FORT LARNED — There’s no doubt that blacksmith Pete Bethke was the star of the show.
Ranger Pete Bethke illustrated how blacksmiths were vital to the operation of Fort Larned National Historic Site during the late 1800s. Bethke constructs hand-forged products in the old blacksmith shop — a place George Armstrong Custer might have visited when he was stationed at Fort Larned.
Each student on the tour was given a link that Bethke had forged after watching him fashion some iron works. Blacksmiths were needed to fashion tools.
“The army couldn’t run without them,” said Bethke.
The theme for the first day of spring was hearing about historical characters from Fort Larned’s past. The Fort Larned National Historic Site staff offered the youth program for children ages 6 to 11 Thursday.
The Fort Larned National Historic Site, part of the national park service is an educational place to visit. Dixon showed why Fort Larned is a perfect place to learn about the Santa Fe Trail’s history and its role in Kansas’ history.
Each student was given a “key badge,” that illustrated a story about a son or daughter of people who worked during the active fort period — a captain, laundress, blacksmith or farmer.
Ranger Celeste Dixon escorted the children from place-to-place, illustrating how each building at Fort Larned performed a job for the soldiers at Fort Larned.
The students got an opportunity to help patients who were injured and make beds in the medical facility.
Dixon showed how soldiers would chop wood, then move the wood to where the blacksmith worked.
One room was used to prepare the meals for the Fort Larned facility, where the historic Santa Fe Trail crossed and where a fort was built to protect travelers using the trail.
Long before railroads crossed the Louisiana Purchase territory, traders, pioneers and U.S. mail carriers traveled the Santa Fe Trail. What began in Missouri crossed Kansas ending in Santa Fe more than 800 miles later.
Fort Larned’s soldiers protected U.S. mail wagons and others on the trail between Larned and Fort Dodge. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers. When not on the trail, the fort was home.
Most of the floor’s boards are original attesting to the quality and care of the structures. The army set up an encampment with tents in 1859. In 1865 and 1866 sandstone structures were built.
Once the railroad came the army’s presence wasn’t needed so the fort was abandoned in 1878.
“You can really get a feel for what the forts of that time period were like by coming here.”
Fort Larned National Historic Site, six miles west of Larned, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.. Admission is free. The Fort’s web site is (www.nps.gov/fols).