July he offered "one man's opinions" to the NPS "Field Operations Study Team" that solicited comments from the field in response to director George Hartzog's plans to reorient the park service with new definitions of employment. Smith, a veteran of 16 years of service with the NPS, noted that his agency "is operating under the tightest economic squeeze we have ever known, in relation to workload." Factors of economic growth, population increases tied to the maturing of the postwar "baby boom," and the expansion of leisure time only exacerbated the "continuing pressure between ceilings of all types and diminishing manpower relative to new programs and new facilities," which Smith predicted "is not going to ease--rather, we may expect it to get tougher." Unlike the Great Depression, Smith did not see new funds on the horizon to meet the needs of the new parks created in the frenzy of the early 1960s. Instead, he called upon the NPS to include small parks like Fort Davis in their calculations of workload and job description, disliking the natural tendency within the agency to link all pay grades and promotions to the duties assumed at the largest NPS units. Smith also asked for a reduction in the amount of report-writing and paperwork assigned to the field; a situation he considered onerous for Fort Davis, where staff were spread thin without the support of larger parks like Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. [4]

What allowed Smith and the staff at Fort Davis to overcome the lack of NPS funding for personnel was the hiring of minority and youth employees through several of the 1960s' "Great Society" work initiatives. The primary program was the Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC), which came to the Davis Mountains-Big Bend area in the fall of 1966. Superintendent Smith wrote that September to Walter Parr, the Alpine-based director of the Big Bend Community Action Agency, encouraging him to send prospective NYC workers to Fort Davis. He considered employment at his park to be more than "routine labor." Instead the youth could engage in "the glorification of our national heritage;" a reference to the types of work needed at the park. Smith conceded that "simple maintenance" like "the brushing out of trails" would be required. Yet he could also offer them "more academic pursuits such as the cataloguing of museum specimens;" a task long delayed because of understaffing. [5]

Helping Smith in the task of selecting and training these youth was Pablo Bencomo, whom the superintendent praised for seeking out the "brightest and best" among community members to work at Fort Davis. Years later, Smith remembered that the NYC employees performed valuable services of maintenance and preservation, while also helping address "an obvious imbalance in the NPS" because the vast majority of Fort Davis NYC staff were Hispanic. The training process at the park differed from that offered to conventional NPS hires, however, with much emphasis on basic job skills. One example of the type of supervision required of NYC employees was the "counseling" mandated by the federal government. In training the youth to work with artifacts, Smith, Bencomo, and other full-time employees led them in discussions about "the growing need for education in the modern world, and the loss to society and the individual through leaving school." Chief NPS curator Harold Peterson came to Fort Davis from Washington in November 1966 to conduct workshops for the NYC staff on artifact preservation, and for the Fort Davis employees on how to handle the youth. Smith also recognized the role of race in the NYC program, telling his superiors in Santa Fe that the use of minority supervisors gave the Hispanic staff "a clear indication that there is no minority line drawn at Fort Davis nor in the Service." The superintendent recommended that NPS send minority park service employees to visit the NYC program to remind the youth "that they are not second-class citizens in the eyes of the Service, and that the Service does not recognize differences in this regard." [6]

The impact of ethnicity on Fort Davis reached beyond federally sponsored youth employment to the park service's own personnel actions. The "imbalance" to which Superintendent Smith referred had its counterpart in the ranks of seasonal and full-time park employees, even though Fort Davis had a long history of multiculturalism as well as racial tension. To that end, Smith worked throughout his tenure as superintendent to attract blacks and Indians to the park staff: the former because of the link between the buffalo soldiers and the interpretation he wished for the park; the latter because of the need to tell the story of the Native societies who had inhabited the Davis Mountains and Trans-Pecos region, forcing the United States to erect the frontier military post in the first place. Smith recalled in 1994 how difficult it had been to bring black seasonal employees to Fort Davis in the 1960s. He traveled to Dallas and Austin to speak with guidance counselors and placement officers of historically black colleges about sending young men and women to west Texas to work for him. Other parks were conducting similar recruiting ventures, as were private corporations and public agencies eager to include minorities in their workforce. The isolation of Fort Davis thus hurt Smith's chances with urban blacks, while others disliked what they saw as "tokenism:" the employment of a handful of minorities to assuage what they considered to be "liberal guilt." A final obstacle for Smith in bringing black people into the park service was the reputation that the city of Odessa received in national news media as "the most discriminatory town in the US." Even though Odessa was 160 miles away from Fort Davis, eastern and southern blacks who knew little of the geography of west Texas believed that conditions in the oil boom town were typical of the entire region. [7]

