Agate Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Harold J. Cook's March 5, 1962 Letter to Howard Baker

Note: This letter, obtained from the Cook Papers Collection, is included in the appendix because of its primary significance in presenting Harold Cook's view of the National Monument. Although many carbon copies of the letter exist, some of the pages are illegible. Fortunately, another typed carbon of the letter was found in the Papers of Governor Frank B. Morrison, State of Nebraska Archives, Nebraska State Historical Society. The entire letter is herein retyped in its entirety following the precise style of Harold Cook.

Agate, Nebraska
March 5, 1962

Director Howard W. Baker
Region Two Office
National Park Service
Federal Office Bldg.,
Omaha, Nebraska

Dear Mr. Baker:

You have undoubtedly wondered why we have been so long in writing this letter to you, since receiving the fine letter from Lawrence F. Knowles last fall, together with the statement enclosed on "Land Acquisition Policies..." etc., following his visit here with Harry Robinson, when they both discussed some ideas with us. Actually, what originally seemed to us to be a relatively simple matter to solve, appeared to have developed troublesome complexities; and as we are certainly as deeply interested and concerned in the success of the proposed "Agate Springs Fossil Quarries National Monument" as you people are, we have taken this long time to try to think this through, and solve problems presented, to help make this a real success on a practical footing, as it should be, taking into account unusual and special factors involved here that affect us vitally.

Perhaps, for the sake of the record, I should here review a bit of the background, in various facets, involved here, which has important bearing on the problems and possibilities involved.

Before my father, "Capt." James H. Cook, began to establish and develop this Agate Springs Ranch here, in 1886, he had already made an outstanding record, much of which is recorded in his book, Fifty Years on the Old Frontier, as you know, and had made important contacts and friendships that enabled him to accomplish things beyond what most men of his background would have done. For instance, his early contacts with such famous scientists as Edward Drinker Cope, of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, who stayed with him for months on the WS ranch in New Mexico, and Dr. Othniel C. Marsh, of Yale University, with whom he had unusual contacts, plus his own deep interest and remarkably retentive memory, gave him perspectives and information on geology and prehistoric life which caused him to appreciate and take the greatest interest in fossils found on this ranch, here, beyond what any ordinary ranchman would have done. He greatly facilitated later research done here; he read technical reports and understood and remembered them, as few non-college trained men would have done.

This background in my early home, plus meeting famous scientists, and getting into the field with them in such work, certainly was largely responsible for my early deep interest in such studies, even as a small boy; and long before I had the fine university and professional training that I later had.

Comparably, from a practical viewpoint, my father at once appreciated the importance of dependable irrigation when he came here, and immediately undertook the construction of dams and ditches, which he surveyed and designed himself; and acquired some of the oldest water rights on the Niobrara River, which runs through this ranch, and which greatly increase its value as a cattle ranch, also which have long produced feed for regional ranches as well as for our own livestock. Likewise, he at once, in the late 1880's, and early 1890's, planted and cared for thousands of trees, which he planted with long range forethought and care, to produce necessary wind breaks and shelter, as well as fence posts and wood, producing a beautiful environment in which to have a home, lawns, and fine yards, for ourselves. But, beyond that, from a ranch viewpoint, this produced, downwind, a splendid and valuable winter shelter for corrals and feedlots, and sheds for cattle, now recognized as the best and most practical situation for ranch development in this region.

All winters here are not bad, but some are, with violent blizzards and vicious cold winds and drifting snows. These winters have long been recognized as the real bottlenecks to western ranching safety and dependability. The situation my father laid out here, and which we have further developed at Agate around our home, with its grove 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.

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, or discuss in detail, if necessary, in writing; and which might not be seen or realized by people long distances away, who are not practical ranch operators.

The first collecting was done in the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries in 1904, when I took Mr. O.A.Peterson, of the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh, there, and showed him the fossil bones in place in the rock in those hills. In 1905, work started there in earnest, by two parties; one, under Peterson, in Carnegie Hill, and a second party under Prof. E.H. Barbour, of the University of Nebraska, which opened a second large quarry in University Hill nearby, both in parts of the same original bone deposit that are parts of these great quarries.

In the following years, more and more field parties came here to work, from these and numerous other scientific and educational institutions; and all were highly successful. Dr. Frederic B. Loomis, of Amherst College, found and did the first collecting in the remarkable Stenomylus quarry, nearby, of this same age.

The American Museum of Natural History of New York, did much the most extensive collecting in these deposits, though Yale, Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago Nat. Hist. Museum, and many others, obtained highly valuable collections as well, through a long period of years.

Naturally, the wide publicity such collecting received, not only through technical publications, but through newspapers and magazines, resulted in increasing thousands of people coming here from everywhere; and those who came and saw were still greater advertisers, in spite of the bad roads and trails, and other primitive conditions. So, we had to do what we could, to stop and divert so many people from coming here, beyond what we could give time and attention to. Nevertheless, we have talked and lectured to a great many thousand visitors here, through the years; and many of those who came here as school children, or with their parents, are now bringing their children to see the collections and hear the lectures. Many of them tell us about the day they had spent here as children, and saying it had been the greatest experience of their lives, and asking us to please do this for their children! When people approach you this way, you just cannot turn them down, even when business or other professional matters are pressing you for time.

