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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Roofers work Friday at Historic Fort Wayne, which at nearly 40 years old is a little thin on top. The city is offering $10,000 to help, but donors must match it.

Nonprofit makes history at old fort

Builds on revival begun 9 years ago

– In 2004, Historic Fort Wayne was dead and had been for a decade.

The recreation of the 1816 fortress sat abandoned and neglected, not unlike the original did after it was abandoned in 1819.

What a difference eight years makes.

“It’s a resurgence,” said Tom Grant. “It’s a revitalization.”

That revitalization began in the spring of 2004, when Fort Wayne’s Parks Department asked for plans to bring the fort back to life and a group of citizens headed by Sean O’Brien formed the Old Fort Revitalization Project, which eventually became a nonprofit called Historic Fort Wayne Inc.

They were just in time – parks board members felt they could no longer justify the ever-increasing maintenance and repair costs for the deteriorating log structure and were more than happy to let someone else try to make a go of it.

Now, thousands of visitors are passing through its rebuilt gates every year, and re-enactors come from across the Midwest for events.

A broader focus

Grant, who is the treasurer for the group, said one of the things that hamstrung efforts in the 1970s and 1980s was keeping events tied to the fort’s original time period.

“If it didn’t happen between 1800 and 1830, it pretty much didn’t happen,” Grant said. “You take a 30-year time period from anyone’s history, eventually you’re going to wear that out.”

Fortifications in the area date to 1697, when the first fort was built by the French. Over the next century, they were destroyed and rebuilt several times, with Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s forces building the first American fort in 1794.

The last fort built here was constructed in 1816 by Maj. John Whistler about where Cinema Center stands now on East Berry Street. Today’s replica, built in 1976, is a copy of Whistler’s design.

Given the long history of forts in the area, officials said it makes sense to use the fort for any event from colonial times. An event in January re-enacted the French and Indian War from the 1750s and 1760s; one coming up in April will examine the late 1500s.

Organizers have also worked to shift the focus away from soldiers and war to a more balanced look that includes civilian life and how the fort fit into that. The group has partnered with traders, spinners and weavers, and craftsmen.

“We have a woodshop now, which we’ve never had before,” Grant said. “Our blacksmith shop is probably one of the best in the country and even has a functioning bellows.”

In the meantime, organizers are dealing with an age-old problem – replacing the roof.

“Almost every high wind we lose some shingles now,” O’Brien said. The cedar shakes are 37 years old, and replacing them all will cost up to $60,000.

But like almost all of the expenses at the fort, the parks department – and the taxpayers who fund it – will have to pay only part of the cost.

Donors play role

“Back in 2005, we helped them out with about $5,000,” Parks Director Al Moll said. “But up until the commitment we just made … we’ve given them nothing.”

The recent commitment was for $10,000 toward the roof, but that is conditional on the group raising matching funds.

“This is totally them,” Moll said. “They restored (the fort), they raised the money.”

Thanks to Historic Fort Wayne Inc., the fort operates like several other parks in Fort Wayne, where a nonprofit runs programs and handles maintenance for facilities owned by the parks department. The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, for example, is operated by the Fort Wayne Zoological Society, and Headwaters Park is operated by the Headwaters Park Alliance.

All of them allow opportunities that otherwise either would not happen or would have to be paid for with tax dollars.

“It’s something very positive for the community,” Moll said. “We’ve got a partnership (with Historic Fort Wayne Inc.), but we really can’t take any credit for what they’ve done there; they’ve done it all themselves.”

And there’s more to come.

Historic Fort Wayne President Norm Gable recently told parks officials about plans they’re considering to place placards on each building that would essentially allow visitors to have self-guided tours anytime they wish. The placards could even contain QR codes so those with smartphones could scan the code to watch a re-enactor give a tour of each building.

All help welcome

Officials are also looking for more volunteers – people are needed for all sorts of tasks, from maintenance to emptying the trash.

“There are many jobs at the fort that don’t require funny clothes,” Gable said.

Grant said it has been astounding the way the community has embraced the fort, and the group wants to build upon that.

“There is no time – whether it’s Saturday or Sunday, the middle of the week, it can be cold, rainy, whatever – that if we’re down there working we don’t have people stopping in and wanting to see the fort,” Grant said.

“I’ve never been down there in six years where one volunteer who’s supposed to be holding a board or something doesn’t end up going over and doing a tour.”