Remembering the fur-trading days on the Crow Wing

Most of the year only an occasional visitor disturbs the deep silence at the 300-acre Old Wadena Park on the banks of the Crow Wing River north of Staples. That is, no doubt, how it has been for thousands of years – perhaps since the last glacial era. But yet there is something about this place that draws the interest of humans, along with their commotion and industry, from time to time.

A festival is held each year at the site of a battle between the Dakota and the Anishinaabe near Wadena and Staples. Demonstrations, entertainment and food highlight the festival, which celebrates the fur-trading days in the area. Submitted photo

“We did two archaeological digs on Little Round Hill, which is in the park, and found quite a few artifacts,” Tom Kajer, a longtime member of the Old Wadena Society, said. “What the archaeological digs found was that this area was an Indian encampment site for almost 3,000 years. This was based on dating the pottery shards that were found.”

Archaeologists also found plenty of evidence to verify historical records of a battle at Little Round Hill in 1783.

“In that battle, between the Dakota and the Anishinaabe, there was a trader called The Blacksmith,” Kajer, a retired international aid worker and amateur historian, said. Nobody knows what his name was, but he was camped on Little Round Hill with a number of Anishinaabe. I suppose they were people that were bringing in furs. The Dakota came up the river and attacked them. The battle lasted a day or so, and the Anishinaabe were able to repel the Dakota because they had guns, and the Dakota only had bows and arrows.”

It’s the fur -trading period from roughly the Battle of Little Round Hill until about 1840 that the Old Wadena Society celebrates with its annual Old Wadena Rendezvous. Tom Kajer has been involved with the Rendezvous since 2000, just after he finished his last international aid project in Pakistan.

“I was a board member for a few years in the 1990s and then ever since 2000, when I retired,” he said.

When Tom first got involved, the Rendezvous, which is held on an August weekend every year, was only an encampment of “Rendezvous-ers” or people re-enacting the times, tools and dress of the fur trade era.

“Where the idea came from is that during fur-trading times all of the Metis and the fur traders went back to one of the headquarters, usually on the Canadian border somewhere,” he said. “They would all get together and exchange stories and celebrate. It was called the rendezvous and that name kind of stuck. Ours isn’t actually a re-enactment, but it is an encampment. They display their wares. Some people make knives, some make stocks for guns, and you have a lot of utensils from that era. We encourage visitors to go around and talk to the people in the encampment so they can explain what they are doing.”

The encampment has always been part of the Rendezvous. But over the years other elements have been added. Nowdays the Old Wadena Rendezvous is a full-fledged folk festival with a campsite area, including tents and tools of the 1840s, an entertainment tent, an artisan tent (blacksmith, spinning wole, making pots, making crafts, etc.), and also a food tent.

A man plays a flute in front of a table of tools used during the fur-trading years at a recent Rendezvous. Contributed photo

After this year’s rendezvous, Tom plans to resign from the board. He will likely take time to walk the quiet paths of the park and reflect on the history of Old Wadena and what he and his fellow park volunteers have accomplished over the years.

“Old Wadena was the first county seat for Wadena County,” he said. “It was also the site of the only ferry on the Crow Wing River for some time, and it was the crossing for the northern branch of the Red River Ox Cart Trail. That was called The Woods Trail.”

In 1856 a town was platted there with the hope that the train tracks would pass nearby and bring prosperity.

“There were a few structures, and it was said that at one time there were a hundred inhabitants,” Tom said. “There was even a hotel-like structure that people could stay over night in.”

The train tracks passed to the south, near Staples, and Old Wadena faded, and the forest returned. Years later, archaeologists excavated the hotel foundation and the ferry landing.

“You can still see the path down to the ferry, and if you look hard, you can find the ox-cart trail,” Tom said.

More recent human artifacts are easier to locate, however. One of those is the floating trail that was built by the Society over a bog in the park.

“One of the projects that I was particularly involved in was the bog walk that we completed about two and a half years ago,” Tom said. “ It’s intended to be an educational walk. We have various interpretive signs that explain the biology of a bog and its value for water conservation. The walk goes from one side of the bog to the other and is part of the park’s larger trail system.”

Society members have placed interpretive signs on the trails throughout the park. Some of them identify tree and shrub species, and others explain the park’s history and archaeology.

“There are signs at the site that describe the archaeological excavations, but all the artifacts from the digs are at the Wadena County Historical Society in Wadena,” Tom said. “They are very nicely displayed there. The latest digs were done by the University of Minnesota, and they had the artifacts for several years while they were identifying them. Now they’ve given them to the Historical Society.”

Tom will likely take those quiet strolls around Old Wadena Park now that he’s retired from the Society’s board of directors. But it’s his work with the Staples Historical Society that has him really fired up. To Old Wadena’s detriment, Staples has a long history as a center of railroad activity, and a few years ago, the Historical Society obtained the train depot. The building, designed by the architects who designed New York City’s Grand Central Station, was built in 1909 and was in decline. Restoration has been expensive.

“We had a $500,000 grant to restore a large portion of the downstairs part of the depot,” Tom said. “We put in four new furnaces in the basement along with four new air conditioners with ducting. We’ve refurbished the lobby, and we have two new bathrooms. The bathroom we had was pretty bad, and a lot  of people didn’t want to go into it.”

The Staples depot is the only Amtrak station between St. Cloud and Fargo. In addition to being used as a train depot, the Chamber of Commerce will soon be moving its offices into the spacious building, according to Tom. The Historical Society has even more ambitious plans for the future.

“The Chamber of Commerce will occupy one room, and we’ll restore another for a community room,” Tom said. “Then we’ll try to restore more space for our historical museum.”

The Historical Society’s museum was forced into storage a decade ago when a roof began leaking in its previous home.

Tom Kajer is a longtime member of the Old Wadena Society. Contributed photo

Tom Kajer has spent much of the last 17 years preserving, restoring, and interpreting history and historical artifacts in and around the community of Staples. During that same time he’s been actively involved in interpreting the history of New Prague, Minn., his birth community.

“I’ve published two nonfiction books about New Prague,” he said. “One is the history of New Prague from 1856 to 1900. It’s called They Ate from One Bowl. The second book is a diary of a niece of my great- grandfather. She came here as a 16 year old, and she was quite intelligent and kept a diary. There’s a lot of historical references in that book for not only New Prague but also St. Paul, where she worked and got married. The Czech community in St. Paul was quite large. That book is called  Changing Homelands.”

Although Tom said that he’s done with self-publishing books, he likely has another book or two in him.

“We lived in India for five years, Kenya for four years, Sri Lanka for three and a half years, as well as Jordan and Pakistan. My second-to-last assignment was in Russia. That was probably my worst experience because people there were so set in their ways from all those years of Communism.

Tom’s first overseas assignment was in the early 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer. He worked in a remote and roadless area with the former head hunters of North Borneo.

“They were very nice people,” he said.

This year’s Old Wadena Rendezvous is Aug. 12-13. Learn more by visiting the website at oldwadenarendezvous.org or by contacting Tom at tkajer2906@charter.net or 218-894-2906.