These long years of such contacts and experiences with the public, plus our technical training, have taught us to appreciate the high potential value of making the evidence found here in those deposits available to interested people, and to growing youngsters, in particular, not only for their primary interest-catching values, but even more for the soundness of the scientific and broad educational values involved, and what such evidence, properly explained in simple, understandable terms, can do for the perspectives and mental balance of those who know them. Thus, years ago, we all became strongly convinced of the high values present in the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries, not only for educational and scientific values, but for their immense tourist attraction values.

However, we have never wanted to commercialize these deposits; and, unless we did, we have never been financed in a manner to do this as a philanthropy, beyond what we have been doing. While we never permit "specimen collections" here, by untrained people, we have never charged anyone a penny to collect, of the many trained people we have permitted to collect here. The recognized Cook Museum of Natural History, which we maintain here at our own expense, as a research museum, has been a free museum, with no admission charged for all to see, when we can take time to show it to students, or others, who come to see it.

So, 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.

Thus, regardless of any possible future changes in surface ownership of the 640 acres on which the quarry hills are located, this could never interfere with the proper scientific and educational development and exhibition of these quarries. Owing to the surrounding topography it is not possible for anyone to get to these quarries, or to establish any objectionable developments near than, with the control of this block of land assured, after proper development of the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries is under way.

Providing relating considerations that I will again outline herein are agreed to, I have, as you know, offered to give my rights in the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries area to the National Park Service, and do anything I may to help facilitate their proper development and use.

When I was told that you would be glad to develop a permanent museum here, to go along with the development and exhibits, in situ, in the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries themselves, I told you that I would be glad, in that event, to give you the fossil and geological research collection I have here now, plus the important Indian and Historical collections we have here, in a large part assembled by my famous father, providing these were safely and properly housed and exhibited here, and kept properly available to research scientists and properly accredited students for study here. These collections alone are worth a great many thousands of dollars; and, as they contain a great many type specimens, and many other completely irreplaceable scientific and historical objects, they cannot be duplicated or replaced, if lost or damaged. Consequently, it is vital that these collections be kept in properly constructed fireproof quarters, for permanent safe keeping and reference.

Also, as you know, I told you people that if you go ahead and build such a safe museum building and research center here, I would be willing to turn our research library, with thousands of titles, and a great many rare and valuable publications included, over to the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries Monument Research Museum, for permanent use and safe keeping, if it is kept here, catalogued, and available to properly accredited research people who may want to come here to study from other institutions or countries, and, of course, always available for us for continued study and use, as long as we may want them.

To house, in a fireproof building properly, and exhibit these collections that we now have, and keep them catalogued, and available to research scientists for study here, with adjoining quarters for this research library facility, will require quite an extensive building, aside from the actual Fossil Quarry developments and exhibitions. When we discussed these opportunities with you personally, when you were here, your thought then was that your operational headquarters should not be down at the quarries, but up here near Agate, and a suitable road connecting these units be established. This still appears to us to be a completely practical proposition, both from your standpoint, and from ours, providing it is so set up that it is not one-sided, and recognizes the fact that both the National Park Service and we are contributing to make this possible and practical, for the best public good, and in a manner that does not upset our business and life, in return for having developed this whole situation and made it possible.

I'm sure that no one in the Park Service had this idea in mind, in the last suggestions made here to us; but, rather, our situation in the matter, and what the suggestions outlined would do to us in a business way, was simply not understood, appreciated, or taken in to account.

As I mentioned when you were here, it may be necessary to bend, or alter, to fit facts and conditions existing here, some of the usual rules and regulations of the N. P. S., in order to get the job done, on a practical basis, fair both to the N.P.S. and to us. Not being in the financial class of the Rockefellers, we cannot do things that people like that can do; and we believe that we are being more than generous, in relation to what we do have, in offering to do what we are.

I will outline our current thoughts and ideas on what is practical, and what is not, and why, supplementing this with plats I will make and send, herewith.

Various alternatives are possible, to put this on a practical basis. Your first map, in your "Preliminary Survey" of the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries area, June, 1961, is much more nearly practical than the revised and expanded prospectus discussed here last fall but even the first study contained some basic difficulties that require a modification of proposed borders. If you will refer to your plat map of June, 1961, of lands in Sections 3 and 4, T.28, R. 55, north of the Niobrara River, and north of the public, but unfenced highway from Agate to Marsland, it was made without consideration of what this land is or who owns it. You will observe that the old Neece-Harris Irrigational Canal has its dam, storage reservoir, and headgates in the the NW 4 SE 4, Sec. 3, which controls the operations of the present Harris and Scavdahl ranches, down the valley. While I have not mentioned your wanting it to them, I'm certain they would not agree to the ownership of this key area controlling their old water rights being turned over to anyone.

