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Fort Dodge history touches everyone

Cemetery Walk is one way to recall key figures in city’s past

May 31, 2009
Alan F. Nelson is a local historian and director of Cemetery Walk

''To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?'' - Cicero

The records of history run thick with threads of colorful people and events that weave the all-encompassing tapestry of human existence. Unfortunately, it has been a trend in this fleeting moment that is our little time on earth to dismiss the importance of gleaning from our past.

Leaders with this attitude have been a bane to the advancement of mankind on several levels. We can see this in the reality of actions taken by influential people today - on the international, national, state and local levels. History has become an addendum to political science - figuratively and literally - as it falls under the influence of political science in more colleges and universities. Isolated facts and instances are presented as global truths. That is the way it has always been - the way of propaganda.

Technological advances have made propagandizing an even more potent weapon in politicians' arsenals. The intolerance for critical thought and logic has never been higher in our society than it is today. This fact is further evidence that the old axiom is truer than ever: The only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.

And how could appreciation of history possibly affect us locally? The answer is - in many ways. There was a period in Fort Dodge's past when it was the fastest growing city in Iowa - the 1890s. No other town of any significance was even close to our growth rate. The bonanza spilled over into the early 20th century.

A survey commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce in 1927 revealed that the population of ''metropolitan'' Fort Dodge was more than 27,000. That was greater than today's population in the same geographic area. Actual city limits in 1927 were smaller than our city limits today. The 1920 and 1930 federal Census figures reflect a smaller area than now exists. Why was the population greater back then (in a comparative area) than it is today? The most obvious of a number of reasons is leadership. We had dynamic leaders.

Fort Dodge has steadily declined since the 1970s (it is projected to decline even more in the 2010 Census) - and it is not because Hormel left town. It is because there has been a continual lack of long-term planning that would mitigate such inevitable setbacks. Despite several superficial studies, we jump from one pet project to another with very little thought of a focused comprehensive plan.

The lessons of history should be learned. You move forward by understanding mistakes of the past and finding a more creative path.

What can be done in the face of such negative circumstances? We could start by building civic pride. A few private groups are already doing this with cosmetic cleanup of the city. We should also be making an effort to instill community pride in our youths. There are volumes to be proud of in our past.

Maybe we should at least attempt to instill in them some hometown pride. This has been a goal of mine since I returned to Fort Dodge after a 30-year absence. I was disheartened to see how my hometown had deteriorated. I was born and grew up in Fort Dodge as did both my parents. All four grandparents lived and died here. For some reason I am proud of Fort Dodge - for its heritage.

As I professed to many people when I came back here five years ago - instilling pride in our youths can accomplish several objectives:

1. Perhaps more of them will decide to stay in Fort Dodge.

2. If they do leave, perhaps they will return some day.

3. Even if they don't return they will be good ambassadors for Fort Dodge.

We need to do much more in exposing school children to their local heritage.

The attitude of our educators was displayed on the front page of The Messenger on March 24, 2006, when a feature appeared titled ''Standards and Benchmarks for the Study of History in Fort Dodge Schools.'' Nine major points were outlined. The teaching of local history did not even appear on this list.

There are dozens of people who were either born in Fort Dodge, lived in Fort Dodge or did something of historical significance while in Fort Dodge.

These are only some of the early era subjects that make up part of Fort Dodge's rich heritage. History affects us on all levels. Besides the practical aspects of history, it can be interesting and downright fun.

Cemetery Walk

The entire community should have the opportunity to learn more about their hometown's heritage. Many could care less, but if more people knew the treasures awaiting out there, we would see a rise community pride - that can't hurt anything.

The Oakland Cemetery Walk was initiated by Fort Dodgers Jerry and Marva Rowe in 2003. This annual spring event showcases past Fort Dodge residents interred at Oakland.

Oakland Cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most beautiful sites in our city. In the mid-19th century communities often set aside the most scenic area of their town as a city park that also served as a cemetery. Townspeople would gather at these places for picnics and frivolity. During the Rural Cemetery Movement of the 1800s, cemeteries became the forerunners of today's park systems.

Each year eight characters interred at Oakland are depicted by volunteer local talent. The actors are dressed in period costumes provided by Masque Productions (Party Productions).

Each presentation is about eight minutes long. Spectators move from one graveside location to another in a circuit around the upper area of the cemetery. It is great entertainment for five bucks. All proceeds go to improvement projects at Oakland. The program is also informative.

This year there are some wonderful true stories from yesteryear:

1. Egbert Bagg designed Oakland Cemetery. He came here in the 1850s. Egbert (Fred Kesten) will introduce the cemetery to spectators. Ironically, Bagg was never buried in a cemetery.

2. Eleazar Albee was a station agent for both the Western Stage Co. and the North Western Stage Co. - among other things. Clark Root, as E.H. Albee, will tell how stage driver Charles Hale got lost on his way from Sioux City to Fort Dodge during a blinding snowstorm. He lost half of both his feet as a result.

3. Mayor Sydney Bennett will be ably portrayed by John Bonner. Bennett drove tunnels through the Cascade Mountains where others had failed. He was responsible for instigating a nationwide fervor with his compulsory marriage ordinance while serving as mayor of Fort Dodge.

4. Julia Sherman drowned in the Boone River along with her daughter and granddaughter. Barbara Wallace Hughes will tell us the tragic tale that occurred while the three were returning to Fort Dodge from out East in 1862.

5. Charles C. Smeltzer was a prominent early Fort Dodger. Jesse Helling (garbed in an 1860s uniform) will tell how the Wahkonsa Baseball Club was entered by Smeltzer as a member of one of the first baseball leagues in America - in New York.

6. Phoebe Mericle was one of the earliest frontier women in this region of the state. Cheryl Sherry will relate how Phoebe and her husband Jacob provided refuge for the Marsh surveying party when they were robbed by a band of renegades led by Sidominadotah.

7. Dr. Allie Wakeman was a turn-of-the-century medical professional in Fort Dodge. Susan Ahlers Leman will describe what life was like for a female physician more than 100 years ago.

8. W.H.H. Colby was a bonafide ''character'' who coined a term used nationally to describe an illegal drinking establishment. He nibbled around the edges of 19th-century prohibition laws. Kevin Rogers will reminisce about how ''Hank'' was a livery owner with a passion for horse racing.

These biographical sketches will come to life 1 and 3 p.m. June 13. Tours will start about every 10 minutes. Boarding of DART buses will be at Good Shepard Lutheran Church - just west of the Village Inn, 1436 21st Ave. N.

''Those who do not appreciate the accomplishments of their ancestors will do nothing worth remembering by their descendants.''

Alan F. Nelson is a local historian and director of Cemetery Walk.



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