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Volunteer Spotlight – Fort Atkinson State Historical Park

Living history volunteer Bob Baker celebrates 30 years at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park 


Living history volunteer Bob Baker of Omaha portrays a captain in the U.S. Rifle Regiment at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.

Photo by Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine

By Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Fort Atkinson State Historical Park is located in Fort Calhoun, Washington County. The original military post was active 1819-1827, and its main purpose was to protect the American fur trade by guarding the “gateway to the West.” At its height, Fort Atkinson housed nearly a quarter of the standing U.S. Army (approximately 1,200 soldiers) and roughly that many civilians lived just beyond the garrison walls.

Today, visitors may walk among replica buildings and attend living history events spring through fall, made possible by a team of dedicated, passionate volunteers. Bob Baker of Omaha is one such person. During this Q&A, Baker shares insight on his 30 years of being a living history volunteer at the fort.

Tell me about your volunteer role at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park.

As of Oct. 7, this year [2023], I would’ve been involved with the living history program at the park 30 years as a member of the Friends of Fort Atkinson. My interest in being involved kind of goes back to a childhood desire to “play army” at the fort.  

I portray a captain of the U.S. Rifle Regiment, which was there historically at the post, along with the 6th Infantry, which were both part of the Yellowstone Expedition that arrived there in 1819 to establish the original post. 

What was your process in recreating this person you are portraying?

What we do at Fort Atkinson is a third- or fourth-person interpretation.  

Historical locations such as Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village and Jamestown are known for their first-person impressions. They have people who are acting as historical people to the point where they won’t break character unless they really have to. We have found that we can’t do that at Fort Atkinson.  

I, for one, would get annoyed with someone who would be so on-the-mark in their portrayal that I would get disinterested, because at some point, I need context. “How does what you’re telling me matter to me now 200 years later?” 

I like to explain what we do at Fort Atkinson in this way: We dress in uniforms and civilian clothing, so that when people come up to a historical setting, they will see what looks like historical people. Now, I have and will occasionally slip into a few sentences or paragraphs of a dialogue that a captain of the U.S. Rifle Regiment on an expeditionary course back in the early 1820s would’ve probably said to someone in the room … [but] I don’t want the public to come up, pay to get into the park and walk away without anything tangible. I want them to have an experience that will encourage them to come back or tell other people about it.  

I’ve stayed away from portraying an actual individual who was stationed at the fort. I like to think that we probably do more of a recreation of history than we do reenactment. We are demonstrating something that we may not be privy to.  

If we do a court martial, where we actually have named individuals and we’re reading from the record, that is reenactment.   

Living history volunteers Andrew Hagan (left to right), Bob Baker and Kris Ericson at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park in Fort Calhoun, Washington County. Photo by Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley, Nebraskaland Magazine.

Did you feel awkward at first?

When I was ready to come up and “play army” at the fort, the 8-year-old boy inside of me ran over the 37-year-old man.

My first weekend up there, the volunteers told me – because I didn’t have anything to wear in that setting – they said, “Don’t worry about it. Show up with black shoes and white pants. Get painter’s pants and cut off the loop at the side and the back pockets off. Wear a white shirt, and we’ll do the rest.”  

They brought me into one of the rooms, and two of the guys are in there saying, “Here, have him try this on. Have him try that on.”  

It was like a costume room, and I was getting ready to be on stage. I walked out and looking back on it now, oh, I must’ve looked a sight, knowing what I know now about history. I was wearing a war vest and a tricorn hat — I must’ve looked a little odd.  

Then they had me marching, and I kept stumbling and kicking at the other guys’ shoes.

They gave me a black powder rifle to carry, and I thought, “Well, I’m hooked now. I’m not letting go of this. I’m coming back next year!” 

You wear this beautiful green coat now. Tell me about how you pieced it together, and can you share how much you have put into it cost-wise?

Out of pocket, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,300-$2,500. The coat itself was made by a former volunteer, and then another volunteer helped to embellish it later on. 

