Historically Speaking: How Fort Dodge became what it is today

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
The main entrance to Fort Dodge when it was used as a military facility.

As the threat from Native Americans diminished in this area, so did the need for Fort Dodge. This created a question: What was to be done with this fine facility and the land it occupied?

The Fort died with a whimper, not a bang. Its downfall started as early as December 1880, when some of Fort Dodge's reserved lands were opened to 75 homesteaders.

On April 5, 1882, the Fort officially closed which left several buildings in good condition with no plans for their use.

Custodians from the U.S. Department of Interior managed the Fort and the land it stood on for the next eight years. One of these custodians was Dodge City entrepreneur Robert Wright who rented out the Fort's buildings to drovers waiting to sell their cattle. He also purchased more of the land surrounding the Fort.

H.B. "Ham" Bell had an idea how to better use the Fort. He wanted to convert the property into a state home for retired veterans. He enlisted the aid of a veteran’s group, the Grand Army of the Republic, who passed a resolution to set up a veteran's home at the old fort site.

In January 1890, the U.S. government deeded Fort Dodge to the State of Kansas for use as a Soldiers Home.

Former soldiers, mostly Civil War veterans, soon moved to the old Fort site. Veterans of the Mexican and Indian Wars followed. Though most of these men had served honorably, it was not always peace and unity at the Kansas Soldiers Home.

Records show many veterans were dismissed from the Home for quarreling and drunkenness. The game of croquet was banned because the mallets could be as weapons during arguments among the residents.

Eventually, dependents and relatives of veterans were allowed to move into the Home. Additionally, African American veterans and those serving with the Confederacy were admitted. Veterans of the Mexican, Civil, Indian, Spanish-American, Philippines, Boxer Rebellion, World Wars I, and II, Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars have all been occupants.

Today, the Kansas Soldiers Home has a park with tree lined walks and the buildings are an interesting mix of both old and new. There is a library/museum, nursing home, recreation center, five residence halls and 60 cottages. Street and building names honor American presidents and military heroes, including Eisenhower, Nimitz, Sheridan, Garfield, Custer, Lincoln, Dewey and Walt.

An interesting side story involves Boot Hill Museum. For decades, the lonely little Fort Dodge jail sat at the post unused. In the early 1950's, the Dodge City Jaycees, who built Boot Hill Museum, felt the jail would make a nice addition to the Museum. They asked Kansas Soldiers Home officials if they would donate it to the Museum and were told State property could not be donated or sold, but if it was "stolen" no charges would be pressed. On Nov. 1, 1953, a group of Jaycees with horses, dust masks and a trailer snuck out to the Fort in the dead of night and "acquired" the 1865 jail, which now stands on top of Boot Hill.