Fort Laramie
Park History, 1834-1977
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3. Custodian Jess H. Lombard, 1939-1944

The first full-time residential Custodian of Fort Laramie National Monument was Jess H. Lombard, native of Cripple Creek and Forestry Graduate of Colorado State College at Fort Collins. He arrived on the scene June, 1939 and was transferred to Dinosaur National Monument in May, 1944. During his five year stint of area pioneering under the most adverse circumstances he managed, literally, to "hold the fort" intact until better times could permit his successors to initiate meaningful restoration programs. Lombard's problem, shared by all NPS managers during this period, was World War II and the virtual freeze on funds for improvements or area staffing. While American forces were paying the grievous toll for victory in Europe and the South Pacific, the Fort Laramie buildings, ancient and forlorn relics of the Indian Wars, had somehow to be preserved a few more years before their desperate case could be attended to. During this precarious period Lombard had the benefit of the direct material assistance of the Coordinating Superintendent's office at Rocky Mountain National Park; the planning assistance of the Regional Office in Omaha; and research assistance by neighboring Scotts Bluff personnel. But the biggest single factor in his success was Lombard's own native ingenuity, drive and selfless dedication reflected in 60 to 70 hour work weeks despite a measly area budget of around $2,000. per annum, for starters, including the Custodian's salary! [23]

Lombard's only lapse in conscientiousness, of record, was in connection with a field planning conference set up by Assistant Superintendent John McLaughlin, in November 1939, when the underpaid Custodian announced that the meeting conflicted with his planned autumnal elk hunt, a sacred prerogative of all red-blooded Wyoming male citizens. Since the country phone line to the Fort was out of whack, as usual, the heated issue was resolved by a flurry of telegrams, with the dates of both meeting and elk hunt delicately adjusted. Lombard's argument that he needed meat to feed his family, to supplement the meager diet enforced by his pitifully small salary, carried the day. Later he developed an irrigated "Victory Garden" in back of the Cavalry Barracks, with bumper crops of vegetables, but especially corn. This not only further relieved the alleged hunger pains (the elk hunt was a grand success) but word got around about the succulent Fort Laramie sweet corn and, after years of benign neglect, official travel to the Fort from Estes Park, Omaha and Washington, D.C. enjoyed a notable upswing. Actually, feeding "visiting firemen" on a gratuitous basis, in the absence of a cafe in the neighboring town of Fort Laramie, became standard procedure for Jess and his good-natured wife Ila.

Not only were there frequent pilgrimages to the Fort by the Coordinating Superintendent and members of his staff. The Region and the Washington Office began to demonstrate renewed interest. The Regional people looked upon Fort Laramie as a great planning challenge and, in addition, it was right on the road to the more glamorous Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Associate Director Hillory Tolson, whose visit to the site with Mattes in 1936 led directly to state and federal ownership, was the first high level Washington official to visit the new jewel in the Park Service crown, in 1941. Two years later it was visited by none other than Newton B. Drury, NPS Director vice Arno B. Cammerer, accompanied by Conrad L. Wirth, Chief of Lands, who himself would become Director in 1950. [24]

During the War years the Fort Laramie staff consisted of a grand total of one — Lombard — except for a temporary clerk loaned by Rocky Mountain, and an occasional laborer or carpenter when a dribble of funds could be wheedled out of the Regional Office. It was a lonely vigil, but there were a few bright spots that bolstered "staff" morale and gave the neophyte area a good official profile. In February 1941 there was a formal regional Federal conference at Rocky Mountain National Park to which were invited the Custodians of the four satellite areas under Canfield's coordination — Fort Laramie, Scotts Bluff, Dinosaur, and Devil's Tower. [25] Also, the Rocky Mountain and Regional Offices held a series of planning conferences at the Fort to attempt to shape the future while stymied in the present. Best of all, funds and manpower were scrounged up to provide the first effective program of "emergency stabilization" of the old wrecks that once constituted the pride of the grand Army post, an achievement that was highlighted by formal and well-publicized ceremonies in 1940 recognizing the rescue and preliminary rehabilitation of the most famous of all Fort Laramie structures — Old Bedlam.

