History of Scotts Bluff National Monument
NPS Arrowhead logo

Custodian Mattes

Merrill J. Mattes
Merrill J. Mattes
Custodian, 1938-1946

Merrill J. Mattes was born at Congress Park, Illinois, in 1910, but had lived in Kansas City, Missouri, during most of his life before entering the National Park Service. He holds degrees from the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas.

During the years that Mr. Mattes was stationed at Scotts Bluff. he completed much important and valuable research concerning the westward migrations, fur trade, and other historic activities. Over fifty articles and monographs have been published. He is the author of the Scotts Bluff National Monument handbook and other Government publications. He has written authoritative works on Chimney Rock, Hiram Scott, Robidoux Pass, Fort Mitchell, the Pony Express, Fort Laramie, and other Oregon Trail topics, most of which have appeared in the Nebraska Historical Quarterly and the Annuals of Wyoming. His first book, Indians, Infants, and Infantry, was published in 1960.

For his achievements in research, writing, and planning fields, Mr. Mattes received the Distinguished Service Award and medal of the U. S. Department of the Interior in November 1959. He was also designated Nebraska Civil Servant of the Year in 1958.

After serving a few months in the wartime office of the Director, in Chicago, Mr. Mattes was transferred to the Region Two Office, Omaha, Nebraska, to become the Historian for the Missouri River Basin Surveys. In January, 1950, he became Regional Historian.

Improvement activities tapered off with the abandonment of the C.C.C. camp and by 1940 no construction of any major importance was being done. After the camp moved out, Works Projects Administration crews continued to do some work in the area. This final phase of development lasted until June 30, 1939. [82] Small crews accomplished, among other things, enlargement of the picnic grounds parking area, construction of barriers to the headquarters area, construction of entrance pylons along State Highway 92, and improvement of the parking area at Mitchell Pass, construction of interpretive markers there and at "Observation Point" on the summit. These crews also worked on State Highway 92, the building of display cases for the second, or "Prehistory Wing" of the museum, and improvement of the road which runs through the badlands. [83]

Mitchell Pass interpretive marker
Mitchell Pass interpretive marker constructed by W.P.A. labor in early 1939. This marker is still in place. It replaced original 1930 sign of misleading information.
—Highway Magazine

The granite boulder located at the base of the Scout Trail in 1930 was moved to Scotts Spring in June 1938 when the old picnic grounds were abandoned. The bronze entablature furnished by the local chapter of the D.A.R. was left intact.

Since the bronze entablature memorialized Hiram Scott, it was thought that Scotts Spring was not a good location for it. There is no historical evidence that Scott died at this spring, but a memorial to him there might lead visitors to believe that he did actually die there. The granite boulder was moved to the site of the unknown graves of pioneers in Robidoux Pass in October 1941 where it remains. The entablature was removed at this time and is kept at headquarters. A memorial plaque to Scott was placed on the summit of the bluff in 1959 and current thinking is that such a memorial is best located there.

In August, 1938, the Oregon Trail Memorial Association held its annual meeting at Scottsbluff and at the Monument. At this time, Dr. Howard R. Driggs, President of the Association, presented to Custodian Mattes the two bronze memorial plaques that now hang on the wall of the museum lobby. At this time, too, William Henry Jackson paid his last visit to the Monument. He drove a stake at the site of his 1866 camp site at Mitchell Pass. [84] The original sign located here, marking the camp site, was removed in 1959 when a new routed wood interpretive marker with attached reproductions was installed.

David de L. Condon
David de L. Condon
Acting Custodian, 1938
Charles E. Humberger
Charles E. Humberger
Acting Custodian, 1938-1939

During the summer of 1938, Custodian Mattes also served as "Acting Custodian" for the newly established Fort Laramie National Monument (now Fort Laramie National Historic Site), 55 miles west in Wyoming.

Mr. Mattes was gone from the Monument during the winter of 1938-39. He had accepted a Yale University fellowship [85] and left the middle of September. [86] David de Lancy Condon, a district ranger at Yellowstone National Park, arrived on September 15 to assume duties as acting custodian in Mr. Mattes' absence. [87] Mr. Condon remained at Scotts Bluff only until November 1. Temporary ranger Charles E. Humberger, on duty the summer of 1938, was granted several extensions of his appointment and became acting custodian, serving until Mr. Mattes returned the following June. [88] Mr. Humberger had been a C.C.C. foreman before the camp was abandoned. He directed W.P.A. operations during his tenure. [89]

The year 1939 saw the first Soap Box Derby at the Monument. This unofficial event was held at the base of the summit road each year until 1951, except during the war years. [90] In 1939, a reported approximately 10,000 people gathered to witness this regional running, [91] some 12,000 in 1940, [92] and 7,500 in 1941. [93] The attendance dropped off after the war years until, in 1951, only about 850 attended. Lack of interest and too few entrants were among the chief reasons for discontinuing this annual event. [94] In 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1946, assistance was requested from Rocky Mountain National Park and several rangers from there were on hand to help regulate traffic and parking during the event. In following years, Scotts Bluff personnel handled the affair themselves, except in 1947 when the Nebraska State Safety Patrol helped to regulate traffic in the general area. [95]

In 1939, the last of the Summit Road work was completed. This was the stabilizing of the tunnel portals and side guards with gunite by a private contractor. [96] Total construction cost of this road was $200,265. Work done since then has been limited to routine patching and maintenance. Automobile use permit fees started in 1941. Before this time, a 10 cent fee was charged for museum admission.

