During the summer, Tom and I enjoyed all the wonderful visitors to Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. We averaged about 100 people a day from June through August, and then about 50 a day during September. Our highest numbers were during the special events of Rendezvous and Living History Weekend.
100 visitors a day isn’t much, compared to 1 million during the month of July for Yellowstone. But it was certainly enough when we were doing living history demonstrations. There were days, especially when I was working in the Trade House, that I felt like a recording – repeating the same story over and over. September, with its smaller numbers, was a welcome change for us. We enjoyed talking to people in more depth and being able to spend time answering questions.
Many of the visitors to the other National Park sites where we have worked would tell us they “just happened to see the signs.” They had stumbled across the park site accidentally. Not so with Fort Union Trading Post. It was enough out of the way that people only came to us deliberately. We had a lot of visitors that were on their way to or from Glacier National Park or Yellowstone National Park. Others were trying to hit all three of the National Park sites in North Dakota.
A lot of people told us that they had come to North Dakota because it was the last state they still had to visit. North Dakota knows this. Their Bureau of Tourism did a study and found that North Dakota was the last state that the majority of people visited out of all 50 states. So they set up a Facebook page called “Save the Best for Last Club.” The page encourages you to save North Dakota for last and then post a picture of you visiting the state. North Dakotans have a great sense of humor about not being a vacation hot spot.
Some of our wonderful visitors really stick in my mind. I always really enjoy the people who aren’t in a hurry. They take their time and read and look at everything. We had a 9 minute movie in our visitor center with seven five minute “if you want to know more” movies. We had some people who stayed and watched the whole 44 minutes of movies. Other people, especially during September, took advantage of lower numbers to really enter into conversations with rangers. We had some local tribal members stop by and I always enjoyed talking to them. One Assiniboine man told me he had come to be sure we were telling the story right.
One day in September we had a homeschool field trip group. They had called to let Ranger Lisa know they were coming and expected about 15 kids and family members. Then they posted the information on their Facebook page. Instead of 15 we had 64 in the group. Tom gave them a blacksmith program, then Ranger Karl gave them a very animated history of the Fort. I had invited a few of the early arrivers to complete the Jr. Ranger Book. By the end of the day we had 22 new Jr. Rangers. One group of third grade (ish) girls all wore Native American costumes. Then, after a picnic lunch, they had a book club meeting inside a tipi.
During their book club meeting one of the moms, with a two-year-old and four-year-old to entertain, came into the Visitors Center where I was working. Both boys were very friendly and interested in touching everything. They weren’t destructive, but Mom kept a close eye on them. Until the four-year-old had to go to the bathroom. She asked if I would keep an eye on the two-year-old. I was glad to do it. This adorable little boy wandered all over the gift shop pointing at things and naming them for me. “Duck.” “Buffo.” “Boat.”
He started toward the fake fire, but stopped at a respectful distance and said “Owie.” I had to agree that fire could be an owie. Then he saw the knives in the glass display case. “Owie!” And the candles “Owie!” Scissors “Owie!” And the fireplace poker “Owie!” I never realized we had so many dangerous things in the gift shop! By the time he finished naming everything, his mom and brother were back.
The best thing about working in the National Parks is our wonderful visitors. Tom and I feel privileged to meet, greet, and share what we know with so many interesting people.