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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Bob Jones is an educator and re-enactor at the Old Fort on Spy Run Avenue.

Sunday, June 10, 2018 1:00 am

Old Fort continues to keep history alive

Re-enactors tell the life stories of ordinary people

Rebecca Sippel | For The Journal Gazette

In the 1700s and 1800s, forts in Fort Wayne were used as military posts to protect settlers from the Native American resistance.

Today, the replicated fort that sits along the St. Marys River on Spy Run Avenue serves a different purpose.

The Old Fort acts as a portal into the past, offering historical re-enactments brought to life by history buffs like Bob Jones.

“These everyday people that lived here and died here,” Jones said, “they are wonderful stories, and keeping their memory alive I think is fun for me.”

The drawings of Major John Whistler, who built the third and final fort in Fort Wayne in 1815, which was later torn down in 1852, were used to reconstruct the Old Fort. It took nearly 15 years to research and raise funds before the Old Fort officially opened in 1976, celebrating the nation's Bicentennial.

Constructing the fort was also seen as a way to maintain the city's identity, said Malinda Pagel, a re-enactor at the Old Fort.

“There was a push at one point to drop the 'Fort' from our name and just be Wayne, Indiana,” Pagel said of the city's history. “So I believe that is part of why they decided to re-build the fort back in the '70s, was they wanted to put the fort back in Fort Wayne, and it is easier to do that if there is an actual structure.”

The reconstructed Old Fort was kept as true to history as possible, Jones said. From the way the white oak timber was cut to how it was assembled, those involved in the reconstruction did everything they could to make it an accurate representation.

Jones said he considers the fact that the city has a fort to be very special, as people travel hundreds of miles to see similar attractions like Colonial Williamsburg or other timber-frame forts.

“The world that we enjoy is built on the footsteps of the people that came from the past,” Jones said. “A lot of times we don't think about that. We are a modern era, but I think there is a lot of benefit in being aware.”

For many it starts early.

Jones said the mission of the Old Fort has always been educational. A retired teacher, Jones serves as the Old Fort's educational liaison, often setting up tours for students. He enjoys teaching people about the past, especially stories that didn't make it into history books.

Pagel said she loves listening to people like Jones talk, and passing on that oral tradition of storytelling and preserving that for the next generation is part of what makes the Old Fort so important to the community.

“The folks that have been there for a long time, they could fill a book with everything that they know, and all the rumors and stories, and you hate to lose that,” Pagel said. “You can't get that back once it's gone.”

While history can be controversial, she thinks it is important to keep the conversation going.

Pagel's favorite role is playing a midwife during re-enactments because it allows her to tell the stories of women who were often overlooked, she said.

And since many of the re-enactments focus on military life, she said being able to interpret history for women in a such a personal way is fun for her.

“We can't ignore it because it's painful or it is no longer politically correct; it's something that needs to be taught to our children as it was, not whitewashed,” Pagel said. “We clearly need lots of different perspectives on history. We need to look at it honestly, and we do a disservice to ourselves and everybody else if we don't.”