Before anything could be done with the physical remains it was necessary for all offices to agree on some kind of standard identification for them so that managers and technicians could communicate intelligibly. Such identification was now possible inasmuch as historical research of old military records and ground-plans had progressed sufficiently to comprehend the original military character of most of the surviving structures, the dates of original construction, and the dates of major pre-1890 modifications. Now it was possible to give a proper working label to each of the 22 structures still standing, either intact or in ruins (the same number known to have survived as of 1915 at the beginning of "The Crusade"). Twelve of these were readily identifiable and could be labelled without ambiguity: Old Bedlam, the Old Guardhouse, the New Guardhouse, the Old Bakery, the New Bakery, Cavalry Barracks, Administration Building, Sawmill, Non-Commissioned Officers Quarters, Hospital, Commissary Storehouse, and Old Army Bridge. [26]

The six Officers Quarters presented only a problem of labelling. Since none of the military occupants were known in 1939 Mattes devised an alphabetical system — Officers Quarters A, B, C, D, E, and F — going clockwise around the parade ground beginning with the handsome frame "Sandercock House" that sat on top of old Fort John. ("F" was known to be the post-1890 John Hunton residence.)

The Sutler's Store label was used from the start and then after research was retained despite the fact that in the last two decades of military occupation it was known rather as the "Post Traders." Although the biggest part of the surviving structure represented additions and alterations of 1883, it was the original 1849-1850 adobe store itself, built and occupied by the "Sutler", that gave this unique civilian-managed establishment its special glamor. The 1850 Magazine was at first obscured as a chicken-shed appendage to the fragmentary remains of a lime-concrete addition to an extinct adobe officers quarters, so it took more research to clarify its origins. What was later identified by an old-timer as the Commanding Officer's Chicken House was in 1939 thought to be "The Colonel's Stable," presumably for his favorite horse, and it was some time before the architects came to the conclusion that the frame Privy behind Officers Quarters F was of authentic pre-1890 vintage.

With the historic structure identity problem more or less solved, it became necessary to give highest priority to "first aid" to these aging and decrepit relics. This was made possible by the revival of the ERA project at the Fort from late 1939 through June, 1942, on the scale of a 21-man crew and gross expenditures in the neighborhood of $40,000. This was under Lombard's direction except for architectural and engineering advice by Rocky Mountain and Regional Office staffs. Among accomplishments in this department were the stabilization of the creaky, toppling old Sutler's Store by the application of cables, turnbuckles, and shoring timbers; reinforcement of footings of the Administration Building ruins; re-roofing, and repairing chimneys of Officers Quarters A, E and F; putting Officers Quarters F in useable interior condition; and "defensive" repairs on the exteriors of all intact structures.

During this period an effective "construction proposal" form was devised, to ensure that all work undertaken had proper technical review and approval. At Canfield's suggestion, Mattes and Lombard attempted to standardize terminology for the various types and degrees of preservation work — stabilization, repair, restoration, reconstruction, substitution, etc. Also, in accordance with approved restoration technology of the period, a method of using stamped metal markers was used to identify and date all new structural members, to differentiate from original workmanship. In addition, Lombard was prevailed upon to make a detailed written record of all maintenance, repair, or other work on all historic structures, to be kept in chronological sequence in a 5 x 8 card file. Meanwhile, by late 1940 the Regional Office had completed the set of measured drawings by Architects Hill and Wilkie of all structures, with photo albums, for future reference. [27]

Most of the available funds and manpower were expended on "Old Bedlam," the famous old bachelor officers quarters and onetime Commanding Officers headquarters, which had been received from the State in alarming condition — gutted internally, its once-graceful verandas hanging in shreds, the main building block creaking and shuddering in every high wind. After shoring up the 90-year old veteran with timber bracing to prevent collapse, Hummel, Canfield and Lombard met in September, 1939 and agreed to give first priority to what they called "restoration" of Old Bedlam, but which consisted actually of some first class rehabilitation which would keep the structure in a respectable upright position until a genuine full-blown restoration could be achieved. The principal elements of the Canfield-Lombard treatment of Bedlam was as follows: jacking up the entire structure to level the walls and pour new footings; re-roofing, after the reduction of rotten brick chimneys; re-building of the double veranda with retention of still viable original members; and replacement of original weatherboards missing or curled out of shape. [28]

On August 15, 1940 over 4,000 people assembled to attend ceremonies for which the rejuvenated porch of Old Bedlam served as speaking platform. The affair was for the primary purpose of recognizing what Coordinating Superintendent Canfield as Master of Ceremonies called "the first restoration project," which was also an appropriate moment to publicly dedicate the new National Monument. It so happened that 1940 was also the 50th anniversary of Wyoming's statehood, as well as the abandonment of the military post. Suitable recognition of these coincidental facts took the form of dedication of a bronze plaque to John "Portugee" Phillips, described by guest speaker Robert S. Ellison of Tulsa (first chairman of the Historical Landmark Commission) as "the Paul Revere of the Plains" because of his heroic ride from Fort Phil Kearny to Fort Laramie to report the Fetterman Massacre of December, 1866. Since legend has it that Phillips' exhausted horse dropped dead on the parade ground, and that the haggard frozen Scout then burst upon a startled assemblage of officers and their ladies celebrating Christmas in Old Bedlam, the plaque was erected directly in front of that venerable structure. Other notables present on that auspicious occasion were George Houser, Guernsey editor, old Fort Laramie champion, and now Secretary of the State Department of Commerce and Industry; Howard R. Driggs, William H. Jackson, Mae Reed Porter and other notables of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association; and the then current HLCW trio, Warren Richardson, Joseph Weppner, and John Charles Thompson. Following the formalities, which included a lively brass band and a beef barbecue, a historical pageant, "Wyoming Speaks," was staged on the grounds by the Goshen and Platte Counties Golden Anniversary Committees. [29]

