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Historic Fort Snelling reopens Memorial Day weekend

Some highlights of the revamped site

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A view of Historic Fort Snelling from atop the Round Tower on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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ST. PAUL — Historic Fort Snelling reopens on Saturday with new stories to share.

While the fort itself might be most familiar to Minnesotans — that stout military landmark dating back to 1819 — the history of this place is much older and more complex than one building. Built on Dakota homeland, the geography has always drawn people — and wildlife — because of its position near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.

After a rehabilitation and improvement project lasting more than two years and costing $34.5 million, the site reopens to Minnesota on Saturday — Memorial Day weekend — to begin unspooling more of this place’s long history.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press took an advance tour of the “new” site with staff of the Minnesota Historical Society. Here are five highlights worth checking out:

New visitor center

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New informational signs direct visitors at a revitalized Historic Fort Snelling on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Back in 1905, Building 18 opened as state-of-the-art barracks at Fort Snelling. Now, 117 years later, it has reopened as the Plank Museum and Visitor Center.

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Unlike soldiers back in the day, though, visitors walking through this building will enjoy central air conditioning and other comforts, including spacious restrooms, grab-and-go food options and even all-terrain wheelchairs to enable those with mobility issues to explore the grounds.

Wandering through the museum, there are stories to learn, like what was served for Christmas dinner at Fort Snelling in 1906 (turkey, turtle soup, three types of pie and Hamm’s lager).

In a future exhibition space, there’s also a place where visitors can answer the question: “What’s your connection to Fort Snelling?”

Some answers posted on a display board include:

“My father enlisted here for WW2 (he served in the Philippines). Later, he and my mother married at the chapel.”

“Came here all the time w/ my families as children. Saw fort, demonstrations and hiking.”

“It’s filled with stories and significance to indigenous people & MN and US history. I’m surprised by all the connections.”

Fort Snelling grounds

At noon on a recent sunny weekday, an eagle perched on a tree branch near a new picnicking spot called Picnic Grove. The bird of prey appeared to be staring intently at the swiftly moving current of the Mississippi River far below, perhaps hoping to spot lunch suitable for an eagle’s picnic. For people, this new spot near the entrance is located off a trail and the parking lot, with tables situated in an area with thick grass, taking in a view of the river.

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Thanks to new signage, picnickers and other visitors who stroll through the grounds on the wandering pathways might feel as if they are browsing an annotated history of this land. There’s an extensive timeline of history at an overlook, a timeline that begins 12,000 years ago, back when the Mississippi was a small tributary.

New and historically significant plantings are also taking root, like pezi hota bdaska (white sage): “Cleanse and protect against negativity by burning gray leaves,” the related sign says. “Dakota people spread pezi hota bdaska on the ground and adorned dancers with sage wreaths for ceremonies.”

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The famous Round Tower at the Historic Fort Snelling on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Treaty of 1805 installation

A new outdoor installation, “The Treaty of 1805,” is worth a pause — a long pause.

Back in 1805, the Dakota negotiated this treaty with U.S. Army Lt. Zebulon Pike. The U.S. government made agreements — promises — to the Dakota related to land, trade and hunting and fishing rights.

“Each side left with something they wanted,” an explanatory sign states. “But different worldviews and the barrier of language laid the groundwork for an uncertain future.”

Standing in front of the installation, some words — like “promise” — disappear into blackness.

Sprinkled stories

How do you represent all the stories — from the pride of military service to the suffering of people — that have passed through Fort Snelling? A curated selection of them, representative of different eras and experiences, are posted on signs throughout the site, like the story of Felix Battles.

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“Felix Battles was 20 years old when he enlisted,” states a sign illustrated with a photo of his 1864 enlistment papers. “He was born into slavery near Memphis, Tennessee, and possibly freed himself by escaping north. Battles was one of 106 African American men who enlisted at Fort Snelling during the Civil War.”

You will find more signs and stories of people today and from long ago both on the grounds and in the Visitor Center.

A place to remember

On the grounds, located near the fort but positioned like an island among the grasses, is an outdoor sitting area. It’s a circle with stone seating, edged in plantings, a spot that’s called A Place to Remember.

Visitors are invited “to pay tribute to the many lives shaped by this place and the generations who lived, labored and learned here,” a sign explains. “To recognize the pain, loss and sacrifice of those connected to this place. To honor Minnesota’s shared history, together.”

Memorial Day weekend at Fort Snelling

During Memorial Day weekend, visitors are invited to see all the new spaces, learn and reflect. Young, native plants are taking root in the savanna, prairie, woodland and wet meadow landscapes. At the fort, live musical performances, an 1890s mechanized infantry bicycle demonstration, a Civil War cannon demonstration as well as a World War I baseball demonstration that shows how soldiers trained to use gas masks, bring recent history to life.

  • Location: Historic Fort Snelling is located at Minnesota Highways 5 and 55 overlooking the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, 200 Tower Ave., St. Paul.
  • Hours/dates: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 28, through Monday, May 30; Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays – Sundays; closed Labor Day
  • Admission: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors (65 and older), college students and active military; $8 for children ages 5 to 17
  • Parking: $6 ($4 for members of the Minnesota Historical Society)
  • Info:  mnhs.org/fortsnelling
  • Reading suggestion: Hampton Smith, author of the award-winning “Confluence: A History of Fort Snelling,” will speak about his book on June 11. Details at  https://www.mnhs.org/event/9153
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