FAIRFAX, Minn. -- It is peaceful out on the prairie, just up the hill from the slow-moving muddy waters of the Minnesota River.
On a hot weekday afternoon in July, there are no other visitors at Fort Ridgely State Park, as one walks the crushed rock trails around what used to be the interior of a working military base, established back when Minnesota was a territory, not yet a state.
The only sounds are the crunch of one’s own footsteps, the ever-present Minnesota wind, and the birds that sing their ancient songs. But when you read the signs placed throughout the site by the Minnesota Historical Society -- which tell the region’s story from the perspective of both the settlers and the native people -- you learn of the earliest days here, when European settlers were a rare but growing population.
The park is our 13th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks this summer in a series called Minnesota's Backyard.
A theme you read about often, for the first decade of the fort’s existence, is boredom. There wasn’t much to do for the soldiers there, on the edge of the American frontier. That all changed in the early 1860s. First, the Civil War broke out, sending many of the fort’s professional soldiers to places like Virginia and Pennsylvania to defend our nation against the Confederacy. Then, in the summer of 1862, all-out war broke out between the settlers and the Dakota people, furious over broken promises from the government that had them literally starving.
Inside the walls of Fort Ridgely, farmers and settlers found refuge from the violence that ravaged the region, during a few of the bloodiest weeks in the history of the state. Today, the sounds of guns and cannons and screams have been replaced by quiet, in a place of riverside refuge and recreation, while learning about the history of the region.
“Many people are attracted by the historic site, which is run by the Minnesota Historical Society, but we do provide the grounds maintenance and inspection service when they’re not here,” said Joanne Svendsen, the park manager. “That is probably the main attraction for the park. People can walk around the grounds and see the foundations of the original fort buildings and read the interpretive signs and learn a little bit more about what it was like to live here at the fort.”
Even in times of peace, winters were hard for the people at Fort Ridgely. In this era, winters are a blast.
“Probably the most popular winter activity is our sliding hills,” said Svendsen, who noted all of the trails are open for Nordic skiing, although they are not groomed. “We have a couple of hills for beginners and for a more moderate experience. People can hit some pretty good speeds on that hill. We have a chalet that is available for rent and it gets used a lot in the winter.”
And much like in the 1860s, it is enjoyable to get around the part on four hooves.
“Our park is very popular with horse riders. We have about 13 miles of trails for horses and an area for riders that come just for the day,” Svendsen said. “They can park their trailers and unload and hitch and get onto the trail riding system. We also have a great horse camp with 14 campsites that have electric, water and a shower building. We have box stalls to rent and a roll pen that horses can roll around in. And all of our sites have tie lines, so it’s really popular and a really great horse campground.”
For the non-horse crowd, the park features a creek-side campground with spacious sites. And campers are never woken up by cannon fire.
Currently closed due to the pandemic, one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s most unique sites is a 15-minute drive from the park. In the 1870s, the Harkin General Store was that era’s version of Mall of America. If you needed farm supplies, food, clothing, candy, horse feed and just about anything else one would need for life on the Minnesota prairie, this was the place. The store, which is well preserved and open to visitors in non-COVID times, is located just up from the Minnesota River, which was the region’s super highway at the time.