Hard Time Habitation
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The National Park Service announced a plan to reconstruct historic Fort Sisseton on this date in 1936. The government hoped to use the fort as temporary housing for homeless and unemployed. Across the nation, tent camps had sprung up to house these mostly-transient men created by the Great Depression.
Eager to avoid the blight that these growing ‘Hoovervilles’ placed on the landscape, and hoping to employ some of the job-less as part of a Works Progress Administration initiative, the Park Service believed that the dilapidated fort would provide excellent housing quarters for a temporary workforce. Originally named Fort Wadsworth after a hero of the Battle of the Wilderness, the fort was built on the border of Minnesota and Dakota Territories following the Minnesota Massacre of 1864. Although set up to protect settlers from Indian attacks, the founder of the fort, Major John Clowney, was actually led to the advantageous site by members of the local Sisseton Sioux tribe. The fort was renamed Fort Sisseton in honor of these local tribes in 1876. After twenty-four years as a frontier outpost, troops were officially withdrawn from the fort in 1888.
Soon after its abandonment, the fort fell into a state of decay. In the early 20th century, however, wealthy businessmen from the East used the fort as a hunting lodge, hiring local men to do much of the hunting while they played poker. Congressman James Wadsworth, grandson of the New York general for whom the fort was originally named, was even a frequent guest of the lodge during this time. Colonel W. C. Boyce, the Chicago newspaperman and father of the American Boy Scout movement, leased the fort from 1920 until 1927, and installed a putting green on the fort’s parade grounds. During the 1930s, the fort once again fell out of use. In 1936, the Emergency Relief Administration set up a federal transient camp at the fort. The National Park Service decided that reconstructing the fort would provide housing and jobs for many of these men, at least for a short time.
Today, the fort is on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of Fort Sisseton State Park. Historical reenactments take place twice a year – during the Fort Sisseton Annual Historic Festival and the Fort Sisseton Frontier Christmas.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, Monday, December 21, 1936 (Evening Edition):
WPA Federal Writer’s Project, 1938. A South Dakota Guide. American Guide Series,
South Dakota Guide Commission for the State of South Dakota, HE Publishing:
Pierre, SD: 187-191.