Sunday, April 5, 2009

Something Completely Different

Since it is old and it is a house (of a sort) I am featuring one of my favorite buildings in my latest post on the Old House Blog. The Peterson, IA blockhouse is one of those architectural surprises you can find in many small towns across the country. Built in 1862 from hewn logs, this structure is an extremely rare example of a wooden military fortification from the upper Midwest.

First, a bit of history. Relations between the native Dakota Indians and white settlers in Iowa and southern Minnesota were extremely poor after years of tension and occasional violence. Armed conflict, including the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857 and the Dakota War of 1862, and the absence of federal troops due to the Civil War led Iowa governor Samuel Kirkwood to form the volunteer Northern Border Brigade in 1862. As a part of this defensive scheme, a series of fortified blockhouses were constructed near white settlements such as Correctionville, Cherokee, Peterson, Estherville, and Chain Lakes, IA. Each was to be garrisoned by members of the Northern Border Brigade militia. However, the need for protection had diminished greatly after the rout of the Dakota in the Dakota Territory by Union troops in September 1863 and the forced resettlement of most of the Dakota remaining in Minnesota after the Dakota War. The garrisons were deemed unnecessary and the Northern Border Brigade was disbanded by the Iowa adjutant general in 1864. The blockhouse, which had been garrisoned by as many as two dozen soldiers, was abandoned sometime between 1865 and 1866 by the few, remaining federal troops.

The Peterson blockhouse was constructed by members of the brigade using locally harvested and hewn 10” oak and ash logs. The structure was surrounded by a stockade which provided protection for the garrison, its horses and supplies. Rather than a typical stockade made from a series of upright, pointed logs, the garrison constructed a fence made from massive, sawn oak planks and hewn oak and ash timbers that were as thick as 6”. Both the upper and lower levels were equipped with small, defensive gunports. The structure was built using square, lapped (and most likely pinned) joints rather than the more common half-dovetail or square-notch. The building was originally roofed with joined maple planks with grooves to lead away rain water.

After its abandonment the timber from the stockade was removed by settlers and used to construct other buildings while the blockhouse itself was dismantled and reassembled on a farm two miles west of Peterson. In 1977 Peterson Heritage acquired the building and moved it back to town. Although its original location was unknown, Peterson Heritage rebuilt it at the most likely spot, in the boulevard on Park Street just south of the intersection with Highway 10. In the mid 1980s volunteers restored the structure (without a stockade) using the original plans, replaced several logs and put the building on a concrete foundation. The restored building was dedicated in 1986.

The blockhouse can be visited anytime, but is open for visits during Peterson's heritage celebration held on even numbered years.

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