Restoration at Fort Laramie
FORT LARAMIE – As a result of being buildings that were never meant to last for more than 10 to 15 years, historic preservations at military forts, like the Fort Laramie National Historical Site, pose many challenges. The mission of preserving these historical buildings for future generations is constantly waring with time and resources.
The major project currently being worked on at the fort is the 1874 cavalry barracks. This building is Fort Laramie’s largest building. When exploring the building today, visitors can view different displays including the squad bay upstairs, the kitchen and mess room and the armory.
“Our project is these four rooms [in the barracks],” Ranger Dante Boe told the Telegram. “Our goal has been to clean up cracks, fill cracks and whitewash the patches.”
Many people are dedicated to the preservation of these buildings, but it is hard to fight against natural deterioration.
“The temperature variations are huge with this lime grout, (the original building material for the structure),” Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Service Casey Osback added. “We have the cement mixtures and over time the fluctuations crack out everything.”
Many of the buildings are also settling. Settling is a process of a structure moving in any way due to expansion, shrinkage or compression of the structure’s foundation. Over time most buildings will eventually settle, however, this is a unique problem when historic preservation is the primary goal.
“Natalie (Kinni) and Dante are doing a great job,” Osback said. “But it really shows just how tricky it is preservation-wise to keep these structures. There’s a ton of behind-the-scenes work.”
Boe explained that to fix the cracks in the walls with lime grout patches. After applying the patch, they then apply a limewash solution to the walls. This solution is made of about a gallon of white lime mixed with four gallons of water. The final product is chalky-looking paint.
This paint is used instead of normal household latex paint, not only because it is historically accurate but also its compatible with the natural materials used for the walls. This paint allows the walls to breathe, dry when wet and holds up better in extreme temperatures.
According to Boe, they do use latex paint on items like doors, but they try their best to avoid it. No matter what type of paint is being used, they always use colors that are as close to historically accurate as possible.
“Dante, Natalie and Chief of Maintenance Anders Schulte do a great job with all of this,” Osback said. “I think we’re at a point where there’s a lot of project in the hopper. It’s one of those deals where you just do what you can do over time.”
“It’s tough to keep up reservation to structures that were never intended to last forever,” he continued. “Now we have this mission to preserve everything into perpetuity for future generations. It’s almost an impossible mission; we just do what we can.”
Each year, the National Park Service does what it can to take the necessary steps to preserve all of the structures at the site. They do regular maintenance, like waterproofing porches, work on larger restoration projects and plan the next project that takes precedence. However, many plans have to be postponed due to funding.
“In the surgeons’ quarters, in the north front parlor room, there are huge structural wall issues,” Osback said. “I think it’s a matter of just patching up the lime grout, but it was caused by moisture in the river gravel that was used.”
“The National Park Service is at the forefront throughout the world for these types of preservation movements,” he continued. “We’re definitely a leader within the world community. But it’s a constant study.”
As time has gone on, the knowledge of how to best complete these restorations has constantly evolved. Many previously routine materials used in the restorations of these buildings are no longer used because of compatibility issues.
“We’re always trying to do what we feel is the best for the present time,” Boe explained. “In the 1930s, 1940s they were using a lot of things that we are trying to remove from our structures. Like they were using a lot of Portland cement, which is not very compatible with the lime grout.”
The cement is very dense, likes to repel water and doesn’t like to breathe, immensely different from the lime grout. These differences have led to the patches causing bigger issues and paving the way for more deterioration. Several cement patches in other buildings need to be removed and redone.
“With preservation work, it’s like an ever-evolving science of knowledge,” Schulte told the Telegram. “The more we do the more we learn. More and more we find out a lot of materials are incompatible with each other in these historic buildings.”
To counteract the constant conflict between new synthetic materials and old natural materials, the park service has switched approaches to keeping everything as historic as possible. At this time, this approach seems to be working, but it’s hard to say how things will turn out in the future.
Osback said aside from the fort’s historical impact as a military fort, the site’s construction materials are also quite unique. The Fort Laramie National Historical Site has buildings made of vastly different building materials and construction techniques. Unlike most other forts, this one has buildings made of Adobe, wood frame, fire brick, stone and lime grout.
“It’s fascinating the diversity that was going on,” Osback said. “I’m sure the quartermaster department was always looking at what was the most economical.”
The military would use the materials they had available to them. With the lime quarry by Guernsey, the local river rocks, sand and water, they had pretty natural materials to build out of.
“[At this point], I wouldn’t way that any of the buildings are beyond repair,” Schulte said. “It just takes a lot of care and dedication to care for them. As they deteriorate more, it just takes more effort and more time.”
According to Schulte, at this time, there are no active plans to restore any of the other ruins. Their focus is on taking the best care of the buildings they have now.
The National Park Service’s constant observation, care and restoration help ensure that future generations can learn about, explore and enjoy Fort Laramie, too.
For more information about Fort Laramie National Historic Site, go to www.nps.gov or call the visitor’s center at 307-837-2221.