Trail West: Reliving the Custer Myth

Dustin White

When settling down, it can be easy to pass over North Dakota. While the state is currently experiencing a booming oil industry in the west, other potential opportunities often are not considered.

Dr. Frederick J. Walsh, who was the playwright for “Old Four-Eyes,” a predecessor to the current Medora Musical, and “Trail West,” an outdoor drama at Fort Lincoln, nearly was guilty of the same mistake before he moved to the state in 1952.

“North Dakota is one place we crossed off our list fast,” Walsh said in a 1959 interview.

However, Walsh and his wife decided to take a second look at the state. Discovering an untapped potential, they decided to take the chance, passing over a deanship at the Pasadena Play House.

Walsh instead found himself in Fargo, as the head of the speech department at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now N.D. State University). There he was with a dream, to bring historical outdoor dramas to his newfound state.

At the same time, concerned citizens were beginning to become concerned with the Theodore Roosevelt Centennial.

As the tides began to come together, Walsh found a realization to his dream when he was approached in regards to a proposed drama at Medora. “Old Four-Eyes” would be born, having been written by Thomas Patterson with the assistance of Walsh.

The first year, 40,000 people made the trip to see the drama.

Excitement in Mandan
Seeing that success was almost assured in Medora, with officials estimating that the attendance would nearly double in their second year, citizens in Mandan began to become excited about the possibility of bringing a historical drama to the area.

Consulting with Walsh, representatives from Mandan began moving forward. The Mandan Historical Development Association was founded, which began overseeing the process.

From the beginning though, there were difficulties with getting the drama off the ground. After finishing the first season of “Old Four-Eyes,” Walsh returned to the NDAC and found that he had lost one of his instructors in the speech department.

Becoming desperate to find a replacement quickly, Walsh was hit by a bit of good fortune. Finding a letter on his desk one morning, he learned that an old friend of his was searching to get back into the teaching profession. His name was W.T. Chichester.

It was quickly decided that Chichester would relocate from Ohio to Fargo, and fill in the position at NDAC. He would also help Walsh out a bit more, by collaborating on the historical drama that would soon open in Mandan.

With Walsh serving as the producer, and Chichester as the director, they brought on Patterson as well, who would help in writing the script for this new drama. “Trail West” was being birthed.

While the creation of the actual drama was being produced in Fargo, the MHDA was overseeing the construction of the “Custer Memorial Amphitheater.” The set-up was meant to be similar to what Medora was doing, but the MDHA wanted to go larger.

Upon completion, the amphitheater, which was the first in the northwest to be constructed of concrete, boasted 2,000 seats, as well as being built upon the actual trail that Custer and his Seventh Calvary left on for the battle of the Little Big Horn.

Tests in the location also indicated what appeared to be near perfect acoustics, which allowed actors to move more freely, without the worry of having to be amplified.

Support for the historical drama was also quite strong in the community. The budget for the 1959 production was $75,000 (over half a million in today’s dollars), which was raised by local citizens and organizations.

The drama was beginning to be quite promising, with the possibility of being one of the largest attractions in the history of the state, as well as the northwest, at the time.

Opening season
Calling for 80 actors, with 70 being speaking parts, the drama was one of a large scale.

Telling four separate stories, weaved into one finely tuned narrative, the drama showcased both history, as well as fiction.

While most of the story was based on historical figures, with only two being fictional, the drama sought to explore the history from a different light, a “behind-the-scenes” view. Exploring not only the “epic of the Seventh Calvary,” as well as the story of Plains Indians, it also delved into the relationship between Custer and his wife Libby, as well as corruption in the Army, following the Civil War.

“Although Custer is the leading character, it’s not Custer’s tragedy, but the tragedy of Custer’s men,” Chichester said in an interview with the Bismarck Tribune in 1959. “We’re portraying Custer as a human being.”

Chichester also said that there would be no attempt to portray “Indians as heavies” or the Seventh as martyrs.

To the relief of many, the work that was put into the drama turned out to be a success. Over 26,000 people would attend the opening season. One special attendee was also present.

Major Frank Anders
Considered, at the time, to be the last person alive to have seen Custer and the Seventh Calvary, Major Frank Anders was a special guest at “Trail West.”

Having been born at the post hospital at Fort McKeen, on Nov. 10, 1876, he was just a baby when he, held by General Edward S. Godfrey, watched Custer depart for the Little Big Horn.

Peering along the same path, Anders was 83 years old when he first attended the drama. His presence was for more than just watching the drama though. Anders had also been a member of the Advisory Council of the Mandan Historical Development Association. In that capacity, he added a bit more interest in the production.

Being an authority of the subject, Anders delighted many by relating a number of facts about the history around Custer’s Last March.

One piece of trivia that Anders was happy to share was that there were more men in the Seventh Calvary who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their services on June 25-26, 1876, than in any other regiment that has ever served.

