Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Little Big Horn Battlefield

I've always been interested in the Custer saga; from the time I was a kid and watched "They Died With Their Boots On", the historically-flawed but entertaining Errol Flynn movie. My interest was renewed after recently reading the book "A Terrible Glory", a book that brings together all of the other research done on Custer and the battle into one comprehensive and enlightening read. I won't attempt to tell the story of events leading up to the battle, you can read more about it here. And since we'd recently visited the Custer house at Fort Abraham Lincoln and were heading for the general area, we decided to spend a day touring the Little Big Horn National Battlefield, just off I-90 in southern Montana. The park was very busy; the parking lots, not all that large, were choked by a variety of cars and RVs, and the visitor center was wall-to-wall people. After watching a short movie on the history of the battle, we entered the tour route and drove first to the Reno-Benteen battlefield area. It was near this point that Custer again divided his command, having left Captain Benteen and three companies on a lateral scouting mission, and now ordering Major Reno to take three troops, cross the river, and attack the Indian encampment to the North. At this point Custer was only concerned that the Indians might escape, not having seen the size of the encampment or believing his Indian scouts that had. Custer, who had often stated that no amount of Indians could ever defeat the US 7th Calvary, then continued North, apparently to attack the encampment. Historians now believe that the encampment held close to 10,000 Sioux and Cheyenne, with 1500-1800 warriors. On the drive South to the Reno/Benteen battlefield, you can look to the West and across the river to the area where the Indian encampment was:

Looking at what is now an area of farms and ranchland, it's difficult to imagine the hundreds of tepees that were here on June 25, 1876. At the Reno site, you can look down the coulee where he and his men crossed the river and turned to attack the village. He quickly understood the overwhelmingly large force he was facing, and retreated into the woods before finally continuing his retreat back across the river to the high ground. From here, Reno and his command, later joined by Major Benteen and his men, dug in to make a stand. Surrounding the hill in the distance is another ridge where Indians poured rifle fire into his command, now known as "Sharpshooters Ridge". You can see the northern end of the ridge in this picture:

Reno, who was later scrutinized for his conduct at the battle and eventually discharged due to alcoholism, died in poverty in 1889 in Washington. His body is interred in the cemetary adjacent to the visitor center.
Custer's movements as he headed North are not known for sure, but as we drove along the ridge we came across small groups of markers where fallen troops had been found. In the distance, "Last Stand Hill" looms, noticably the highest point in the area. Approaching the hill and looking to the East, a number of markers depict the location of Lt Calhoun and his men, again an example of where troopers apparently banded together against the overwhelming attacking force. At Last Stand Hill, a memorial marker, erected in 1881, lists the names of the 263 troopers, civilians, and scouts killed in the battle. Looking down the hill, the markers of Custer and his men, with the river and area of the Indian encampment behind, help visitors visualize what it must have been like on that horrible day. The story of the Little Big Horn and George Armstrong Custer will always be one that intrigues people - flamboyant hero or vain incompetent, his life was a fascinating example of politics and Army life in the late 1800s.
Some trivia about Custer and the battle:
- Custer is depicted in paintings and movies as having shoulder-length golden hair. In fact, he wore his hair short during the campaign due to the heat and dust.
- Custer's brother Tom, who accompanied him and was killed, is the only two-time Medal of Honor recipient.
- Indian women and boys mutilated the bodies of Custer's command, usually by dismemberment. This was done because they believed that if left intact, they would have to fight them again in the next world.
- One reason Custer may have been so recklessly aggressive is that during this period the US Army only promoted one, sometimes two Lieutenant Colonels a year. It's possible that along with the popular stories he wrote about himself for Eastern newspapers, he felt that a huge victory would assure him a promotion.

We're off to the Ennis Valley and another historical area of the West - come back and see where we've been!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Roaming the Dakotas

