Bending History at Bent's Old Fort

Ever wondered what life was like for frontier-era fur traders? Visit the living history museum at Bent's Old Fort and experience it for yourself

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IT'S NOT JUST the physical fort that has been resurrected – the spirit lives on through its people. Enter the fort today, and you’ll likely be greeted by a man in fringed buckskin breeches and a coat fashioned from an old Hudson’s Bay blanket. That’s John Carson, a park service staff member whose 9-to-5 job is to work in the fort just as its employees did 175 years ago. It’s a living history park, where the staff answers questions without breaking character.

Carson acts the role of a Bent, St. Vrain & Co. hunter. It’s a part he was born to play. Carson is the great-grandson of legendary frontiersman Kit Carson, a frequent visitor to Bent’s Fort who was employed there as a hunter in 1841. John Carson has kept alive the expertise in trapping and hunting, and inquisitive guests can spend an afternoon mining his knowledge.

There’s also Greg Holt, who has reenacted the role of craftsman at the fort for 25 years. He is a master of 19th century blacksmithing and woodworking who built many of the reproductions seen in the fort. The torch of antiquated trade skills is kept burning much as it is at Colonial Williamsburg, a more famous living history destination in Virginia.

Besides the staff, there is a dedicated cadre of 100 or so volunteers who populate the fort as traders, trappers, soldiers and Indians for special events like the annual Christmas celebration or the Fur Trade Encampment. Children can learn to make adobe and other old-time skills in the Kids’ Quarters program, and adults interested in learning more advanced crafts – blacksmithing, for instance – can go to the Living History Encampment.

“Our mission is to bring the fort to life and to provoke listeners into wanting to learn more,” Holt said. “It’s to tell the story of a forgotten past.”

Bent’s Old Fort operated in a gray area of history.

“You can go to sites and see the War of 1812, you can go to sites and see a lot about the Civil War, but we’re right in between,” he said.

Carson continued that thought.

“If you look most college textbooks, you might get a paragraph on the fur trade, a couple sentences on the Santa Fe Trail,” Carson said. “With us being at the fort, people can be introduced to this place, this era, this area in the development of the country.”

One of his favorite parts of the job is when he can “hook somebody” with a living history demonstration.

“They’re going to come back, but when they do, they’re not just going to be in tourist mode,” he said. “They’re actually going to get down and dirty with the rest of us, doing the skills and so forth.”

About 25,000 people visit Bent’s Old Fort every year, including day-trippers from Denver, busloads of area school kids and people who happen to be traveling on nearby U.S. Route 50. But the place deserves attendance an order of magnitude greater.

The fort used to be a center of life in Colorado. These days, the nearest center of activity is La Junta, population 7,000. It is treasured by the people who live there, but it’s off the radar screen of many Coloradans who live in big cities more than 100 miles away. If it were in the Denver metro area, you can be sure it would be a “must-go” destination for anyone looking to get the genuine Colorado experience.

But Bent’s Old Fort is a must-go. It’s not that far. In Holt’s quarter century at the place, he has seldom, if ever, heard anyone say it wasn’t worth the visit.

(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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