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Life at the fort

© 2012, Duane Stanley

The rapid erection of the fort at Maine Prairie was an accomplishment repeated at a number of locations in central Minnesota. Within just four days the Maine Prairie fort was considered bullet proof. Encircling the prairie, similar fortifications sprung up: St. Cloud (two separate areas), St. Joseph, Richmond, Paynesville, Manannah, Forest City, Kingston, and Fair Haven.

The only existing structure to give 21st Century residents a feel for life in the fort is at Forest City. While the current structure is a re-creation that loosely matches the original construction, the fort, the additional buildings that have been relocated to the vicinity, and the festivities each August, provide an 1850s experience to be enjoyed locally.

The Fair Haven community made preparations described by William Bell Mitchell, in his History of Stearns County (1915): "At this little hamlet as a matter of precaution it was decided to send the women and children to places of safety, some going to

St. Cloud, some to Clearwater, and others to Maine Prairie. The men, some fifteen in number,... at once enclosed an old log building which had been used as a hotel." Forest City had likewise surrounded the most defensible building with a stockade for protection. The fort was erected in 24 hours using lumber prepared to build a church.

Most descriptions of the Maine Prairie fort rely on E.H. Atwood's detailed accounts. Atwood, as a first-hand participant of all these events, had been elected third lieutenant for the local militia (or "home guard") when the settlers met to plan their response to the Dakota Uprising. He described the fort as 40 feet square, built with a double row of tamarack logs set two feet into the ground and 16 feet above ground. The structure was "all roofed in, making it when finally finished, three stories high. Timbers were run out under the eaves at two corners and bullet-proof rifle pits were built capable of holding three or four rifle men, to protect the sides of the fort" against any Indians who might attempt to breach the walls. Many security additions were added even while the settlers sought the protection of its walls, including digging a 10-foot trench around the stockade, with breastworks beyond the trenches in all four directions. Horses were kept in the trench, and, for a while, the settlers even removed wheels from wagons overnight, to prevent their theft.

Other preparations were also being made. "While the men were busy, the women were not idle. There was but little ammunition in the town, but what there was was put into the general fund and the woman were busy making it up into cartridges. All the lead and pewter that could be found they manufactured into bullets and heavy shot. Bandages and lint were prepared. The commissary stocked the fort with provisions for a siege.

"Barrels were filled with water and placed into the fort, and lumber was prepared to curb a well inside in case of need. Teams were sent to St. Cloud for lumber and shingles for the fort. H.P. Bennett the gunsmith was kept busy fixing up old guns. No one was idle, for it was believed that the danger was imminent."

Two separate trips were made to St. Anthony to seek additional firearms and ammunition. While all gifts were appreciated, firearms were primarily old muskets, which might prove as dangerous to the one shooting as the one being shot at.

A false alarm the first night in the fort was enough to keep nerves on edge. One of the pickets panicked from what he thought were Indians. He fired his weapon and raced for the fort. Eventually, a group of men sent to investigate, discovered that a colt of one of the settlers had been slightly injured. "Every precaution was taken to guard the loved ones. Pistols and knives were given to women with the command that they never allow themselves to be taken captive alive by the Indians."

Frost quotes her sister Ida's description of living arrangements. "We slept within the stockade in a great room upstairs. The arrangement of our sleeping room was ever mirth provoking to me, for the vast bedroom was divided only by quilts and blankets, old carpet; in fact, anything that would hang up. These apartments were just large enough for our beds; first a straw bed was brought in and laid upon the floor, then the feather beds were placed on top, and there was just about two feet of space left between the beds of each.... Time passed in work, for there was much to do. Baking, washing, ironing, making and mending-they helped to keep our minds more at rest while our fingers flew."

Even from the beginning, shanties were erected outside the fort, the first for food preparation and cooking. As the settlers felt more confident and the tensions lessened, families erected their own shanties in order to have more privacy, but always close enough to retreat to safety in the fort if necessary. Frost notes that "Each family had moved some kind of shanty up to the fort, so quite a little town was formed about the defense." Family stories report that my great, great grandmother, Mary, was among the first to require outside facilities.

The fort itself was never attacked directly, which the settlers believe was the result of the fact that the fort was built approximately in the center of the open prairie, a couple miles in all direction from the woods and brush that would provide natural cover, and that the detailed preparations the community made were clearly evident from a distance. But there were a variety of incidents and "skirmishes" as well as the occasional arrival of refugees from places where destruction was severe. Each such incident served as a call to continued vigilance. The settlers remained in the fort ten weeks, until incidents were no longer reported, the leaves fell, and the frost arrived. With considerable anxiety, but growing confidence, the settlers moved back to their homes.

Illustration: Sketch of the Forest City Stockade in 1862 from a penciled drawing by H. Koener Strong.

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The date was Nov. 18, 1913, "Orphans Day in St. Cloud" nearly 100 orphan boys and girls would arrive. A band of nearly 100 beautiful boys and girls were speeding their way from far-off New York, and would find happy homes and kind foster parents anxiously waiting to receive them. That's just a taste of Dr. William Morgan's unique "Orphan Train" program of Kimball Area Historical Society at 7 p.m. Tuesday,

3Sept. 25, in Kimball's historic city hall. The speaker is a 30-year professor at SCSU, a column writer for the

St. Cloud Times, and author with a passion for sharing and preserving Central Minnesota history. Tell your friends. There is no charge, refreshments are included. You need not be a member, the public is invited. We're saving a spot for you. No reservations are required.

While you're in city hall, be sure to look around if you haven't been there lately to see what the tax-deductible dollars of many of you have accomplished since restoration began.

Coming soon: Annual meeting and program event happens

Oct. 23, featuring another exclusive that is commemorative this year of 150th anniversary. "Moccasins on Maine Prairie: as told by Duane Stanley, one of our gifted member-writer-speakers. Keep an eye on this column for more details in the weeks ahead.

For more information, we hope you'll contact the Kimball Area Historical Society at PO Box 55, Kimball MN 55353, or call (320) 398-5743, 398-5250, or e-mail

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . More can be found on Facebook. See you Sept. 25.

Keeping the message of preservation alive