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A Park for All?
by Lynette Nyman
May 8, 2000
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See and hear the opinions of the future of Fort Snelling Park from three very different interests. For this slideshow to run correctly, you will need the latest version of RealPlayer, and a fast Internet connection.

Photo: Lynette Nyman
A new battle is brewing on the old Fort Snelling grounds between sports enthusiasts, historic preservationists, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The Park Board is proposing to build an athletic complex at Fort Snelling. Opponents say sports are great, but not at the expense of an historic landscape

STRETCHING OUT BEHIND THE actual fort on the edge of the Mississippi River is an expanse of land with an open field, boarded-up brick buildings, and dilapidated wooden stables with weeds around their edges.

Larry Peterson, the park engineer for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, tours the area and then stops for a moment at a pile of old electrical transformers inside old horse stables set for demolition. "I couldn't tell you who piled these here," he notes. "We bought the property. We have to deal with it now."

The Park Board purchased this parcel of Fort Snelling in April from the federal government for $3 million. Soon they'll acquire the old Cavalry Drill Hall where infantry units once trained their horses to pull cannons.

Today, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board leases the polo grounds from the Department of Natural Resources for various field sports with little structure except for a few chain-link backstops. The Park Board would like to transform the polo grounds into baseball and softball diamonds with lights, fences, and dugouts plus some open field space for soccer, rugby, and "ultimate" Frisbee.

The Park Board's plan calls for tearing down five buildings, while keeping five others, such as two former artillery workshops to be moved to the field for latrines.

The proposal makes little sense to State Preservation Compliance Officer Dennis Gimmestad, who says everything was gone in the first design he saw. "After I got over the sort of initial shock, we had to back up and talk about the importance of this area as a National Historic Landmark," he says.
Constructed as a temporary stable after a 1939 fire, this wooden structure is now set for demolition.

Photo: Lynette Nyman

The land is within Fort Snelling State Park as well as the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. It's all centered around athletics, which is reminiscent of Fort Snelling's reputation as the "country club of the Army."

"In the 1920s and '30s, the Army had a very strong emphasis on competitive team sports for its enlisted soldiers," says Stephen Osman, the Fort Snelling site manager and a local historian. "There were baseball games out here all the time. There were a lot of shooting competitions. There were just lots great sporting opportunities that were very much encouraged by the army and the facilities at Fort Snelling were excellent."

The large grassy area has always been an open field where the army held parades and practiced military horse maneuvers. Later it became the "polo grounds" when officers brought their horses onto the field for matches.

Not since the early 1940s has the land seen polo matches and the park board has no provisions for horse-riding. The grassroots group called the "Fort Snelling Equestrian Center Task Force" would like the park board to reconsider.

James Stapleton and Samantha Matson are preparing to load their mare Yolanta from Afton to stables north of Stillwater. Stapleton has presented his ideas to the Park Board and the DNR, which responded with an environmental assessment of the area. Stapleton says Fort Snelling's equestrian past makes it perfect for an urban, horse-riding center. "We've been able to get away without one for a long time because the country used to be so close to the Twin Cities," he says. "Urban sprawl has pushed these areas further out and has made having an equestrian experience more difficult for people who grew up in the city."

The group says horse riding is great for at-risk youth and those like Matson, who has been in a wheelchair for 20 years. She grew up riding horses and once had notions of riding professionally until a non-horse related accident stopped everything. Matson says she would like to do more "therapeutic riding."

One of two former artillery workshops that would be moved to the field for use as latrines.

Photo: Lynette Nyman
The horse supporters aren't likely to get their way because, unlike the park board, they don't have any money to realize their ideas. The park board will advance $ 1 million for the water line that will serve the sports complex as well as the boarded-up buildings, which the DNR has slated for charter schools and other uses.

There is a lack of new sport facilities in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Many people, like Chris Duffrin with the Twin Cities Ultimate League, say the most urgent need is open-field space. He hesitates when it comes to having horses on the fields, but believes building fenced baseball fields is a bad move.

"That's a big concern for us because it takes away from a lot of the open space and it makes it pretty impossible to run eight, nine, 10 games at a time like we have been doing for our summer league," he says.

If not for baseball field plans and the equestrian uprising, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board would probably have an easier time of making its vision a reality. It has the DNR's support, and preservation supporters are ambivalent as they stay caught between changing an historic landscape and embracing a plan that may lead to the beginning of long-awaited preservation of Fort Snelling.