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Preservation as a profession: Mattson steps down after 22 years at Fort Totten

History exhales with every door that Jack Mattson opens. Mattson, 65, recently retired as site manager of the Fort Totten Historic Site. He has spent the last 22 years preserving a historical narrative longer than North Dakota's itself. The state...

Fort Totten, N.D.

History exhales with every door that Jack Mattson opens.

Mattson, 65, recently retired as site manager of the Fort Totten Historic Site. He has spent the last 22 years preserving a historical narrative longer than North Dakota's itself.

The state was still part of Dakota Territory when the military outpost 13 miles southwest of Devils Lake was built in 1867. Mattson spent the last 16 years working to renovate the site's buildings and keep its historical record intact for public consumption.

Mattson, a Kenmare native who lives in Devils Lake, said it will be a hard place to leave, so much in fact that he's staying on part time until spring to show his successor -- as yet unnamed -- the ropes.

"I think about the fort every day," he said with a chuckle. "I've only been gone a week and already I've been out there three times. It's interesting to look back on history and picture yourself. What would it have been like 100 years ago?"


Restoration and renovation

The site covers two major historical eras and houses 16 original military buildings, 11 of which are open to the public. From 1867 to 1890, it was a military post, and for much of the next 70 years it operated as an industrial school and then, a boarding school for American Indians. In 1960, it became a state historical site.

"The biggest thing is we try to restore everything to the condition and the date it pertains to," Mattson said. "Some buildings go back to the school period and other buildings we take back to the military period."

Mattson's latest major project, which he took on just this year, was the renovation of the Visitor's Center, the first structure built on the site as a commissary in 1867.

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

State Historical Society Director Merl Paaverud said the improvements to the Visitor's Center is just a sampling of what Mattson has accomplished in his time there. He's presided over the opening of the Totten Trail Historic Inn and major renovations to the Lake Region Pioneer Daughter's Museum and the Fort Totten Little Theater.

"He's done so much out there it's just amazing," Paveruud said. "He's worked wonders with the site, restoring buildings. He's made connections with people throughout the community and with the tribe. He's just been an all-around player, one of those guys you dream about on a site like that."

A variety of exhibits to explore


History isn't the only thing to see at the site.

Throughout the month of July, the Fort Totten Little Theater holds performances four days a week of classic musicals like "Oklahoma" and "Fiddler on the Roof." The theater building, formerly barracks, seats approximately 240.

Visitors can view the Wal-Mart of the past walking through the Plummer Mercantile Store exhibit. The Plummer Store was open from 1884 to 1943 in Minnewaukan. When the store closed, much of its stock was donated to the boarding school. There was almost nothing that couldn't be purchased at the store, from clothing to provisions and appliances.

The exhibit had to be fenced, because shoplifters were making off with artifacts, many 100 years old.

The former military hospital has been transformed into Pioneer Daughter's Museum, which has dozens of displays of Plains life over the last 120 years.

Everything from toys to glassware to hair products and music and communication devices are housed in the old hospital building.

Living History Field Day

Living History Field Day is one of the most popular attractions each year, bringing hundreds of middle school students to the fort for a day of live exhibits and oral history lessons. The event on the first or second Monday of September usually draws between 500-600 students, Mattson said.


"The Living History Field Day has been a positive thing for myself and the previous site supervisor," said Mattson, who worked as a maintenance supervisor for his other six years at the site. "We get a lot of children in there and a lot of adults, too, because it's free admission that day. It's a great feeling when you have a big group of children and they're well pleased with everything."

Totten Trail Historic Inn

In 1997, another layer was added to the fort when construction began on the Totten Trail Historic Inn.

The 10-room inn, with its 1890 era furnishings, was the officers' quarters.

Rates run from between $80-110 a night, but not everything is furnished from a bygone era - each room is equipped with wireless internet.

It's become a favorite of not only visitors, but of Mattson's as well. He and his wife Bobbie make the occasional stay there.

"This is our masterpiece," he said. "We've done a lot of work on this building."

Meeting the challenges


The site is open from May 16 to Sept. 15 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment during weekdays the rest of the year.

Admission is $5 for adults and $1.50 for children with lower student group and bus rates.

Paaverud, himself a former site director at Fort Totten, knows the demands of maintaing a site and its buildings that are over 140 years old.

"Fort Totten is quite a challenge," Paveruud said. "It's a challenging situation to keep the shingles on and the walls from deteriorating. He's got most of the buildings open. That's where I started my career. There were days I walked around and wondered, is this going to come together into something? Through Jack's work and the work of several others, it's really come along. It's a gem."

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