In a place where George Armstrong Custer once went AWOL to visit his wife, where Gen. George Patton changed the bathtub in the post commander’s quarters to fit his long legs and where the nation’s future soldiers continue to train, Fort Riley has its own distinct Kansas charm.
The fort’s historic district, with tree-lined streets and limestone buildings, was built in the scenic Flint Hills long before Kansas became a state.
And parts of the fort — specifically its museums — are still open daily to visitors.
The key to getting in is to have proper identification and to be willing to stop at the visitors center off I-70 at Exit 301 to be approved for a temporary pass. The process usually takes about 10 minutes.
What visitors can see at Fort Riley includes the U.S. Cavalry Museum and the 1st Infantry Division Museum as well as the famed Custer House — which some say is haunted — as well as the tombstone and gravesite of Chief, the Army’s last cavalry horse.
The museums and house are open daily throughout the year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter. Fort Riley is about 133 miles from Kansas City.
When it opened in 1853, Fort Riley was no different from any of the other frontier posts that were beginning to dot the West.
Like Fort Scott and, later, Fort Larned, it was built to watch neighboring American Indian tribes and protect traders and settlers along Kansas’ trails.
Most of those forts are long gone. But because it has been able to change along with the rest of the nation, Fort Riley is very much alive.
The dusty frontier outpost has morphed into a sleek, modern training center for the U.S. Army.
Some famous soldiers who have been stationed at the fort include:
▪ George Custer: From 1866 to 1871, Custer and his wife, Libby, were stationed at various encampments across Kansas. Custer was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and assigned to the 7th Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Riley. In 1867, following his first command during the Indian Wars, instead of remaining at Fort Wallace as ordered, Custer went AWOL to Fort Riley to be with his wife. He was court-martialed and suspended for one year.
▪ Robert E. Lee: During the Civil War, Lee was the commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But before the war, he was at both Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth for a brief time in November 1855 for court-martial duty.
▪ George Patton: From 1913 to 1915, Patton was stationed at Fort Riley. He returned in 1923 for the Cavalry School advanced course and was director of instruction from 1937 to 1938. During World War II, Patton commanded the Seventh and Third armies. Patton was 6-foot-4, and his residence was the first at the fort to have indoor plumbing. When he broke his hip, he had a special bathtub installed, which has never been replaced or updated.
The U.S. Cavalry Museum is in Building 205 in what used to be the fort’s original hospital.
It contains the U.S. Army’s history of the mounted force from the American Revolution until the late 1940s, when the Army got rid of its horses.
At the cavalry museum, visitors tend to gravitate to an 1883 Gatling gun.
“It is one of the cooler things up here,” said Capt. Robert Cogan, an active-duty officer with the 1st Infantry who also assists the museum in curator duties and as a tour guide. “It is one of the only ones in the Army’s collections, and it is a particularly good piece.”
There are Army pack saddles – once declared ancient by the 1920s but which made a comeback with the war in Afghanistan.
In 2001, the Pentagon contacted Fort Riley asking to use the antique saddles. Five months later, the fort received photos of how special forces were using them to carry equipment to fight the Taliban.
This summer, the 1st Infantry Division Museum – in Building 207 – is celebrating its centennial.
The museum contains information on how the epicenter of the 1918 flu pandemic started at Camp Funston at Fort Riley and spread around the world, killing between 50 million and 100 million people.
One exhibit visitors can walk through replicates the trenches from World War I, another the jungles of Vietnam, and still another the streets of Afghanistan.
The museums also contain a sketch by famed Western artist Frederic Remington of 3rd U.S. Cavalry Sgt. John Lannen from Cuba in 1898. Also in the museums is a hat Custer wore, among other things.
Custer House, built in 1855, is one of the oldest buildings at the fort. And although Custer may not have lived in the house, it is believed he visited it.
“He probably came here to dinner once or twice while he was here,” Cogan said. “He was only here for six months.
“They (the Custers) were some of the least popular residents when they lived here, because he and Libby were ‘youthful people.’ And people could hear them chasing and throwing things at each other for fun, giggling during all hours of the day and night and running up and down the stairs.
“They were not popular neighbors.”
Cogan said Custer House has that “historicalness of an old building” — the creaking of wood floors, the smell of an old house and period artifacts from the 1850s through the 1870s.
It is in this house that strange things have happened. A child’s teddy bear has been found mysteriously moved throughout a bedroom on the second floor, and silverware has rattled on the first floor.
The fort’s curators never go into the house by themselves, Cogan said.
Another highlight at the fort is the tombstone and grave of Chief, the last cavalry horse on the U.S. Army rolls.
When the cavalry branch was dissolved in the late 1940s, Chief was allowed to live on the post.
“He lived as a VIP,” Cogan said. “When he died in 1968, he had a full military honors funeral.
“Chief is buried standing up, in full military tack, as if ready to march off to war.”
Museums at Fort Riley
The U. S. Cavalry Museum is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and noon-4:30 p.m. Sundays.
The 1st Infantry Division Museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays.
Custer House is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 1-4 p.m. Sundays.
To tour the fort’s museums and see where Chief, the last cavalry horse in the U.S. Army, is buried, call 785-239-2737 or go to www.riley.army.mil/About-Us/Museums.