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History by candlelight: Ranger prepares for Ft. Larned's nocturnal tours
George Elmore, Chief Ranger at Fort Larned National Historic Site, pages through his notes for this year’s Candlelight Tours that he has begun to collect over the summer. Each entry refers to an actual moment in history at the Fort. - photo by Michael Gilmore

LARNED – George Elmore, Chief Ranger at Fort Larned National Historic Site, knows the most about the Fort’s Candlelight Tours, which have been going on annually on the second weekend of October since 1976. 

He should, he wrote the scripts for all of them. He is most proud of the fact that in all that time, no theme has ever been repeated. Whether the stories are found in a digital file, a paper record, or entrenched in his memory, his goal is to bring history to life, with something new, something fresh, each year.

“I’ve got files,” Elmore said. “I’ve got electronic files; I have paper files predating some of those. I don’t have files on everything, but what I don’t I can usually remember.”

The Tours have been going on so long, they have become multi-generational, regarding the volunteers that help with each program. Colleen Newman, Great Bend, has been a Tour volunteer since 1997, Elmore said.

“She goes way, way back,” Elmore recalled. “Starting out, she had a baby girl. She didn’t want to miss being a tour guide. So she gets a sling and the baby gets carried around with her all night. 

“Now, she’s had two girls, and both of them are helping in the Candlelight Tours. One is a tour guide and the other wants to be in one of the scenes.”

Summer prep

Elmore usually begins his preparation over the summer, beginning with selecting the theme.

“I start thinking about the new program over the summer,” he said. “Different things, that you might find at a post.” Along with making notes, he adds in ideas gained in conversation with other people. The notes are collected in a notebook, that gains in content as September approaches. Then, the research begins. Each scene – each vignette – has a link to actual history.

“There is a record somewhere that I’ve come across, that the program scene originates from,” he said.  “It’s not 100 percent accurate, but I can get across the gist of what history is telling us.”

By Labor Day, “that’s when things start to get serious,” Elmore said. The notebook has begun to sport dozens of yellow tabs, calling attention to a particular note Elmore wishes to include.  

“There is this record group, or that one, that will fit the theme in one way or another. I won’t be able to use all these wonderful little tidbits, but I could use all of them,” he said. 

“You go through this stuff, but once you really start looking for something, it is amazing what pops up at you,” he said. “These are all part of the historical record, but they might have been passed over or never really been thought about.”

Elmore never fully scripts each scene; he relies a lot on the abilities of his volunteers. 

“I don’t hand people sides with lines to say,” he said. “In doing it this way, I try to monitor the tours during the night. The first couple tours I will actually walk around in the dark and listen to what’s being said. Anything I notice that jumps out as not being correct, I will go in and correct it. 

“Tours do evolve through the night. The first couple are kind of stiff, but then people relax. Things are rolling by the middle of the night.”

Volunteers will get their roles usually two weeks out, he said. “I will be getting the script emails, the story line, to them next week sometime. They have a rough idea. Also, I try to match the volunteer, and the abilities I know they have, to the character. Some people are great at talking and others like to be more in the background.”

Dress rehearsal is usually just prior to show time, the day of the event. “That’s when it all comes together. The volunteers can actually see what is being done in the other scenes,” he said. 

“Then, we just have to wait until the sun goes down.”

Reservations for Oct. 9 Candlelight Tours accepted starting Monday

The reservation period for Fort Larned National Historic Site’s annual Candlelight Tours begins Monday at 8:30 a.m., notes FLNHS Chief Ranger George Elmore. 

Some restrictions due to the pandemic are being imposed this year on the event, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 9. The tours are scheduled to begin at dusk, approximately 7:30 p.m. Each tour will accommodate approximately 20 individuals and last approximately 15 minutes.

This year’s tour schedule is being scaled down with social distancing in place for public safety. Some buildings traditionally used for the program will not be accessible. Additionally, the tours will begin and end at the Fort’s entrance bridge. 

Reservations must be made during the Fort’s regular business hours, either by phone at 620-285-6911, or in person at the Fort Larned Visitor Center. No reservations may be made by email or by voicemail message, as staff are unable to check voicemail during the reservation process. The process is first-come, first-serve, but a waiting list will be made.

This year’s theme, “Orders,” centers on the impact that orders made on daily life at the Fort during its active years.

“Each scene is going to deal with a separate order,” Elmore said. “Pertaining to the theme of the scene, like, how the laundresses are affected by some order. Or one of the officers affected by some order.

“What I’m really trying to get across this year is as a soldier, you don’t have control over your life,” Elmore noted. “Your entire life is regulated by those orders coming down from above. You might find yourself making bread for two weeks. Two weeks later, you might be in a detail to the hospital as a soldier nurse. Or, suddenly going out into the field to deal with Indians, though that didn’t happen often. 

“Most of the soldier’s life was dealing with mundane, boring stuff.” 

Orders like this one issued in April 1868 were regularly part of a soldier’s life during Fort Larned’s active years. Obeyed without question, orders also affected those civilians who had business dealings with the installation.