Colorado Seen 07/2011
BENT’S FRONTIER Capitalism
Also n HARTSEL LIBRARY
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From the Editor I didn’t plan it that way, but somehow this turned into a “volunteer” issue. At Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, volunteers dress up in 1840s costumes to help teach about life 160 years ago. At the community library in tiny Hartsel, everyone pitches in to make things work — even inmates from a nearby state prison. ColoradoSeen itself is a voluntary effort — there never has been nor will be a “pay wall” — and now you can take part. If you like what you see and read here, you can support ColoradoSeen with a voluntary subscription to help pay our expenses, and keep the pictures and stories coming. Just go to our home page at coloradoseen.com and click the ‘donate’ link on the left. Large or small, every donation helps keep the “presses” rolling.
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On the cover: During a recreation of 1840s frontier life at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, volunteers are paid off for their work with replicas of Spanish coins, some broken into “pieces of eight.”
STORY & Photos by Andy Piper
Red Devon oxen browse the grass and bindweed outside Bentâ€™s Old Fort, a re4
In southeast Colorado, Bentâ€™s Old Fort stands as a monument to Great Plains free enterprise.
constructed 1840s trading outpost along the Santa Fe Trail.
hink of it as Coloradoâ€™s first shopping mall. And first motel. In 1829, Charles and William Bent, fur traders from St. Louis, began running trade caravans across the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, linking Independence, Missouri, to the Mexican regional capitol of Santa Fe, on the route known as the Santa Fe Trail. Their trade in beaver skins from the Rocky Mountains soon expanded to include silver 5
During a weekend of training for volunteers who recreate 1840â€™s life in the fort, shopkeeper Samuel Pisciotta presides over the commercial heart of the enterprise, the trading room, amid blankets, furs, buttons, hats and other goods. Thin stripes on the white blanket in the foreground indicate the price â€” four buffalo skins.
At right, Danette Ulloa of nearby La Junta, Colorado, prepares breakfast in the central courtyard for other volunteers re-creating 1840’s life in Bent’s Old Fort. Below, the fort’s pet cat, Smoky, catches forty winks on a pile of soft trade blankets.
from Mexico, buffalo hides from Native American hunters, and livestock and horses. So in 1833 the Bents, along with partner Ceran St.Vrain, built a center of opera8
tions in what is now southeast Colorado, convenient to Cheyenne hunting grounds, the foothills of the Rockies, the Trail, at a ford across the nearby Arkansas River, a useful water source.
riginally called Fort William, Bent’s Fort became the region’s first commercial enterprise, a place where white
trappers could replenish supplies, Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes could swap buffalo skins for the white man’s blankets and trinkets, and travelers could take a break from the arduous
life on the Trail, in a real bed. Eventually it also served as a de facto embassy, where tribes who distrusted one another, but trusted the Bents, met for peace talks. The Bents were
big on peace — it promoted stable trade. William Bent married Owl Woman, a Cheyenne woman, and often spent time living in her nearby village. Building on
the treeless Great Plains, the Bents drew on their experience in Santa Fe, and used adobe — clay mixed with straw — to construct their bastion of free enterprise. With constant care,
the adobe served, but once the fort ceased operating in 1849, the walls soon crumbled. Today’s fort, a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service, was rebuilt 9
Bent’s Old Fort
in 1976 based on archaeological excavations and drawings by 19thcentury visitors.
t its peak Bent’s Fort had over 30 regular employees: traders, kitchen help, seamstresses, meat hunters, an apothecary for medical needs. Frontiersman Kit
Carson frequented the fort as trapper, caravan teamster, and hunter. Today, volunteers recreate all those roles to portray the life of the fort in its heyday of the early 1840’s. By 1846, the fort’s fortunes were on the decline. A trend towards silk hats — and a scarcity of beaver — killed the fur trade. The U.S. Army was taking an inter-
At left, Charlotte ‘Carlotta’ Plehaty, 14, portraying a seamstress and serving girl, shares a secret with Kimberly Prack. Above, Prack’s hands spin wool into yarn. 11
Kay Erickson recounts her work for the year to paymaster Edward Duncan in the fort’s dining room. ‘You must learn to take more care,’ says Duncan. ‘Four dollars and two bits — less breakages!’
