Jeremy Gill, of Hays, often explores Frontier Park on south Main Street. In the process, Gill has discovered tucked away amongst the cottonwoods, walking paths, banks of Big Creek and buffalo grass about three little metal placards that are a remnant of the 75-acre park’s historic past.
The plaques aren’t real obvious, Gill admits, and while he’s heavily researched the history of the park, he doesn’t know who placed them or when.
One indicates the location of an old bridge, no longer there, built in the 1930s by World War I veterans who were part of the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
Another marks where horse stables were once located in the 1870s for the 5th U.S. Infantry and 7th U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort Hays, the park’s neighbor to the south.
Another is the spot where soldiers from the fort cut ice.
“There might be more out there,” said Gill. “Those are just the ones that I’ve stumbled upon.”
Kansas Room coordinator for the Hays Public Library, Gill has a special interest in the park, which as far back as anyone can remember has been near and dear to Hays residents for everything from kids and adults just hanging out to special community activities and festivals.
What some may not know is that Frontier Park’s history is tied to that of old historic Fort Hays, Gill explains. Now split from it by the US-183 highway bypass, the park was once a part of the fort, along with the grounds of two other longtime Hays institutions: Fort Hays State University and the K-State Agricultural Research Center.
“It’s like Hays’s Central Park,” said Gill, who will talk Saturday at the library on the history of the park.
“It has a lot of elements of different time periods,” he said. “There’s the fort’s history, the Depression, the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration and the city. So you have everyone’s stories and there’s a lot of history there. Buffalo Bill Cody may have been down there, the Indians were there, the soldiers from the fort were there, and then the World War I veterans, who were completely depleted, they found brotherhood down there. There are a lot of memories down there, up to the present, whether it’s people playing Frisbee, or out there running, or fishing. It’s a very cherished place.”
Gill’s talk is part of a day-long program at the library, New Deal Day, discussing topics relating to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal era programs in Kansas during the Great Depression, including Frontier Park, Limestone WPA projects in Ellis County, the Federal Writer’s Project and New Deal Arts Programs. The program starts at 9 a.m. in the Schmidt Gallery, with Gill’s talk at 9:15 a.m.
Gill took an interest in the park while working part-time at the old fort as a graduate student at FHSU. In 2017 he published his thesis, “Cavalry to campfires: The politics of preservation in Frontier Historical Park,” which is available online.
Now under the Kansas Historical Society, Frontier Park is managed and maintained by the Hays Parks Department.
“The park really feels more like a state park, than a city park,” Gill said, elaborating on its history.
With the fort closed by the War Department in 1889, Hays resident Martin Allen pleaded the case for the land to be handed over to the state of Kansas. Kaw-American Congressman Charles Curtis took the cause to Washington in a hard-fought battle. Succeeding in the early 1900s, it was stipulated the land be used for a college, an agricultural research station and a park, said Gill.
Development of the park didn’t take off the way the college and the research station did, however, until the national park movement of the 1920s and 1930s. With FDR’s sweeping public works program to put people to work during the Depression, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established in Hays.
“It was a big deal, because these came with a lot of federal money,” explained Gill. “Here it was called Veteran’s Camp 1778. Most of the CCCs were for young men, but this one was for World War I veterans and it was specifically for Frontier Park.”
The CCC was there for one year from 1933 to 1934, he said. On the grounds that are now Frontier Park East, Frontier Park West and the surrounding area, the men built roads, bridges, the low-water dam on Big Creek, the stepping stones crossing, rustic wooden fencing, as well as a cabin — no longer there — on what is now a city soccer field.
A year or so later, students from Fort Hays State built most of the shelter houses as part of a National Youth Administration program to give young people jobs.
“I just think that it’s an extremely interesting story,” Gill said. “But it’s a story that’s been kind of lost. They all did a lot.”
For more information on the program, go to hayslibrary.org.