A View From The Overlook: The Yellowstone Ranger Museum, Take Two

Where did those baggy ranger pants originate? NPS photo of Dave Price modeling the uniform during the dedication of the Museum of the National Park Ranger.

Editor's note: In the last issue of A View From the Overlook, P.J. Ryan, retired park ranger, described his experiences as a volunteer docent at the Museum of the National Park Ranger in Yellowstone. He continues his observations in this issue of the View.

Naturally, there were some questions about the Museum of the National Park Ranger and the National Park Service from both the visiting public and interested park rangers.

Of course, there was that universal, cosmic philosophical question of primary interest to all mankind: “Where is the toilet?” (“One hundred yards up the hill and on your right!”)

Once that question has been answered, all else can follow.

Stu Croll, former chief ranger of Isle Royale National Park, asked via e-mail if the Ranger Museum exhibits were adequate. Yes, in my opinion, indeed they were. A good museum exhibit always leaves the audience asking more questions and reasons of “Why”? and “How come?,” and this was the case.

What's With The Baggy Pants?

One question that I could not answer concerned the evolution of the National Park Service uniform. The most frequently asked question concerned the “baggy pants” that the early (1920s) rangers wore; where did they come from and why they were baggy? (Now, I realize visitors are supposed to ask about preventing global warming, but you have to take what you get!)

I said that, like the iconic Ranger hat, the baggy pants very probably derived from the U.S. Cavalry that patrolled Yellowstone and other national parks before the advent of the NPS. As to why they were baggy, I had no idea.

Since Stu Croll was interested in the museum, I asked him about the baggy pants. He passed the question on to that custodian of "all things Ranger," Charles “Butch Farabee Jr., author of The National Park Ranger: An American Icon. Butch responded promptly, as is his wont:

“I went through both of Bryce Workman’s books that are relevant to the pants … Every place the pants in question (the baggy ones) are referred to as 'breeches', or later into the 1920s, the term is often 'riding breeches.' The term 'breeches' is always used (never the Anglo-Indian “Jodhpur”). The 'breeches' were first authorized in 1920 and it appears that in 1932 breeches finally fell out of the regulations, with straight pants replacing them. I suspect that breeches were used for a number of years afterwards…

"Wikipedia cites 1898 a pivotal date for jodhpurs being introduced into Great Britain, and it apparently became fashionable for those who rode horses. None of this, however, answers the question that PJ raises, and, other than Bryce referring to the U.S. Army as where the riding breeches evolved from, there is nothing in what I have read or just said that actually pinpoints when breeches began being used by the military and subsequently, the NPS. I suspect there is one or more military uniform historians who could answer more definitively.”

Thank you, Butch! Military uniform historians, have at it!

Why did the NPS drop the calf high boots and riding breeches? Well, I don’t know, neighbors. The outfit sort of exudes Command & Control and may have seemed a bit over the top when greeting taxpayers who only wanted to know where the toilet was, or the name of a wild flower.

Meanwhile, during the 1930s, high boots and riding breeches became a favorite of the various dictators that afflicted that world, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin (Curiously, Hitler never much cared for the costume, though his general staff certainly did).

Perhaps the last American general to wear riding breeches and high boots was that old horse cavalryman, General George S. Patton. Patton loved to swagger and the breeches and boots were made for swaggering. So, long after Dwight Eisenhower put aside boots and breeches for the less intimidating and more democratic straight pants and “Ike” jacket, the more flamboyant Patton continued with breeches & boots (and pearl handled pistols.)

So, why were they baggy? (The pants, that is) Well, according to Wikipedia and the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Sir Pratep Singh, who introduced them to England, the baggy “Jodhpurs” provided better ‘air conditioning” when riding a hot, sweaty horse in a hot country.

Landing A Park Service Job

Another popular question asked at the ranger museum was deceptively simple, yet quite complex.

“How do you get a permanent job as a ranger with the National Park Service?”

Now the person asking this question was not interested in his/her own advancement, but rather the son or daughter at their side.

“Now that’s an interesting question!” I would say brightly (almost always a sure sign of bureaucratic waffling!). I was a bit rusty on that subject, no longer being in the job market. However, ignorance did not preclude me from tap dancing around the question.

“Well now!” I responded with bureaucratic joviality, “First, you have to see what jobs are available in the NPS and what jobs are of interest to you, then you have to examine the skill sets and academic education required of the job. Then you have to narrow it down to your 'dream job,' the things you really like to do. Then all you have to do is become proficient in the skills required. The next time your “dream job” comes up, you will be able to apply for it with some chance of success!”

“How do I find out about these jobs?” the young person would ask.

