Fort Larned celebrates 50th anniversary as national park site (PHOTOS) (VIDEO)

A cannon that shot 12-pound cannon balls sits on the parade grounds of the Fort Larned National Historic Site. (Aug. 27, 2014)
A cannon that shot 12-pound cannon balls sits on the parade grounds of the Fort Larned National Historic Site. (Aug. 27, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Happy 50th birthday, Fort Larned.

For folks in Kansas who know the fort as a historical site stretching back nearly 150 years, it seems impossible for it to be turning only 50 years old on Sunday. But it’s true.

On Aug. 31, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-541, which created the Fort Larned National Historic Site. It was the first national historic site in Kansas and is overseen by the National Park Service.

“Fort Larned was selected as one of the best preserved forts in the Indian Wars era,” said George Elmore, chief ranger at Fort Larned. “The whole parade ground was left and nine of the original buildings with original floors, original glass windows.

“Other forts from that time period are in ruins today. It was a phenomenal opportunity.”

This weekend, the staff and volunteers at the fort are celebrating the 50th anniversary. In the visitors center at the fort, a pen on display was the one Johnson used to sign Public Law 88-541.

The history of Fort Larned, about 130 miles northwest of Wichita, stretches back to 1859. The fort operated for only about 19 years, but during that time several thousand soldiers were stationed there.

The soldiers’ main duty was to preserve peace among Santa Fe Trail travelers and American Indians.

“It’s not like some major event occurred here,” Elmore said this week. “But this represents the average fort that was used throughout the American West.”

Things may not have happened at the fort, but they did in the surrounding areas. In 1867, George Armstrong Custer was on his first command of the Indian Wars with the 7th Cavalry when Gen. Winfield Hancock ordered him to surround a Cheyenne-Sioux village 20 miles northwest of Fort Larned in a show of force.

The village’s residents, a number of whom had survived the Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado three years earlier, saw the approaching troops and panicked, fleeing the village.

Hancock ordered the village burned. In the process, Custer reportedly lost his West Point ring, which was never found.

Historians say the act was a turning point in the nation’s Indian Wars, instilling fear and mistrust among Native Americans and setting up major conflicts in the future.

“It is probably the most important military post on the Santa Fe Trail,” said Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian who will be giving a talk on the fort’s history Saturday morning. “There was never a battle there. There was never an attack on the fort. But it was an Indian agency for a few years after the Civil War.”

In the summer of 1864, one of the chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne was Black Kettle, whose village was then camped on Ash Creek a few miles north of Fort Larned.

And, in late July of that summer, Kiowa Chief Satanta led his tribe to Fort Larned. His warriors raided Larned’s corrals, taking more than 250 horses and mules.

Park Ranger Ellen Jones said much of the fort’s intrigue was the diversity of people who lived there. Many of the soldiers were immigrants who arrived in America and immediately enlisted to earn five years of room and board.

There were 98 Buffalo Soldiers who worked out of the fort from April 1867 through 1869. Buffalo Soldier was the nickname that frontier-era Indians gave to African-American enlisted men.

There was only one violent death reported at the fort, she said. A Kiowa man named Little Heart charged the fort on horseback, and a sentry shot him. It is possible, Jones said, the man may still be buried near the grounds.

By 1879, the American Indians had long been driven into Indian Territory, and the U.S. no longer wanted the fort as a military installation. The fort was sold at a public auction in 1884 for $11,000, Elmore said.

What may have helped preserve the fort was that it fell into private ownership. It was originally purchased by the Pawnee Valley Stockbreeders Association, a group of area farmers who had pooled their money and who used the buildings as stock and hay barns for thoroughbred horses, mules and cattle. The parade ground was used to show registered animals, Elmore said.

Other military forts of the time period were often sold off one building at a time.

The fort was bought in 1902 by E.E. Frizzell. It remained in the Frizzell family until 1964, when it became a national park site.

Two classmates from the University of Kansas eventually worked on the funding and restoration of the fort: Glee Smith Jr., a Larned attorney who served 16 years in the Kansas State Senate, and Bob Dole from Russell who was then serving in the United States House of Representatives. Both Smith and Dole worked to get the proper funding and legislation to preserve the fort, Elmore said.

“They got us a lot of funding that went into restoring numerous buildings – the block house, the bake oven and even the new parking lot we have now,” Elmore said.

“Fort Larned was a significant installation in the 1860s. But now it is here for us to go back in time and experience what it was like to have lived in the West.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Kansas National Historic Sites

Fort Larned was signed into the National Park System in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Fort Scott National Historic Site was established in 1979.

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka became part of the system in 1992.

And, in 1996, Kansas received two more: the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and Nicodemus National Historic Site.

Things to do over Labor Day weekend

Several national park sites are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council’s marketing campaign that created Smokey Bear. The celebration is also a chance to recognize a Kansan who helped carry on the campaign.

Rudolph Wendelin, who grew up in Rawlins County, helped make Smokey a national icon. For nearly four decades, Wendelin illustrated Smokey for the U.S. Forest Service in TV ads, billboards, posters, newspapers and magazine with the warning: “Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

The character was based on a live bear cub that survived a 1950 New Mexico forest fire.

Prints depicting past ad campaigns will be on display at Fort Larned. And on Sunday from 1 to 2 p.m., the fort will have the Larned Fire Department on display in front of the fort. Volunteers will hand out free Smokey Bear memorabilia, along with a birthday cake and card for Smokey for visitors to sign.

Other events at the fort Saturday through Monday include blacksmith demonstrations, artillery and small arms demonstrations, and talks about life at the fort.

Visitors at Fort Larned are also encouraged to stop and visit Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford County to take in the sights of hundreds of shorebirds as well as other wildlife.

For more information, go to http://www.nps.gov/fols or www.fws.gov/quivira.

Fort Scott

Visitors to Fort Scott will get to experience bread baking, artillery demonstrations and a Smokey Bear program on Saturday. There will be talks on raids on the fort, what type of liquors or other spirits could be found on the fort and how Civil War medicine was practiced. Events run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday through Monday.

For more information, go to www.nps.gov/fosc.

Old Cowtown Museum

“Age of the Gunfighter” is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gunfights will be presented every half hour from 10:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in front of Cowtown’s Fritz Snitzler’s Saloon and the jailhouse yard.

Other events include the Dixie Lee Saloon Girls at 1 and 2 p.m. in the saloon and performances by the Entre Nous Victorian Dance Club at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. in Turnverein Hall.

For more information, go to www.oldcowtown.org.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Visitors over Labor Day weekend can view a quilt show and a Smokey Bear exhibit. The preserve walking trails are open 24 hours a day, year round.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is two miles north of Strong City on K-177.

For more information, go to www.nps.gov/tapr.

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