• New museum exhibit features USDB farm

  • Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final article in a series about new exhibit installations at the Frontier Army Museum.

    • email print
  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final article in a series about new exhibit installations at the Frontier Army Museum.
    In the 1800s, farms and gardens were not uncommon on Army installations because they were the main source of food for soldiers and their families. However, unlike many posts at that time, the main source of labor for Fort Leavenworth’s farms and gardens were the inmates of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks.
    By using prison labor, the inmates were employed and the cost of feeding them was offset, but it culminated in bountiful results, too.
    “The prisoners have cultivated a garden, which has yielded surprising fruits considering the damage by grasshoppers and the lateness of the season when it was commenced,” according to the 1875 annual prison report by the Secretary of War.
    The 1880 report goes into further detail.
    “During the past season, the prison farm yielded 3,700 bushels of potatoes, 6,000 heads of cabbage, 1,000 bushels of corn, 680 bushels of turnips, 260 bushels of onions, 1,000 bushels of tomatoes, and a sufficient quantity of other vegetables for immediate consumption,” the report stated. “The crops look well and promise a good yield.”
    The farms and gardens of the early post are an important part of Fort Leavenworth history, which is why it is the subject of the newest exhibit at the Frontier Army Museum. The exhibit was installed March 28.
    “Army posts in the west, they all had a post garden,” said Fayelee Overman, FAM museum technician. “Hospital gardens were a big thing on military posts, too. There is evidence of those starting around 1850. The hospital gardens included both vegetables and fruits for essential nutrients for patients, but also flowers to help with the recuperative process of patients.”
    In the exhibit, Overman includes a pitchfork, a horseshoe from 1860, a cucumber seed packet from 1918 and various photos. The display also includes a letter written in 1872 by the post adjutant to the post surgeon requesting the use of prison labor in the hospital gardens at Fort Leavenworth.
    “That’s what initially sparked the idea for the exhibit was I found that letter,” Overman said.
    The exhibit is the first of its kind at the museum.
    “I was told that I could do an exhibit and make one from scratch if I wanted to,” Overman said. “It has a little bit of a personal touch for me. I have a long line of farmers in my family. I grew up on a tobacco farm, so growing up around farm equipment and farm animals I think it is really interesting that with today’s technology, we still do a lot of farming and people still grow their food.
    Page 2 of 2 - “I think it is something a lot of people can connect with and a lot of people have ancestors that were farmers, especially around this area,” she said. “I hope that what visitors get from this exhibit is a better sense of how the military, particularly Fort Leavenworth, utilized and benefitted from agricultural practices. Farming and gardening were a big part of life, especially in the early days of the post.”
    The USDB prisoners began tending to the farms on Fort Leavenworth as early as the 1870s, but the main source of farming, the USDB Farm Colony, a prison rehabilitative program, was not started until 1914. Historian Quentin Schillare provides insight into the colony in his book, “Fort Leavenworth: The People Behind the Names.”
    “The DB rehabilitative programs included a 2,400-acre farm complex with about 470 acres of tillable soil and 12 major buildings about two miles to the northwest of the old DB compound in relatively flat agricultural land,” Schillare wrote. “The complex included swine barns, poultry houses and dairy barns.
    “Inmates assigned to the farm colony, usually those with less than a year left in their sentences, received on-the-job training in technical agriculture and the production of crops such as corn, milo, wheat, oats and alfalfa,” he continued. “They were supervised by military and civilian personnel responsible for instruction for security.”
    The colony was about two miles northwest of the old USDB, according to Peter J. Grande in his book “Images of America: United States Disciplinary Barracks.”
    A video in the U.S. National Archives filmed by the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army and the Office of the Chief Signal Officer in 1918 features the inmates working in the farm colony, tilling the soil and working with various animals such as pigs, cattle and chickens.
    The farm colony also included a greenhouse. Reported to be the largest in the state of Kansas, according to Grande, the greenhouse was midway between the old USDB “Castle” and the farm colony.
    “(In the greenhouse) inmates received training in the cultivation of flowers and ornamental shrubs,” Schillare said in his book. “In addition to plants and bulbs, the greenhouse sales store sold poultry, eggs, fruits and vegetables from the farm colony.”
    The USDB Farm Colony was discontinued in 1996 when construction of the new USDB was set to begin. The greenhouse closed on Sept. 1, 1999, and was demolished in July 2001.
    “An arched sign made of sections of pipe (probably made by inmates) on a stone block foundation sits as a memorial on the east side of Kickapoo Road overlooking the site of the former farm colony,” Schillare said.
    For more about Fort Leavenworth farms and gardens, visit the museum.
  • Comment or view comments