“Well, you go to your computer and google up USAJOBS, then you go to the search bar and type in 'National Park Service' that will bring up the current NPS jobs, as well as similar positions in other land management agencies such as the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Remember, they have ranger positions too! The job descriptions will list the skills needed and these are the skills you must acquire.”

That seemed to satisfy parents and would be rangers. However, was what I said entirely correct? Had I left something out? “When in doubt, ask a ranger.” I e-mailed a ranger friend whom we shall call “Ranger Sam,” as he is still involved with the NPS, gave him my recipe for ranger employment success, and asked him if it was adequate.

“No” he replied. (Ranger Sam is noted for his blunt honesty)

“You forgot to mention one important factor. You must know someone. This is true in the ranger ranks, and not just in securing a position, but also to advancement. It is probably less true of other NPS endeavors (i.e. science/resource management).

"Part of the problem, of course, is a lack of central recruitment. Most other agencies require a standard test, application, and selection, with individuals assigned to a posting, rather than a local selecting official choosing whom he or she wants. This system breeds pre-selection and the need to know someone inside or secure an assignment or a choice assignment. I’m sure there are arguments to be made for either system, but I think it’s indisputable that with the NPS, the lack of centralized recruiting/assignment has fostered insider trading. The problem is compounded by the myth that only experience in the NPS counts and that professionals from outside the NPS are not fully suitable (e.g. the way most higher level ranger positions are advertised precludes interest by those outside the Agency.”

Well now, thank you Ranger Sam, for reminding us of the importance of networking.

However, “knowing somebody” or thinking you know somebody, has its limitations and can be quite messy and even deadly. In 1881, a delusional government job seeker by the name of Charles Guiteau thought he knew President James Garfield and that Garfield owed him a job in the State Department. No job was forthcoming, so Guiteau shot Garfield to death with a .44 Webley Bulldog Revolver.

Congress agreed that this was a hell of a way to run a government and passed the Pendleton Civil Act of 1883, effectively banning “knowing somebody” to get a federal job. (For further information on this melancholy event, contact Sherda_Williams@nps.gov. She is at James Garfield National Historic Site.

What's The Best Geyser?

The next battery of questions was generally directed at what to see and do in Yellowstone National Park. Try as I might to direct attention back to rangers in general and myself in particular; the taxpayers were stubborn about learning more about Yellowstone. Everyone wanted to see animals.

Alternate Text
is Grand Geyser "the best" geyser in Yellowstone? Kurt Repanshek photo.

That question was easy. Drive to Lamar Valley (best) or Hayden Valley (close second) around dusk. Each animal would be marked by a clump of six or more automobiles and a picket line of photographers. Gaze in the direction that the foot-long Nikon lenses are pointing and you will see the animal in question.

“When would Steamboat Geyser erupt?”

Steamboat is the biggest (that is, tallest) geyser in the world and is located in Norris Geyser Basin, easily reached from the Ranger Museum. As the interval between Steamboat’s eruptions is as much as 50 years, I felt confident on July 31st in telling visitors they would not see it erupt. Naturally, at 7:30 p.m. that night it roared into action, throwing water and steam 300 feet into the sky.

“What is the best geyser?” people would ask.

In my opinion, Old Faithful is overrated. You can get the same effect by getting drunk and ramming your car into the corner fire hydrant; you will get exactly the same exclamation point column of water about 90 feet high; the advantage of Old Faithful is that the police will not arrive to ask you prying, insensitive questions.

The best geyser? Of the predictable geysers, that would be the aptly named Grand Geyser. It erupts around once a day and just about any ranger station or indeed any ranger can tell you when it will go off (plus or minus an hour). It is about three times the size of Old Faithful in volume of water and steam. Moreover, it has three vents and fires at different angles and heights, creating what my wife calls “White Fireworks.

Not least, the display will last 10-12 minutes as compared to Old Faithful’s 2 to 3 minutes. So I would suggest that folks bag up breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner along with a book, take a bench in front of Grand Geyser and maybe practice English with your bench mates (who will be from China, Japan, France, and Russia), while waiting for the eruption.

You will be enjoying one of the greatest shows in the first of the Great Parks of the World.

Comments

Thanks for this humorous (and informative) article. I burst out laughing as I read your analogy to the Old Faithful geyser. And now I know.....

Great article, P.J.!

After looking at the photo of those boots, I bet you're glad you didn't have to lace up a pair of those babies every morning before you went to work :-)

Grand goes off more than once a day...

But, yes, IMHO it's the 'best' geyser in the park. Just a smidge better than Beehive, or Riverside, or...