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State Park Series - Fort Defiance

Come along with Notes on Iowa, as we explore Fort Defiance State Park.

The name of the park often strikes visitors unfamiliar with the area’s history as curious, but those with a familiarity with Iowa’s history might recognize Fort Defiance as one of several forts strung along the state’s upper-reaches as a part of the Northern Border Brigade following the US-Dakota War of 1862.

Those hoping to locate remains of the fort within the parks bounds will find no luck, as the original structure stood about one block west and two blocks south of the current town square in nearby Estherville. Originally opened as a fortification against the Dakota tribe Indigenous to the area, Fort Defiance opened on September 24, 1862.

The State of Iowa raised five companies to man a string of forts, however, no conflicts resulted during the year the fort stood on high alert. In the fall of 1863, the fort decommissioned and fell into disrepair. In 1872, the Northern Vindicator newspaper of Estherville reported a man named Skinner purchased the guard house of the fort and moved it away.

Local legends continued to swirl about the anticlimactic moment in Estherville’s history until 1911 when the Daughters of the American Revolution provided for a 25-foot tall monument dedicated over the course of two days of festivities during late August and early September.

In 1920, the Daughters of the American Revolution again played a pivotal role in commemorating the outpost of the Northern Iowa Border Brigade by helping to organize local citizens in purchasing land for a state park to be named Fort Defiance.

As one of the earliest sites located in the Iowa State Park system, Dr. Pammel of the Iowa State Conservation Board Commissioners recommended a site spanning the west fork of the Des Moines River near the location of today’s Joe Hoye City Park. However, by November of 1920 the Vindicator & Republican reported the park would instead rest on the hills and ravines roughly half a mile from the river familiar to visitors today.

Local citizens worked with the Daughters of the American Revolution to raise funding to purchase 50 acres, and the state matched funding to purchase an additional 50.

Park development in the 1920s was relatively limited, however a gift from the Graettinger Nursery provided a tree of each species known to grow in Iowa to plant within the park. Even by the close of the 1920s locals worried they would love the park due to the lack of a suitable road, and the “Estherville News” wrote: “we should not allow the park to go by default. Getting a road to the park presents some knotty complications, but the hurdles aren’t so high but what we can clear them once a determined effort is made.”

Locals voiced boisterous opinions on development on the park in newspaper editorials, proposing to even rebuild a model of the original fort. Instead a peeled log cabin-like structure with a turret graces the park today.

By October of 1931 the park was ready for the public, and Governor Turner arrived for a dedication attended by an estimated 4,000 people.

Local labor paired with governmental assistance to provide support for the park, notable through the utilization of local welfare funds to provide employment as the Great Depression raged. The Estherville Daily News reported $241.30 spent over the fall of 1932 to provide work for out-of-work men constructing four miles of trails in the park.

Projects over the years continued to improve the park including a 2001 restoration of the park lodge, and the 2006 formation of the Friends of Fort Defiance group.

Today, Fort Defiance State Park offers visitors a wide-variety of amenities. The heavily wooded park features miles of secluded trails representing a variety of difficulties and diverse habitats. A collaboration with Iowa Lakes Community College helped to construct an interpretive trail at the west end of the park. The park also features a 32-site campground.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Fort Defiance State Park. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Fort Defiance State Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.

Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Fort Defiance State Park.

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