Letter to the Editor Concerning Bent's Old Fort: Good Cats are Hard to Find by Duke Frazier

Description: The Following Letter to the Editor was written by Duke Frazier, a former seasonal park guide at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site. (The opinions expressed in Letters to the Editor are not necessarily those of SECO News or Consulting With A Hart LLC)

Published: 02/06/2024
Byline: SECO News

Letter to the Editor Concerning Bent's Old Fort: Good Cats are Hard to Find

By Duke Frazier

For 16 years it stood the test of time, a hub of international commerce, a place where cultures inter-mixed, a place where lives began and lives ended. It was known by many names, Fort William on the Arkansas, the Mud Castle of the Plains, and later Bent’s Old Fort.  Constructed in 1833 during a time of peace and prosperity, it would be abandoned and partially destroyed in 1849 by its founder, William Bent.  The abandoned structure would be used again as a stage coach station before its final abandonment.

As the years passed on the building fell to ruin, until nothing was left but a bleak outline of the foundation.  Realizing its historical significance, the Daughters of the American Revolution set forth the path to reconstruction. The State of Colorado would take over the role of caretaker for a time before it was finally transferred to the National Park Service. In 1976, the DAR’s dream would become a reality, and the Mud Castle of the Plains stood proud once again. But as they say, history repeats itself, and the feeling of those dark days in 1849 when William Bent said goodbye to his trading empire have set in once again at Bent’s Old Fort.

My ten season career as a Seasonal Park guide began at Bent’s Fort in 2014. Growing up only a half hour away I was familiar with the place, but the thing that always made it stand out was the feeling of stepping back in time when you walked through the front doors. The smell of wood smoke from the fire, the clank of the blacksmith’s hammer, the snorts of horses and oxen. I wasn’t just telling history, I was living it. 

That first summer I also started with another new staff member. Of all the people I worked with there, he was by far the best at engaging in welcoming the visitors. He could be seen on nearly every tour, and the role he portrayed was one of the most authentic roles at the Fort. His name was Fitzpatrick, named for Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick who was the first Indian Agent of the Arkansas and Platte River agencies and established his office for a time at Bent’s Fort. We called him Fitz for short. Some folks see a cat a simple number on a piece of paper, but Fitz and his brother DJ were more than that. They were co-workers, and they were family. 

From 2014 through 2020 I spent every summer working at Bent’s. I don’t think Fitz or DJ ever missed a school tour in the spring. In the summers they’d come into the trade room to greet visitors. During the cooler parts of the day they would do their living history demonstrations of catching mice…. yes cats were historically brought to Bent’s Fort for the purpose of vermin control.  It’s been said they were as valuable as a horse, and at that time a horse could make the difference between life and death.

The reason Bent’s Fort was staffed with cat’s, horses, oxen, chickens, and peacocks was to set the historical ambiance. Historically hundreds of head of livestock would have roamed around the fort. In fact, there were so much livestock grazing in the vicinity that in 1846 when Colonel Steven Watts Kearney lead the Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail, they had to camp several miles up river to find enough forage for their own animals. 

Keeping the historical setting was a major priority then. The only modern items in regular view were the cash register, tv for the introductory video, and the golf cart we used to shuttle the elder and disabled from the parking lot. But once you stepped into the Council Room, you stepped into history.  Everything within the rooms was researched and documented as best as possibly could be done. The only modern intrusion in the rooms was the lighting, which could not be avoided. 

To top it all off and really bring the Fort and history to life, twice a year we held regular living history events. As many as 40-50 volunteers would attend these events portraying trappers, traders, craftsman, soldiers, and laborers. You could walk into the kitchen and smell the food being prepared by the lady volunteers. You could step into the blacksmith shop and feel the heat of the forge and watch the blacksmith hammer out red hot metal. The carpenter shop would smell of fresh saw dust.  In the side coral you could see laborers making adobe bricks. At the trappers camp you could see mountaineers repairing the gear or tending to pelts.  It was history come to life.  And then things began to fall apart.

At the end of 2019, a new administration began to take over at Bent’s Fort. The Superintendent, Chief of Interpretation, and Lead Interpreter all retired the year before. A co-worker and best friend passed earlier in the year. It was hard to see them go; they were people I had come to love and respect. They loved the site and the history as much as I did, when they came to Bent’s they had become part of it. I was skeptical of those that came to take their place, but I felt that things would continue as they had. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I came back to Bent’s in the spring of 2020, it was chaos. The world had been turned upside down and Bent’s wasn’t spared. Using COVID as an excuse, the new administration had eliminated the shuttle service. Folks unable to walk the distance were left to their own devices on getting to the fort. The new administration had no concept of history, they had no concept of visitor services, all they cared about was turning Bent’s into a modern National Park. They wanted it to be like Acadia National Park and Colorado National Monument. The Facility Manager decided that his crew didn’t need to be fixing things at the fort, the Interpretation staff could do it. They treated the visitors as if they were in the way. It quickly became apparent the only thing the managers cared about was their resumes and retirements. I spoke loud and clear and stood against their changes, and as a result they told me I wasn’t wanted the following season. I left Bent’s Fort behind and moved on to Fort Laramie.  I spent 3 years there, but I still heard about the ill deeds that were being done at Bent’s. Repairs that should have been started years prior were still not being done. The management were too busy thinking up other schemes to care about the Fort. The feel of history was being washed away.

When I heard a new Superintendent had been selected for Bent’s, one that did have a historical background, I was overjoyed. I thought maybe things would turn around and be better. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I began hearing rumors of more changes coming, changes that weren’t good for Bent’s. The winter living history event was cancelled, due to the fact that the fort lacks light up exit signs volunteers could no longer stay in the rooms. The upper level was closed down, because it was deemed unsafe for visitors as the bricks on the upper level were loose. Having walked the upper levels for years, I can testify that it would take a crowbar to loosen those bricks. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the decision to remove the animals came out, but it caught me off guard. Then it became clear that living history is on its way out as well.  The thing of it is, everything that happened in the last few months has a recurring theme. It was the same ideas that were being floated by the Facility Manager when I still worked there. It makes one question if the Superintendent made this decision on his own, or if he is merely a puppet being used to tear down Bent’s Fort one brick at a time.

Historically Bent’s Fort saw a second life, and was resurrected by people who understood the importance of preserving the history of the site. We can only hope that history will once again repeat in the future, and life will once again spring back into the Mud Castle of the Plains. The only solace I find at this time is knowing that Fitz and DJ will find good homes where they will be cared for. While poor managers are readily available in the National Park Service, good cats are hard to come by.

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