Agate Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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The history of the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries is a complicated, yet highly interesting story. It begins with an Agate, Nebraska, family named Cook who discovered the bone hills near their ranch in the late nineteenth century. The family unselfishly encouraged institutions from around the world to come to the Agate Springs Ranch and excavate fossils. It was also the Cooks' truthful, trusting nature that endeared them to the Ogalala Sioux who were always welcome at the Cook ranch.

As the significance of the fossil quarries became known, a central question arose: How could the Cook family best preserve and protect the scientific and historical wonders of Agate? This preservation ethic almost led to the incorporation of the quarries into the Nebraska State Park System, a movement which ceased with the onset of the Great Depression. The idea of an Agate monument did not die, but gained new impetus when Harold J. Cook served as Custodian of Scotts Bluff National Monument in the mid-1930s. This early contact with the National Park Service, and the friendships established with key Park Service personnel, helped lead to the 1965 authorization of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.

The planned development of this area failed to materialize for reasons explained in the following pages. Problems over land acquisition are the principal culprits. Agate Fossil Beds' cause was heralded in the mid-1970s by the United States Senator who sponsored the park's enabling legislation—Roman Hruska of Nebraska—the ranking Republican of the Interior Appropriations Committee. Senator Hruska's initiative got the construction of permanent visitor facilities placed on the Service's priority schedule, only to fall victim later to changing national policies.

Shifting priorities and lack of funds have been the story of the non-development of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Park Service policies, particularly in regard to land acquisition, unified the community against area managers. The public and politicians viewed higher Park Service management in Omaha and Washington, D.C., as lacking commitment to the remote park and unwilling to fulfill the bright promises of the early 1960s. In fact, the park is commonly perceived in the Service as the stepchild of Scotts Bluff National Monument, the area which administers it. A few cry for deauthorization, disappointed because the Agate Springs Ranch headquarters is not a Service-owned interpretive facility. These voices, and those who belittle Agate Fossil Beds, quite simply are afflicted by the bias which perceives National Park Service units as solely historical and/or natural areas. Science, and certainly paleontology, is unappreciated and misunderstood.

This historian operated under the same bias when the project began in early 1983. When I conducted research for the Scotts Bluff Administrative History, I also collected data for a similar study of Agate Fossil Beds. I determined that since the Scotts Bluff and Agate Fossil Beds files were often intermixed, two birds (administrative histories) could be killed with one stone (research trip). I made a two-hour visit to Agate Fossil Beds and furiously photocopied the Agate Fossil Beds files on my final morning in the area before returning to Omaha. I naively thought that that limited data would be sufficient to write the definitive administrative history of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. There are the stepchild/inferiority complex, and ugly bias, plain and simple!

Fortunately, in April 1983, shifting Regional priorities for historical research necessitated the postponement of the Agate study. Research for the newly-established Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, Missouri, relegated my Agate Fossil Beds notes and photocopies to a bottom desk drawer. In March 1985, the project was reactivated. A nagging fear that four hours of photocopying was not sufficient proved justified with another visit to Scotts Bluff, and a day-long visit to Agate Fossil Beds. Oral history interviews and a thorough examination of park files and photographs proved invaluable. By this time, the Cook Papers Collection had been organized and indexed by Karen Zimmerman of the University of South Dakota. A one-week research trip to Vermillion revealed a goldmine of information which has enlivened this administrative history.

The first draft underwent Regional review in the fall of 1985. In an effort to balance viewpoints, including both principal proponents and opponents, I conducted additional interviews in the spring of 1986. A more thorough investigation was also made of the land acquisition controversy with the Agate Springs Ranch. Thanks to a suggestion from former Agate Fossil Beds Management Assistant Roy W. Weaver, I researched the Agate Daily Log which he faithfully and laboriously maintained. These two volumes spanning 1968 to 1973, effectively trace daily on-site developments and should be maintained by park staff for easy referral. I did not retrace the history of excavations because to do so would duplicate the work of Dr. Robert M. Hunt's The Agate Hills (1984). I believe the Cook Papers Collection, together with the park's excellent files and the oral history interviews, have provided sufficient, rich archival sources.

Early history of this fascinating area is necessarily sketchy for this study focuses on matters pertaining to area development and administration. Elaboration is made, however, on those issues which demonstrate the Cook's passionate desire to preserve the Fossil Hills and assorted cultural materials and to make the same available to the public. In the line of future historical research, the next logical step is for a park Historic Resource Study to be based on existing knowledge plus the largely untapped wealth of the Cook Papers Collection. Only after conducting a Historic Resource Study can the real significance of the natural and cultural resources of Agate Fossil Beds be known.

A brief explanation of bibliographical style is also in order. When a National Park Service file code stands alone (i.e., H1417, L1425, D18), this indicates the information derives from Agate Fossil Beds' files which are maintained at the headquarters building of Scotts Bluff National Monument in Gering, Nebraska. Whenever information originates from Service files other than Agate Fossil Beds (i.e., Scotts Bluff or Midwest Regional Office), this is stated. In addition, because the preponderance of Park Service file documentation is the memorandum (in-house/Service correspondence), this designation is omitted, while a letter (out-house or external correspondence) is clearly identified in the chapter endnotes.

Finally, I would like to thank all of those people who helped along the way in the compilation of this study. A special note of gratitude goes to Karen Zimmerman, all interviewees listed in the bibliography, and to Midwest Region Secretaries Jane Beu and Carla Anderson who diligently transcribed the oral history interview tapes.

Ron Cockrell
Research Historian
National Park Service

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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003