We've left the Winnebago Rally, putting away our tie-died shirts and headbands, and shelving the Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin CDs. Leaving Forest City, we headed west to visit our full-timer's home town, Sioux Falls, SD. We stayed just long enough to pick up our mail and do some shopping, then headed to Mitchell, the home of the fabled Corn Palace. While it may sound, ah, corny (sorry), it's actually a pretty neat place. The first "palace" was built in 1892 to showcase the corn grown in South Dakota, and the current palace was built in 1921. Each year, a committee decides what the theme will be, and the exterior walls are stripped and the work begins. The corn, which is specially grown in seven colors, is cut lengthwise so that a flat surface can be placed against the walls. The murals are drawn, and like a "color by numbers" painting, the corn is nailed to the walls forming the mural. It sounds simple, until you learn that over 275,000 ears of corn and two tons of nails are used. From a distance, it's difficult to see the individual ears of corn that form the mural, and it's amazing to see how detailed each mural is when viewed closely. Inside, the palace has a large gym which serves as the local high school's basketball arena, a stage, and of course a "corncession" area (I'm not making this up). An interesting mural (see picture below) decorates the wall, looking at it and starting at each end, you see a picture of a pioneer (left side) and Indian (right side). Working inward, there's a cabin and tepee, cow and bison, bible/nature depiction, and finally hands of the pioneer and Indian clasped to represent how both came together in this area. If you think all of this is a bit cornball (hah! I love this!), then consider that the Mitchell high school team name is the "Kernels" and their team mascot is named "Cornelius". Seriously. I couldn't make this up. Those of you with high-school aged children might want to threaten them with moving to Mitchell if they don't straighten up.
Leaving Michell, we headed west again before turning north through Pierre, the state capital. Pronounced "peer", it's a small town of less than 14,000 located in the center of the state, well off the major highways, making you wonder why it became the capital. We didn't stop here, but continued north until reaching Bismarck, North Dakota where we stopped to visit historic Fort Abraham Lincoln, the home of the 7th Calvary and George Armstrong Custer. I've always been interested in the Custer story and thought it would be interested in visiting the fort from which he and the 7th left to meet Sitting Bull and most of the Indians in the world at the Little Big Horn. Unfortunately, the fort, while interesting, contains only recreations of the original buildings. Since this is a country of rolling plains and few trees, once the fort closed in 1891 the locals stripped the fort of everything usable, and nothing above ground remained. Custer's house is the main attraction, and the state park system has done an admirable job in recreating where he and his wife, Libby, lived. Built using original blue prints and furnished in period furniture, many of the rooms were recreated using photographs of the time, and a few of the actual Custer possessions still remain. We were surprised by the size of the house; with servant's bedrooms, guest bedroom, study, and other rooms, it was as large many new homes and must have quite the showplace in it's day. Other than touring the house and enjoying the view of the river from high on the bluff, we didn't find too much else of interest at the fort or in Bismarck. We again headed north, this time to Minot, ND, to meet with our friends Kirk and Sue, who had traveled from Dayton, OH to visit with their son and his family who are stationed at the Air Force Base. I've always been interested in seeing Minot; while I was in the Air Force, Minot was always assumed to be some sort of penal colony for bad airmen, and it was like the TV commercial for the "Roach Motel"........people went in the gate and never came out. With winter temperatures that can reach 50 below zero, endless expanses of fields of grain unbroken by trees, and a location far, far away from any major metropolitan area, it's not exactly a place that comes to mind when planning a vacation. We had a good time visiting though, and toured the local cultural attraction, the Scandinavian Heritage Park. Minot's population is over 40% Scandinavian, and the park is an area of historical buildings, some recreated and some actually brought from Norway, and it has an interesting visitor center, where Brenda shared a seat with a local character. While all of the buildings were interesting, we were struck by the beauty of the church, which almost looked oriental from the outside. The inside was almost all natural wood, intricately carved and beautiful. It was an interesting visit, but aside from this there was not much to see or do, and so after stocking up on groceries, we headed west again. We'll be turning southwest once we enter Montana to travel to the Little Big Horn Battlefield. Stop back and see us!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Woodstock.....By Senior Citizens

We spent over a week in Forest City, Iowa, as we attended the Winnebago Industries Grand National Rally. Winnebago, the oldest motorhome manufacturer, celebrated it's 50th year this summer, and the rally is the 40th. Each year's rally has a theme, and this year's celebrated the (also) 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Since the rally is put on by the Winnebago/Itasca Travelers (WIT) club, it was called "WITStock". The organization of the rally has evolved into a well-oiled machine, with hundreds of volunteers scurrying around on golf carts, manning booths, and directing traffic. The rally grounds, next to the Winnebago factory, has electric hookups for 1600 motorhomes, an amphitheater, restaurant, and a large vendor's building and retail store. It was quite a sight to see so many motorhomes lined up on the green grass - old ones, new ones, small ones.......if Winnebago made it, at least one of the model was there. The rally kicked off with an opening ceremony in the amphitheater, where a parade of the various WIT clubs, with everyone dressed in their 60s garb, had people reliving their youth. Imagine over 3000 senior citizens grooving on loud music and trying to act like teens was a real lovefest! Unfortunately, the smell of marijuana at Woodstock was replaced by the smell of Ben-Gay at WitStock, and we were all truly hurt when the Forest City mayor made an impassioned plea for us not to skinny dip in the river and for the women not to go braless. After all, there were children present in town. Nonetheless, we all had a great time during the week as I attended seminars of maintenance aspects of our humongous machine, and Brenda learned more about convection cooking. A real treat for Brenda was the woman's driving class, where she had the chance to drive a brand-new 40' top of the line diesel pusher. Her instructor, a lady trucker, had them practice backing and turning, then took them out on the open roads of Iowa. She had a great time and gained a lot of confidence - she's taking turns driving ours now, and doing great!
As you can imagine, the town of Forest City (population 4200) revolves around Winnebago and plans a number of activities to coincide with the rally. We had the chance to visit the downtown area during the "Puckerbrush Days" festival (don't know what that means, but I think it had something to do with outhouses and bushes), and enjoyed the small-town activities. We've driven through a number of small towns and cities in central Iowa, and you get the sense that Iowans can't be bothered with frills - there are no nicely restored storefronts or potted plants hanging from the lampposts. Even the residential areas reflect the no-nonsense philosophy; after all, Iowa didn't get to be the number one state in corn production, soybeans, and pigs by wasting time fixing up the house and planting flowers. But they're great folks, friendly and honest, and we enjoyed our visit here. We came away with a greater appreciation for the engineering and craftsmanship of our coach and look forward to attending again down the road. From here we head West to South Dakota, then North into the frozen wastes of Minot, North Dakota. C'mon back and see how we're doing!