Moving into the second season, there was a considerable amount of excitement. A new director was brought on board, George Poletes of St. Paul.

Remaining true to the core of the drama, Polete had made minor changes. Shortening the play to just over two hours, he also added more action and spectacle, including an “Indian attack on the fort.”

However, Polete did understand that the story of Custer was controversial. It would become a balancing act, trying to weigh the history, as well as the dramatic art form.

Even with slight changes, the popularity of the drama had spread. Starting with favorable ticket sales stretching back to the previous February, the MDHA expected to see large crowds for not only the opening week, but throughout the season.

Reviews for the show were highly positive; however, turnout was not as favorable as expected. While many tourists were coming out to see the drama, it was estimated that only a small percentage of local residents made the trip.

Even with the set back, the drama continued to be seen as a success.

“Those who saw it both last year and this year say it is worth seeing again,” Dr. C. A. Henderson told a group in Bismarck in 1960. “The show has changed and improved until today it is ranked among the 10 best outdoor dramas in the entire country.”

However, after the initial changes for the season, each performance continued to see reworking. While the time length remained constant, “no two performances are ever exactly the same,” Polete said in 1960.

In addition to changes in the drama, an additional play was added to the Custer Memorial Amphitheater. With Polete remaining as director, “Drunkard” was added to the line up.

1961 saw a massive rewrite of “Trail West.” By the next year, the drama would be changed to the “Custer Drama.” It would also be supplemented by a number of other performances, including “Dracula,” which was put on by the “Centennial Players.”

By the seventh season, a new production was brought out to the amphitheater; “The Lewis and Clark Story.”

Each year seemed to bring out some new change. With a variety of rewrites, as well as producers and directors, the show seemed to be a success, and consistently was received with great reviews. At least with tourists.

From the beginning, area residents appeared to spurn the show. While tourist numbers were on the rise, overall attendance lagged. Locals just did not show up.

It was a challenge that frustrated those putting on the drama.

“It ought to be reasonable to expect half of these people should see the show within two years,” Henderson said in 1960. “Why don’t local people want to take in the drama?”

Even though “Trail West” was the only outdoor historical drama, at the time, in the nation to be portrayed on the same exact spot where the history took place, citizens of the area did not seem to want to participate in the historic episodes that took place in their back yard.

Henderson held out though, as it usually took similar shows a full five years to reach their potential. With deficits closing in on $100,000 though, the local support they initially received seemed to vanish quickly.

The financial woes would take a toll on the group. By 1962, cast members of the “Custer Drama” took to picketing at the North Dakota Capitol in order to try to spark interest with local residents. At the time, there were fears that if attendance and support didn’t rise, the show would have to fold. It was a fear that would follow the production throughout the rest of its life.

Even with interest with Custer rising nationwide, with similar dramas popping up in South Dakota and Montana, leading to what some deem a spread in Custer mythology, local support in the Mandan area just did not.

Each year the public was urged to come out to the show, hoping to stave off closing, and each year, they eked by. 50-cent pieces were even minted, which were useable at participating locations in the area, in order to help promote the event. The Mandan sign on Crying Hill was also changed to help with promotion for Trail West. But local support could not be gained.

“I know the burden that many are placed under these constant requests for money,” Bob Paris said in 1964. “But ours is not a request for a donation but, instead an offer to sell tickets to the pageant in advance at a saving in price.”

Adding to the challenges of keeping the drama going, the summer of 1963 saw extensive damage to the amphitheater.

During an annual Boy Scouts camporee, several scouts, as well as other youth, who were drunk and appeared to sneak into the park, vandalized the amphitheater.

Damage was done to the set, as well as to the facilities, including urinals that were smashed with rocks.

Morton County eventually allowed the Scout Officials to step up and handle the situation. Hoping that the Scouts would take control, the county was pleased when they did.

Those involved made restitution through personal work as well as supplying materials to repair the damages.

Closing and rebirth
Without finding proper financial support, the Mandan Development Corporation, which took over for the MDHA in 1962, made the decision to suspend the Custer Drama for 1967, with the hopes they would find more favorable arrangements the next year.

Options were looked at, such as having NDSU take over the site as a summer theater operation, but it ended up not being a feasible arrangement.

Traditional local sources were also ruled out when reliance on such was deemed impractical.

Serious efforts were put into attracting foundations to help continue the production, but eventually, they fell through.

There were other problems that the MDC was facing as well. Debts had been piling up from previous years, and the amphitheater property was in need of reconstruction.

It ended up being too much for the group, and the “Custer Drama” finally ran its course. The amphitheater would eventually be dismantled, with only memories left.

However, there were those who wanted to bring that history back. After a 22-year hiatus, in 1986, a Bismarck playwright sought to revive the drama.

Having received the necessary go ahead, the production ended up sizzling out.