It was built with the best of intentions, but Fort Juelson saw little, if any, use.
The sod structure, constructed by Otter Tail County settlers in 1876, brought hope and thoughts of safety during a period of Indian attacks and rumored conflicts in the region.
All that remains of the structure are the fort’s footings that remain visible on the grassy hill near Underwood along State Highway 210.
At the time it was built, settlers were in a panic. Hostilities between Indians and whites started in 1862 in southern Minnesota and continued through spring of 1863 with incidents reported in western Minnesota between Alexandria and Fort Abercrombie.
In his book, Fort Juelson and the Indian Scare of 1876; Clifford S. Knutson details the reports. A man wounded by Indians near Dayton Hollow near Fergus Falls. Joe Whitford; a frontiersman who recommended the Fergus Falls townsite to James Fergus; was killed near Fort Abercrombie. A stagecoach was attacked and four men killed near Breckenridge and two soldiers were killed while searching for goose eggs near Fort Pomme de Terre.
Shortly after Gen. George Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Julius Hankey rode to Tordenskjold Township with frightening news. The Indians were on the warpath and had killed many settlers at Fergus Falls, Foxhome and French, he reported.
Many settlers were leaving the area to congregate in populated towns and forts, said Hans Bjorge, one of the settlers. In a letter he wrote to the Otter Tail County historical Society, Bjorge recalled around 100 families in Grant County fleeing to Herman. Others were moving to Alexandria or Fergus Falls. Some were traveling to forts like Pomme de Terre for protection.
The homesteaders of Tordenskjold met at Mr. Dollner’s log store to discuss the situation. The group decided to send two men to Fergus Falls for information, Bjorge wrote. Andrew and John Hoff made the trek, and when they returned, they reported that “no reliable information could be had.”
Knutson credits Charles Dollner with having a great impact on the settlers during the 1876 scare. He suggested that, instead of fleeing to other areas of the state, he could remove the chinking between the logs in his store so defenders could shoot through the holes.
When the group left the store, Dollner began removing the chinking, Knutson said. But the group chose one of the other options discussed – to build a fort.
Dollner had suggested the move.
“He stated that in their midst lived some veterans of the Civil War,” Knutson wrote. “Why not organize under the leadership of these veterans and build a structure from which they could defend themselves?”
The settlers agreed and chose Hans Juelson and Berge O. Lee to lead the effort. Juelson had been a private during the war, but the settlers gave him the title of “Captain” and Lee, who had been a corporal, was named “Lieutenant.”
They chose Section 3 of Tordenskjold Township, just west of South Turtle Lake as the site.
It was a good site. The hilltop offered a good view of the surrounding landscape on all sides. A ravine led to Turtle Lake where the settlers could get fresh water under the protection of the fort.
Julius Hawkey and his good team of horses did most of the plowing, Bjorge said. He used a 16-inch walking plow to cut the sod.
“Everybody, both men and women, piled the sod under the direction of Juelson and Lee,” he wrote.
The fort was roughly 110-feet by 120-feet with two cross walls of sod traversing the center of the fort. Its walls were 4-feet wide by 4-feet high.
“When the sod walls were finished, some suggested they get (Hans) Bjorge’s bear gun and test the walls,” he wrote. “This gun was made in Norway for bear hunting and was brought here. I got the gun and walls were tested and declared O.K.”
During its construction, some skulls were found. Ironically the site chosen for the fort was actually an ancient Indian burial ground. The settlers reburied the bones, Knutson said.
While some reports say the fort was never used, one claims that a few years after the scare, settlers gathered there as rumors of an Indian attack spread through the countryside.
The scare was short lived, and the fort abandoned.
Over the years, cattle grazed on the site and damaged the walls. Although fence was put around the sod structure, the sod walls disappeared.
But the fort and its place in history were not forgotten.
A tour of the area in 2007 prompted officials to honor the site, which was donated to Otter Tail County a year later by landowner Stanley Rudsenske.
A plaque notes the site and family’s involvement in the gift.
“The citizens of Otter Tail County gratefully acknowledge the gift of this historic site given by Stanley A. Rudsenske in honor of his parents, Philip and Ruby Rudsenske. May 15, 2010.”
In an effort to have the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it had to be examined. No digging was allowed, but those working on the project used technology. While no specific date for the site could be determined, researchers did say its origins are “before Christ.”
It was named in the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
The site is open to the public and located off 315th Avenue off State Highway 210 and has a parking lot.
Its place in history is noted at the Otter Tail County Historical Society in Fergus Falls with a display detailing the fort’s history and artifacts.