Summit Road tunnels
Construction of Summit Road tunnels was finished in 1939 when gunite was used to stabilize the portals. This work was done by private contractor. It required six years to construct the Summit Road which cost over $200,000.00.

The year 1939 saw the last use of the picnic grounds located south of Mitchell Pass. Custodian Mattes had written to Superintendent Canfield of Rocky Mountain National Park concerning the condition of the area. [97] Previous to this, a conference held at Rocky Mountain between Regional Director Thomas J. Allen, Jr., and Superintendent Canfield, resulted in a decision to establish a policy of not providing picnic facilities at Scotts Bluff. [98] The Washington Office had approved this policy, [99] and Custodian Mattes released the following news item on September 15, 1939: [100]

"The Mitchell Pass picnic grounds will be closed effective Monday, September 18, it was announced today by the National Park Service. In this connection, the following statement was issued by Merrill J. Mattes, custodian [sic] of Scotts Bluff National Monument.

For three years the picnic grounds at Scotts Bluff National Monument have been open to the unrestricted use of the public. The popularity of this recreation area has grown far beyond original expectations, with five to six thousand people picnicking here each month, during the summer season.

Unfortunately this overuse of the grounds and facilities has resulted in the gradual destruction of vegetation. The grass cover has been cut away and ground down under several inches of dust. In spite of posted regulations to the contrary, trees have been stripped of branches and chopped down, leaving unsightly stumps. Ravines and gullies have been littered with rubbish. The grounds are becoming denuded and unsightly.

It is the policy of the National Park Service to preserve its parks and monuments in as natural condition as possible. To conform with this policy, we find it necessary to close the picnic grounds, in order to prevent further damage, which would inevitably result in a dust-bowl condition. Eventually picnickers themselves would abandon this area in favor of more pleasant surroundings.

By closing this picnic area for an indefinite period, vegetation will have an opportunity to recover, and it may be possible to open the grounds for restricted use, at a later date."

picnic site
A picnic site with parking area was located south of Mitchell Pass from 1936 through 1939. Vandalism and misuse prevented it from being re-opened.

This release explained in frank terms the reasons for its closing. At this time, it was intended to close the area for only an "indefinite period," but by the spring and summer of 1940 it was further decided to abandon it altogether, [101] and an appropriate news item appeared in local papers. A few "letters to the editor" appeared in the Scottsbluff Daily Star-Herald during the month of April 1940, complaining about its closing, but there appeared to be no concerted effort on the part of local citizens and organizations to re-open it at this time. [102] Rocky Mountain National Park participated in the decision to close the picnic grounds as by 1939 it was involved in Scotts Bluff National Monument affairs.

During the early days of administration, the custodians were directly responsible to the Director. After the "era of development" became a reality in 1933, it was found that additional help was sometimes needed from accounting and administration standpoints.

On August 1, 1937, the National Park Service was regionalized. Scotts Bluff National Monument fell under the jurisdiction of Region Two, with offices in Omaha, Nebraska. It was also thought expedient to have certain of the smaller Monuments consolidated under one coordinating superintendent, and in June 1939 Scotts Bluff and Fort Laramie came under the jurisdiction of Rocky Mountain National Park. Nearly all operations of Scotts Bluff were under the Superintendent of Rocky Mountain and the Custodian was obliged to report directly to him. The Superintendent, in turn, had to concur with any reports, requests, or recommendations that the Custodian had to make before sending them on to the Regional or Washington offices.

In 1950, plans were formulated to have each Monument Superintendent once more administer his own area. By 1951, this became a reality and Superintendent Budlong received word to the effect that ". . . operations at your areas will no longer be under a Coordinating Superintendent, except the functions necessarily integrated with accounting operations will continue to be performed by Rocky Mountain National Park . . . You are responsible to this office for all other phases of the operation of your areas . . You will report on all matters to the Regional Director . . . You will be expected to assume full charge of administration at your area . . ." [103] Later the Regional Office assumed accounting and purchasing responsibilities for these smaller areas.

By early 1941, work was under way eliminating all picnic grounds facilities and there were no serious local repercussions concerning this. [104] Tables and benches were transferred to the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area south of Gering and fireplaces were obliterated. However, when summer came a flood of oral and written protests were received concerning the re-opening of this facility. [105] Despite these formidable protests, the Service stood firm on its declaration of policy and the picnic grounds were not reopened.

