George Armstrong Custer used this dumbbell to stay fit while stationed at Fort Hays.
Custer first came to Kansas in 1866 as Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed Seventh U.S. Cavalry. He spent late spring of 1867 at Fort Hays, where the Seventh camped until they had accumulated adequate supplies and ammunition for a summer campaign.
Hays was one of many forts established along western trails and railroads. These military outposts provided protection for settlers, traders, and railroad workers as they traveled across the Plains. In addition, the 7th Cavalry was charged with rounding up American Indians opposed to the U.S. government's plan to relocate them onto reservations.
Custer stayed at Fort Hays periodically until the 7th was reassigned out of the state in 1871. In his memoir, My Life on the Plains, he remarked on the difficulties of keeping busy in camp. He organized buffalo hunts to break the monotony of his month-long stay at Fort Hays in 1867. Custer must have also suffered from boredom during his later visits because he supposedly had a Fort Hays blacksmith forge this dumbbell.
Life for soldiers could be very tedious when not out on patrol. Alonzo Ballard, stationed at Fort Hays in September 1867, described camp life in a letter to a friend: "There is nothing of any importance going on and but little to write about . . . the boys sit here in the tent playing seven up but none of them gambol [sic] excep [sic] some of them bet on horse races." Ballard's troop did become active at times, however. In another letter he wrote to the same friend: "Your letter came to me at Fort Hays, but I had no time to answer for we have been very busy--scouting and drilling at present." Clearly Ballard's experience was often one of hurry up and wait.
While some soldiers passed the time with cards, others tried to find comfort in a bottle. David Spotts belonged to Company L of the 19th Kansas Cavalry Volunteers which camped outside Fort Hays in April 1869. In one of many diary entries discussing the availability of liquor in the nearby town of Hays, Spotts writes: "Those who were over to the station last night managed to bring in considerable whiskey and some of the boys are on a tear. All are feeling first rate as they have plenty to eat and nothing to do. They get up when they get ready and are getting too indolint [sic] and lazy to enjoy good health."
Alcohol was one cause behind the high desertion rate among soldiers. Custer listed other reasons in his memoir: "Bad provisions were a fruitful cause of bad health. Inactivity led to restlessness and dissatisfaction. Scurvy made its appearance, and cholera attacked neighboring stations. For all these evils desertion became the most popular antidote. To such an extent was this the case, that in one year one regiment lost by desertion alone more than half of its effective force."
The dumbbell stayed at Fort Hays after Custer and the 7th left Kansas. Custer's death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 during a disastrous campaign against the Sioux earned him lasting fame. Fort Hays was closed in 1889. Shortly before the fort was abandoned, a former commander gave the weight to August Schutte who was 15 at the time. Years later, Schutte met the fort's blacksmith, Thomas Kennedy, who identified the dumbbell as the one he had made for Custer.
Entry: Custer's Dumbbell
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: October 2006
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.