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Exhibit explores Fort Lewis College’s beginnings

The original Fort Lewis, at its location in Hesperus, Colorado, in May 1888.

In the early 1960s, Fort Lewis College became what we know it as today -- a four-year baccalaureate-awarding institution located on a scenic mesa above the town of Durango. Before that, though, Fort Lewis already had a long history made in a different location and in different incarnations.

It's those other versions of Fort Lewis that stood on the site today known as the "Old Fort," near the town of Hesperus, Colorado, that are on display in "Frontier Blues: The Legacy of Fort Lewis College," in the Center of Southwest Studies Galleries. The new exhibit also features photographs recently discovered in a collection from Frazier Boutelle, who traveled the West with the U.S. military in the late 1800s.

The opening of the exhibit will be celebrated with a public reception 4 - 6 p.m. on Friday, March 18, at the Center of Southwest Studies. Alumni from the Old Fort will be on hand, and professor Duane Smith will sign copies of "Rich Heritage, Shining Future: Fort Lewis College 1911-2011," the proceeds of which go toward the Centennial Scholarship Campaign. Centennial memorabilia also will be available for sale, benefiting the scholarship.

"Frontier Blues" gives context to the college's Centennial celebration, as 2011 marks 100 years since the federal government deeded the Old Fort property to the state of Colorado to create a public school. Prior to 1911, the site on the southern flanks of the La Plata Mountains had been an Indian boarding school and a military fort. And before that, it was the ancestral home of some of the region's Native American tribes.

"This is history that a lot of people in this community don't know," says Ken Francis, interim director of the Center of Southwest Studies. "They don't really understand the early history, or the military and Indian boarding school connection. All those uses set the context for Fort Lewis as a public school being established."

After 1911, the public school called "Fort Lewis" underwent more transformations, from agricultural and mechanical arts high school, to a two-year rural college known as Fort Lewis A&M. In 1956, the college moved to Durango, and in 1962 began offering four-year degrees.

The exhibit illuminates those various phases of Fort Lewis by focusing on the people who lived their lives at and around the Old Fort. The exhibit displays artifacts, gives narrative interpretations, and features enlarged high-resolution photographs that provide engrossing and revealing windows into those other eras.

In keeping with the historic Fort Lewis tradition of hands-on learning and student leadership, "Frontier Blues" also puts student work on display. Many of the historic artifacts were collected or excavated by students in archaeological field classes, then collected, analyzed, archived, (delete and) interpreted, and prepared for exhibition by work-study, internship, and volunteer students.

Also highlighting student achievement, accompanying Frontier Blues will be "The Real Savages," an exhibit by Senior Art major Babe Lansing, from Arboles, Colorado. The display explores Native American identity by juxtaposing historical research with stereotypes and propaganda art of Native Americans. Lansing will also be on hand at the opening reception.

"Frontier Blues" and “The Real Savages” opening reception, Friday, March 18, from 4 -6 p.m., at the Center of Southwest Studies Galleries. This event is free and open to the public. For more information, call (970) 247-7456 or visit

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