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GUARDIANS OF THE PRAIRIE
By Donna Ikenberry
Kansas is full of treasures: Here, you’ll find the friendly people, picturesque farms, cornfields kissing blue skies, cottonwood trees, windmills, remnants of tall-grass prairies and the "Guardians of the Prairie." These Guardians are historic forts that are open to the public. At one time, about 50 forts guarded the prairies; today nine beckon visitors to take a look.
The state’s prairies or plains were speckled with military forts during the 1800s when pioneers marched west into the unknown places — dreams high, finances low, hope a constant force propelling them in search of their pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.
Built to protect the soldiers who lived there and the folks who settled nearby, the prairie forts also guarded migrating pioneers. In addition, they were supposed to protect American Indians, but it’s difficult to believe that they earned much honor in that regard. Instead, the forts protected early settlers from attacks by the natives.
Regardless of their purpose, the forts are interesting places for travelers to learn about American history. Kansas forts, which are strung out over much of the central and eastern half of the state, are operated by various agencies: the National Park Service, the Kansas State Historical Society and the city of Philipsburg. Admission is free (donations appreciated) or nominal (about $5), depending on the agency.
Located in northern Kansas, a replica of Fort Bissell stands at the site where the original fort was abandoned in 1878. (Actually, the fort was not a military post at all, but a stockade in which early settlers sought protection from raids). Now operating as a museum, the buildings display an assembly of frontier firearms and pioneer artifacts. The fort is child-friendly; in fact, many of the exhibits can be handled.
The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, & Friday 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Wednesday 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays and July 4th.
In the middle of the state, Fort Harker was originally called Fort Ellsworth. Built in 1864, it was moved about a mile down the road in 1867. A cholera outbreak claimed more than 20 lives there in the 1860s. The fort was abandoned in 1873. Wood from original structures was salvaged by settlers; today, several buildings remain, including a two-story guardhouse made of stone, which has been converted into a museum, open to the public.
The museum is open April through October, 9 a.m.-noon, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Mondays. Be sure to visit the second weekend in July during Fort Harker Days. Re-enactments take place at the fort, on the west side of town.
Originally named Fort Fletcher when it was established in 1865, this central Kansas fort was abandoned in 1889. Today a historic site (on U.S. Highway 183 Alternate), it boasts four original structures, including a guardhouse, two officers’ quarters and a blockhouse.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, was a hero here, esteemed for his meat-supplying efforts for railroad crews. The fort’s primary purpose was to protect the Kansas Pacific Railroad construction crews, police the mail and guard military roads. The fort never came under attack.
A living-history contingent interprets the lives of the fort’s soldiers and civilians in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Programs include Pioneer Days, the second weekend in September, and Christmas Past, the first Friday and Saturday evenings in December. Other living-history programs are presented sporadically throughout the year.
The fort is open daily (except holidays), 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Designated part of the National Park System in 1964, Fort Larned, a national historic site, was once known as Camp on Pawnee Fork. Subsequently renamed twice and moved once, it was finally named to honor Col. B.F. Larned, who was the Army paymaster general at the time.
Routine missions were many – protecting the mail, fighting off attacks and later defending railroad workers. Due to its contribution to the railroad, it was considered the most important fort along the Santa Fe Trail. The history of the trail is preserved at the Santa Fe Trail Center, a few miles east of Fort Larned on Kansas Highway 156.
Visitors are welcome to explore the nine native-sandstone buildings that surround the parade ground. Extensive renovation and authentic items enhance the quartermaster’s storehouse, two commissaries, a barracks and more. In addition, at a detached unit of the park, visitors can view ruts from the Santa Fe Trail and an active prairie dog town.
There’s no doubt Fort Larned offers outstanding educational opportunities for both children and adults. Steven Linderer, Fort Larnes’s superintendent, promises lots of interesting things for kids – “Tours of the fort buildings, blacksmithing demonstrations and living-history presentations about fort life, the Santa Fe Trail and the lifestyles of Plains Indians.”
Depending on the programs available on any given day (which vary depending on funding and volunteers), children might attend school 1872-style, try on wool uniforms, or observe cannon or rifling firing demonstrations. Exhibits, audiovisual programs and bookstore (children’s books available) make a visit to this fort a must.
The park is open daily (except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s) from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Along the Missouri River in northeast Kansas, Fort Leavenworth – home of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Command – is esteemed as the oldest permanent U.S. military post west of the Mississippi. Resting on more than 5,000 acres, the entire facility is listed as national historic landmark. A booklet narrating the self-guided, 2-1/2-mile tour of Fort Leavenworth, is available at the Frontier Army Museum, where you will see more than just an assortment of pre-Civil War artifacts. The museum also houses one of the finest compilations of horse-drawn vehicles in the world.
Colonel Henry Leavenworth established the post in 1827; it later became a mecca for many of America’s most notable military superiors, including Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, William “Billy” Mitchell as well as George S. Patton. The red-bricked Victorian homes in which they lived line the parade ground; other buildings continue to serve as classrooms for modern military training.
From the main gate of Fort Leavenworth at the junction of Seventh Street and U.S. Highway 73 in Leavenworth, you’ll head north on Grant Avenue, past the Buffalo Soldier Monument that is dedicated to the black soldiers of the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments. To reach the Frontier Army Museum, turn right on Reynolds. It’s open Monday through Friday, 9a .m.-4 p.m. and on Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The museum is closed Sundays and holidays.
Like most of the others, fort Riley survived a name change. Originally called “Camp Center”, it was established in 1853 near what is today Junction City. Situated at the confluence of the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers, it was the training facility for the 7th Cavalry Regiment. In fact, horse and solider training was practiced at the post until the end of World War II. Today, the post is home to a small herd of buffalo that make their home in a corral near the cemetery.
A drive around Fort Riley, still an active military base, is of great interest. There are also must –see museums: the Fort riley Regimental Division, the U.S. Calvary Museum, which details the lives of the cavalry-men who were trained to always think of their horses first. (Chief, the last cavalry mount, is buried at the cavalry’s parade field.) Another site to visit is Custer House. The Calvary and Custer House museums are open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and on Sunday, noon-4:30 a.m. On a special note, Custer House is open mid-May through the end of September. The Regimental Museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon-4 p.m. on Sunday. The museums are closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Situated in southeast Kansas, Fort Scott National Historic Site is claimed to be “America’s only authentically restored military post from the 1842-1853 period.” Dragoons, elite troops of men trained to fight either on foot or horseback, were originally garrisoned at the fort. Today, the fort is favored for its interpretive activities, such as guided tours, living-history demonstrations and special events, such as a Civil War encampment in April, a Military Holiday in July, a Mexican War encampment during the weekend after Labor Day and, in September, an American Indian Heritage Weekend.
Furnished buildings include a post hospital (the visitors center), officers’ quarters, dragoon barracks, a bakery, stables, the headquarters and its powder magazine.
Fort Scott is open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., from April through October, and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. the rest of the year (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s).