Frontier Days founder Bill Ryan dies at 86

When Dr. Bill Ryan was growing up in western Texas, he met an old cowboy whose approach to life made a lasting impression on him.

As Ryan would later recount, the cowboy’s guiding principle was: ”Heaven’s right here on Earth, but the only way you get there is on the arms of the people you help.”

Ryan, who died Monday at age 86 in the Friendship Haven Health Center, strived to make that philosophy his own as he helped to expand the Fort Museum and Frontier Village, launched the annual Frontier Days celebration and worked on behalf of military reservists by leading the Iowa Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. He also established the Fort Dodge Dragoons, a group modeled after a cavalry unit that organized Frontier Days and promoted local history.

The Fort Dodge man was widely known for wearing a replica cavalry uniform and presenting a cavalry trooper’s hat to the grand marshals of the Frontier Days parade.

”I don’t think Fort Dodge has ever had a bigger cheerleader,” said Roger Natte, a local historian who was the executive director of the Fort Museum and Frontier Village in 1976 and 1977. ”He really believed in Fort Dodge and he really promoted Fort Dodge.”

John Edens, a former business manager of the Fort Museum and Frontier Village who was a friend of Ryan for 30 years, described him as ”a friend of everybody.”

”He was very, very much a positive person,” Edens said. ”There was no negativity to him whatsoever.”

A visitation will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday in the Opera House at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village. The funeral will be at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Opera House with the Rev. Marvin Smith officiating. Ryan will be buried in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.

Ryan was a native of Midland, Texas. Growing up there put him in contact with the philosophical cowboy and others like him. He began doing some cowboy work when he was 10 years old.

He served in the Army at stateside posts in 1945 and 1946. He worked as a cook for part of that time.

After returning to civilian life, he earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree at Oklahoma A & M University, which is today’s Oklahoma State University. He practiced veterinary medicine in Duncan, Okla., for about 10 years.

In 1958, he took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Des Moines. He moved to Fort Dodge in 1961 to become director of advertising and communications for Fort Dodge Laboratories. He retired from that position in 1995.

Not long after he and his family settled in Fort Dodge, Ryan was invited to become part of a group recruited by the late O.L. ”Slim” Marquesen to operate what became today’s Fort Museum and Frontier Village. The fort opened in May 1964.

At the time, it consisted only of the wooden stockade. Ryan decided that it would be nice to supplement that stockade with a village in which people could get a taste of how Iowans lived during the 1800s. He began by setting up a sign proclaiming an area next to the fort as ”Front Street.” Then, he began promoting the idea.

In 1968, Front Street began developing with the help of volunteers who assembled donated buildings and artifacts.

”The fort was his baby,” said Dr, Mike Bottorff, who is a member of the Fort Dodge Historical Foundation board which governs the fort. ”He knew everything about that fort. I would imagine that for everything in that fort he had a hand in getting it there.”

Bottorff recalled that Ryan was deeply involved in every aspect of operating the Fort Museum and Frontier Village.

”He was a real hands-on guy,” Bottorff said. ”He wasn’t a guy who handed the ball off a lot.”

Don Smith, of Fort Dodge, worked closely with Ryan while he was employed as a maintenance man at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village.

”When I lost Bill, I lost a good friend,” Smith said Tuesday. ”One of the biggest pleasures in life is the people you run into and Bill was one of the best.”

Smith recalled that Ryan and some other people re-enacted the travels of the Dragoons, the first cavalry soldiers to travel through Webster County, by riding horses from Lehigh to Fort Dodge about 20 years ago during a Frontier Days celebration. Ryan, he said, made the trip in a heavy wool uniform.

”It was hotter than blazes that year,” he said.

Edens said Ryan led the effort to construct the Opera House.

Frontier Days and the Fort Dodge Dragoons were both established in 1974.

In a 1999 interview with The Messenger, Ryan recalled that Fort Dodge was mired in labor unrest and other problems in the early 1970s.

”I thought, ‘There’s got to be some way to put a little joy in people’s lives around here,” he said.

Frontier Days was the result of his desire to put some joy into people’s lives.

Also in the early 1970s, Ryan became involved with the Iowa Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a group that serves as a liasion between citizen-soldiers and their civilian employers. He was the group’s chairman from 1996 to 2002.


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