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The Times, They are a Changin’ at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

By Betsy Barnett

February 2, 2024

This week a very loud call came from many citizens from the Arkansas Valley who were hearing rumors that The Castle on the Plains, otherwise known as Bent’s Old Fort located near Las Animas on the Arkansas River was eliminating much of the programming and assets that have made the facility the pride of southeastern Colorado since the late 1970s when the Fort was renovated and then developed into a national park site that focused on providing a living history experience depicting the 1833 trading post as it had originally looked and functioned.

For 50 years Bent’s Old Fort has been the pride of the communities that surround it and had enjoyed many volunteers who helped develop the well-known and cherished living history and interpretive educational events the Fort is so well known for.

The authenticity of the Fort with its experiential opportunities was truly remarkable—and memorable for the thousands of people who visited it during the height of its popularity.

Through the years impressive events were scheduled where the Fort took on a life of its own during such period-accurate celebrations as Independence Day and Christmas.

The living history, the demonstrations, the interaction with the animals, and the many and varied events were possible because an army of local, dedicated volunteers were willing to give of their time and expertise to help make a visit to the Fort memorable.

Unfortunately, times have changed and since the pandemic the Fort has not been what it once had been. There are many reasons for that, of course. At Bent’s Old Fort there was a great deal of turnover and retirement during and after the pandemic. The volunteer pool started drying up as volunteers got older, moved away, or just got used to staying at home. And the workforce at the National Park Service has changed as well.

By the time the current park manager, Eric Leonard arrived in early June of 2023, the programs and facilities at the Fort were already slipping. Leonard is not only specifically in charge of the programs and facilities at Bent’s Old Fort, but he is also the Superintendent of the High Plains Group of parks that encompasses the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eads and the Amache National Historic Site in Granada. In addition, Caulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico is also in his purview.

Upon arriving at Bent’s Old Fort in the middle of 2023 Leonard noticed an array of issues. One significant issue being the obvious drop in visits to the park. Another issue was how the hours were being utilized. He noticed that the really large traditional events in May, July (4th), September, and December (Christmas) were attracting 5% fewer visitors than the year before. There were also fewer volunteers, and even fewer experts who could give authentic demonstrations. The staff, many newly hired by the National Park Service and moved into the Las Animas/La Junta area from other parts of the country, had no experience caring for animals such as the oxen, horses, and peacocks. Finally, the structural integrity of the Fort was showing significant signs of decay, particularly in the upstairs portion.

Leonard decided in order to better understand what he and his staff were facing he would hire fresh eyes. Enter Prycer Consulting, a Dallas, Texas firm that assists museums and historical sites in assessing their organization and developing new strategic plans in order to solve some of the problems that have been identified. Prycer Consulting evaluated all three of the Southeast Colorado historical sites with their main focus on Bent’s Old Fort.

The recommendations the consultant put forward to Leonard are now either being implemented or being considered. He now adopts a new mantra for his staff, “Forward, Not Backward,” as they have begun the work to make changes in the programming and overall facility of the Fort using the Prycer strategic plan as the guide.

Local supporters of the Bent’s Old Fort who have lived in the area for a long time and have been either a volunteer or enjoyed greatly the programming from the past have now begun to hear about the changes that are being implemented in the name of improving the overall site. Change can be difficult and unless transparency is present, change can cause suspicion. In this case, Leonard says no specific changes have been made yet, but are being considered.

Leonard was willing to address specific concerns from the public and clarify some of the rumors that had been running rampant for the past couple of weeks.

Shortened Winter Hours

The first change Leonard made was to narrow the winter hours for the historical site. From the beginning of January until mid-March Bent’s Old Fort is only open three days per week on the weekends. Leonard said his staff is using this time to implement some of the work and changes that will be put in place. Some of that work includes creating a school curriculum for local schools to utilize that describes the vast array of historical learning objectives for students. The Fort will be back to regular hours by mid-March, and then from Memorial Day through Labor Day there will be a great deal of interpretive and learning events scattered throughout the summer.

The Animals

The animals are still at the Fort including the oxen, horses, chickens, peacock, cats, and perhaps 3 goats that sometimes are borrowed from a local farm. There are some issues with maintaining the animals with a staff that is not trained to care for such an array of animals. None of the animals are being removed at this time, but as they continue to plan for the future of the Fort some of the animals will be removed to nearby farms or homes after a great deal of process and consideration. Then when certain animals are needed for a particular event or learning opportunity, Leonard indicated they would be rented out and brought to the Fort, and then returned to the owner after the events. That mixture of renting some animals and maintaining some animals not only saves the expense and confusion of training park rangers to care full time for animals, but it also streamlines the programming, according to Leonard.

Eliminating Living History Programming & Volunteers

According to Leonard, the strategic planning recommendations did not rule out continuing on with living history programming, but made suggestions on how to implement living history events and processes in different ways. Recommendations are still being considered, but Leonard was emphatic that the living history component at the Fort will not be eliminated altogether. Leonard also indicated they need to develop a better working relationship with volunteers from all walks of life. This year, volunteers will be needed as there are not many available, and that will mean training for the new ones.

Leonard added, “In my younger years I was a volunteer doing living history and was a seasonal ranger. That work solidified my love for history.” Leonard is hopeful they will be able to recruit and train many history lovers as new volunteers and bring some of the experienced ones back into the fold since it’s been a few years for a number of them.

Upstairs Portion of the Fort Is Closed

According to Leonard the Fort was heavily damaged by the flood of the Arkansas River in 1921 and then reconstructed in 1975-1976. During that reconstruction a mixture of modern and historically accurate building methods and materials were used, including in the upstairs portion. The two materials of adobe and cement that were used did not treat water and moisture in the same manner causing slow decay over the past 50 years. On the second level one of the porches started to fail last summer, and the stairs heading towards the upstairs are not safe. However, Leonard says he has had contractors come in to evaluate the issues and stated, “I’m committed to figuring out a solution.”

As for the community, Leonard encourages people to come out to the Fort and visit with him about their ideas or concerns. Just as he is interested in fresh eyes from the consultants and will take into consideration their recommendations, he vows to do the same with community members who are concerned or who have new ideas. He indicated a few years back the Friends of Bent’s Old Fort disbanded so at this time they have no outside fundraising mechanism that they had enjoyed in the past.

Overall, there is much work to be done at Bent’s Old Fort Historical Site, but Eric Leonard says he’s dedicated to making recommended updates and improvements so that the visitor’s experience at the Fort will be one that is still memorable. Therefore, he is anxious to bring volunteers from the community into the fold, perhaps organize living history events in a slightly more updated and appealing way, continue to keep animals at the Fort when appropriate, and slowly but surely rehabilitate the upstairs portion of the Fort.

The time has come—this situation has been 50 years in the making. Now it’s time for the community and the people running this Castle on the Plains to reimagine—together—what the next 50 years will look like.

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