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Special Comment on Fort Hartsuff

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Jeff Barnes, a Nebraska writer on American Military History (check out his book, Forts of the Northern Plains: Guide to Historic Military Posts of the Plains Indian Wars) offers his special comment on the changes proposed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission regarding Fort Hartsuff.  This article is reprinted with Jeff’s permission and is cross posted in the Lincoln Journal Star.

Some news came out last week from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission which most Nebraskans wouldn’t believe affects them but it does.

The word from the commission was that, given the economic conditions, funding would be cut and staff eliminated from Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park near Burwell and transferred to the bigger, more popular Mahoney State Park, between Omaha and Lincoln.

fort2Having written about the forts of the Great Plains, and explored more than 100 of them, I was always impressed at how little Fort Hartsuff stood out among the giants of the military posts. It is unique in that it is the only fort I’ve found with buildings constructed of concrete, made possible because of the gravel and lime in the North Loup Valley. When built in 1874, it had a dual role – not only to separate the Sioux and white settlers of the area, but also the Sioux and their traditional Pawnee enemies, also unusual for a fort.

The vast majority of the forts of the Plains Indian Wars are gone. Some have been partially rebuilt; some have a few of their original buildings, but Fort Hartsuff stands out for having essentially all of its buildings still in place after more than 130 years. It is amazingly well preserved and presented by its staff as an example of the small prairie fort of the wars.

Fort Hartsuff is essential to the heritage of Nebraska and to telling our story. However, if the park is closed, if it loses its staff and maintenance budget, if it is restricted to “by appointment only,” that is essentially tearing a chapter from that story and killing a wonderful little state park.

Not to belittle it but Mahoney State Park does not reflect a heritage of the state. It is a juggernaut among “manufactured” parks, with wave pools, water slides, a restaurant, corporate meeting space, and other entertainment amenities. It could have been built anywhere in the state but its site was selected because it had interstate access between our two largest cities. It was built to make money.

Fort Hartsuff, obviously, was not built by the army to be a state park nor to make money. They didn’t build it close to population centers, nor on the busiest trail in the state. When the army closed it 128 years ago, it stood to reason the fort would be gone a short time later. We are incredibly lucky to still have this today.

The point I want to make is that Mahoney will survive with a cut in its budget; Fort Hartsuff probably won’t. Its income is derived from park fees and a small gift shop. Yet even though the fort is not a money-generator, it is a treasure that must be preserved.

I encourage the reader to immediately contact Gov. Heineman and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln to voice your opposition to the proposed cuts at Fort Hartsuff. I understand the commission is meeting within the next two weeks to decide whether to fund the site after July 1 so the sooner you call the better.

Jeff Barnes
Omaha, Nebraska

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Written by Caleb

June 25, 2009 at 2:05 pm

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