Renovations underway at historic fort

The historic fort at Fort Atkinson, including the grounds and museum, is closed temporarily as much-needed repairs started.

A public open house was held March 22 to outline the project, which includes tuckpointing, structural repairs and extensive masonry work.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) currently manages the historic site, which includes a barracks, gunpowder house, and more significant artifacts.

The ongoing repairs are being funded, in part, through a grant from the National Park Service Save America’s Treasures program and from Friends of Fort Atkinson. 

Kenneth Howe, an engineer with the DNR, and Detra Dettmann, NE District Supervisor for the DNR, were on hand to explain the repairs underway for the historic structures at the preserve and answer questions from those in attendance at the open house.

Dettmann said the first step of the repair project began several years ago with a condition assessment; and now the contractors will address the issues found in that assessment for the preservation project. The firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., was hired to complete the assessment. The Chicago-based firm specializes in historic structures.

Among the renovations planned at the Fort are replacing flooring, installing water mitigation and drainage systems and replacing windows in the North Barracks. The blockhouse project includes mortar joint repairs, as well as wall, door, and roof repairs and replacement.

Contracts for the second phase of the project were awarded to TNT Tuckpointing and Building Restoration LLC of Stockton and David Wadsworth of Decorah, whose firm specializes in sustainable construction.

A mid-July completion date is estimated for the repairs.

Organizers of the Rendezvous Days at historic Fort Atkinson said they hope the project is completed well in advance of the annual festival, which is scheduled during the last full weekend in September. The Rendezvous recreates life on the 1840s Iowa frontier with authentic buckskinners, U.S. Army dragoons, black powder shoots, crafts, demonstrations and more. For many, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Driftless region.

Historical site

The U.S. Army began construction of the fort at Ft. Atkinson on May 31, 1840, by establishing a camp at the site. The fort was meant to provide neutral territory for interactions with the Winnebago People as they were resettled from Wisconsin into northeast Iowa. Resettlement played prominently in U.S. policy in the 1800s; Ft. Atkinson is historically significant in understanding the negative treatment of Native Peoples in American history.

Completed in 1842, the fort included 24 buildings and a stockade wall. Fourteen additional buildings outside the wall completed the fort. On June 20, 1846, the U.S. Army re-assigned regular army troops out of Fort Atkinson to fight in the war with Mexico. On July 15, 1846, Iowa volunteers staffed the fort and continued to carry out their duties until the post was abandoned after the Winnebago People were again removed from the area. The last company of infantry marched out of its gates on Feb. 14, 1849.

As early as 1900, Northeast Iowa residents recognized the significance of Ft. Atkinson and worked to protect the site. In 1921 the State of Iowa took ownership of the property and established it as part of the state park system.

To check on the progress of the 2024 renovations, visit the Iowa DNR website at iowadnr.gov.

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