Fort Robinson Summer Fun
Cloudy mornings at Fort Robinson begin with a distant shout. Vacationing guests don’t notice. They’re sound asleep. But livestock snaps to attention as a young wrangler looks to the bluffs and hollers “HaaarrrrrSaaaasss!”
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In this summertime sensory safari, grills smoke and the smell of barbecue floats on the air. In cabin after cabin, people weave tightly together in boisterous groups, which meld quietly into the sheer magnitude of Fort Robinson’s 22,000 acres. The Tremain family mingles around their rustic dwelling which was originally built in 1875 as officers’ quarters. John Tremain organized the gathering. “I work for the state, and I spent time here once repairing this roof,” he said, thumbing toward the cabin. Next door, baby Stella Gardner sits with wide, blue eyes on her mom’s lap with a white cotton cap over her ears. Three generations surround her in conversation and play. She smiles at everyone. Stella’s grandma sits next to her in a wheelchair, frail and on oxygen. This Fort Robinson experience, like so many others, will be a cherished family memory. Grandma is smiling too.
The campground is a Nebraska community with ever-changing neighbors. Some mingle, sharing food, drinks, and family histories. Others stay to themselves, like the Haeckers from Lincoln, who spend evenings playing Scrabble and other board games. Their pop-up camper serves as base camp for expeditions to the Black Hills, like the Fort Robinson soldiers who once marched to the same destination providing security on the Sidney to Deadwood Trail. “This is our first trip here, and it’s bigger than we expected. It’s just so beautiful,” says Denise Haecker in between Yahtzee dice rolls.
The Kritzrow teenagers roast marshmallows next to the Rudloff family, who are simply taking in the evening. Alliance Boy Scout Troop 126 kicks back next to the Stephans, who are dining around their picnic table in front of a huge checkered flag. They like racing.
Fort Robinson employees show off their western skills twice a week at the fort’s rodeo. Most are Nebraskans who grew up on nearby ranches. The crowd marvels at the grace and speed of riders playing a game of horseback tag. Thudding horse hooves launch dirt skyward.
Bob and Patty Bradley of Oregon are conspicuous because their golden retriever is clenching a large, pink plush unicorn. “He carries it everywhere,” says Patty, rolling her eyes with a smile. Staying at the fort is part of a summer ritual as they pass through Nebraska delivering freight cross-country. “My dad was stationed here in World War II,” Bob says. “He was assigned to the veterinary detachment.”
Just down the road, Fort Robinson’s 1908 veterinary hospital building is preserved as it would have looked in his father’s days. More than a dozen other treasured buildings dating from the 1870s through Fort Robinson’s World War II assignment as a camp for German prisoners of war are preserved for their historical significance for history buffs and casual tourists to explore.
As darkness gathers, people congregate in an extraordinary place few Nebraskans have experienced. At the Post Playhouse, Broadway meets the American West. Seasoned performers from all over the country bring musicals to life. Em Laudeman, a blue-eyed blonde from New York City, plays Laurey in Oklahoma! This is Laudeman’s third summer living at the fort’s old infirmary, now converted to housing. “I love being in the rugged west. I look out my window and see buffalo,” she marvels. “And the cast becomes so close because we live here together.”
Laudeman is one of a talented handful to make it through a series of auditions, the last of which was in New York City. More than a thousand actors vie for a spot on the Fort Robinson cast. Most guests don’t realize what a treat they’re in for, but only moments into the act the talent is obvious. The set, the music, the acting – it’s all top notch. The atmosphere is electric. “The playhouse is so intimate,” Laudeman says. “It gives us freedom to have moments with the audience you couldn’t deliver in other theaters.”
The cheerful crowd leaving the playhouse marks the end of an adventure-filled day at Fort Robinson. Tomorrow will begin and end about the same.
Somewhere over the horizon, a prairie thunderstorm booms.
But maybe the muffled reports are the memory of this land, these buildings. The memory of the Fourth Field Artillery Battalion training their canons on some distant target. Or the thunderous stampede of the thousands of horses and mules issued from Fort Robinson’s stables in times past. Perhaps it’s the heartbeat of a nervous Fort Robinson corporal charged with pursuing fugitives during the Cheyenne outbreak of 1879.
Or maybe the rumble through the heart of this special place is the collective joy from those who journey here, to the wondrous land they affectionately call Fort Rob.
(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)