“Life on the prairie was rough,” said Dr. Robert Smith, director, Fort Riley museums, Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security, at the recent opening of a new exhibit at the U.S. Cavalry Museum Dec. 5 on Main Post. “But (some Soldiers) had a lot of amenities and luxuries,” he added, explaining that many officers and their wives were accustomed to comfortable living and incorporated as many elements from their lives back home as possible.
The exhibit, Home Life on the Frontier: 1855-1900, is designed to “(give) the impression that it is a frontier home here at Fort Riley in the 1800s,” Smith said.
The display features a Family scene at Christmas time. A Soldier sits reading, spittoon at his feet, as a child plays with a rocking horse in the background, and a woman decorates a Christmas tree.
“We wanted to incorporate a Christmas theme to it,” Smith said.
“Of course, the lights on the tree are not (period). They’re electrical, but we just tell people (to) pretend they’re candles,” said Debbie Clark, museum technician of Cavalry collections, DPTMS, who was in charge of creating the exhibit.
Some of the ornaments on the tree are about 100 years old, Smith said. They are on loan to the museum from fellow DPTMS employee, Angela Stewart, and once belonged to her great-grandmother.
The exhibit features a variety of home artifacts, including a hand-cranked sewing machine called a hydrant pawfoot from the 1870s; a Victorian era ‘crazy quilt’ made in 1887; and a Leslie’s Illustrated newspaper from the 1860s.
Clark said her favorite piece is the washing machine.
“It doesn’t have the knuckle breaker – the washboard – on it, so, to me, that looks like it’s a little bit easier to use. I had personally never seen one until we got that,” she said.
“We found that (listed) in a Sears and Roebuck catalogue from 1895,” Smith said. “(It sold) for the fabulous price of $4.50.”
A giant Cannon potbelly stove is included in the display. Members of the Commanding Generals Mounted Color Guard hauled the 350-pound-plus artifact up the museum stairs because it wouldn’t fit into the elevator.
The exhibit also features a teddy bear that was once displayed in the Custer House. The bear was known to mysteriously change locations throughout the Custer House.
“His roaming days are over,” Smith said with a laugh.
“I told him that.”
After the holidays, the pair plans to rotate some of the artifacts in order to update the theme and showcase other items. Clark said she believes in periodically changing exhibits, not only for the conservation of certain artifacts, but also to keep things fresh for returning visitors.
“We have a lot of artifacts, home implements, that we can (display),” Smith said.
Additionally, the museum is participating in a cooperative outreach venture with several local institutions, including the Riley County Historical Museum and the Flint Hills Discovery Center. The sister institutions help provide resources to each other and loan one another artifacts.
“The basket of the thread came from the Riley County Historical Museum, as well as the spittoon and the candle wax maker,” Clark said.
Some of the artifacts from the U.S. Cavalry Museum are on display as part of the current Forces exhibit at the Flint Hills Discovery Center.
It’s a great way to spread the word about the museum and raise awareness of fellow institutions, according to Smith.
“We can get the greatest amount of visibility for our artifacts and also assist each other by placing artifacts in different locales,” he said.
Clark and Smith also turned to The Department of Apparel, Textiles and Interior Design at Kansas State University, Manhattan, for help creating the exhibit.
Clark is a subject matter expert on Cavalry artifacts, but when it came to clothing the mannequins, she said she needed to know what a child’s clothing would look like in the 1870s and what kinds of fabrics it would use.
Creating an exhibit like this is a lengthy process, requiring countless hours of research and collaboration, according to Clark and Smith.
In a museum devoted to military collections, this exhibit marks the first representing women and children.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” Clark said.
“We want everyone to come see it and enjoy Christmas here,” Smith added.
By Julie Fiedler
1st Inf. Div. Post
Julie Fiedler | POST
Debbie Clark, museum technician of Cavalry collections, DPTMS, left, and Robert Smith, director, Fort Riley museums, right, pose in front of the newly opened exhibit, Home Life on the Frontier: 1855-1900, Dec. 5 at the U.S. Cavalry Museum.