In the spring of 1967, Superintendent Smith thought that he had attracted a local college student, Ray Nelson, to come to work that summer from nearby Sul Ross College. Nelson, who played football for the Alpine school, received instead an offer from the Dallas Cowboys professional football team to join their preseason training camp, and thus Smith lost his best chance at a black seasonal who could represent the story of the soldiers who had inhabited the post after the Civil War. Smith, however, had more success recruiting an Indian employee, Frank Chappabitty, a Comanche from Lawton, Oklahoma, who attended the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Smith had also employed Fred Peso, a senior at New Mexico State University who was a member of the Mescalero Apache tribe; the people most closely linked to the history of the Trans-Pecos. The need for Indian voices in the interpretation of the Fort Davis story eventually prompted Mary Williams and Nicholas "Nick" Bleser, both historians and rangers, to apply in 1970 for the NPS' "Indian Youth Program." This would have employed four Indian youth for 30 days to acquaint them with careers in the park service, as well as to "enlighten and educate visitors with regard to modern (and possibly historic) Indians in the course of routine conversation." [8]

Despite the commitment of the NPS to hiring additional staff for the purposes of affirmative action, and Smith's desire to represent the Fort Davis story more accurately, continued reductions in operating budgets for the park service took their toll on the management of the park. In October 1968, as the Vietnam war reached traumatic levels, and the highly contentious presidential campaign moved towards closure, the park service informed Smith and his peers that there would be no new staffing for the following tourist season. Smith suggested that in order to save money for summer seasonal hires, he would close the park for two days per week that winter. This would allow the staff to handle the crush of report-writing that had accumulated during the previous summer, and also to provide visitors during the slow season with better service. In addition, Smith learned that his chief ranger, Bob Crisman, sought a transfer to a park closer to family in Carlsbad; a situation that resulted in October 1970 with Crisman leaving Fort Davis after five years of valued service. [9]

Superintendent Smith noted before his departure in 1971 how important it was to continue searching for quality ethnic hires. On March 1 of that year, he wrote a confidential memorandum to the SWR director about his impending transfer to the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso. His departure from Fort Davis provided the NPS with "one of the best possible opportunities for the assignment of a black American as superintendent in a small area." Smith considered his staff "already ethnically diverse," and operating at "a level of excellence which you will seldom find." For these reasons the "assignment of an employee who has not yet served as superintendent will create fewer problems for the employee concerned than in any other area I know." In addition, Fort Davis resided in an area that was "representative of a portion of black history which has not been given adequate exposure." Smith did warn the Santa Fe office that it would have to appoint a black career NPS employee so that "the community, before it can drop its own bafflers, must be made to realize that the old stereotypes have always been in error." The departing superintendent thought that "the community does not yet realize that it is indeed ready for a move in this direction," and by appointing someone whom the locals could trust "to a job which involves the fourth largest payroll in the county and which has a wide influence in many ways will prevent the development of an adverse reaction among the majority of the people." Smith then recommended to the regional director two individuals as his replacement: John A. Carrington, a community relations specialist at the Washington NPS office; and John Troy Lissimore, the historian at Ford's Theatre in Washington. "The bigots will exist," he concluded, but selections like these could help the park service, in Smith's words, "take immediate and affirmative action" to provide Fort Davis with leadership more reflective of its historic traditions. [10]

Frank Smith's awareness of the complexity of race relations in the Trans-Pecos region reflected also his sensitivity to the political nature of his park, and of the watchful eyes that local and state officials cast his way. Employment that constituted the "fourth-largest payroll" in Jeff Davis County, especially when so many minority youth were brought to the park, would not escape the attention of Anglo locals. Thus on more than one occasion, Smith had to respond to inquiries from politicians acting on behalf of constituents seeking employment at Fort Davis. The most difficult of these to address came from veterans of military service, who faced challenges finding work in the area without specialized training. U.S. Representative Richard White of El Paso, the successor to J.T. Rutherford, was approached in October 1967 by three veterans who claimed to have been rejected for positions at Fort Davis as "common labor." They claimed that those hired at the park were not veterans, nor did they have better training than themselves. "We have lived here always," said the unsigned letter from the three veterans to White, "excepting War Service." They were all "property owners and therefore Tax Payers." They believed that they were "not getting a small part of a square deal," and asked the El Paso Democrat: "Is it possible one might have to pay homage to obtain employment at this National Historic Site?" [11]

