Fort Garland Celebrates 31st Annual Memorial Day Encampment

All across the fort, men drill in Reconstruction-era uniform, all in blues and grays. They pitch tents, clean their guns, and drink water from tin canteens. Heavy artillery, including cannons and mountain howitzers, is unloaded and set up. In the Soldiers’ Theatre, women in hoop skirts are gathered for domestic duties, kept energized by tea and conversation. And outside on the grounds, cavalry parade on horseback.

This isn’t an image of centuries past. This is a recollection of last year’s Memorial Day Encampment, a special living-history event hosted annually at Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center.

Fort Garland enactors

Members of the Fort Garland Memorial Regiment in uniform during the 2018 Memorial Day Encampment

For more than three decades, Fort Garland has hosted this celebrated local tradition. It began in 1988 when fellow reenactor Virgil Hughes of Denver and Fort Garland’s site manager Josie Lobato invited the Artillery Company of New Mexico, a living-history company, to put on a living-history event to celebrate Memorial Day.

“Virgil Hughes is the person who ‘drafted’ several of my cohorts and I into living history,” said Ken Dusenberry. “I had been a lifelong student of history. I had watched Virgil at a reenactment, where he invited me to come and see him again at a living-history event at Fort Union National Monument in 1985. When I showed up, he put me in a uniform and told me to stand in the line.” Three years later, Hughes would invite Dusenberry and several others from multiple states to participate in the first Memorial Day Encampment at Fort Garland.

That original event included a procession through the center of the town and down to the fort, where the site was officially opened for the summer season. Several days of living history followed, in which members of the Artillery Company of New Mexico re-created nineteenth century life for the townsfolk. “This was where Virgil taught us to dance in the [style of the] nineteenth century, something we continue to do at every opportunity,” said Dusenberry.

Ken Dusenberry has been a member of the Artillery Company of New Mexico for more than three decades, and was the original director of Fort Garland’s Memorial Day Encampment for the first few years, “until I was able to get Jack Rudder and his local unit to take over the coordinating responsibility,” he said.

Jack Rudder is currently the head of the Fort Garland Memorial Regiment, a reenactment group native to the San Luis Valley that has participated in the Memorial Day Encampment every year since 1997.

“I have always been a student of history, and military history especially,” said Rudder. “I also enjoy studying and shooting historical firearms. One thing led to another, and I began dressing the part and doing living history of the fur trade era as a mountain man. I have been doing living history for Fort Garland Museum since the mid-’80s.”

Life as a reenactor is an exciting one, full of a wide variety of experiences. The Fort Garland Memorial Regiment does not just organize the Memorial Day Encampment. They have also participated in Civil War and Indian Wars events in eight states, including Texas, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and the Artillery Company of New Mexico has traveled “even more extensively than that.”

The artillery company has participated in many notable large-scale reenactments, including the 135th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1998. “There were about twenty-three thousand of us in uniform,” recalled Dusenberry. “I was chasing horse-drawn cannon about the field.”

Many reenactors, including members of the Fort Garland Memorial Regiment, also have an extensive list of movie credits. The most notable of these was Steven Spielberg’s award-winning miniseries Into the West, much of which was filmed in New Mexico and featured multiple members of the memorial regiment. Members have also performed in films for the National Park Service and The History Channel.

All of this activity stems ultimately from a love of history and education. Most reenactors are introduced to the experience through their interest in the past, and direct connections to it that many people from many different walks of life can share. Both Rudder and Dusenberry expressed a love of history in general and military history in particular.

“I was stunned by how much history I learned by just stepping into period attire,” said Dusenberry, recounting his first experience with reenactment.

Fort Garland Living History

Members of the Fort Garland Memorial Regiment setting up camp at the 2017 Memorial Day Encampment

Even more important than a love of history, however, is sharing that history with others. Reenactment is not just fun for everyone; it also is an incredibly educational experience both for participants and for attendants. The whole intent is almost always to give the visiting public an idea of what life in those time periods was truly like, through as immersive and accurate a representation as possible.

“In a small way, it’s my way of ensuring that the memories of the soldiers who served on the western frontier are not forgotten,” said Rudder.

Although he has participated in many large-scale events including battle reenactments, Dusenberry prefers living-history events in which the focus isn’t reenacting any specific event, but rather re-creating a dynamic and interactive example of period life. “Battle reenactments have a barrier between spectators and participants,” he said. “I much prefer to present living history, where I can talk to the visitors and actually answer their questions. Presenting accurate history is worth any extra effort expended. One of the things that excites me as a presenter is having the visitor light up with something I have told them.”

Rudder, who has directed every Memorial Day Encampment since 1997, agreed with this sentiment and highlighted its importance to the encampment. “Our whole intent is to give the visiting public an idea of what it was like to be stationed at Fort Garland in the late 1860s and early 1870s,” he said. When asked about the events at this year’s encampment, he explained in more detail: “We’ll have an infantry company drilling in the field; the artillery company will be demonstrating their three-inch ordnance rifle and mountain howitzers, and the cavalry will be conducting mounted drill and will have horses available for patrons to visit.”

This year’s Memorial Day Encampment will open to the public at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 25. In addition to outdoor events including the drilling soldiers and the artillery demonstrations, other events will take place in the Soldiers’ Theatre. Visitors can join the ladies of the fort there for tea and conversation, as well as domestic duties.

Throughout the day, all participating members of the memorial regiment and the artillery company will be in fully period-accurate uniform and will remain in character. The ladies of the fort will wear nineteenth-century hoop skirts.

“You’ll never see one of our participants walking around carrying a plastic water bottle,” said Rudder. “We drink from a tin cup.”

That night at 8 p.m., the garrison will host a Regimental Ball, featuring period-accurate dancing. The ball is open to the public, and all visitors are invited to join in and learn the period dances so that they can dance with the garrison. “One of the high points is always the dance,” commented Ken Dusenberry fondly.

The encampment continues the next day, Sunday, May 26. The events of the day will begin with a flag-raising ceremony at 9 a.m., followed by a special nondenominational service held in the Soldiers’ Theatre. After the service, the soldiers will begin to break camp, and the encampment will close at 1 p.m.

The Memorial Day Encampment is a proud tradition of not only Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center but also of the local area. Visitors from across Colorado will find this educational experience a fun and exciting way to spend Memorial Day weekend.