Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is hosting an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the re-created Custer House, which one historian says strengthened the North Dakota tourism industry.
The Custer House is a re-creation of the living quarters of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Elizabeth, who resided in the house from 1873 until Custer’s death in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. The fort was later destroyed by locals for nails and wood and remained barren until the Civilian Conservation Corps began work on the state park in the 1930s.
“The Custer House from one generation to the next has always captured the imagination of our area, the nation and the world,” said Aaron Barth, executive director of the Missouri Valley Heritage Alliance. “It is an important fort in American history, a post that was deliberately built along the Missouri River — the longest river on the continent, that provided a route to the interior of the United States.”
The fort on July 6 will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the house's re-creation as a part of the annual Fourth of July celebration in Mandan. The free event’s central theme will be how the Custer House reconstruction helped to grow North Dakota tourism.
“The purpose of this event is to consider how and why heritage tourism has been motivated and influenced by the 1980s grassroots community effort to reconstruct the Custer House in 1989,” Barth said. “It’s 2019, so 30 years is a nice placeholder to reflect on that, think about where we are today and imagine what the next steps might be in front of all of us.”
The event is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will feature a Native Voices panel, with discussions about what rebuilding the Custer House meant from a Native perspective and how that affects its relevance today. There also will be a rededication of the Custer House, music, a "life of a frontier soldier" program, food trucks and more.
The Native Voices panel will be hosted by historian Gerard Baker, an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and former superintendent of Little Bighorn National Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
“Gerard Baker has done a lot of work in Native interpretation at sites like ours,” said Matt Schanandore, Fort Lincoln State Park interpretive and events director. “The panel will feature tribal members from around our state who are experts in their line of work. Whether that’s history, interpretation, they have a unique perspective.”
The event also will include free tours of the Custer House, and the park’s Gen. Custer impersonator will greet guests. In addition, the program on the life of a frontier soldier will show kids and adults the realities of life on the frontier and what a typical day was like for soldiers at the fort.
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park also features the reconstructed On-a-Slant Indian Village and a reconstructed military fort that includes barracks and officer’s quarters. Both of those sites will be open to the public during the day.
Historians and experts will be around the park during the celebration to answer questions, and some important questions will be raised, as well.
“The focus is on heritage tours then, today and tomorrow,” Schanandore said. “How do we establish grounds to continue to tell the story accurately from all cultural and historical angles?”
On July 6, organizers will be looking to move heritage tourism forward by taking a look back.