Custer House Brings Fort Riley Past To Life
A simple white picket fence borders one of several limestone houses on Fort Riley’s Sheridan Avenue. Unlike the other historic homes, though, Quarters 24 remains in its 19th century flavor.
While it’s called the Custer House, presumably Brevet Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Libby, occupied a similar set of quarters while stationed at Fort Riley in 1866.
Constructed in 1855 of native limestone, the Custer House is the only surviving set of quarters from the fort’s earliest history and authentically depicts military life on the western frontier during the Indian Wars period.
The Historical and Archaeological Society of Fort Riley rely on docents to help depict family life of the era. The docents volunteer their time to tell visitors about the history enshrined in the Custer House and about the fort’s historic past.
Some volunteers, like the Naughton family, dress in period costumes to further illustrate the period for visitors.
The Manhattan-based family has been doing re-enacting for nine years and helping at the Custer House for more than one year.
On the front porch, Mark Naughton lays out his personal collection of Civil War-era gear. A retired Army Soldier himself, Mark has traded his green battle dress uniform for the occasional Union Soldier’s outfit for Custer House visitors. He shows off the weapons and gear used by a Soldier of the time.
Through the screen door of the house, Cynthia welcomes groups into the home as a typical 1850s mother. She invites visitors into the parlor decorated with authentic furniture. An artistic shadow box of hand-woven hair decorates a wall. She pushes down her authentic green overskirts and notes her hair broach. All are cultural reminders of America’s past.
“We want to promote our culture as Americans,” Cynthia says. “It’s a fun thing to do.”
Every knick knack and detail in the room serves as a cultural reminder. As visitors make their way into the dining room, Killian Naughton, 16, explains the decor.
She tells why cheesecloth lays over a large meal and points out the blue China plates from England, as if she has given tours for years.
Wearing a typical servant dress, Killian explains how young girls often quit school to work for extra income. Killian enjoys practicing public speaking. Presenting the Custer House helps get rid of stage fright, she says. “I like interacting with the groups,” she says, “everyone’s different.”
Visitors then move to the morning family parlor. A silent piano rests in the corner of the room. It is for learning notes without disturbing anyone, Killian said. She laughs as she explains her connection with the piano. “I had to practice on that,” she says.
From the parlor, visitors are taken upstairs. The first room on the left is the bachelor’s bedroom. Gunnar Naughton, 13, notes the cool marble top of the dresser. While guests feel the cool counter, Gunnar notes the heat of his authentic Army outfit. He boasts a period-typical navy blue hat and detailed belt, but omits the common overcoat.
“It gets pretty hot, and it’s a little too small,” Gunnar said. “(But) I like dressing up. I like the Army thing the best.”
Next door, Tannan Naughton, 10, plays with toys in the children’s room. She rolls her eyes while stumbling on a sentence. Like her brother and sister, Tannan works to improve her public speaking skills by talking about the children’s room and the adjacent nursery.
She points to pictures of young children on the white walls. She shares what she knows of the time period; all children younger than six wear lacy dresses: boys can be deciphered from girls in pictures by analyzing the hair part. Boys have side parts; girls have center parts.
It is small stories like Tannan’s and the ones shared by her family that bring Quarters 24 back to life.
Visitors interested in stepping back in time can catch the Naughton family or other Custer House docents starting in mid-May. The Custer House will be open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 4:30 p.m., on Sundays. The house closes for the season at the end of September. However, group tours may be scheduled during the off-season by calling (785) 239-2737.
History lovers interested in helping share Fort Riley’s historic past with visitors can learn more about becoming HASFR docents by calling (785) 239-2737.