Agate Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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THE ROAD TO A NATIONAL MONUMENT, 1961-1964 (continued)

Harold J. Cook's Death, 1962

Following the fast-moving, positive developments of 1961, the momentum for the proposed national monument evaporated with surprising swiftness in 1962. Had the National Park Service proceeded to obtain prompt Congressional approval, the course of development at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument may have been quite different. In the first nine months, there had been no action taken by the Park Service.

The sole initiative came from Harold Cook. In a seven-page letter to Howard Baker dated March 5, 1962, Cook delineated terms for relinquishing his rights to the government. Cook wanted the Agate Springs Ranch to continue as an operating ranch. Clearly he was concerned that land required for the monument not impede ranch operations. He specifically cited the "640 acres of the quarry hills area" and his donation of rights to the area providing "related considerations" were agreed upon. As background for his position, Cook explained:

The situation which my father laid out here, and which we have further developed at Agate around our home, with its groves and other buildings, corrals, ditches, etc., is something that has required almost 75 years to grow, develop, and produce and it could not be duplicated, since unalterable topographic and physical factors are involved, in ways vital to make this possible as it is today. It would take completely prohibitive expense and time to make even a workable inferior substitute.

Our whole ranch operations and economy are based on the irrigated valley sections of this ranch, with its hub and operational center at Agate; and in and around this area our main grove is situated. Consequently, the problems we face in your wanting to take over this grove area, go far beyond the old home in which we live, or any sort of life-tenancy arrangement for us to continue to occupy it, while we live. This actually strikes at the very foundation of our ranch operations here, from which we derive our principal income. [Emphasis added by author.]

This is a vital, key area, necessary for the continuation of our ranch operations, as long as we operate this Agate Springs Ranch, in many ways, that I could show you in detail . . . might not be seen or realized by people long distances away, who are not practical ranch operators. [22]

Cook further explained:

We were particularly delighted when the National Park Service approached us, proposing to develop these famous deposits properly, and make them available to the public in a safe and proper manner. It is exactly the sort of thing my father, my wife, and I have all hoped to be able to do for many years in some practical manner. This suggestion which you people made would offer a most practical solution. Anticipating the possibility of some such development many years ago, when it became necessary for me to transfer surface title to the land on which the fossil quarries are situated to others, I inserted in the deed a clause by which I retained, in perpetuity, all rights for the exploration and development of these quarries for scientific and educational purposes, and together with rights of ingress and egress to and from the quarry areas, which means the right to build roads and a right-of-way across the adjoining lands later acquired by George H. Hoffman, as well. [23]

George Hoffman was Harold Cook's son-in-law. In 1934, Hoffman married Margaret ("Margy") Cook and acquired Eleanor Barbour Cook's property—including the quarries, but not the quarrying rights which Harold Cook retained—and began ranching. The Hoffmans purchased another large tract from Harold Cook in 1948 and lived in the Bone Cabin for several years until their own ranchhouse was built in 1952. [24] Cook stated that Hoffman would have to be bought out as he "is unwilling to deal with you, since he does not have the background, perspectives, or interest in scientific and educational matters that we have and since he is completely dependent for his present and future income on this property." If the government purchased Hoffman's surface rights, preparatory to developing the fossil beds in situ, "I will, as I told you, convey all my rights and title to the quarries to the N.P.S. as a donation, in appreciation of their being put to this splendid public use." Cook also promised, if a museum and research center were built at Agate, to donate his extensive research library "for permanent use and safekeeping, if it is kept here, catalogued and made available to properly accredited research people." [25]

Cook's primary concern was that land, water rights, and windbreaks not be taken by the Federal Government. Without these, operation of the Agate Springs Ranch would be impossible. Preliminary plans called for Service headquarters to be built in the cottonwood grove enveloping the ranchhouse. Cook made a counter-offer:

. . .since the suggestions made to place this in our grove here are impractical from our ranch operations standpoint. . . I am willing to give to this project enough land adjoining Highway 29, and just east of the oiled State road, on which to locate your headquarters facilities, such as you, personally mentioned to me, and space for the proposed Museum and Research Center, to house the present collections of the Cook Museum of Natural History, appropriately and safely in fireproof quarters, properly exhibited, and, in the case of the library and research specimens, kept here permanently, catalogued, and with appropriate supervision and protection at all times. I must have positive, unalterable guarantees that these collections are to be kept in this area permanently, and not transferred for storage, or any other purposes, away from this area where they belong, and are of most effective use. [26]

Until the Service planted its own trees to shade and protect its facility, the Cook grove across the highway would provide this assistance. The use of the Agate Springs Ranch picnic grounds was also offered. As for the Park Service's desire to own and control all adjoining lands to prevent commercial development, Cook stated that he owned all the land within a mile in each direction, had never permitted any outside developments, and would cooperate on this point. He added:

Some features... like Daemonilix... can be worked into development without our having to run our ranch under serious handicaps, or you buying the whole thing from us. We know that the N.P.S. has long been wanting a Grasslands National Park, and it is possible you might want to consider these two ranches as the nucleus of, or a type unit of, such an area. In that event, of course, the N.P.S. would have to pay the commercial price for these lands, some 5,000 acres, as we cannot afford to donate them. [27]

In Omaha, great enthusiasm followed Harold Cook's positive letter. In the following six months, the National Park Service studied Cook's letter and discussed various planning alternatives. The delay proved costly. On September 29, following a bout of viral pneumonia, Harold J. Cook died from a massive coronary thrombosis. The result of Cook's sudden death, although an obstacle in the road to a national monument did not become clear for several years. A Pandora's box of troubles opened. Within the Cook family a simmering rift—largely unknown to the Service—became much deeper and gradually manifested itself, much to the distress of the National Park Service.