Just across the fence, west, from their headgate, the river bend cuts through the southeast corner of the SE 4 SW 4, Sec. 3, in a manner that makes this a natural, live water watergap for any cattle we run in the 640 acre pasture of which this is a part. The way you had that suggested north border line of the Monument area laid out, it would not only cut 240 acres out of this pasture, but would cut all the rest of it off from water, making it useless to us, and very little possible use to you, unless we went to the expense of not only drilling water wells, but constantly watching and maintaining these, which work and continuing expense is avoided by using a natural water gap. I suspect, too that you would not find the Buckleys, who own the land in the N 2, Sec. 15, included in your map, cooperative, either, since that would make the rest of their land there virtually useless to them, though it is possible they might sell all of Section 15, providing they retain the oil rights on it. This land is on an anticline, the Agate Anticline, and they are convinced from tests drilled there that it will produce oil, when properly drilled. Thus, you might face some real problems to acquire that land. The NW 4, Sec. 16-28-55, that you included in that map, is part of a State School Section, on which George Hoffman holds the surface lease.

The balance of the land outlined in your plat map of last June, includes the river bottom hay land vital to his operations, as well as the home and improvements of George H. Hoffman; and unless you purchased all of the land in this block that he owns, I can understand his being 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. He neither could afford to, nor would donate his land there to anyone for any purpose. While we own the full rights to the fossil quarries and space for any appropriate, related developments on the 640 acres around them, with access across his other lands, also, we do not own the grass or surface rights there. So, in any event, it would be necessary for you to buy these on whatever lands you decide to include and operate there.

The plat of T. 28, R. 55, which I will include herewith, shows in colors the outlines of land ownerships and holdings, in relation to the above matters and to your original plat of this area.

To put this on a simple, workable, practical basis, I would suggest that the easiest solution here, and one that would be completely practical, would be for the N.P.S. to purchase the surface rights from George Hoffman on the W 2 of the E 2, and E 2 of the W 2 of Section 10, T. 28, R. 55, with the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries Quarries situated almost in the center of this 320 acre tract; and then run a road across the river there to the present highway, about as you have indicated on your June, 1961 plat, on the most practical route your engineers may select. Then, have a practical underpass on this road, so that Hoffman can get at, and produce, the hay on his land there, east of his road. If you will arrange in advance to do that, it will have an important bearing, I feel sure, as to how he is willing to deal with you on other matters there.

Of course, if you do decide to buy out his whole ranch, this need not apply; but certainly it would, if you just take the above suggested 320 acres there. If you do buy this 320 acres that include Carnegie Hill and University Hill, as to surface rights, from him, preparatory to developing the Agate Springs Fossil Quarries in situ, as we have discussed, 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.

Further instead of doing just what your people have previously suggested as to the proposed Headquarters Area at Agate, west of the Quarries, since the suggestions made to place this in our grove here are impractical from our ranch operations standpoint, as earlier stated in this letter, 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.

As to the area I suggest giving to you for this use, east of the Agate Post Office and grove, this is largely under irrigation, with old, approved state water rights, and where it is not, is so shallow to large amounts of fine quality ground water that very shallow wells can easily produce all the water you have any possible use for here, inside or out, to grow trees, shrubs, or anything you want to grow, to make it more pleasant. Likewise, the R.E.A. power line runs along the highway, on this land, so all the electric power you have any possible use for is on this land, now.

Our large grove across the road will offer material protection and shade, until you can get trees well growing there, and we will be more than glad to cooperate with you in letting your people use the picnic grounds in our grove, and in other practical matters.

Of course, we realize that the Park Service wants, where possible to control all adjoining lands to avoid unfortunate or unwanted development nearby, to detract from the atmosphere and broad effects of any N.P.S. area.

However, as we own all the land on all sides, for a mile or more in all directions, and as we do not want off-color, or undesirable people or establishments of any kind anywhere near here, this status is maintained, both now, and in the future, by going into each matters intelligently, and cooperatively, with you, when you decide to come here.

Your people spoke of the splendid view to be had from here, of this valley with the Fossil Quarry hills in the background. This is true but it will look just the same, whether we own it or you do, and we will cooperate in the possible development, some special and desirable drives in the region, off land you own, and on lands we own. There are some features on the ranch here that we have not discussed with you or your people, that are of great interest to many people, if they knew they are here. One of these is the Daemonilix area you have already considered, but there are others of as great interest, which can be worked into a practical development here, without our having to run our ranch under serious handicaps, or your 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.

Word has recently reached us that Governor Morrison of Nebraska has recommended that legislation be passed to turn all of the Fort Robinson area over to the N. P. S. as a National Park; and that a bill is being prepared, or may have been introduced by now in Congress, to implement this move.

If this should be done, what we have suggested here could be worked in to great advantage with some of the splendid, distinct, and unusual possibilities that exist in the Fort Robinson area, and with the Scotts Bluff and Fort Laramie regional projects, as you will realize.

With kindest personal regards, in which my wife joins,

Yours very sincerely,
  Harold J. Cook  
Agate, Nebraska


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Last Updated: 12-Feb-2003