FORT LARAMIE AS COUNTRY VILLAGE AND HISTORIC RUIN
From 1890 when the Army hauled down the flag for the last time until 1938 when the Federal Government reclaimed the place as a National Monument, a span of almost a half-century, Fort Laramie slept in the sun, dreaming of faded glory. Although a few perceptive individuals recognized its lingering historic value, and many visited it out of curiosity, its status during this period was that of a country village, not altogether deserted but looking rather forlorn, like a tornado-ravaged community which never bothered to rebuild.
The desolation was the result of the wholesale demolition of buildings that occurred in 1890 and the decade following. This is not to condemn those responsible because in the 1890s there was a scarcity of local lumber for construction and there was no thought, in or out of Government, of reserving Fort Laramie for future park purposes. Indeed, it would be 25 years before anyone of record would suggest publicly that the few buildings remaining should be preserved for posterity.
The auction of 1890 was poorly attended because of inclement weather and muddy roads. The total proceeds realized by the Government was less than $2,500. John Hunton, who had the advantage of living on the premises as the last post sutler, 1888-1890, was one of the few bidders. He paid less than $400. for a dozen buildings, including the Hospital and Non-Commissioned Officers Quarters on the hill, and the eight buildings which comprised Officers' Row. Since he already owned the Sutler's Store, this gave him control of the line of intact buildings which are today the crown jewels in the collection of surviving Fort Laramie buildings Old Bedlam, the Store, the Magazine, and two Officers Quarters. He filed for a homestead on a quarter section that included these buildings.
Another successful bidder at the auction was one Joe Wilde, who also homesteaded part of the fort grounds, including the Old Bakery, the Commissary Storehouse and the Cavalry Barracks. He converted the latter into a combination hotel, store, dance hall, and saloon. The south end of the parade ground, site of the adobe trading post, was homesteaded by the widow of Thomas Sandercock, a civilian engineer at the fort, who made her home in the frame officers quarters of 1870. Her use of the 1866 Guardhouse for farming purposes also forestalled its disappearance.
Counting two small buildings, a frame out-house behind Officers Quarters F and the masonry shed behind Officers Quarters B, a total of 12 Fort Laramie buildings survived more or less intact to the modern period. Including the 9 ruins that remain with standing walls, that means over 50 buildings were demolished, moved elsewhere, or dismantled for lumber. Thus the old fort was reincarnated, so to speak, in many a homestead shack, ranch house or barn.
Although the fort itself was diminished, fortunately its setting was left largely unimpaired. The nearest modern community, the town of Fort Laramie, is three miles distant, and the Burlington Railroad of which it is a station follows the north side of the Platte. Thanks to an unobtrusive irrigation system in the valley, the Laramie River has tended to stabilize, restoring timber growth along its banks. A cottonwood grove planted by Wilde is a living reminder of Fort Laramie as country village.
John Hunton died September, 1925, at the venerable age of 88, but the spirit that he embodied caught fire in others. Local newspaper editors expressed dismay at evidence of deterioration and desecration of the fort, the result of absentee landlords, indifferent renters, and stray visitors who felt free to make off with any relics they could lay their hands on. At the first meeting of the new Wyoming Historical Landmarks Commission in 1927, other patriotic citizens voiced their concern about the fate of the old fort. The Commission, with the support of local communities, made repeated efforts to acquire it. Although it was thwarted by unwilling land-owners its efforts focussed public attention on the issue. Symptomatic of growing public interest in preservation was a giant celebration held on the premises in 1930, in cooperation with the Oregon Trail Memorial Association, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first wagons up the Platte route.
During early years of the Depression hope for saving the fort dwindled, but the turning point came in 1936 when National Park Service representatives first visited the site and, impressed with what they saw, expressed to Wyoming Governor Leslie Miller interest in preserving it. This led to a successful effort by the Governor to persuade the Wyoming legislature to buy and land-owners to sell 214 acres in 1937. The State thereupon tendered a deed to the United States, which was accepted by the Secretary of the Interior. By Presidential Proclamation of July 16, 1938, this became Fort Laramie National Monument. (In 1960, when the area was enlarged by Congress to 571 acres, it was re-designated a National Historic Site.)
Once more the flag of the United States would fly over the old parade ground. And now the strange assortment of ruins and ancient buildings, shattered, sagging, collapsing, some the abode of cattle, hogs and chickens, would awake from their long slumber.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003