Eight days after Harold Cook's death, Margaret C. Cook informed Regional Director Howard Baker of her intention to see the monument established and to work with the Midwest Regional Office on the basis of her husband's March 5 letter to Baker. Scottsbluff attorney Lester Danielson joined Margaret Cook in her campaign. With Danielson's strong support, the widow announced her plan to form the "Agate Springs National Monument Association," a lobby group to further the establishment of the monument. Mrs. Cook also asked for a prompt meeting with Service officials "to carry on as if Harold were here." [28]

When Harold Cook's will was probated on October 5, 1962, the provisions were disappointing for the Service. Cook had failed to update his will. Executed in 1949, the document did not include a codicil for donating any portion of the Agate Springs Ranch for a national monument. Howard Baker later recalled how "aghast" Park Service officials were when they discovered Harold Cook never updated his will, but felt justified that no prompting or "looking over the shoulder" of Harold Cook was ever done. [29]

Harold Cook's widow was named executrix and was given "all land and real estate and interests during the term of her natural life." His four daughters, Margaret, Winifred, Dorothy, and Eleanor, were bequeathed equal shares of this life estate. Therein lay the basis for the widening disagreement between stepmother and stepdaughters. Margaret Crozier Cook welcomed the National Park Service with open arms to fulfill her late husband's wishes while her stepdaughters were less enthused by the Federal Government appropriating any part of the ranch headquarters. The remainder of the estate, which included personal papers and the famous Indian collection, went to Margaret Crozier Cook. [30]

Harold Cook had clearly stated his objection to an all-encompassing National Monument in his March 1962 letter. His intention of a ranch operating under the control of his heirs in coexistence with the monument became clouded and eventually diverted by his widow. Margaret C Cook, portraying herself as sole owner and excluding her stepdaughters in the decision-making process, advocated a "shrine concept" whereby to honor her late husband. The Agate Springs Ranch headquarters would become incorporated into the monument, the house to be used for exhibits and the grove for a picnic and camping area. Her vision of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument emphasized not simply the fossil quarries, but enshrining both Harold Cook and Captain James H. Cook in the new park.

This vision, nurtured by early park planning, provided for an expansive park area, and did not allow for the positions of Harold Cook's four daughters or the future operation of the Agate Springs Ranch. It was Margaret C. Cook's vision, acting as spokesman for the Cook family, that the National Park Service and the Nebraska Congressional Delegation eagerly embraced. Commenting later on her stepmother's actions and favored sale of ranch headquarters, Dorothy Cook Meade wrote:

Naturally she did all in her power to further this aim; and under her guidance, all publicity for years was based on the assumption that this sale could be treated as an accomplished fact.

Mrs. Margaret Cook, however, had only a life estate in the ranch. This gave her control of ranching operations and all income during her life, and all personal property to dispose of as she liked; but it did not give her ownership of land.

Harold Cook, our father, liked the idea of an Agate Fossil Beds National Monument but not in the form it was threatening to take before he died. He opposed purchase of large tracts of ranchland for the Monument, regardless of the owner. It was his opinion that 350 acres would be ample for the Monument and all its facilities; an opinion shared by many informed observers.

He was adamant in his refusal to consider sale of any part of Agate Ranch headquarters for Monument purposes. Nevertheless, after his death in 1962, plans for Agate Fossil Beds National Monument rolled ahead, expanding rapidly... up to 3,150 acres of ranchland, including the entire headquarters of our ranch. These plans were at all times represented as fulfilling Harold Cook's great dream, although his letter of March 1962... was on record to the contrary. [31]

The conflicting visions caused a deep rift within the Cook family with Margaret C. Cook portraying herself as the monument's enthusiastic champion able to mediate and overcome any opposition from within her own family. Mrs. Meade later asserted:

Since our existence was never referred to, it was the logical assumption that Mrs. Margaret Cook was the owner of Agate Springs Ranch, and could make the various donations of land and quarrying rights frequently publicized. There were those within the National Park Service who knew that Mrs. Cook did not own a great deal of that which she was credited with donating; but no doubt they found it awkward to correct this impression with the publicity campaign well under way. We also found it awkward, difficult to combat, and simply let it go. [32]

On November 7, Chester Brown and Larry Knowles, accompanied by Scotts Bluff's new superintendent, Harold R. ("Bob") Jones, met with Mrs. Cook and attorney Danielson. [33] Also present to discuss the monument proposal from the standpoint of paleontological significance were Malcolm McKenna and Morris Skinner from New York's American Museum of Natural History. Among other topics, Mrs. Cook gained assurances that the Service had no objection to the donation of Harold Cook's fossil collection found outside Agate Springs Fossil Quarries to the New York institution, [34] a decision later regretted by some Park Service personnel.

Scotts Bluff Superintendent Bob Jones soon became a close, personal friend of Mrs. Cook, and a devoted advocate of the proposed monument. In a November 23 memorandum to Midwest Regional Director Howard Baker, Superintendent Jones accepted the title of "Special National Park Service Representative of the Agate Quarry Project." Jones continued discussions with area landowners and reported that at a meeting in Scottsbluff of 100 businessmen, there was considerable local support for the new monument. [35]

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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003