On the breast of the coat is called a twist, a black cording that basically makes fake button holes. It’s a design that would’ve been put on military clothing at the time. The coat is made of a heavier-grade wool than what they would’ve used back in the period [because it’s more hardwearing for my purposes]. 

I will tell people who are getting started that if you’re talking about military, plan anywhere from $1,000-$1,500. However, you may not spend that much, because there may be someone who comes along and says, “Hey, I’m getting out of it. Does this fit you?”  

It’s a cottage industry that produces these items, and it’s a bit of, “Who do you know who has something to sell?” It’s not something that’s readily advertised on the internet. A lot of it is through the community.  

Belt buckle worn by living history volunteer Bob Baker of Omaha who portrays a captain in the U.S. Rifle Regiment at Fort Atkinson SHP. Photo by Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine.

Do you get to choose who want to portray? Or is there a process of moving up the ranks or a hierarchy?

There is some process. Does the person demonstrate an ability to portray a non-commissioned officer, corporal or sergeant? Or a commissioned officer, lieutenant, captain, major or colonel? There is a certain amount of judging a person’s aptitude and desire to do what they’re doing.  

At Fort Atkinson, as the need for an officer is there, someone will be asked, “Would you mind taking on the role of this officer?” It’s a commitment to get the uniform made, buy the different pieces of uniform and equipage and so forth, so it’s a monetary decision when a person goes that way.  

In some ways, we do it as the army did historically at the time. An officer might be well-equipped emotionally and discipline-wise to jump in rank, but if the regiment doesn’t have an opening for that particular rank spot in the company, you stay where you are.  

For instance, Henry Atkinson was made a brigadier general over running the 9th military district out of Louisville, KY. He kept the rank of brevet brigadier general until after he died, because there was no room to put him in as full brigadier general until six months after he died.

Time and service comes into play, and that’s what we use, too. I’ve asked different guys if they want to be an officer, and they just say, “No, I think I like being a private.”  

Having been there, there are times when I wish I could go back. But if I go back to being a private or sergeant, people will still call me “captain.” Once you’re in this community, you become identified that way, it’s hard for people to go back. In certain ways, it is limiting. But I could go to other events and show up as a private or corporal or sergeant, or whatever they would need, and have done so.  

I want people to understand that if they come and volunteer, there are ways we can make it work out for them if they want to go a certain direction, but don’t expect to show up first day and say, “I’m going to be a sergeant.” 

Bob Baker leading a march during a living history weekend. Photo by Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley, Nebraskaland Magazine.

You mentioned that your family also volunteers with you.

The standing joke is that my granddaughters are coming around to the understanding that it’s not a cult. When I got started, I brought my wife and two younger boys up.  

My youngest, he loved it, because at 8 years old, he could run around the whole park kind of unsupervised, which was kind of a no-no. But it was a great big playground for him … At one point, well, there were two points, when John Slader, the superintendent at the time, had to talk to us, that if they caught this boy going into a room he shouldn’t be in or doing something dangerous on the site again, we would be out. He had two strikes against him, and he was going for a third one. 

Fortunately, it worked that we found an entry of a 10-year-old boy who was adopted by the rifle regiment in 1820. Both his parents died from the scurvy during the winter of 1819 into 1820, and a rifleman adopted him and made him a musician. His name was Anthony Baker. So, my son, Stephen Baker, became Anthony Baker for about 4 years. And then he became a private in the rifle regiment, and now he’s a master sergeant.  

Now, he’s got three boys, and he brings them up with him. My middle son, who bailed out on us when he was 15, his oldest boy has been up four seasons now and also is a rifle private. My eldest son started coming up about 5 years ago as a carpenter, and his father-in-law decided to join as well. His daughters are there when he comes up, and his wife will, too. 

