Fort Laramie
Park History, 1834-1977
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2. Early Federal Custodianship, 1938-1939

On May 31, 1938 the Scotts Bluff CCC Camp was terminated, and on June 22 Randels received a telegram from Regional Director Allen instructing him to report to Rocky Mountain National Park for duty. He was also to relinquish the full custodianship of Scotts Bluff to the original appointee, Merrill J. Mattes, who had served as Historian during the CCC interim. Thus automatically Mattes also assumed the role of liaison officer for Fort Laramie and, when Fort Laramie National Monument was officially proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 16, 1938, he became the first official Custodian of that new park area, a fact confirmed by Associate Director A. E. Demaray's letter to him of August 12: "Mr. Randels' duties as Acting Custodian [of Scotts Bluff] included supervision of Fort Laramie, and as those duties have now been assigned to you, Fort Laramie National Monument has been placed under your supervision." [13]

Mattes' role as Acting Custodian for Fort Laramie was of limited duration, and it was secondary to his Scotts Bluff duties. Though now once more the full-fledged Custodian of Scotts Bluff, he was technically only interim or "Acting Custodian" of Fort Laramie. No full-fledged resident Custodian could be hired until funds would become available as of July 1, 1939. Nevertheless, Fort Laramie as a Federal civilian establishment began under his aegis, and it began auspiciously with an action program to initiate area improvements.

As of July 16, 1938 Old Fort Laramie had no where to go but up, for it had reached its nadir as a decrepit "ghost fort." Buildings, many of them in recent use as cow-barns, pig-pens, and chicken sheds, were a shambles, some seemingly on the verge of collapse from decades of weathering, rigged alterations, and vandalism. The historic picture was further blurred by the existence of extraneous sheds, fences, feed-troughs, windmills, piles of manure and layers of trash.

By Service agreement the Harmeier family remained in the Officers Quarters adjoining the Sutler's Store (the Hunton House), to provide some degree of on-site protection against vandals. [14] Mattes and Scotts Bluff rangers re-boarded windows and padlocked doors. Immediately after the Proclamation, E. A. Hummel joined him on an inspection tour and together they formulated a program for a CCC project, broken into three main parts: topographical survey, archeological reconnaissance, and "Landscaping, Undifferentiated," a fancy term for general clean-up and obliteration of non-historic features. [15]

On August 4 Hummel advised Mattes that the Bureau of Reclamation had approved a Fort Laramie work force of 20 enrollees from the Lake Guernsey CCC Camp, to operate for 60 days, beginning mid-August. Men and equipment would be transported daily from Lake Guernsey. Archeologist G. Hubert Smith was dispatched on assignment from Fort Ridgeley, Minnesota, to supervise archeological investigations and coordinate clean-up work to ensure against the accidental destruction of bona fide historic features. Engineer Foreman Allen was assigned from the Fort Casper CCC Camp to survey the boundaries, while Foreman Lundy of the Guernsey Camp ran work crews. The entire project was directed by Mattes who made frequent inspection trips from Scotts Bluff, following initial project review with the foremen.

Among results of the fortuitous CCC project were vastly improved appearance of the grounds, the first reliable site map to record accurately all identifiable historic features, and preliminary archeology which delineated hidden building sites and laid the groundwork for the area's unique collection of military period artifacts. Except for the removal of dung and debris, and the locking up or boarding up of doors and windows, no actual work on historic buildings themselves was undertaken at the time, in the absence of any funds for the purpose or any preservation priorities. A by-product of the archeological survey was confirmation of the fact that the Monument area excluded over one-half of the 1890 Fort grounds, primarily the Quartermaster and stabling area. [16]

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of having knowledgeable professionals in control of the clean-up operation. The salvaging of a historic site by amateurs, however enthusiastic, too often results in irreparable damage to or loss of valuable but unrecognized features. Mattes was uniquely qualified to oversee this sensitive operation because of his previous pioneering research work on Fort Laramie historic structures. Prior to Federal acquisition, from January to April, 1938 the Regional Office had arranged for him to be on special assignment, to gather all possible data in anticipation of Monument status. His travels to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. as well as libraries of the Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado Historical Societies resulted in an extensive card-file bibliography, and the first official Fort Laramie research report — "A Preliminary Report on the Evolution of Public Buildings at Old Fort Laramie" — which laid the foundation for all subsequent research on historic structures. [17]

On August 22 Dr. Howard R. Driggs, William H. Jackson and other notables of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association convened at the Oregon Trail Museum at Scotts Bluff, on one of their series of annual treks along western trails. This occasion was highlighted by Jackson's staking the site of his 1866 camp in Mitchell Pass as a boy bull-whacker. The following evening the group visited Fort Laramie and had a roaring campfire meeting in the grove west of the parade ground. On the 24th Tom Allen, Regional Director, visited the Fort with Mattes, the first high-level Park Service official to do so following its establishment. [18]