White's query forced Smith to outline in detail the procedures used by the NPS to employ maintenance personnel at Fort Davis, and to calculate the military service of existing employees. The Civil Service Commission had created the process of an "Applicant Supply File," from which Smith would draw names for employment. The superintendent had advertised the file in the nearby towns of Marfa and Alpine, as well as in Fort Davis, from which he "obtained a list which includes roughly twice the number of laborers we would normally hire." The civil service rules also permitted Smith to hire "employees of several seasons of superlative work," regardless of their veterans' status. "There also may be some concern locally," the superintendent told White, "about the hiring of five youngsters in the President's Back-to-School program. ' Community members thought that they were regular park service hires, not knowing of the various categories of federal employment. As for the complaint that Smith did not hire former soldiers: "Our current temporary labor crew includes three ten point veterans, seven veterans, and three non-veterans, which I think will demonstrate our good faith in this matter." "Let me assure you," Smith told White, "and your constituents, that there is no discrimination of any nature in our hiring at Fort Davis, nor will there be during my tenure as Superintendent." [12]

Not all of Frank Smith's interactions with Texas political figures were as difficult as employment issues. More amusing was the exchange between Representative White, Smith, and Barry Scobee about the decision by Smith to disregard Scobee's cherished tale of Indian Emily. Scobee had waited until after the April 1966 dedication ceremonies to resurrect his grievance with Smith's closure of the access road to Indian Emily's "grave." The "father of Fort Davis" first approached Texas state senator Dorsey Hardeman about the treatment that Indian Emily had received at the hands of Smith. Hardeman had also been contacted on the matter by Edward Clark, U.S. Ambassador to Australia and a west Texas history buff. Hardeman argued to Senator Ralph Yarborough that "the story of Indian Emily is so firmly established as a part of the heritage of this State, and particularly of the Davis Mountains area, that to preclude convenient public access to her grave would be to destroy a beautiful legend of our heritage." The state senator from San Angelo believed that "so little harm can come from maintaining this romantic legend that I seek your [Yarborough's] help in trying to persuade the Park Service to reopen and maintain the road up to this grave." [13]

By 1966, the NPS animus against Indian Emily had become part of local discontent with park service rules and regulations. Hardeman thus went beyond a request for help to suggest to Yarborough that deeper problems affected management of the site. "One of our big troubles," he told the U.S. senator, "in restoring such things as old Fort Davis is that, following such restoration, the rules and regulations prescribed by bureaucrats completely thwarts the original purpose of those who worked so hard, as did you and Slick [J.T.] Rutherford, to bring about its restoration for the benefit and enjoyment by the public." Hardeman, "like Judge Scobee," had "no quarrel with the personnel at the historic site." Yet he "sometimes doubted the wisdom of some of their acts in that they sacrifice too much for over-efficiency." He then recounted to the western history aficionado that Ambassador Clark had sent him his "research" on Indian Emily, in which he proved that "she was shot by a sentry from Shelby County in the back with a Long Tom Rifle." "In all fairness," Hardeman conceded, "I may add that some doubt has been expressed as to the authenticity of this story," but he chose not to "pursue the matter further because of my great confidence in the knowledge of Texas history possessed by our friend, the Ambassador." [14]

Yarborough's response to Hardeman's plea indicated the challenge before Frank Smith and his staff to balance local tradition with park service professionalism. "Prior to receipt of your letter the end of last week," Yarborough told the San Angelo politician, "I did not know that [Indian Emily's] grave and the tradition were being treated as they are by the Park Service." He agreed to "begin work immediately to try to have this slight to one of the state's heroines, one of the great traditions of the West, one of the legends of Fort Davis, corrected." The U.S. senator was chagrined because "this legend was bigger than Fort Davis before the Park Service cut away the grave and thereby tends to bury the legend." As to the charge that "the legend cannot be proved," Yarborough replied: "I see so much history miswritten, that I am ready to believe legend as so-called history." He argued to Hardeman that "history is what the writers make it, and in the realm of national effort or individual political effort, the winners usually write the history, or they write the version that is accepted in the textbooks." He went on to claim that Indian Emily was "a legend of noble sacrifice that saved the Fort," that "there was such a person as Indian Emily," and that "since the whites who were driving out the Apaches wrote the legend, I doubt that they wrote it favorably to the defeated and driven out race." [15]

