The accomplishments many.
The stories and memories, priceless.
For long-time Fort Ridgely State Park Ranger Mark Tjosaas, 30 years on the job in one place wasn’t something he anticipated.
“I thought it was only going to be a stopover on my way to other positions but years later I realized that sometimes you don’t find a job, it finds you,” he said.
But now his public service career has ended. He retired in February and together with his wife Brenda, combined 54 years of dedication to Fort Ridgely, located six miles south of Fairfax. It’s a special place where they experienced many events, challenges and changes at one of the more interesting historic pieces of real estate in the Minnesota state parks system.
Tjosaas started his 44-year career in 1969 as a 17-year-old teenager working three summers for his dad who was the manager at Upper Sioux State Park located near Granite Falls.
After two years of college at the university in Morris and basic training with a National Guard unit, Tjosaas continued working in state parks until he came to scenic Fort Ridgely as a park technician in 1982. He continued in that role until 1997 when he was promoted to the park manager position. Brenda joined the staff at Fort Ridgely in 1989 and worked up to becoming an office administrative specialist for the next 24 years before recently accepting a promotion at neighboring Flandrau State Park in New Ulm.
Established in 1911, Fort Ridgely has the only park-operated golf course in Minnesota and as the years went on under Tjosass’ leadership, it became his passion.
The golf course was built in 1927 and featured sand greens until an artificial turf named Mod Sod was installed in 1988. Although an improvement, the carpet-like greens eventually deteriorated by 2005 when construction began on a $2.1 million golf course renovation. The newly redesigned course now has real grass greens and an irrigation system was installed.
Tjosaas downplays his efforts with the golf course improvements and credits the grassroots citizens support of the Friends of Fort Ridgely organization that assisted with the project as it moved through the state legislature.
“I think my work with the golf course kept me here all these years but the new layout might not have happened without the Friends testifying at the capitol before committee hearings about its importance to the park,” said Tjossas. “I believe they helped make a change in state parks direction for the project and Senator Dennis Frederickson’s initial legislation for funding was important.”
While all Minnesota state parks have their own identity, Fort Ridgely is unique with many options for varied interests including the historical aspect of its involvement during the battles associated with the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
During his tenure at Fort Ridgely, Tjosaas recalls the numerous events and work that transpired and he says he’s proud to have been “at least a part of the most positive ones.”
He recalls one of the largest events ever held at Fort Ridgely occurred in 1987. That year the Fort Ridgely Historical Festival observed the 125th of the U.S-Dakota War. The gathering attracted 15,000 visitors including over 100 Rendevous encampment participants.
“That event was held for several years but ‘87 was the apex. It was hard to top that year again and then we ran into a two or three year stretch of bad weather that took a lot of tents down,” said Tjosaas. “We were fortunate nobody got hurt.”
For years Summer at the Fort Theater performances were held in the park’s amphitheater until the series ended in 1984. But Tjosaas says some Bluegrass Music Festivals along with the long-running Prairie Fire Children’s Theater continues to be held each August and brings young people to the park.
Camping has always been a popular activity near Fort Ridgely Creek and Tjosaas recalls the big flood of 1993 that caused considerable damage to campsites and the lower campground road.
Then there was the time when another heavy rainstorm upstream forced a 2 a.m. Memorial Day weekend evacuation of campers. “We watched the water rise to the top of the creek banks before we started knocking on doors telling people it would be in their best interest to leave until it got light again…fortunately the water didn’t overflow that night,” he said.
Mark and Brenda have many stories to tell of the people they’ve met over the years at the park. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s played an instrumental role in building many of the park shelters and other infrastructure. “One year I had a man stop at our office who told me he laid the cornerstone for the park staff residence that the CCC built which still stands today,” said Brenda. “It was interesting for me to talk with him about that since Mark and I lived in that same building from 1983-92.”
Mark also recalls the day he got a report from someone who complained three golfers were out on the course hitting golf balls at the pop machines by the old No. 4 hole.
“I went out there and found them all dressed rather odd,” Mark said. “One man was wearing a housecoat and another guy had a furry winter hat on his head. I asked them what was going on and wanted to see their green fee receipts but they didn’t have them. I said, ‘how do you think you could play golf without paying’ and they told me they thought it was like going bowling when you paid after you were done playing,” he laughed.
Due to the historical nature of the battles fought at Fort Ridgely and the remaining foundation ruins, many artifacts have been found over time. Some have been turned into the office while Mark knows many others have been removed.
“But one of the nicest things happened one day when a horse rider was on a trail ride and while crossing a bridge over the creek noticed something unusual down in the water,” Mark noted. “He waded in and found an old buffalo skull which he brought to us to put on display in our park office…that showed he appreciated the sense of value artifacts have in belonging to this site.”
As much labor intensive work is involved with maintaining a golf course Tjosass says the effort was worth it in other areas. “An outgrowth of the golf course was the formation of a new recreation resource in the park as the irrigation pond has been stocked with fish and visitors can do some panfishing other than trying to catch trout in the creek,” he said.
Tjosass also mentioned that without the archaeological studies conducted for the new golf course construction, an ancient fire ring believed to be as old as 8,000 years would not have been discovered. “That otherwise wouldn’t have been found so another benefit that probably will be added to the park is an educational self-guided interpretive walking trail to the site,” Tjosaas explained.
According to Tjosaas, the need for additional interaction with the public is one major change park staff has had to include in their daily work. “When we were given more latitude to be proactive in area communities and contacting people on behalf of the park it meant juggling time spent being administrators and caretakers. Because of that drain on time it seemed like we were always struggling to get the day-to-day basics done,” he commented.
Tjosaas said parks finally recognized that more clerical help was needed to handle the office workload. “Brenda took a lot of the recording, reporting and computer time responsibilities so I could concentrate more on outside activities,” he said.
“We’ve probably had 100 people come and go on our staff over the past 30 years,” said Mark. “We did the best we could during that time and all of them made the experience for what it was, I was blessed to have really good people who worked with me at Fort Ridgely using their talents to the best of their abilities.”
While the responsibilities and annual budget frustrations are behind him now, Mark says he has many mixed feelings about calling it a career. “But I will always look back on my time as being well-spent and mostly enjoyable,” he said.
“I think there are a lot of good memories,” added Brenda. “Mark wanted to be a good steward here and I think he was…we were little specks in Fort Ridgely history and we had an interesting time taking care of it,” she said.