While the history of the Fort Snelling area begins with the American Indians who occupied this land for thousands of years and continues through the building of Fort Snelling in 1825, the history of the Fort Snelling State Park Association (also known as the Friends of Fort Snelling), began much more recently.
It was a dire threat to Historic Fort Snelling in 1956 that prompted the first steps that led to the forming of the Association. A proposal by the Minnesota Highway Department to build a new bridge with a freeway and cloverleaf interchange right through the site of the old fort that finally brought action. Russell W. Fridley, the Minnesota Historical Society's executive director, called a meeting of concerned groups to look at the highway staff's plans. There was an outpouring of citizen support for saving the old fort site. Finally, Governor Orville L. Freeman convinced the Highway Department to build a tunnel under the area between the round tower and the chapel so as to leave the old fort site intact and accessible. The full story of the restoration of the Historic Fort can be found in the Historic Fort History article.
In 1960, the landscape architect, A. R. Nichols, proposed a 2,400 acre park. He referred to the "population explosion" taking place in the Twin Cities region and pointed out that the whole area at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers was a strategic site for a large recreational park incorporating a rich historical background. Nichols' map became the basis for the Fort Snelling State Park we have today.
The Minneapolis Star published a story headlined "Metropolitan Park Plan Advanced by Twin Cities Group; Area at Junction of Rivers is Sought." The story aroused the interest of a private citizen, Thomas C. Savage, who had already become dedicated to environmental causes. Savage called on State Park Director Hella to ask how to make this Fort Snelling Park dream a reality. Judge Hella encouraged Tom to organize a citizen association dedicated to such a park.
Tom went right to work organizing the Fort Snelling State Park Association as a nonprofit corporation qualified to accept tax-deductible gifts of land and money to assist the project. Tom led the effort for legislation to establish the park. The Fort Snelling State Park Association's first annual membership meeting was held in November and the next spring, on June 3, 1962, a grand dedication was held.
While a park was created on paper, the extensive privately owned lands there could not be acquired without money. The legislature had in effect said, "No appropriation of state funds without citizens first raising a substantial match."
A fundraising committee was organized. Tom Savage, as the Association's first president, and the directors themselves contributed some $12,000 to help with fundraising costs. Reuel D. Harmon, president of Webb Publishing Company, headed up solicitation in the Saint Paul area, with Goodrich Lowry having the same assignment in Minneapolis.
The Association raised $250,000 that convinced the 1963 legislature to appropriate $400,000 in all for the park. The Association's funds were placed in a land acquisition fund for use in special situations where private help was crucial. Its first major transfer to the state occurred on March 25, 1965, when the Association delivered a $125,000 check to further augment the funds the state needed to continue with its land acquisition. On that occasion, Governor Karl Rolvaag described this gift as "the largest donation of funds ever received for state park purposes."
The most recent acquisition occurred in 1991: the last tract needed to extend the park's land Cedar Avenue where a "hanging" pedestrian-bicycle bridge crosses over the Minnesota River. This made possible a direct connection from the trail through the Dakota County side of the park to the Minnesota River valley state trail along the north side of the river.
The successful staving off of threats to the integrity of the park and its environs has surely been among the most significant accomplishments of the Fort Snelling State Park Association. In 1965 the General Services Administration proposed to build its large new office building on the Parade Ground. Finally, an ingenious solution was worked out.
The next serious threat came just a few years later when the Post Office proposed to build a huge bulk mail facility on the parade ground. This threat was finally averted in large part through the efforts of the Association.
Although a deed for 140 acres that included the historic parade ground and polo field was transferred to the State in 1971, the Association has had to fight one battle after another to preserve this prime piece of Fort Snelling State Park. Despite expressed concerns of the Association that recreational use could lead to activities incompatible with its state park status, the State Executive Council authorized a lease of this area to the Minneapolis Park Board. Even more recently, the Association has been actively involved in trying to stop the further development of the Parade Ground into permanent recreational sites.
On a more positive note, the Fort Snelling State Park Association played a large role in raising funds and convincing the legislature to fund Tom Savage's dream of a new park visitor center to be located below the fort and not far from the old steamboat landing. The beautiful Thomas Savage Visitor Center was built in 1997. The Association gave the funds for the exhibits in the center.
In the meantime, our Association is working to preserve what is now called the "Upper Post" This is the nineteenth century area that lies outside the old walled historic. The military gradually abandoned all of theese buildings after World War II. This area includes the administration buildings, Officers Row and the remaining barracks along Taylor Avenue. These historic buildings occupy a unique and important place in Minnesota history, but they are deteriorating at an increasingly rapid rate as a result of broken windows, damaged gutters and downspouts, and deteriorated roofs - a few of which have actually collapsed. In cooperation with the State Park, Hennepin County has secured some grants to stabilize critical properties at the post, matched that amount with its own funds, and is currently employing their Sentence to Serve program to make the money stretch as far as possible while training jail inmates in the construction trades.
As the Friends of the Park, the Fort, and the Upper Post, we continue to actively help with programs and stewardship. We provided funds for the free Concerts at the Confluence. We have collected native wildflower seeds and removed invasive plants like European Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard. We've helped at events like "Take a Kid Fishing" and the "Candlelight Ski, Walk, and Skate." We've baked lots of cookies and hosted at events. We lobby the legislature for adequate funds for all of the sites. And more . . .
What role shall the Association play in the future of the Historic Fort, the State Park, Officers' Row, the Parade Grounds, and the entire historic and natural area? Only our members can decide. Will you join us and help shape the future of the Fort Snelling area?