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150-year-old Fort Totten Hospital undergoes extensive renovation


In the broad scheme of life, few of us dwell on giving facelifts to old buildings or making repairs to 150-year-old structures if we don’t have to. But this year will be the sesquicentennial of Fort Totten and it was about time more people know about the lovely setting and its history as it puts its best face forward.

Last Saturday was the grand opening of a nearly half-milliondollar renovation/ restoration of the Fort Totten hospital/ cafeteria that was begun three years ago. Despite a brisk, cold and rainy day, more than 100 people showed up outside to watch the check presentation and ribbon cutting.

Located in a beautiful area of the Devils Lake region, Fort Totten is one of the best preserved frontier military posts in the United States. It’s laid out on a square with a parade field at its center. At the north end it’s flanked by the hospital that has been under the care of the Pioneer Daughters of the Lake Region. Three years ago, the State Historical Society (which owns the 150-year-old site) began a restoration and renovation project on the hospital building, starting with structural repairs and safety abatement.

Guinn Hinman, the SHSND’s Northern Region director, has been making sense of old collections of medical supplies, equipment and furnishings that were stored inside the post hospital. She has had some help, both financial and physical labor, but the design and orderliness have been her own doing. She took all the items stored, combined what was relevant with the SHSND’s artifacts from Fort Totten and put together an easily toured building and gave the original brick structure enough strength to stand another 150 years. (Hinman did that while also working on Jamestown’s 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse renovation, which opens its doors for the summer on Memorial Day.)

The hospital formally opened Saturday, May 20, and the entire compound will open to the public on Memorial Day. As all SHSND sites, it will remain open seven days a week through Labor Day with interpreters on hand for visitors. Inside the campus are school rooms where Chippewa and Dakota students were housed and educated, as well as the Totten Trail Inn (a bed and breakfast hotel for small to large events), and a number of buildings used to house military officers, staff and enlisted soldiers.

Hinman and the Pioneer Daughters worked with the SHSND to catalog all artifacts stored in the hospital space and organize everything for displays. Today, the expansive space is clean, secure and beautifully laid out so visitors can self-tour and look into individual vignettes of daily life at the hospital. There are spaces (reminiscent of a large hospital ward) sectioned off and protected from curious hands, where various life events took place. The background of each is designed to give a snapshot of another time, and the furniture, appointments, artifacts and equipment help fill out the spaces in a timeappropriate manner.

Yes, there are some bedrooms, surgical spaces and kitchen-like areas. Also, there are collections of fine silver, sidearms and long guns as well as uniforms and farming equipment. It is a museum now, but situated beautifully within its setting, and one that lends itself to more easily informing the public what life was all about back in the mid-to-late 19th century.

The soldiers were stationed to enforce the peace and guard transportation routes. The fort was also the gathering point for an expedition to survey the border between the United States and British Canada in the 1870s. The fort was decommissioned in 1890, but was used from 1891 to 1959 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a Native American boarding school. Fort Totten became a North Dakota State Historic Site in 1960 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

The SHSND in 2015 received state funding for almost a halfmillion dollars from the North Dakota Legislature to put into the restoration of the hospital. The Pioneer Daughters had to match the grant with $100,000 in order to get the state funding. On Saturday, the Daughters presented a check for $100K to the SHSND which goes back to the state Legislature, honoring its promise of matching support.

Fort Totten has always had a close connection with Jamestown. During the time Fort Seward was operating, it was the distribution center where (by rail) materials bound for Totten were brought and transferred to wagon trains and driven up the Totten Trail from here. The annual Wagon Train venture (a Mary Faith Young venture back in the day) was begun to recreate that trip by horses. Touring Fort Totten is free. Donations are appreciated, School Days events flesh out the waning days of summer as children from the state are invited to attend re-enactment events every September. The public is always invited to attend those events.

If anyone has an item for this column,

please send to Sharon Cox, P.O. Box 1559,

Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.

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