Mattes had been offered a Graduate Fellowship in Archeology at Yale University for the 1938-1939 academic year, which had the approval of the Director. Accordingly, on September 15 he departed for nine months on a leave-without-pay basis. He urged assignment of Charles E. Humberger, seasonal ranger, to interim management of Scotts Bluff and Fort Laramie, Because of problems relating to Humberger's non-permanent status he was not given such authority until November 1, by which time both areas had been placed under the administrative coordination of David H. Canfield, Superintendent, Rocky Mountain National Park. During the September 15-October 31 interim David D. Condon, Naturalist of Yellowstone Park was ordered on special assignment to Scotts Bluff, but without custodial designation. The records show Mattes as "Coordinating Custodian, Fort Laramie, July 16 to October 5, 1938," when Canfield was named "Coordinating Superintendent." [19]

During the autumn and winter of 1938-1939 Humberger kept on the run, supervising an Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) road project at Scotts Bluff and making periodic visits to the Fort. He helped wrap up the CCC clean-up operation there, installed a few signs, and made emergency repairs to the historic structures resulting from damage that winter by abnormally high winds. In February Ranger Bert Fraser of Rocky Mountain National Park took over from Humberger and became the first NPS official to be actually stationed at the Fort. Fraser, a park ranger on special assignment, styled himself "Acting Caretaker." Neither he nor Humberger bore the official "Acting Custodian" designation at Fort Laramie. The faithful Harmeiers, who received no pay or designation whatsoever, moved out when Fraser moved in. A registration book that they kept voluntarily showed 3,000 visitors to the embryonic National Monument since its inception.

It was fortunate that Bert was a bachelor, because living conditions at the Fort at this stage were atrocious. Utilizing help, materials, and furniture provided by Rocky Mountain (RMNP) he rigged up quarters of sorts in the old Cavalry Barracks. There were successive plagues of bats, rats, rattlers, and feral cats. During his four-month incumbency the temperature swung from 17 below to 107 above, golf-ball size hail shattered windows, and high dry winds further jeopardized the precious ruins. The approach road was one continuous wash-board and the "sanitation system" consisted of a primitive privy in close proximity to the meager water supply.

On his own initiative the undaunted Fraser accomplished quite a bit. He placated visitors, put up boundary markers, kept a good photographic record, and did a creditable job of public relations by supervising the installation of museum exhibits in the Lake Guernsey Museum, made by the NPS Museum Laboratory, in Berkeley, California. He interviewed old-timers and tracked down artifacts, notably one of the oak-and-iron doors missing from the Old Guardhouse. He set up the area's first museum exhibit, in the building later identified as Officers Quarters E, and made valuable notes on authentic Fort Laramie artifacts and documents located in private homes in the vicinity. In effect, he started an unbroken 40-year tradition of enthusiastic, energetic, and imaginative Fort Laramie resident Custodians (later to be designated Superintendents) even though he never bore that title.

Fraser also had general supervision of two emergency work crews that the Regional Office in Omaha had promoted. The ERA provided forty men to clean out several miles of irrigation ditches that served the Fort area but had long been unused, and to make other improvements, such as a temporary parking area near the Cavalry Barracks. Among other notable accomplishments were fumigation of old stable and pen areas, emergency stabilization (propping-up) of Old Bedlam, boxing in of all the dangerously weakened brick chimneys, and the fabrication and erection of a flag-pole. On May 20 the American flag flew officially for the first time in 49 years. The ERA crew was phased out early, to be reassigned to help ranchers combat a grasshopper invasion of the Region, but in its stead another CCC crew from Lake Guernsey was launched. This consisted of 20 enrollees, five to work as guides to the increasing numbers of visitors, and 15 assigned to Archeologist G. Hubert Smith, now transferred from Fort Ridgeley to RMNP jurisdiction. [20]

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., serious thought was being given to the Fort's future. At Tom Allen's request of March 27, 1939, Chief Historian Lee and Acting Chief of Planning W. G. Carnes put together the first formal policy statement re: Fort Laramie development, "to serve as a guide to preservation and planning." Several of their pronouncements became gospel for program planners for the next 40 years: (1) The primary objective was to save the old buildings by the best preservation techniques. (2) Restoration would be undertaken cautiously, and only after thorough historical and architectural research. (3) There would be no reconstruction of vanished buildings. (4) The final injunction was that "the headquarters and museum development be located outside the area occupied by the Fort proper," to facilitate administrative control, prevent the confusion of new work and old, and avoid efforts to adapt the historic buildings to modern uses for which they were poorly suited. [21] (As of 1978 this last precept had not been fulfilled. For 40 years various historic buildings have been occupied as "temporary" headquarters, museum, quarters, workshops, garage, etc., and long-standing proposals to construct such facilities on the east or right bank of the Laramie, opposite the parade ground area, are still in contention.)

While Fraser was still on the premises Regional Architects Wilfred Hill and Leslie Wilikie resumed the long-range program for the preparation of measured drawings of all of the surviving Fort structures. This was to be done in accordance with the guidelines prescribed by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), and the original drawings, along with record photographs, were to be placed on permanent file with the Library of Congress. Over the decades since this survey was authorized by the Historic Sites Act of 1935 thousands of buildings in the United States have been so recorded. Fort Laramie was one of the first historic places west of the Mississippi River to benefit from this program.

Hill and Wilkie also initiated field studies and plans for "the restoration program we hope will be gotten underway in the future." Also, finishing touches were given to the boundary survey and area mapping by a Regional Office crew, and permanent survey markers were emplaced. [22]

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003