There were other less glamorous accomplishments with ERA and reserve funds under Lombard's auspices, more in the nature of maintenance or temporary improvements." The final phase of area cleanup saw the removal of the last of the non-historic or post-1890 grounds debris and the restoration of native grasses, an accomplishment enhanced by abundant rainfall in the early 1940s following drought years. This promoted weed growth also, of course, primarily bindweed which was combatted by a poisoning project. Restoration of the Fort Laramie irrigation ditch facilitated watering of the greenery, including saplings planted around the parade ground in a well-intentioned but dubious effort to restore the trees evident in 1880s photographs. A late-period "race-track" on the plateau north of the Non-Commissioned Officers Quarters was obliterated. Among other unheralded achievements were the completion of boundary fencing, installation of boundary markers, and a few directional and interpretive signs.

More significant was the construction of a temporary equipment shed, a "temporary" parking area, and "temporary" pit toilets adjacent to the Cavalry Barracks, all "temporary" facilities that were destined to expand and dominate the scene for the next 40 years, or until the date of this writing (1978). All of these were in the immediate vicinity of the Barracks, the parade ground end of which now became a combination Custodian's office and living quarters. Despite all efforts to make these quarters liveable for the next 25 years, the character of the superannuated structure was such that adequate heating was a perennial problem, a fact stressed on one sub-zero occasion when a hot-water bottle which fell from bed to floor was discovered to be frozen solid in the morning. After skunks, mice, and other creatures beneath the floor were eradicated, unsavory odors wafted down from the ceiling — pigeon droppings and bat guano in quantities on the unused second floor — which left olfactory impressions long after the stuff was shoveled up and trucked away. [30]

A minor triumph of the Lombard period in the historic preservation department was the refurbishing — for appearances only — of an authentic pit privy or out-house behind Officers Quarters F, the smallest of the military structures surviving more or less intact. Being an interesting fixture of the 1880s, a prime conversation piece, it was with some validity that Lombard referred proudly to this as a "Victorian bath-room" or "Gay Nineties Latrine." Since visitors also required "working latrines," Lombard had two functional privies of similar antique design built behind the ruins of Officers Quarters B, C and D (which are still in place, as of 1978, but no longer functional). [31]

A major concern in the historic preservation area, not resolved in the Lombard era and never since resolved to universal satisfaction, was the treatment of historic standing ruins, consisting mainly of the stark walls of grout or lime-concrete Army structures erected 1873-1886, denuded of lumber after 1890 by parties who paid private owners John Hunton and Joe Wilde for the salvage. These are identified as the Administration Building, Officers Quarters B, C, and D, the Sawmill, the Hospital, the Non-Com Quarters, the New Bakery, and the New Guardhouse. While these have the appearance of solidity, the grout deteriorates from weathering, principally alternate freezing and thawing of moisture, and the ruins are particularly vulnerable at foundation plate levels and apertures. In time holes and cracks appear, eventually causing the walls to crumble, tilt and — if nothing is done — collapse, as happened since 1937 to portions of the Hospital. From the beginning of NPS involvement, even though other intact structures received preference, thought was given to ways and means of "ruins stabilization." During the War there was a series of unhelpful technical reports by Charles Randels, Wilfred Hill and others on the problem of doing something about footings, cappings, and wall surface preservation. The problem was challenging enough to give rise in June 1941 to a conference at the Fort attended by Omaha and Washington, D.C. engineers, fortified by the latest data on masonry preservation techniques. From this, definitive solutions were supposed to emerge but the intractable nature of the ponderous grout walls, coupled with the rather helpless infancy of masonry preservation science, resulted in no bona fide solutions at that time. For the next three decades different managers and technicians would try different solutions, experimentally, with questionable long-term results. [32]

In a trip report of August 1940 Regional Historian Hummel cautioned against "make work" with ERA crews that might unthinkingly damage historical evidence, and stressed the need for more historical and archeological research on Fort Laramie structures — their chronology, original plans, and uses — before valid preservation proposals could be formulated. Pursuant to his concern and that of Acting Coordinating Superintendent Doerr, in October 1941 Custodian Mattes of Scotts Bluff received a handsome promotion (from $2,000 p.a. to $2,600 p.a.) for performing extra duty as official research historian or "historical technician" for Fort Laramie. He was to research and prepare technical reports beyond those prior accomplishments when he was only on a volunteer or special assignment basis.

