FORT CALHOUN, Neb. — The sweeping panorama of America’s western expansion is found along a 13-mile corridor from Fort Atkinson south to Fort Omaha.
The two fort sites span the period of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06 to the Indian Wars later that century. The territory also includes a historic site that draws tens of thousands of national and international visitors yearly — the Winter Quarters encampment by emigrating Mormons — and the short-lived and long-lost Army outpost along the Missouri River known as Engineer Cantonment that dates to America’s fifth president.
Despite its rich history and scenic location overlooking the Missouri River valley north of Omaha, Fort Atkinson State Historical Park is at a crossroads. Low visitation and deteriorating log walls have taken a toll, but this community of 900 and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission are poised to deploy more manpower, money and marketing into the park.
It starts now with a tactical plan geared toward making Fort Atkinson a viable tourist destination, bringing the fort’s displays and historical interpretation into the 21st century and increasing visitation to the site and the community within five years.
Bob Hanover of Lincoln, the Game and Parks assistant division administrator who oversees the historical parks, said the fort has some of the greatest potential in the state to be a bigger and better attraction.
“Let’s roll up our sleeves and get going,’’ he said. “We know our success is your success and your success is our success.’’
Hanover and colleague Craig Wacker, recreation planner, presented the plan and its seven goals to an overflow crowd of 65 people in the library at Fort Calhoun High School last week.
David Genoways of Fort Calhoun, business manager of the local school district, said only about 12 days a year feature special events at the state historical park. He asked how the site could be made more relevant to visitors if there is no living history demonstration or other big event scheduled.
Wacker said figuring out how to tell a park’s story when the living history storytellers are not on duty is one of the most difficult challenges for historical parks.
Genoways suggested developing a smartphone app that would feature living history re-enactors talking about their daily life as the fort laundress or commander, for example. Hanover said commission planners understand it’s about providing an experience that visitors will share on Twitter or Facebook.
Fort Atkinson was young America’s largest military post and the nation’s first fort west of the Missouri River. It existed from 1819 to 1827 and operated the first school, farm, sawmill, hospital and library in what decades later would be Nebraska. Years earlier, the Lewis and Clark expedition’s historic first meeting with American Indians was held on its bluff.
As recently as a few years ago, Fort Atkinson was losing more than $150,000 a year. It had nearly $500,000 in deferred maintenance needs. Its annual visitation has stabilized at about 29,000, despite its location near Omaha, the state’s largest city.
Pam Daly of Fort Calhoun, noting Nebraska’s agricultural heritage started at the fort, said farm-to-table activities should be included at the fort.
“It doesn’t have to be all military,’’ said Kristin Ericson of Omaha.
Penny Ankenbauer of Council Bluffs encouraged the commission to raise entrance fees to generate revenue to maintain the park. She said the $2 per bus fee charged for school groups and $3 charged for tour buses do not cover the cost of toilet paper the visitors use.
Linda Meigs of Omaha, director of the 1840s-era Florence Mill museum and art gallery, said marketing the American expansion story reflected in Fort Atkinson and Fort Omaha is a natural opportunity currently overlooked.
“History flows between our city boundaries,’’ she said.
Jim Swenson, the commission’s parks division administrator, said Fort Atkinson advocates need only to look at Ponca in northeast Nebraska as an example of what can be achieved by a corps of committed volunteers and community organizations working with Game and Parks. Ponca State Park hosts upward of 50,000 people over a September weekend each year for an outdoor expo.
“It’s truly a partnership,’’ Swenson said.
John Slader, superintendent of Fort Atkinson, said the commission needs local organizations and volunteers to work with Game and Parks in achieving the goals.
Game and Parks Commissioner Mick Jensen of Blair said support of the plan by the Washington County Historical Association, Friends of Fort Atkinson, Fort Atkinson Foundation, the city and local businesses is impressive and necessary.
“We’ve got a gem here,’’ he said.
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Fort Atkinson tactical plan goals
» Create partnerships with nonprofit organizations, including the City of Fort Calhoun and local businesses that want to see Fort Atkinson State Historical Park become a tourist destination.
» Raise awareness and visitation by 25 percent in the next five years. There are 1.3 million people living within 60 miles of the park. The area’s demographics skew toward higher-than-average income and education levels, which correlate to an above-average interest in historical events and parks.
» Change displays and programming on an ongoing basis to give visitors an interactive experience and emotional experience that encourages return visits. Some of the displays have not been changed since they were built in 1985, using a museum design from the 1970s.
» Focus activities on the Harold W. Andersen Visitor Center as the hub of activity at the park. Upgrades could include theater, display and restroom renovations and improved technology and accessibility.
» Create two big events for 2016 and examine niche marketing.
» Preserve the grounds and buildings. There are opportunities to build the fourth wall of the fort.
» Strive to make Fort Atkinson a sustainable park within the state system, including lodging opportunities and periodic food service.
Source: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
Correction: Bob Hanover was misidentified in a previous version of this story.