Public sentiment remained dormant during the years of the Second World War, but in 1945 further protests arrived in the Custodian's office. [106] These were referred to the Washington Office and the picnic grounds remained closed. There have been no written protests or requests for its use since 1945, but visitors still frequently ask when it will be opened again. The issue is now evidently dead so far as any official consideration is concerned, and it is highly unlikely that there will ever be another picnic or camping area set aside within the Monument boundaries. The last six picnic tables left from the site were transferred to the Bureau of Reclamation at Lake Minatare, Nebraska, on August 4, 1946. [107]

A short ceremony was held on August 13, 1943, at headquarters to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the mass migrations along the Oregon Trail. Although travel was light due to war-time restrictions, a good crowd was on hand to hear the talks given. Among the distinguished visitors present was Dr. Howard R. Driggs, President of the American Pioneer Trails Association. Other appropriate ceremonies were held at the site of Fort Mitchell and Robidoux Pass. Custodian Mattes read historical research papers at the dedication ceremonies for new markers near Fort Mitchell and at the nameless graves site in Robidoux Pass. Liberator bombers from the Scottsbluff Air Force Base flew through Mitchell Pass during the event at the Monument. Boy Scouts, soldiers, and members of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution gave assistance. [108]

There were also several personnel changes during these years. Mrs. Ethel L. Meinzer was appointed clerk-stenographer on August 3, 1942, [109] to succeed John M. Burruss who had held the position since August 2, 1940, [110] Mrs. Meinzer had transferred here from Rocky Mountain National Park where she had held a like position. When Mrs. Meinzer was transferred back to Rocky Mountain National Park, this position was filled locally by Miss Louise Ridge on June 18, 1943. [111] In addition, from 1941 to 1946 Custodian Mattes served as Acting Historian for Fort Laramie National Monument doing special research work relating to restoration of historic structures at that area. This work, together with Jackson Hole research, led to several publications and valuable research reports appearing in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly. the Annals of Wyoming, and other journals.

The first permanent ranger at Scotts Bluff was A. Lynn Coffin, who was transferred to the Monument from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, June 5, 1940. [112] He assumed duties on July 5 after taking a month's leave. [113] He in turn, was replaced by G. Lee Sneddon, who arrived in March 1943 from Rocky Mountain National Park. [114]

Visitation during these years dropped off from the high of 105,151 in 1940 to 25,982 in 1944. [115] Soldiers stationed at the Scottsbluff Army Air Base and at the Prisoner of War camp and from other nearby installations were responsible for keeping the annual visitation at a respectable level. The visitation of the Monument through the calendar year 1960 has never reached the 1940 level.

During these critical years, Custodian Mattes also served as Acting Regional Historian for the Region Two Office, making frequent trips to Omaha to undertake special assignments. The most important of these was his historical research and writing that led to the defense of Jackson Hole National Monument at a court case in Sheridan, Wyoming, in 1944.

Three other activities of note which took place during these years were grazing of livestock on Monument lands, development of exhibits for the paleontology wing, and the establishment of a concessions operation in the lobby of the museum.

During the war years, it became the general policy to permit grazing on National Park Service lands as part of the war emergency. Mrs. B. M. Downar was granted a permit on June 2, 1943, renewable for three grazing seasons, or until September 30, 1945. [116] This permit gave Mrs. Downar the right to graze 20 head of cattle on about 300 acres of land in the southwest section of the Monument in the vicinity of the abandoned picnic grounds.

Another permit was issued to S. B. Young to graze 20 head of cattle on about 20 acres of grasslands in the southern portion of the Monument south of South Bluff. This permit was limited to a short period of time between August 12 and August 31, 1944, and was not renewable. [117]

The cases in the paleontology room were largely empty until 1941. During that year Custodian Mattes and Ranger Coffin improvised displays of the geology and fossil collections at the Monument, supplemented with fossils donated by other museums, photos, maps, and artwork. The new exhibits were unveiled September 1, 1941, when the American Society of Vertebrate Paleontology met at the Monument. [118] These exhibits remained intact for over 12 years.

A Miscellaneous Service Permit was issued to Charles Downey of Downey's Midwest Studio, Scottsbluff, on July 1, 1940, to " . . . sell picture postcards, colored photographs. Kodachrome transparencies and moving picture prints of views pertaining to Scotts Bluff National Monument, and neighboring Oregon Trail sites . . ." [119] This permit was re-issued in 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944. However, due to the shortage of help and supplies, this operation ran only until May 1944 when all operations ceased. Mr. Downey did not apply for renewal of his permit in 1945. [120] All sales items at the Monument now are handled by the Oregon Trail Museum Association.

Merrill J. Mattes received notice in January 1946 of his assignment to the position of Historian, National Park Service, Branch of History, in the Director's Office then located in Chicago, Illinois. [121] However, Mr. Mattes did not leave the Monument until March 23, a few days after the arrival of Robert Ross Budlong (on March 19) from Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Virginia, who transferred to Scotts Bluff as the new Custodian. [122]


History of Scotts Bluff National Monument
©1962, Oregon Trail Museum Association
history/chap11.htm — 26-Jan-2003