September 18, 2008
Remembering a tip I’d been given by Dawn Wexo at The Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, WY, I slid into Nebraska with an impromptu plan. Half with the intention to budget my lodging choice for the night and half curious about following an unusual lead, I’d pulled over to the side of a South Dakota road and placed a call to Fort Robinson State Park. Thanks to Dawn’s helpful suggestion, I would be spending the night in army barracks.
Fort Robinson, now a 22,000 acre state park under the direction of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, began as an army post in 1874.
Located in the NW corner of Nebraska, just three miles from the town of Crawford, it was originally named Camp Robinson and located 1.5 miles down the road. It moved to its present location the following year and acquired the name Fort Robinson in 1878.
Most widely known as the location where Crazy Horse was killed in 1877, it also holds historical significance for housing the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. 9th Cavalry Regiment from 1885 to 1898. Museum exhibits pay tribute to both of these distinctions as well as many other on-site events, such as the Cheyenne Outbreak of 1879. Visitors can brush up on these aspects of history by visiting the Fort Robinson Museum or by simply walking the grounds to view posted signs and exhibits.
Though I was intrigued by the history, I had been equally lured by the prospect of inexpensive lodging, and I was not disappointed. I was given a room in the old soldiers’ barracks, upstairs and adjacent to a wide front porch. Furnished with basic necessities—bed, dresser, table and lamp—it was spacious, freshly painted in a soft blue with off-white trim, had a private bath, and felt light and airy as a result of high ceilings. A portrait of Levi Robinson, the fort’s namesake, hung on the wall. A quilted bedspread added a perfect touch of pioneer homestead atmosphere to the otherwise military environment. For a total fee of 46.60, tax included, I was a happy budget traveler for the night.
I had arrived after the tourist season and knew the regular summer tours, living history demonstrations, and activities such as horseback riding would not be available. In addition, the cafeteria was only preparing food for employees, but I had enough rations of my own to get by.
I occupied my evening time walking the peaceful grounds and admiring the red brick structures, the horse barns, and the many wide open spaces, often used in the past for regiment practices.
Eventually, I retired to my room, stopping at my car to stock up on a few late night snacks and morning provisions. I attempted to read but found the quiet stillness of the building and grounds sleep-inducing. I drifted off quickly.
Over a mug of steaming French Roast in the morning, I patted myself on the back for having dragged a coffee maker up from my car the night before, as well as a packet of coffee from one recent inn and a cinnamon muffin from another. I sat on the front porch of the soldiers’ barracks, propped my feet up on the railing, and jotted down notes while enjoying my makeshift breakfast.
Post-checkout, I headed over to a section of the property maintained by the Nebraska Historical Society, where I checked out several of the buildings – the 1906 blacksmith shop, 1909 veterinary hospital and 1887 adobe officers’ barracks.
Though I was only able to view displays from the outside of most buildings, I had a stroke of luck when a member of the historical society saw me peeking through the windows of the 1900 wheelwright shop. He kindly offered to let me in to view historic wagons and gave me an informative lesson in the wagon wheel repair that was crucial to the transportation needs of the turn of the century soldiers. Having a chance to receive a private tour and view the wagons close-up was a real treat, and I thanked my guide heartily.
Aside from being a military fort, Fort Robinson served a variety of purposes. It functioned as a distribution center for the U.S. Red Cloud Indian Agency to pass out goods to the local tribes. It housed and trained a K-9 corps during World War II, training 5,000 dogs between 1942 and 1945 in 8-12 week sessions. And it functioned as a German P.O.W. camp between 1943 and 1945. Historical markers commemorate these locations, as well.
I couldn’t leave without strolling over to the log cabins serving as the post guardhouse and post adjutant’s office, which were reconstructed during the 1960s. On this site, Sioux warrior Crazy Horse surrendered to the army in May of 1877, where he was also fatally wounded four months later.
I had not expected such an immense history lesson when I headed to Fort Robinson to grab an economical room for the night. But I certainly ended up with a renewed appreciation for some aspects of U.S. history. Between that and my bargain accommodation in the barracks, I was glad I’d made a stop at this fascinating military fort.