Whenever time, good weather, and a little cash coincide, my husband and I like to putter around a Kansas town we’ve never seen before. Today we made the trip to Fort Scott, Kansas, to see both the town and the original fort. After a trolley ride on Dolly the Trolley (Fort Scott is extremely visitor-friendly), which took us through several streets of some of the most beautiful homes in Kansas, National Cemetery No. 1, and the historic downtown district, we set out on foot to tour the fort.
The fort itself was built in 1842, which is pretty old in terms of Kansas history. It served as a sort of buffer between European westward expansion and what was still considered Indian territory. It was considered obsolete by the middle of the 1850s, but became active again during the Civil War. In the meanwhile, a gorgeous town, whose many original buildings still stand and are in use, grew along side the fort.
The fort itself presents a forum for an interesting discussion on what constitutes a true historic site. Does the building have to be the original building? Should it be restored? What about the furnishings? Do visitors expect to see the actual bunk beds shared by enlisted men, or are replicas okay? Is the Magazine – the building where gunpowder was stored – historic if it was completely rebuilt on top of the remnants of the unearthed foundation?
The fort’s hospital is a great example of resurrection. As one of the exhibits indicates, the building was ultimately salvaged after years of abuse and disuse, returned to look as it did when it was first constructed. But in the process of restoring it to its 1850s appearance, nearly 100 years of history had to be erased.
What the site does extremely well is tell the story of those early years, which is exactly the point of a National Historic Site. The fort feels large, but I’ll bet those dragoons felt like they were living on a postage stamp of land in the middle of the vast prairie in the 1840s and 1850s. The information placards are very well done and convey the experience of life at Fort Scott, both during its early years, and when it was caught in the crossfire of the pro-slavery and anti-slavery movements prior to the Civil War.
The city of Fort Scott offers to much to see and do in one day, and merits at least a second trip. Photography lovers will appreciate knowing that city is the home of Gordon Parks, and much of his work is on display there. The Marais des Cygnes Massacre Site and Mine Creek Battlefield State Historic Site are also nearby. A few days to shop, eat, and walk through the historic neighborhoods are a must to really appreciate all that’s there.