Superintendent Smith recognized the depth of feeling held by west Texans toward Indian Emily, describing Scobee as Fort Davis' "severest friend and best critic." Smith told the SWR director that the former Justice of the Peace "has now begun to accuse us, evidently, of trying to suppress his favorite fairy tale." Scobee's persistence should not be discounted, said Smith, as "once before, Mr. Scobee was very much in a minority, but his efforts were to a large degree responsible for the creation of the Historic Site." Yet the superintendent believed that "it would be quite easy to spike Mr. Scobee's guns in this matter of access, by providing better information and access than we do at present, and making a considerable splash while so doing." The Fort Davis staff was preparing an "Interpretive Prospectus" that included "telling the Indian Emily legend, and presenting the facts which point towards the impossibility of the affair." This strategy would allow the staff to show that "the Service is not trying to ignore or restrict the spread of the legend." He considered the whole incident "a tempest in a teapot, in terms of the overall picture here or elsewhere." Yet "if some evidence of the Service's intentions can be presented," believed the superintendent, "it will save everyone, at all levels, a great deal of unnecessary correspondence--probably enough to pay for a good share of the exhibit!" [16]

It remained for Smith to assuage the doubts of the powerful Senator Yarborough with language more diplomatic than that shared between Park Service officials tired of the Indian Emily story. To Yarborough Smith acknowledged: "We are fully aware of the place in local affections held by the Indian Emily tradition, and we regret that it is no longer as convenient as in the past for visitors to reach the grave marker." He reminded the senator that "no valid historical evidence had been found to verify the legend," but rejected the claim that "closure of the access road" was "an attempt to discourage visitors from viewing the reputed gravesite." Instead the park merely implemented NPS procedure destined to "eliminate automobiles, roads, and parking areas that in our judgment would seriously mar the historic appearance and character that the restoration program is intended to create." In 1965, Smith and his staff counted no fewer than 35,000 automobiles circling the parade grounds, creating environmental, historical, and safety hazards. The superintendent suggested that the "standard walking tour of Fort Davis, three-fourths of a mile, is not longer than that in many of our historical and scenic parks," and visitors had expressed little concern about the distance as "an unwarranted imposition." If anyone asked to see the gravesite, and could not walk under their own power, Smith had arranged for a park service vehicle to transport them the additional 500 yards beyond the standard tour route. "We realize that this is not a wholly satisfactory substitute for unrestricted vehicular access," Smith concluded, but he hoped that it was "warranted by the important benefits to be derived from excluding automobiles from the historic zone." [17]

Superintendent Smith's concern about the impact of the Indian Emily story on his park was not merely governmental pettiness, despite the claims of local and national politicians. He was determined to tell the Fort Davis tale as accurately as possible because of his long connection to the museum profession; a link that he cultivated assiduously during his six-year tenure at the historic site. Charlie Steen of the Southwest Region had encouraged Smith in the 1950s to join local and national associations that focused upon museum interpretation and visitor services, as a way to advance the professionalism of the park service and keep the organization attuned to changes in the museum business. Smith thus joined the Mountains-Plains Museum Association, serving on its board of directors from 1966-1970, at which time he became association president for one year. He also edited the Texas museum newsletter, and sat for eight years on the prestigious American Association of Museum's council. This explained his work with Bob Utley to represent Fort Davis carefully in its visitors center. It also permitted Smith to advance the cause of racial understanding through the museum at Fort Davis. In a 1971 letter to Milton Perry, museum curator for the National Archives and Records Service at the Harry S Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, the Fort Davis superintendent spoke of the importance of NPS sites addressing cultural issues. "Our experience at Fort Davis," said Smith, "has clearly shown that even a modest assemblage of material on a single aspect of a minority's experience in the United States of the last century can be of significant assistance to scholars, with the limitations on collections more than balanced by the concentration in a single field." Smith also started the process of NPS consultation with the proposed frontier military museum in San Angelo, known as "Fort Concho." "Within a few years," the superintendent told Mrs. R G. Ross of San Marino, California, in 1968, "it may rival Fort Davis as one of the best of the western Military posts--thereby providing the sort of competition which will keep us all active and working towards the best possible visitor services!" [18]

Advising other museums in the Trans-Pecos area was not the most dramatic of Frank Smith's outreach efforts on behalf of the park service. In 1966 the NPS asked him to serve as "keyman" for the planned Chamizal National Memorial in southeast El Paso. President Lyndon Johnson, whose patronage had meant so much to the creation of Fort Davis, had also sought to advance the cause of international cooperation between the United States and Mexico. In 1963 he had urged the NPS to develop plans for a park that, rather than glorifying the conquest of the Southwest by the U.S. Army in 1846, would demonstrate how on a daily basis two cultures shared a common boundary, environment, and economy. Within three years the Fort Davis superintendent, as the NPS official closest to the proposed site on the Rio Grande, began attending meetings in El Paso designed to link the efforts of the federal governments of the two countries, along with the city of El Paso and its school district, to realize Johnson's dream of cultural harmony. [19]

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2002