John Carson, far right, a great-grandson of frontiersman Kit Carson, watches as fellow volunteers portraying hunters and trappers examine a musket.
Above, Ceran St. Vrainâ€™s room in the fort. At right, Peter Czarnowski, in 1840â€™s uniform, portrays an Army surveyor in an encampment under cottonwood trees along the nearby Arkansas River. Below, wagon wheels add a colorful touch outside the fort walls.
est in the fort as a strategic location for advancement into Mexico and California, and the livestock of new settlers and the military decimated the surrounding hunting grounds of the Cheyenne. A cholera epidemic in 1849 among the native tribes drove a further wedge between them and their former trading partners.
illiam Bent abandoned the “old” Fort and moved downstream to a new location, confirming the prescient comment of Friedrich Adolph Wislizenus, a German visitor of the 1840s, who foresaw that “present narratives of mountain life may [someday] sound like fairy tales.” n
Don Troyer, portraying an 1840’s apothecary, demonstrates a device for pulling aching teeth. 19
After the volunteers have ended their weekend of historical recreation, a park ranger surveys the empty plaza of Bentâ€™s Old Fort. n
Colorado’s Smallest Libraries: Hartsel
Lace curtains and a portrait of town founder Sam Hartsel grace a wall of the town’s community library. Opposite, Donna Smith holds the door for Cassandra Brooks as she leaves with a box load of books.
THE HARTSEL VOLUNTEERS
STORY & Photos by Andy Piper
p here in Hartsel, there are almost more square miles than people. And more books than either. Hartsel (605 square miles; population 677) sits nestled along the southern rim of the valley of South Park, astride U.S. 24 between Colorado Springs and Fairplay. Mostly high range
(the elevation is 8,864 feet) it is centered on a village of a couple of dozen homes, a coffee shop, a general store — and the community library. The town was founded in 1880 by its namesake, landowner and cattle rancher Sam Hartsel. The library was established 119 years later.
Top left, library director Carol Moeder answers a telephone inquiry. At right, Donna Smith reads a local newspaper as son Billie peruses the shelves. 24
“Originally, the building was a ‘teacherage’ for the school next door,” says library director Carol Moeder, a retired teacher herself. “Then it became the high school. Then the fire
department used it for storage for years and years.” “We started with all paperbacks,” says Moeder, “but in a dozen years we have had so many donations, we don’t have shelves for all
of them.” he overflow resides, waistdeep, in the back room of the trim, 750-square-foot building. Cassandra Brooks is poking
through the piles, collecting books to buy with a cash donation. “I’ve started a goat ranch out east of town, and I just get by. I don’t know what I’d do without this wonderful
library.” Volunteer librarian Dick Chambers is spending one Thursday afternoon correcting entries in the computerized catalog. “It is a long way
The town of Hartsel is surrounded by cattle ranches, country roads and the mountains that ring South Park. The library is at bottom left, with a porch and dark roof.
Cassandra Brooks stands waist-deep in books in the Hartsel libraryâ€™s overflow storage room.
‘That’ll do’er,’ says ‘Brother Ray’, after loading the back seat of his bumper-stickercovered van with books. Much of the library’s income comes from sales of their excess volumes.
for people here to have to drive,” he says. “All the way to Fairplay just to get a book.”
he building is freshly painted and well-maintained, with lace curtains in all the windows. “The State Prison down in Buena Vista has a community service program. We put in an application, and a dozen prisoners were brought up here to do the painting. Somehow, they just kept pointing out more and more little things to fix around the place, so they were up here three days instead of one. I guess they liked it out here in the fresh air,” Moeder says with a grin. “But then, everyone who works here is a volunteer,” she adds. “I went down to a library conference in Aurora, and they told us ‘You can’t run a library on volunteers.’ ” “I said ‘Really?’ ” n 31
At closing time, library director Moeder spends an extra quarterhour chatting with computer volunteers Cody and Billie Smith. ‘See what the library is for? It’s a get-together-and-gossip place.’