It’s kind of humorous for me, because there will be times when I’m talking to visitors, and I’ll have my two granddaughters come up and give me a hug and say, “Love you grandpa,” and they run off. The public love it, and they’ll say, “Are there any other family members?” And I’ll point out five, and they’ll say, “You can stop now.”  

It’s a family affair.  

Liam Baker directing his cousin, Isaac James Baker (affectionately known as “Little Boy Blue”), during roll call. Liam and Isaac are Baker’s grandsons. Baker’s son, Stephen Baker (Isaac’s father), second to the left, looks on. Photo by Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley, Nebraskaland Magazine.

What’s the most challenging part of being a reenactor?

The most challenging part for me is the putting together of the impression [or the outfit]. Financially, if you’re not ready for it, you live on the good graces of others who may be able to help by loaning things to you.  

The other thing is trying to be as prepared as possible when visitors would ask me questions. It’s a challenge for all of us who do the research and want to find out about what someone did and when it happened. How do we fit into [these stories] so we can give a good telling?  

We also deal with misinformation, but it’s rewarding. I get children and parents both marveling at the little bits of what I call trivial history. 

What do you love most about it?

I’m a history nerd. I’m a trivia nerd. And a bit of thespian. I refer to myself as a frustrated stand-up comedian, and volunteering at the fort feeds my psyche in a way that I don’t get from anything else. And my wife has gotten to the point where she understands that. The ones who stick with the program are the ones who love being part of the vocation, of telling the story – it feeds something in their heart. 

There’s a lot of romanticism involved in doing any type of reenacting or recreation. And I suppose, that romanticism hearkens back to something we don’t know about it, but want to learn more about. 

Baker’s youngest son, Stephen Baker (gray coat), has been volunteering with his dad since he was 8 years old. Photo by Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley, Nebraskaland Magazine.

What makes Fort Atkinson a special place to volunteer?

We have a site that is unique. I’ve had the opportunity to be at different places, as far as Fort McHenry and Fort Mackinac [in Maryland]. There are a lot of sites preserved or recreated, but they don’t have the structure that we have. We have the Game and Parks that maintains the park and operates it. We have the Fort Atkinson Foundation being the fundraising arm that works with the park and the volunteer organization to facilitate the living history program, and the grounds and the equipment. And then we have the volunteers 

When I talk to people at other sites, they marvel at the fact that we do six events during a season, and that we still have people to do it.  

Of course, there are visitors who come up, and if it’s mentioned that we’re a volunteer organization, that what we wear and what we use is all personal property, people wow at the fact that “You don’t get paid? I wouldn’t do this unless I got paid.” 

And I say, “No, there’s a different gratification you get as a volunteer.”  

And I will say that there is a different recognition. When you’re doing something out of the goodness of your heart, or the intrigue of the subject, you’ll do it differently than if you’re actually getting a paycheck for it.  

I’ve told my family after I retire [from the optical industry], I’ll probably be up at the fort at least one day a week greeting people and sharing what I know. 

During a special Fourth of July living history event at Fort Atkinson SHP, Baker poses in front of a Black Hawk helicopter static display. Photo by Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley, Nebraskaland Magazine.

How does someone become a volunteer at Fort Atkinson?

First and foremost, if a person wanted to be a volunteer at Fort Atkinson, you get registered with the parks system. Usually, we tell people who visit during one of our events is to get in touch with our visitor center to fill out paperwork. When your application is approved, that’s when we tell people to join the Friends of Fort Atkinson, which has some perks. No. 1, we do our best to make sure the person looks the part, and then we also find ways to share things like patterns, cloth and uniforms and outfits for women and children.  

No one who is interested in joining is expected to know anything. If a person is willing to come up and dress like we do, and want to find out some of the things we know, it doesn’t take very long for them to become an instant expert.  

Visit Fort Atkinson State Historical Park Sept. 2 & 3, 2023, for the next living history event.


About Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley is Nebraskaland Magazine's associate editor. She enjoys hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and wild game cooking.