Mattes was able to contribute significantly in several ways, despite his residency at Scotts Bluff, partly because he had a permanent ranger and clerk, plus ample maintenance funds, to back him up at that area during his absences, partly because of his technical skills, and partly because of an enthusiasm for Fort Laramie dating back to 1935 when he first visited that area and became one of its vocal advocates. Among his more significant accomplishments during the Lombard period was the completion of an encyclopedic compendium of archival and library source references entitled "Surviving Army Structures at Fort Laramie," which became a basic guide for future architects, planners and interpreters. Another major contribution was a report entitled, "Research Checklist of Contemporary Plans and Pictures," which over the decades has been frequently updated as new pictorial records have been discovered. Fort Laramie buildings, scenes, and personalities seems to have been surprisingly well recorded by artists and photographers over the years, and as their graphic evidence began to accumulate as a valuable source of primary evidence, the collection and cataloguing of such items became imperative.

In addition to these basic studies by Mattes, Custodian Lombard conducted interviews with old-timers who had personal ties with the pre-1890 Fort. Some of these people had remained as Wyoming residents. Others were outstate visitors who "returned to the scene of the crime," upon hearing of its new park status, and made themselves known. Prominent in the former group was Alice Fields Sampson, daughter of the Fields who was appointed as Interior Department Custodian in 1890. Two valuable informants were Meade Sandercock and his sister Mamie Robertson whose childhood recollections of the Sutler's Store provided the first clear record of the precise 1880s uses of the various sections of that building. Among venerable visitors from outstate were General G. W. McIver (ret.), who had been involved in the dismantling of the Fort in 1890, and Jack S. Collins, nephew of James S. and Gilbert Collins who held the post tradership in the 1870s. There were other research windfalls, such as the Custodian's discovery of a large batch of papers and ledgers in a hidden cranny of the Sutler's Store belonging to Post Trader John London of the 1880s. Another example was a bit of tantalizing research on the Hog Ranch Saloon when that one-time hangout for enlisted men, just west of the Military Reservation, was levelled by private owners unsympathetic to the cause of historic preservation. [33]

Mattes made frequent visits to the Fort to consult with Lombard on project planning and execution. He assisted in the preparation of interpretive tour maps and historical resumes used in both area Master Plans and information leaflets for visitors. He also conjured up the first "Preliminary Museum Plan" for the area. Since no permanent museum or Visitor Center materialized during the first 40 years of the park's existence, no use has been made of this or any other of the several versions of a Fort museum plan. Instead, each Superintendent beginning with Lombard improvised his own "temporary museum," using artifacts, illustrations and improvised labels, to give visitors insight into Fort Laramie history and sociology. Lombard's "museum" was the front two rooms of Officers Quarters E, plus a rough "laboratory" and storage place in the rear. This latter was the beginning of an effort to formalize, catalog, and accession historical objects or "relics" that had accumulated by donation or "surface archeology" under Mattes, Fraser and Lombard, and the artifacts unearthed by the initial archeological programs.

G. Hubert Smith, who had worked with Mattes in the initial 1938 clean-up operation, was on hand also for three summers thereafter to direct CCC crews in solving archeological puzzles. In 1939 he excavated the two vanished Officers Quarters sites between Old Bedlam and Officers Quarters E, in the process discovering that a standing stone remnant of one of the sites was in fact the walls of the original Post Magazine of 1850. That same summer he also excavated the foundations of the extinct Infantry Barracks and kitchens at the north end of the parade ground. The cleaning, labelling, boxing and storage of over 60 cartons of artifacts then accumulated, under Smith's direction, entitles him to recognition as the area's first professional, though temporary, museum curator. His manuscript write-ups on these "digs", though never published, also constitute the first scientific reports on Fort Laramie archeology. [34]

In 1940-1941 help on the artifact collection was made available through the National Youth Administration (NYA) under the direction of Jerome Hendron, another CCC veteran. Smith and Hendron next excavated the levelled kitchen area of Officers Quarters D, and then tackled the cellar of the adobe wing of the Sutler's Store, which had always been the main retail store, coming up with an impressive collection of artifacts that earlier amateur diggers had missed, primarily coins dating back to 1835. The original floor was missing, but Hendron was able to plot the existence of a storage area and sub-floor. Hendron's enduring contribution was a report entitled, "Introduction to the Archeology of Fort Laramie," which surveyed all work up to that point. (Hendron later moved to Arizona. After a stint with the Minnesota Historical Society, Smith became a historical archeologist with the Missouri River Basin Surveys of the Smithsonian Institution at Lincoln, Nebraska.)

