Tricounty News

History Matters: Historic Fort Snelling

My last column noted that there were two initiatives during the centennial year that are still very much alive. The first was the Centennial Showboat, still active as a floating theater. The second - Fort Snelling - is less directly identified with the centennial. Its identity is detailed in an article by Russell W. Fridley, then director of the Minnesota Historical Society, in that special supplement to the Tri-County News on May 5, 1958. The title to Fridley's article announced that the fort "is likely to become a state park," a reality four years later. The park remains the most visited state park in Minnesota, and the most visited historic site in the state. Fridley recounted the fort's colorful history: "Fort Snelling is perhaps the most significant landmark in the entire history of Minnesota and the Northwest. Its establishment in 1819 at the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers radically changed the course of events in the upper Mississippi valley. Although the fort was never attacked, its presence on the frontier effectively established for the first time the authority of the young American nation over the Minnesota country and made possible the settlement of the area. "Before the erection of Fort Snelling, the Minnesota country had been a vast wilderness inhabited by Sioux and Chippewa Indians, and claimed at various times by Spain, France, and Great Britain. It paved the way for white settlement, and set in motion the transformation of a vast Indian territory into an American state." This column is far too short to even attempt to recap what the fort meant to our earliest pioneers and its second service as a recruiting and training center for Union soldiers during the Civil War. Then it would again be considered surplus until it was again resurrected during World War II when over 300,000 inductees were processed and trained at the facility. Now each year a wide variety of programs are offered, many with historical interpreters, providing rich detail of life at the fort from its earliest construction to its final decommissioning and transfer to the Department of Veteran Affairs in 1946. During its decades of service, new facilities were built, while most of the original buildings were demolished. Of the historic fort, only four of the 15 buildings remained, including two key original fortifications: the round and hexagonal towers. The state of decay stirred considerable debate about the future of this landmark, but, according to the Historical Society's Web site, it was a proposal in 1956 to encircle the round tower with a cloverleaf as part of new highway construction that "proved the final insult. An aroused citizenry forced a compromise mediated by Gov. Orville L. Freeman himself." The freeway was eventually routed through a tunnel north of the fort.   Work began in earnest on excavating the historic site with a grant of $25,000 from the Sesquicentennial Commission. In 1960, the site was declared Minnesota's first National Historic Landmark. That same year, landscape architect A.R. Nichols submitted plans for a 2,400-acre park that would include the historic fort. On the last day of legislative activity in 1961, a $65,000 appropriation finally locked in a plan to preserve this treasured site, and the state park was opened to the public on June 3, 1962. It would take many more years to rebuild the fort in exacting detail to its 1820's form. I suspect its beautiful green lawns are more than you would have seen in 1830. If you have never made it to the sandstone fortifications above the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, the time is long past for an enjoyable and enriching visit to this foundation stone of our state. Perhaps you should mark your calendar for a Memorial Day weekend when fur-trappers at the Rendezvous can take you for a ride in the giant canoes of yesteryear, or have your patriotic juices stirred by the 4th of July celebrations with music and cannon fire, theater and cooking demonstrations. The long weekends are extravagant festive celebrations, but any weekend of the year will still enrich your experience and inform your understanding of Minnesota history, and also of human nature. ********** Forts will be the subject of Kimball Area Historical Society meeting and program Tuesday evening, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. in Kimball's historic city hall. Speaker and Forest City Stockade Committee member Bob Hermann will tell the stories of the historic Forest City Stockade and its reconstruction. We'll learn about 40 such fortifications built by Minnesota settlers during the Dakota War, including Maine Prairie's just before that community moved to Kimball. Join us for this outstanding free, open-to-the-public evening,   followed by special refreshments and memories. ********** Taking it to a new level: Restoration moves indoors - Phase 4  2008-2009 restoring Kimball's historic city hall. If you haven't already done so, please make your gift or pledge now for the astonishing continuation of Kimball's "gem on Main Street." But, also when you're in the neighborhood, see the completed windows,  signage over the front door, National Register of Historic Places placque and much more. A priceless existing pressed metal ceiling unveiling is high on the "to-do" list and all will be amazed. Every donation is doubled by matching grants and fully tax-deductible. ********** Oct.-Nov. special events: "Uprising" 1862 Dakota Conflict, elections, holiday potluck. ********** If you'd like to find out how you can be involved in the Kimball Area Historical Society, secure keepsake souvenirs and cookbooks, contribute a story for this column and the permanent collection, photos too, donate to the city hall project or become a member, please contact us at Box 100, Kimball MN 55353; phone (320) 398-5250, (320) 398-5743 or (800) 252-2521. ********** Welcome to the Kimball Area Historical Society.  There's always room for one more.