An American flag waves from the front porch of a two-story Victorian Revival-style, gabled roof house on the local VA’s 164-acre campus just off Highway 89.
The one-time United States Army officers’ residence-turned-museum built between 1902 and 1908, the last in a row of 11 command quarters located just off a circular driveway once known as Headquarters Hill, is the hub for telling the story behind the Fort Whipple United States Army frontier post built in 1864.
Fort Whipple was established to protect Prescott’s early settlers, a home base for the United States Cavalry during the Indian Wars of 1864 to 1882. The fort that at one time was composed of more than 1,700 acres was deemed obsolete when Arizona earned its statehood in 1912. It was later revived into an Army hospital that then evolved into what today is an expanding medical facility for 28,000 veterans in northern Arizona.
Two days after Christmas, a retired United States Navy veteran from St. George, Utah, and a family that just moved to Prescott stopped in to visit the 14-year-old museum filled with military and early 20th century medicine artifacts and storyboards that share the evolution of this land from a one-time Army outpost to an expanding 21st century health care facility for some 28,000 veterans in northern Arizona.
For more information about the museum or the history of Fort Whipple, visit the website:
The museum hours are Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“I’m a history buff of the Old West and old military forts,” said Brad Dutcher of St. George, Utah, a 57-year-old retired U.S. Navy sailor.
Raised in Arizona, Dutcher said he has long wanted to visit this museum but something has always intervened. So when he found himself in Prescott for the holidays he made this a priority visit.
“This is nice,” he said as he toured the second-floor rooms and read about famous and not-so-famous folks who were part of the beginnings of both Fort Whipple and the local VA.
Each year, the museum invites 150 visitors to become pseudo time travelers, exploring spaces and exhibits that harken back to Prescott’s frontier roots, the Spanish-American War, the Rough Riders, Buffalo Soldiers and the foundation of federal veteran health care.
The museum is a volunteer-operated, donation-only joint venture between the city’s downtown Sharlot Hall Museum that boasts four acres and 11 historic buildings — the first territorial governor’s mansion is a central exhibit space — and the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System.
Traveling through time
Visitors step inside the front door and are suddenly immersed in the past, standing in what once was the parlor of a number of Army officers and their families. Museum docents take pride in showing off the interior with walls painted a yellow that was the base color uncovered from one of the four upstairs bedrooms, each offering a panoramic view of Prescott’s mountainous landscapes once savored by those stationed at Fort Whipple.
The 6,200-square-foot house has undergone some modernization — such as the addition of a handicap accessible bathroom and upgraded plumbing fixtures — but the wood floors and fireplaces throughout the home are original as is the wooden banister that leads up to the second floor. Between the rooms are pocket doors and a set of half-stairs off the main hallway.
The museum was closed for six months last year to make some unexpected repairs.
Fort Whipple Museum
The parlor that is now the museum lobby is adorned with carefully mounted and arranged exhibits, photographs and maps that offer guests a chance to learn about the history of Arizona and Fort Whipple. One of the featured placards is about Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, a West Point graduate and surveyor who was never stationed at the fort. His connections stemmed from his explorations of the American Southwest, including his discovery and naming of Chino Valley. Whipple died a brigadier general in the Civil War battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia.
Each room in the house contains various items that have been salvaged from those early days, or donated to the museum from the attics or collections of folks connected with Fort Whipple or the pre-VA days.
Six years after the city’s one-time social center was all-but-abandoned, Fort Whipple was revived into an Army Hospital for treatment of soldiers suffering with tuberculosis and other such respiratory ailments. The high-demand facility eventually became the third largest sanatorium in the nation.
In one of the upstairs rooms is some of the early medical equipment used in that facility, and there is even a 1920s wooden wheelchair that would be of the kind once used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Five-year docent Vicki Scott never ceases to be fascinated by the history that lives within these walls.
“I bet it was an awesome time,” Scott said of the fort’s early days and subsequent revival.
Scott said she particularly loves when people come to the museum who have connections to the former military outpost or who had family who lived in these homes. She said she has had the privilege of speaking to some of Whipple’s descendants.
“I love it when people come back … their stories are amazing,” she said.
Sense of place
The Behan family, including son, Andrew, who is now in the United States Army stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, said their trip to the museum was inspired by their son’s military connections and a desire to learn more about the history of where they now live.
Though there is nothing about this museum that is spooky, the Behans joked it might be fun to see if they feel the presence of any Fort Whipple ghosts.
“We just wanted to come and see what it’s all about,” said Holly Behan.