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Fort Totten, deemed one of the best-preserved frontier military forts in the nation, continues to tell its story

FORT TOTTEN -- The Pioneer Daughters Museum is homeless, at least for a while. But the museum at Fort Totten State Historic Site is not about to become part of history. Housed for the past 55 years in the former military hospital, which later bec...

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The Totten Trail Inn is furnished in period style ranging from 1870 to 1910 and is open year-round. The Fort Totten State Historic Site is open for outdoor and indoor tours May 16th through Sept. 15th and open for outdoor tours year-round. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

FORT TOTTEN -- The Pioneer Daughters Museum is homeless, at least for a while.

But the museum at Fort Totten State Historic Site is not about to become part of history.

Housed for the past 55 years in the former military hospital, which later became a Native American boarding school cafeteria at Fort Totten State Historic Site, the museum's artifacts were placed in storage in October, when the State Historical Society of North Dakota and Fort Totten State Historic Site Foundation started construction on a $600,000 renovation project.

The project is just the latest in a decades-long program to renovate and restore Fort Totten, considered one of the best-preserved frontier military forts in the nation.

"It has been ongoing for many, many years," said Julie Schuler, foundation president. "Because of lack of funds, nothing was done for a long time. We were worried that some work that had been done would have to be redone."

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Historic past

Fort Totten was built in 1867 as a military post, one of scores of forts built in the Great Plains during the latter half of the 1800s.

After it was decommissioned in 1890, it became the property of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, serving as a boarding school for Dakota and Chippewa students until 1935. Enrollment was as high as 400, according to State Historical Society of North Dakota literature.

From 1935 until 1939, it was a federal tuberculosis preventorium, providing care and education to small groups of Dakota children who either had or were susceptible to tuberculosis.

The facility then became a reservation community and day school, with more control transferred to local tribal leaders.

Fort Totten became a North Dakota Historic Site in 1960 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

"It's the most complete frontier military fort from between here and Texas. Considering all the forts there were between here and Texas, it's pretty remarkable," said Guinn Hinman, a historic sites manager with the North Dakota Historical Society.

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Community support

One reason it has persevered, Hinman said, is that it served as a school for a long time, much longer than it served as a military establishment.

The other reason is community support.

The local foundation started raising money for the present project about three years ago. Then, foundation leaders went to the North Dakota Legislature in early 2015 with a renovation plan and a funding request. The Legislature agreed to set aside $500,000, with the stipulation that the foundation raise an additional $100,000.

So far, the group has raised about $75,000, Schuler said.

The main fundraiser is an annual fall dinner-theater production, held over one weekend.

It starts with dinner at the Totten Trail Historic Inn, a former officers' quarters that was restored from 2001 to 2002. Then guests move to the Fort Totten Little Theater--on the opposite side of the fort's courtyard--for a play, which is staged within the context of a TV game show.

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Each of the two events has raised about $25,000. The foundation also held its first holiday radio hour in December. The variety show, which featured local performers singing holiday classics, popular show tunes and other musical favorites, raised about $12,000.

"Membership is rising. The community has responded," Schuler said.

The foundation also receives revenue from the Totten Trail Historic Inn--from overnight room rentals to catering meetings and events.

The present restoration phase includes exterior rehabilitation, including the roof and foundation, as well as repairs to stone, replacement of missing bricks, tuckpointing and painting. It also includes stabilizing walls, replacing interior floor joists and floor decking, as well as asbestos abatement and window replacement.

Past projects

Totten Trail Historic Inn

The 10-room Totten Trail Historic Inn is a bed and breakfast housed in the former officer's quarters, which was renovated in 2000 with a combination of federal grants and local matching funds.

Open year-round, with its busiest season being May to September, it features bed-and-breakfast accommodations furnished in period style, from 1870 to 1910.

The rooms are named for sponsoring Lake Region families, each one with a different themes and memorabilia that depict the family's business history or interests.

The inn is used for the dinner-theater productions, too.

Fort Totten Visitor Center

The Visitor's Center opened in 2011 after renovations to the former fort commissary were complete, site supervisor Lisa Alberts said.

The center welcomes visitors with refurbished wood floors leading to a display that gives an overview of the fort's history.

Fort Totten Little Theater

The 200-seat theater, located across the courtyard, was built during the boarding school area.

The theater opened in 1963. When the theater celebrated its 50th anniversary, board members said they estimated that 1,100 people from around the region had performed in local productions of major plays over the years, beginning with Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, "Oklahoma."

Original paintings on the back wall have been restored.

Looking ahead

The hospital renovation project will continue, with future phases including replacement of the mechanical and electrical systems, as well as the repair and painting of walls and the pressed tin ceiling.

"The rest depends on the money we can get from the Legislature," Schuler said.

The group also hopes to restore the original entry, wing porches and the roof dome to match the original military hospital appearance.

"The other cool thing is we will be rebuilding a historic dome on top of it," Hinman said. "It was a frontier military hospital ether dome. They did surgery there because there was light."

Ether domes, also known as surgical operating amphitheaters, were built under sunlit domes on the top floors of many hospitals across the U.S. throughout the 1800s.

When the rehabilitation is completed, the Pioneer Daughters Museum will reopen in the building.

"The projects that have been finished are wonderful," Alberts said. "This is going to be nice. Sometimes I sit here and think: I'm so fortunate to work here. So much history right here."


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Fort Totten, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, was established as a military outpost in 1867 but later served as a boarding school for Native American children for several decades. Forum archives.

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