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The Face of the Fort Mandan Remains

Gary Anderson grew up in the wrong era. Those that knew him well, knew that Gary didn't just show up to work at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan to talk about history with those willing to hear. Gary wanted to live that life. That's why, when he took the job as seasonal interpreter at Fort Mandan, he stayed in a canvas tent in the park for a year, experiencing the life much like those travelers would have some 200 years ago. His style and passions shaped him into a lasting image of the history still told at the site. For about 15 years, Gary was the face of Fort Mandan. He wore the traditional clothes of a fur trader most every day. On a hot July day and on a cold January morning, because those were the clothes he wanted to wear. The linen, the wool and his thick warm beard are all images that thousands of visitors came to know and look for.
"A couple would drive up from New Jersey to see this place, they'd see Gary standing there in period clothes," interpretive resource manager Kevin Kirkey said. "That was inviting." But Gary's appreciation for the past went well beyond clothing, which he and his wife Sharon made themselves. He was a collector of books, paraphernalia used in the expedition, stamps that commemorated the first date of release of the Lewis & Clark
anniversary design, from all the stops along the journey. A small collection that tells of Gary's passions are now on display in the gallery at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. The exhibit, "One Man's Hobbies," will be on display through March. Kirkey said that the exhibit was something the Center thought about putting together shortly after Gary's death about a year ago.
When Gary was given the opportunity to work as an interpreter for Fort Mandan in 1996, he was all in. At the time he was also working at the Fort Abraham Lincoln site.
Though it's been about a year since Gary passed away unexpectedly, his image remains a strong part of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation. He was one of the first interpreters on staff that really gave an inviting and exciting image to the rich history that was waiting for those willing to hear it. "Gary's image will be around
for a long time," said vice president of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Wendy Spencer. Those that worked with Gary knew that he was a collector of historical items but few knew to what extent. Kirkey recalls
meeting Gary for the first time about 25 years ago, and even then, Gary was interested in the life of those that had come and gone hundreds of years ago. His passion was the fur trade and similarly, his wife was interested in a similar era. She portrayed Libby Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln. The two even married in a military style wedding at the mid-winter conference in Minot. They met through history and wed in a historical way.
If you come and explore the life and passions of Gary, you'll notice a collection of steel in a variety of shapes. These are fire steels that Gary fired and pounded out himself. You'll see clothes, a powder horn, common items of a fur trader or military man of the period. "You can't just buy this stuff," Kirkey said. The little intricate patterns were carved out by Gary after hours of research on the style and the traditional way of making them. For those that understand the craft, they can see the work it must have taken.
Gary is missed by both staff and explorers who grew used to seeing the man dressed like a real fur trader. "He was the go-to guy," Kirkey said. If he didn't have an answer on historical memorabilia in his Rolodex of a mind, he knew somebody who could tell you more. For those that heard Gary interpret the stories of long ago, you may have noticed that he was soft spoken, meticulous, willing to share and a creative story teller. He had a way of persuading you into believing that the life of the fur traders was an exciting way of life worth pursuing and worth living even today.
So maybe Gary grew up in the right era. He was put here to continue the traditions of old in a time when they are so often forgotten. For a time, he was able to take us on a journey back in time, to understand how we got to where we are.

A painting of the late Gary Anderson is part of the exhibit now on display based
On the hobbies of Anderson at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. The display
continues through the month of March. MICHAEL JOHNSON

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