Fort to farm

The Old Fort lives on as learning center


The Old Fort may be old, but it’s still alive and kicking. And thanks to a management agreement approved in March between the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners and Fort Lewis College, the Old Fort will continue to be both living history and a place where FLC students, and others in the community, can get their hands dirty learning.

"It's a large part of the college's history," says Beth Lashell, coordinator of The Old Fort at Hesperus, the official name of the site since 2010. "The college was there for nearly thirty years before we moved to Durango. It's also the reason the Native American Tuition Waiver exists. It is the core of where and who we are." 

"From an educational standpoint, it offers an amazing amount of opportunities for science majors," Lashell adds. "We currently host public health labs, biology labs, environmental studies labs, and field classes. And in the summertime, we host interns from those fields and sociology."

The site has also hosted archaeology field classes uncovering military-fort-era artifacts, biology students' research into hantavirus, and astronomy classes taking advantage of the site's exceptionally clear and dark skies.

Approved on March 9, the new Beneficiary Use Agreement between the College and the State Land Board, which owns the property, will give FLC control of land, buildings, and operations for 10 years starting July 1, 2017. 

"It's a big deal," says Lashell. The new agreement lets the college know it will be managing the property long-term, keeping its unique learning opportunities available to students and community members.

"We're not interested in doing just anything,” Lashell stresses. “It has to align with our guiding principles set up with the Land Board." Those guidelines include maintaining the economic viability of the site, protecting natural resources, encouraging community involvement, expanding educational opportunities, and preserving historic structures.

The Old Fort also hosts several business enterprises, including a small cattle herd, a commercial hay operation, in addition to the sustainable vegetable and herb production. "We generate all our own revenue,” Lashell says. “through our enterprises and grants to fund the staff, utilities, and upkeep."

It all adds up to a still thriving life for the place where Fort Lewis College was born.

"The Old Fort is in its fifth or sixth life now," Lashell laughs. "That's just the nature of the property. It started as a fort and has gone through all these transitions, and every one of those transitions was challenging. This is just another phase of it. But what's cool is that since 1880, it's been the same piece of land."

Old Fort projects

Presently a variety of projects make use of the 6,318 acres at the Old Fort. These include:

  • Hops demo gardenThe Old Fort Lewis High Altitude Hop Varietal Trial, exploring how different varieties of hops grow at 7,600 feet.
  • A half-acre education garden where students and extension programs in the region work together on sustainable agriculture practices.
  • A soil-remediation project, led by Professor of Public Health Phil Schuler, studying the use of oyster mushrooms to remove herbicide residue from soil.
  • An orchard from the early 1900s now used to keep alive rare regionally specific varieties of apples.
  • An apiary with 21 beehives where Assistant Professor of Chemistry Bill Collins and his students are researching solutions to colony collapse disorder.
  • The Beginning Farmer Incubator program, which offers community members interested in farming access to land and water so they can grow their skills while growing products for market.
  • Partnerships with several regional organizations that provide labor at the Old Fort in exchange for use of the site, including Conservation Legacy (formerly the Southwest Conservation Corps), the Mesa Verde Helitack interagency fire crew, and the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Department.
Old Fort timeline
  • 1880

    army postThe first Fort Lewis army post was constructed in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, in 1878. Two years later it was relocated to Hesperus, on the southern slopes of the La Plata Mountains. 

  • 1891

    Fort Lewis was decommissioned and converted into a federal, off-reservation Indian boarding school.

  • 1911 

    native american studentsThe fort's property and buildings in Hesperus were transferred to the state of Colorado with the condition that Fort Lewis “be maintained as an institution of learning to which Indian students will be admitted free of tuition and on an equality with white students” in perpetuity (Act of 61st Congress, 1911). The State of Colorado established the Fort Lewis School of Agriculture, Mechanic & Household Arts on the site.

  • 1914

     A herd of Holstein Friesian dairy cattle enabled a course of study in “Dairying,” described in the 1914-15 catalog as “A study of dairy animals, feeds and buildings, the handling of milk from the time it leaves the cow until it reaches the consumer.”

  • 1923

     A new dairy barn was added on to the food storage building.

  • 1925

     school buildingsName changed to "Fort Lewis School of Agricultural, Pedagogical, Business & College Preparatory Courses"

  • 1933

     Beavers logoThe new Fort Lewis Junior College kicked off its collegiate sports program under the nickname “the Beavers.”

  • 1948

     The state Board of Agriculture took control of the college, which became Fort Lewis A&M College, with the nickname “The Aggies.”

  • 1949

     Mighty Moo busThe Mighty Moo bus was purchased to haul teams, special classes, and clubs. 

  • 1960 

    After FLC's move to Durango, Colorado State University established the San Juan Basin Research Center at the Old Fort. 

  • 2010

     The San Juan Basin Research Center was closed, FLC was given temporary management of the site, which was also renamed The Old Fort at Hesperus.