It was just about 150 years ago that the Ridleys blazed their trail along the bottom of the west branch of the Upper Des Moines River to help found Estherville. Not long after, a grain and sawmill were established and Fort Defiance was built to fend off the threat of the Sioux uprising of 1862.
This past year, the Friends of Fort Defiance quite literally made trails of their own - replacing trails that had washed out within the past few years.
They were recognized for their efforts by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, receiving the Outstanding Large Project Volunteer Award from the Iowa DNR. The group received the award in ceremonies Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Des Moines Botanical Center.
Dave Seylar and John Wittneben helped the Friends of Fort Defiance ‘measure up’ to win the DNR's Outstanding Large Project Volunteer Award for 2008.
The local group received the award "for dedication and service to the Fort Defiance trails system." Iowa Department of Natural Resources Ranger Steve Reighard Sr. nominated the group.
"I'm just kind of overwhelmed," said Friends of Fort Defiance President John Wittneben. "It's really good for the group."
Since the summer of 2007, the group has built a half-mile trail from the native prairie area on the east side the park and along Spring Creek to its confluence with School Section Creek. The low-gradient trail follows gradually along the creek, avoiding washout problems typical of some older trails in the park.
Another trail, extending south from the native prairie area, was constructed this summer for equestrian use.
A third trail built this past summer extends from the former ranger's house to the west parking lot. Gary and LaVonne Phillips and Phillips'' conservation studies students at Iowa Lakes Community College did most of the work on the trail. Phillips' students also raised funds for a kiosk which students in the Iowa Lakes construction trades program at the Emmetsburg campus built. That trail will have interpretive points of interest featuring native plants and animals.
Spurred on by the local Friends group, the DNR later placed three new bridges for the new trail across Spring Creek, replaced a fourth bridge on School Section Creek and repaired another bridge on School Section Creek.
The Friends of Fort Defiance began with 12 members June 2006 and now has at least 112 members.
The friends group, with the assistance of a grant from the Emmet County Community Foundation, also produced a brochure early this year to promote the park.
The group is also working on upgrading the electrical system at the campground. Another possible future project is improved signage for the park.
Fort Defiance State Park, founded in 1930, covers 231 acres along and above School Section Creek which flows from the south end of Four Mile Lake to the Upper Des Moines River. The park is named for Fort Defiance which was originally on South Sixth Street where an office building is now located.
To join the Friends of Fort Defiance, send $5 for an individual membership or $10 for annual membership to Friends of Fort Defiance, Membership Committee, P.O. Box 314, Estherville, IA 51334.