Agate Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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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 action:

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. [1]

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. [2]

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 C. Cook.

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. [3]

*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. [4] 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." [5]

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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003