Frontier Blues exhibit reveals Fort Lewis College’s foundations
In the early 1960s, Fort Lewis College became what we know it as today — a four-year baccalaureate-awarding institution located on a scenic mesa above the town of Durango. Before that, though, Fort Lewis already had a long history made in a different location and in different incarnations.
It’s those other versions of Fort Lewis that stood on the site today known as the “Old Fort,” near the town of Hesperus, Colorado, that are on display in “Frontier Blues: The Legacy of Fort Lewis College,” in the Center of Southwest Studies Galleries. The new exhibit also features photographs recently discovered in a collection from Frazier Boutelle, who traveled the West with the U.S. military in the late 1800s.
“Frontier Blues” gives context to the college’s Centennial celebration, as 2011 marks 100 years since the federal government deeded the Old Fort property to the state of Colorado to create a public school. Prior to 1911, the site on the southern flanks of the La Plata Mountains had been an Indian boarding school and a military fort. And before that, it was the ancestral home of some of the region’s Native American tribes.
“This is history that a lot of people in this community don’t know,” says Ken Francis, interim director of the Center of Southwest Studies. “They don’t really understand the early history, or the military and Indian boarding school connection. All those uses set the context for Fort Lewis as a public school being established.”
After 1911, the public school called “Fort Lewis” underwent more transformations, from agricultural and mechanical arts high school, to a two-year rural college known as Fort Lewis A&M. In 1956, the college moved to Durango, and in 1962 began offering four-year degrees.
The exhibit illuminates those various phases of Fort Lewis by focusing on the people who lived their lives at and around the Old Fort. The exhibit displays artifacts, gives narrative interpretations, and features enlarged high-resolution photographs that provide engrossing and revealing windows into those other eras.
In keeping with the historic Fort Lewis tradition of hands-on learning and student leadership, “Frontier Blues” also puts student work on display. Many of the historic artifacts were collected or excavated by students in archaeological field classes, then collected, analyzed, archived, (delete and) interpreted, and prepared for exhibition by work-study, internship, and volunteer students.
Also highlighting student achievement, accompanying Frontier Blues will be “The Real Savages,” an exhibit by Senior Art major Babe Lansing, from Arboles, Colorado. The display explores Native American identity by juxtaposing historical research with stereotypes and propaganda art of Native Americans.
“We saw her exhibit in the Art Gallery, but it was there for only a short time. But we thought it was really interesting, and deserved a longer-running venue,” says Curator Jeanne Brako. “There are overlapping topics, in that she talks about boarding schools and the military in her exhibit. But she looks at those in a broader way, showing that many Native Americans faced some similar issues as those at Fort Lewis did.”
For more information, call (970) 247-7456 or visit swcenter.fortlewis.edu.
The Center’s new exhibit, Frontier Blues, was featured in the Durango Telegraph in an article titled The Old Fort: March 17, 2011.