Before Lombard's departure for Utah, the temporary museum was moved to the office lobby in the Cavalry Barracks, while the cartons and catalog which constituted the museum laboratory were installed in another section of that building. Other steps taken for the benefit of visitors included the installation of informational signs and markers at the building sites, the free distribution of an information bulletin or area guide, the first official printed publication for the area. Also published during this period, in Annals of Wyoming, official quarterly of the Wyoming Historical Department, was Mattes' documented research report on "The Sutler's Store at Fort Laramie" and Lombard's sentimental essay on "Old Bedlam." [35]

Though there was still not much to see beside the drab exteriors of the old buildings, a portent of things to come was the upsurge of visitors, from 4,000 in 1937 to over 10,000 in 1940, the year Old Bedlam was given cosmetic treatment and made the focus of dedication ceremonies. (Considering war-time exigencies, such as gas rationing, it is not surprising that attendance slipped below 2,500 annually from 1942 through 1944.) Another statistic was an operating budget of over $6,000. for Fiscal Year 1944, an inflationary three-fold increase over the $1,950. for starters in Fiscal Year 1939. Much of the increase went for equipment and maintenance. Despite an administrative increase in the Custodian's salary (from $1,920 to $2,100 p.a.) the Fort Laramie custodianship was still no sinecure. [36]

Although physical improvements were severely limited by war-time budgets, there was no ceiling on long-range Master Planning of Fort Laramie's future by concerned officials at all levels. Anticipating expansive post-war budgets, there was some heavy concentration during this period on the subject, which is worth surveying briefly as a record of the cerebral energy expended, and an example of the planning process for a new Park Service area. (The process, which consists basically of exploring all alternatives along with the accumulation of maximum data, seems not to have changed radically between 1939 and 1978.) Details of which conference was held where and by whom may be omitted except to note that the principals involved in this maiden planning effort, besides Canfield and Lombard, were Howard Baker, Associate Regional Director, and Edward A. Hummel, Regional Historian, of the Regional Office, and Merrill Mattes of Scotts Bluff.

The first Fort Laramie Master Plan, dated June 1939, predicated a future headquarters area on the bottoms west of the parade ground area. It was promptly criticized as being too close to the historic buildings and subject to flooding. Accordingly, a second plan attempted to site a headquarters development in the Southeast corner of the area, on the far or South side of the Laramie River, and west of Deer Creek. This would require a new access road from the west and, of course, a new bridge across the Laramie, but all within the given Monument boundary. While well screened from the parade ground by river bottom trees and undergrowth, this was a kind of dismal swamp which bode ill for employee's health, was also subject to flooding, and it offered little control of public access to the Fort proper. Despite their flaws, both these initial plans had the merit of managing to remain within the given arbitrary and rather cramped boundaries of the 214 acre Monument.

A third version, proposed by Canfield in 1940, would put the headquarters, utilities and residential areas in the same general Southeast corner, but this time on the right bank of Deer Creek, above flood level and with sight control of the Fort. The catch here was that road access to the park might require an extension of the south and east boundaries to provide right-of-way along the south side of the Laramie, and adequate elbow room for new buildings properly screened at a discreet distance from the historic area. Canfield's idea was that the separate old and new building groups would be connected by a foot-bridge, extending from a low-profile Visitor Center to the west bank, at a point somewhere between Officers Quarters A and the Administration Building ruins, that is, the vicinity of the original adobe-walled Fort John, which would make an admirable interpretive point of departure. This bold concept, coupled with awareness now that almost half of the 1880s Fort complex had been omitted from the State purchase, led to a growing conviction that it would be necessary to seek additional land through Congressional enactment. So almost from the very beginnings of the National Monument we find increasing reference in reports and correspondence to the need for extension of boundaries, and this is reflected similarly in periodic Master Plan revisions. [37]

Neither Canfield nor any one else would have been able to guess in 1940 that over 25 years would elapse before the exact acreage required would be agreed upon, legislation enacted, and the lands purchased. Neither could he have imagined that after the lapse of 38 years there would still be no new museum-headquarters complex at the site he envisioned, or any where else — that, in fact, the Fort offices and Visitor Center would still be "temporarily" in one of the historic buildings.

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003