FORT LARAMIE – The U.S. Army got a new bunch of recruits Wednesday.
True, they were a little young. And they won’t be heading off to fight in the wars any time soon.
These recruits were fourth graders from Lingle-Fort Laramie Elementary School and they swore their oaths of allegiance to be soldiers on the frontier of Wyoming in the 1870s. It was all part of the annual student tours of the Fort Laramie National Historic Site in western Goshen County.
Fourth-graders from around the region have been making the annual pilgrimages to the site, which served as the beachhead for western expansion, for more than 50 years. Steve Fullmer, now a National Park Service ranger who’s served at the site for more than 30 of those years, got his first introduction to the Fort Laramie experience as a fourth grader himself on one of those tours.
“I fell in love with the park in the fourth grade, on one of those field trips,” Fullmer said. “I can’t pinpoint one thing. I remember the sights, the sounds, the smells – the whole sensory experience.”
It’s more than just giving the students part of a day off from the day in, day out of classes. The Wyoming educational curriculum mandates the in-depth study of the state’s history begins in earnest in the fourth grade. And, with arguably one of the most famous, most influential sites in history right in their own back yard, the visits to Fort Laramie fit in perfectly with the curriculum.
“We make it a priority to bring students out here for their study of Wyoming history,” said Eric Valencia, chief of interpretation for Fort Laramie. “Parks are classrooms. (The National Park Service) has evolved and it continues to evolve to make education a priority.”
This year, as in years past, the students began their day with a brief talk by one of the rangers who work at Fort Laramie. They learned about the 12,000-plus year history of the Fort Laramie region, from the earliest Native American people who called the area home, through the fur trappers, Mormon and Oregon trail settlers winding their way westward through the area to the military history of the fort in the latter parts of the 19th Century.
The history of Fort Laramie is the history of the west.
“We really focus on the history” said Ranger Joe Reasoner, one of the interpreters who leads the school groups. For this particular tour, Reasoner was dressed in period clothing as a first sergeant in the Army of the 1870s.
“We try to get as many classes as we can out here each year,” he said. “There’s a lot of historical research to the presentations. We really strive for accuracy.”
After the talk, the new “soldiers” are lined up into squads and taught the basic activity of new troops of any age – marching. Reasoner leads them from the old cavalry barracks at one end of the fort complex toward the row of buildings, which housed officer’s quarters, the post store and more.
Most of this batch of students raised their hands when asked if they’d been to the fort before. Favorite attractions at the site ranged from visiting the post store and seeing some of the different types of supplies – bolts of cloth, weapons and ammunition, basic staples and more – which would have been available to the different groups which relied on the facility.
School groups – fourth-graders specifically – have been visiting Fort Laramie each spring since the 1960s, Valencia said. And it’s not just local groups. Students come from across Wyoming, from northern Colorado and from western Nebraska for an up-close look at the history of the region.
Last year, for example, the historic site played host to more than 3,600 fourth graders from 93 different schools. Valencia believes those numbers will only increase this year.
And those visits often make a lasting impression.
“People remember when they came out in the fourth grade,” Valencia said. “They develop a strong connection to the fort.
“It’s all about a combination of knowledge of the resource (the fort) and knowledge of the audience,” he said. “It’s all about how we grab them and shake them to create that connection.”
The programs are developed in conjunction with education professionals. And it’s a constantly evolving process, Valencia said. His goal over the next couple of years is to evaluate and update the programs as curriculum requirements change.
And the students aren’t the only ones impacted by the tours. Reasoner and Fullmer said hardly a day goes by when some adult doesn’t stop them with a story of their own visits to Fort Laramie as a child.
Reasoner recalled his first year as an interpreter at the fort, some 20 years ago. He was getting ready to lead only his second group of students on their tour and was, admittedly, nervous, he said.
He happened to mention to the students how new he was to leading the tours, apologizing in advance if he stumbled over his words or seemed unsure.
“At the end of the program, a young girl came up to me,” Reasoner said. “She pulled on the cuff of my blouse, looks up at me with her big brown eyes and ways, with all sincerity, ‘Ranger Joe, you did a good job.’ That was just