Agate Fossil Beds
A DECADE OF CHALLENGES AND REASSESSMENTS, 1971-1980
Challenging the Cook Estate, 1971
Superintendent Homer L. Rouse began the new year 1971 with a status
of operations report to Regional Director Leonard J. Volz who filled
that position following the November 1970 death of Fred Fagergren. Land
acquisition was ranked as the number-one concern. Pessimistic on the
forthcoming response from the Cook heirs to the compromise for scenic
and access road easements, Rouse wanted to proceed with the condemnation
You will no doubt become involved in this final action as will the
local congressmen. It has been their practice to solicit congressional
help each time final action appears imminent. The case history is quite
lengthy and has had a great bearing on the development of the area. This
change to scenic easement with no other rights to the Agate Springs
Ranch makes it imperative that a Master Plan be developed with a strong
statement on history. 
In the curatorial area, Harpers Ferry Center authorized $3,000 for
curating and cataloging the Cook Collection. Rouse expressed dismay at
having responsibility for the care and protection of irreplaceable
materials stored at far-away Fort Larned. 
The answer from Margaret Cooks' stepdaughters on the question of
scenic easements came in a letter from their attorney, Robert G.
Simmons, Jr., on February 8, 1971. While the letter never mentioned the
easement question, it threw National Park Service plans at Agate Fossil
Beds National Monument into confusion. Enclosed in the letter were
photocopies of two legal documents recently discovered by two of the
daughters, Eleanor Naffziger and Dorothy Meade.* The documents revealed
that in 1916, the Cook Collection transferred ownership from Captain
Cook to his mother-in-law, Mary E. Graham, in exchange for land. In
1931, Mrs. Graham donated the Cook Collection to the Cook Museum of
Natural History at the Agate Springs Ranch. Lawyer Robert Simmons
concluded, therefore, that Mrs. Margaret C. Cook's donation of the Cook
Collection in 1968 was unlawful:
Under Nebraska law, these instruments create James H. Cook and his
son, Harold J. Cook, as trustees. Anyone receiving under them would
likewise continue as trustees. It follows that the collections were not,
since 1916, the personal property of James H. Cook or Harold J. Cook,
and could not become the personal property of Margaret C. Cook by
inheritance. Margaret C. Cook was aware of this fact, as demonstrated by
her signature on the conveyance dated 1931.
The law of Nebraska states that a trust never terminates for lack of
a trustee. Therefore, the trust still continues and these collections
are the property of the Cook Museum of Natural History as a trust.
The ladies recall Harold Cook's statement that they were to be joint
trustees of the Cook Museum of Natural History. They did not see how
Mrs. Cook could donate the collections personally, since she was only
one of several trustees. These papers underline that fact. Additional
papers list as trustees Margaret Cook, Dorothy Cook, Winifred Cook and
Eleanor Cook, as well as James H. Cook and Harold J. Cook and Margaret
The sisters are aware that this creates an awkward situation for you.
They regret this, and fully understand that the National Park Service,
in assuming ownership of the collections, did so in good faith.
Nevertheless, they request that ownership of these collections be
honored, and the National Park Service account for them and arrange to
return them to the Cook Museum of Natural History, at Agate, Nebraska.
*The documents were discovered when the Cook heirs culled through the
considerable stack of papers left behind following the summer 1969
evacuation of the Agate Springs Ranch buildings. Mrs. Meade believed her
father intended to form a corporation of the Cook Museum of Natural
History with his daughters as trustees. Because no official
incorporation had ever been undertaken, no serious claim for ownership
on behalf of Harold Cook's daughters could be made. See Mrs. Grayson E.
(Dorothy Cook) Meade, interview with author, Agate Springs Ranch, 22 May
1986, transcript, p. 16.
The Park Service girded itself for a court fight. Rouse transmitted
the potentially explosive documents to the Washington Office on February
12, 1971, adding he was abandoning curatorial plans for the collection
until the status of ownership was determined. The Service appealed to
the field solicitor of the Department of the Interior.  Homer Rouse's February 23 reply to Robert
Simmons' letter was short and terse: "The subject concerning the Cook
Family Collection has been turned over to our Field Solicitor for study.
I will keep you advised of further action on this subject." 
Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003