Dodge City Daily Globe - Dodge City, KS
  • Supplying the troops: Fort Dodge sutler's store provided necessities

  • The winter of 1865 was unusually severe and the troops at Fort Dodge suffered through the cold and damp. Their discomfort was compounded with boredom.
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  • Part One of a two-part series
    The winter of 1865 was unusually severe and the troops at Fort Dodge suffered through the cold and damp. Their discomfort was compounded with boredom.
    The fort was established in 1864, primarily to protect the Santa Fe Trail, but there were no trees around and the closest place to quarry stone was miles to the north. The early structures at the fort were built of sod and the soldiers were quartered in dugouts carved into a clay bank on the north side of the Arkansas River. There were seventy dugouts, each 10 by 12 feet, sunk into the bank. The officers were quartered in sod houses.
    Conditions were difficult in the best weather and miserable during the record-breaking winter of 1865.
    Traffic on the Santa Fe Trail ceased during the harsh winter months, leaving the outpost isolated on the prairie.
    The men, with little occupy their thoughts, made plans to improve their situation when spring came.
    They worked together during their spare time when the weather improved to build a sod sutler's store.
    The term sutler, used to describe a merchant who supplied non-military supplies to troops in the field, often out of the back of a wagon, was not necessarily a compliment.
    The term is thought to have derived from the Dutch word, soetelaar, referring to "one who does dirty work."
    Sutler's stores were commonly attached to military posts. The sutler who won the government contract would set up shop to sell necessities to the soldiers.
    The first sutler's store at Fort Dodge, referred to as "a small miserable sod building" by the commander, was soon filled with merchandise thanks to William Ladd and his partner, Theodore Weichselbaum, who had been appointed to supply stores at several frontier forts.
    Their store at Fort Dodge provided a surprising list of goods to the soldiers: foods, cooking utensils, dishes, sewing supplies, building materials, clothing, guns and ammunition, liquor, horse supplies, pencils and paper, and playing cards.
    The store opened in the early summer of 1866 and by August the commander of the fort found it necessary to reprimand Ladd for overcharging the soldiers and demand that he lower his prices.
    As a result, a Post Council of Administration was formed to supervise the operations of the sutler's store.
    In May of 1867, Theodore R. Davis, on assignment with Harper's Weekly, visited the fort and drew a sketch of the interior of the sutler's store.
    The sketch shows flat-bottom kettles of various sizes hanging from the ceiling and a wide array of merchandise on the shelves. Military men of various ranks stand at the counter along with an Indian man wearing a gun and holster and an Indian woman with a baby in a cradle board standing a few feet away.
    Page 2 of 2 - The drawing shows a wooden floor, which would have been unusually expensive at the time.
    In 1867 soldiers at the fort began to quarry stone and haul lumber in to build permanent buildings.
    As the fort grew and prospects of a town begin established nearby became more hopeful, there was competition among suppliers to establish stores there. Robert Wright, one of the Dodge City Town Company founders, was among the competitors.
    Wright eventually built a stone sutler's store at the fort and operated it through the 1870s.
    In the fort's heyday, the sutler's store provided necessities and small luxuries to the troops and others, along with no small amount of civilization.
    In March of 1879, the fort regularly received a long list of newspapers and periodicals, including the daily New York Times, the Kansas City Times, the Army & Navy Journal, the Sunday Herald, the Army & Navy Gazette, Harper's Weekly, Waverly Magazine, Scientific American, Appleton's Journal, Popular Science, North American Review and Turf, Field and Farm.
    The fort closed in 1882 and by June of 1883, the Ford County Globe reported that Wright was removing the sutler store and moving it to Dodge City.
    EDITOR'S NOTE: As a way of celebrating Dodge City's 140th birthday this year, the Daily Globe is taking a look at a few events that shaped the town's history. These stories are assembled with the assistance of the staff at the Kansas Heritage Center. Photos from their collections and information from their files has been used extensively.
    Two books on the history of Fort Dodge are available at the center and were used in this story: "Fort Dodge: Sentry of the Western Plains," by Leo. E. Oliva, and "Sentinel to the Cimarron: The Frontier Experience of Fort Dodge, Kansas," by David K. Strate.
    Part two of this series will cover the sutler's store that currently serves Fort Dodge and plans for its reopening.
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