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Weapons, Medals, and Cold Reality at Fort Garland

Article by Marcia Darnell

Historic place – April 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE FORT GARLAND MUSEUM is a wonderland of old times and old relics. Fans of the Old West, the Civil War, the military, history, playacting, art, and building restoration can find something to enjoy at The Fort Garland Museum in the town of Fort Garland.

Garland is a real fort, or it was in the 19th century. Built in 1858 to protect settlers, miners, and traders in the San Luis Valley, the fort originally had 20 buildings. But it deteriorated under private ownership after its closure in 1883. In 1945, the Colorado Historical Society bought the fort and restored as much of it as possible. Today, five of the original buildings survive, and one, the guardhouse, has been reconstructed.

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Kit Carson served as commandant here in the 1860s. William Tecumseh Sherman was here, as were Chief Ouray and the famous Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American troops who served in the West after the Civil War. Last summer, the fort became home to a permanent exhibit on the Buffalo Soldiers.

The centerpiece, so to speak, of the fort is the flagpole in the middle of the parade ground. Built of wood, it holds the garrison flag, which is 20 feet by 36 feet and has 36 stars.

The parade ground is the site of historical reenactments, when enthusiastic historians commemorate the period with authentic costumes and drills.

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Rick Manzanares, the museum director, organizes the two encampments held every year.

“The Memorial day weekend encampment is a general soldiers’ protocol, not a Civil War re├źnact ment,” he said. The activities include military history and education, horse drills, infantry drills, and some period music.

“It’s about military culture, with a formal tea and dinner.” He laughed, and added, “it’s more about the life of officers than soldiers.”

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The second gathering, which this year will be Aug. 26 and 27, pays homage to the Colorado Volunteers, who mustered here before they were force marched to Glorieta Pass.

The everyday museum tour begins and ends in the bookstore, which offers a fine collection of historical and cultural books; the literature is an education in itself.

The adjacent room notes the early history of the fort. Fort Massachusetts, its predecessor, is represented, along with artifacts of the earliest inhabitants of the area. A collage documents the restoration of the fort.

Step outside and enjoy the parade ground. Walk to your left (clockwise around the perimeter) and enter the cavalry barracks. The first room is a chapel, complete with altar and pews. A collection of religious art includes carved wooden and plaster saints and retablos, religious tableaux.

The next room (you have to go outside, then re-enter the building) houses wagons — without horses, but you can use your imagination. The vehicles range from a plush, upholstered Phaeton to an Army freight wagon. There’s also a laundry stove, a wooden wringer, and pack saddles.

The next building is the guard house. The sergeant’s quarters are first, with the guards’ cells in the back.

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The next room is a Civil War buff’s dream, displaying carbines, revolvers, swords, medals, hats, jackets and a field officer’s chest that belonged to Gen. McClellan. Other equipment includes a cartridge box, a field desk, and a “housewife’s kit” which held thread, buttons, money and keepsakes. There’s also a tent and a pack saddle for a mountain howitzer.

For the more dramatic types, there is a diorama representing the Battle of La Glorieta Pass, in which the Colorado Volunteers defeated a Confederate unit in New Mexico. The Buffalo Soldiers’ exhibit is here as well.

The next room is the mess hall, commonly used by the Army to store lumber and coal.

March to the next building, the infantry barracks. A range of dioramas is here, honoring the various peoples who settled here: Spanish, Utes, fur traders, the U.S. Army and others.

A collection of Native American artifacts includes a painted buckskin, arrows, moccasins, ornaments and a high horn saddle (Ouch!). The barracks has two fireplaces and a large bellows tucked into one corner. A list of bugle calls is posted, and a model of the original fort holds center court.

WOMEN SETTLERS are honored here, with a display of clothing and a sidesaddle. Other exhibits pay homage to miners and ranchers. A mountain howitzer is assembled and stands at the ready. The orderly room, fully furnished, is in the back of the building.

The next building is the commandant’s quarters. (Bypass the west officers’ quarters; it’s not open.) This home is modeled on Kit Carson’s tenure, when he, his wife, Josefa, and their six children lived here. The office includes mannequins of Carson and Chief Ouray. The family’s personal living space is furnished, including the dining room, kitchen, and children’s room. The living area is a tribute to Josefa Jaramillo Carson. A large buffalo head graces the foyer.

Out the door, there’s a Barlow and Sanderson stagecoach; this vehicle was a common sight on the trade routes in the Old West.

The Fort Garland Museum is open year round, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. In the fall and winter, hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Otherwise, it’s open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Seasonal hours change on the daylight savings time days.

The museum is located just south of the intersection of U.S. 160 and U.S. 159. Use the flagpole as a homing beacon.

Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for kids 6 to 16, and $2.50 for people 65 and older. Group rates are available. For information call the museum at 719-379-3512.

Marcia Darnell lives in the San Luis Valley with lots of other relics. This is an excerpt from her book, Museums of the San Luis Valley.

Photos from the Colorado Historical Society collection.