"The success of any undertaking depends largely upon the interest taken by those in charge. To our mind, the pioneers themselves, if they were not too old and had not dwindled down to a mere handful, should be the leaders in a celebration of this character. But since they are not available, the sons of those pioneers ought to play a leading part in preparing this celebration. They have once before arranged a celebration, the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the vanguard of the settlers, and they performed their duty well on that occasion.
It has been suggested that the sons of the first settlers perfect an organization under the name of 'Junior Pioneers' and take an active part in making this celebration a success. If it should be thought best that they ought to take the lead in the movement, they will certainly consider it an honor and do everything in their power to arrange a satisfactory celebration."
The entrance to Junior Pioneer Park
- New Ulm Review, February 7, 1912
The excerpt quoted above refers to the beginning of the Junior Pioneers of New Ulm and Vicinity, a civic group that, over the span of a century, has been deeply engaged in keeping the community's heritage and preserving its uniqueness.
The excerpt describes the impetus for organizing the group: the observance of the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, a seminal event in local, as well as state and national, history.
The modern reader may notice that the Review article bears the marks of its time.
In 1912, the U.S.-Dakota War was still fresh in memory. Eyewitnesses were still living, and their view of the events was tinged by their own life-changing experiences. The perspective was, more or less, black-and-white. The participants were either heros or villains; the "whites' victory" was worthy of "celebration."
The intervening century would deepen and nuance our understanding, blurring the lines between heroic and tragic. The mood would change from jubilant to somber, and the language referring to the events would evolve to reflect the difference. The "Sioux uprising" would become a "conflict" and then a "war." The "victory" "celebrated" in 1912 would become a reason for "commemoration" and reflection.
Through this change, the Junior Pioneers would remain faithful to the city founders' memory, steadfast in preserving and passing along their ancestors' story.
They would finance and build historic markers, invite speakers, organize lectures, round tables and various other educational programming, sponsor tours and exhibits, and simply care about the city, in the true spirit of the pioneers who built it.
The group originally included the sons and daughters of the original pioneers. Now it includes direct descendants of pioneers spanning several generations. The group has about 500 members.
To become a member, it is necessary to have an ancestor who resided or came to the New Ulm "vicinity" prior to 1870, under the rules. Vicinity is defined as the city of New Ulm and the townships of Cottonwood, Lake Hanska, Linden, Milford and Sigel in Brown County, Bernadotte, Brighton, Courtland, Lafayette and West Newton in Nicollet County, and Cambria in Blue Earth County.
Current Junior Pioneers President Darla Gebhard lists some key specific projects of the group:
Starting in 1912, the Junior Pioneers have placed markers at key sights associated with the U.S.-Dakota War and early local history. These markers, listing victims of the war, include the original Milford Monument marker, the Ravine Ambush marker on County Road 29, and the original Leavenworth Rescue marker at 5th North and Garden Streets.
In 1992, on the 130th anniversary of the war, the group placed a monument in the Pioneer Section of the New Ulm City Cemetery to guide visitors to unmarked pioneer graves. This effort continues with plans for individual markers at each unmarked grave of victims of the U.S.-Dakota War.
In 1996, a marker was placed at Turner Hall, a key site associated with the founders of New Ulm (on the 140th anniversary of Turner Hall).
In 2002, the group erected a marker by the Kiesling House, a historic site that survived the war.
Starting with the 50th anniversary "homecoming" event, the first event planned by the Junior Pioneers, the group has organized observances of all milestone anniversaries of the war: 75th, 85th, 100th, etc.
In more recent commemorations (the 125th and 150th), the Junior Pioneers have sponsored lecture series, symposiums and round tables, inviting speakers to explain various historic aspects.
Turner Hall cabin, links to historic preservation
In 1918, the group erected a log cabin in Turner Hall Park.
"It was built of hewn logs and slabs, in a truly rustic, pioneer manner, using old-fashioned split shingles of butternut wood," wrote the Review (Oct. 10, 1930). "Every phase of the construction was carried out in exact imitation of the log cabins of pioneer settlers, including a rustic-clad brick fireplace and chimney, unhewn rafters. Mortar was used in filling the cracks between the logs forming the walls of the structure."
In 1930, a fire damaged the cabin beyond repair. "The heaviest toll was taken from the store of relics of pioneer days which was housed in the cabin." Some pictures and maps were destroyed, and the solid wooden wheels of the first wagon made and used in Brown County and a wooden ox-yoke, also a relic of pioneer days, were badly charred.
"Fortunately, the photographs and name plates of pioneer settlers were saved," reported the Review.
The relics were placed in temporary quarters, pending the completion of the Municipal Public Library and Historical Museum, institutions for which the Junior Pioneers had vigorously lobbied.
When the museum was completed, the Junior Pioneers handed the artifacts over to the museum, helping start its collection.
More recently, the group has donated heavily toward the new third-floor exhibit at the Brown County Museum which opened as part of observances of the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War.
Junior Pioneer Park
The Junior Pioneer Park on the south end of New Ulm is the strongest visual reminder of the group's community presence, notes Gebhard.
In the early 1870s, 14 settlers purchased a spot on the north bank of the Big Cottonwood River and named it Jaegers Ruhe (Hunters' Rest). The Junior Pioneers purchased the four-and-a-half-acre property in 1923.
"Hunters' Rest, landmark of pioneer days and the scene of many a happy outdoor gathering in times gone by, will be preserved in its natural, idyllic beauty for posterity, to accommodate people who want to enjoy a day or an afternoon in the open, away from the humdrum of everyday life," enthused the Review (April 23, 1923).
A boulder and bronze tablet were placed near the entrance of the park, to mark the spot where pioneers once forded the river and to mark the site of a fur trader's post.
In 1927, masonry work of the Junior Pioneer Park entrance was completed by masons working under the direction of Otto Heymann. (Review, May 18, 1927).
"The completion of this entrance is the fulfilling of efforts made by the ladies of the Junior Pioneers and especially the untiring push and stick-to-itiveness of Mrs. Geo. Marti," said the Review. "The entrance stands as a monument for years to come, as it is built of natural rock on a permanent foundation."
The original design of the entrance was the work of Carl Pfaender, local landscape architect.
A new log cabin was erected in the park in 1930. Made of bark slabs, it was "the result of the work of the ladies of the organization who... provided the funds for the building." (Review, Aug. 21, 1930).
Besides Junior Pioneer events, the park hosts public programs, especially naturalist programs geared toward children, and Boy Scout projects, and is available for renting.
At present, volunteers led by Park Manager Lori Otis continue to clean up brush, remove buck-thorn and plant trees that are native to the park.
(As of this writing, the Junior Pioneers were to plant a red oak tree in the park Oct. 6, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of their organization.)
The Junior Pioneers hold an annual meeting and banquet, scheduled as close as possible to the official date of the founding of New Ulm (Oct. 7, 1854). The agenda generally includes a speaker, who addresses a matter of historic interest, as part of a program open to the public that fits in with the group's educational nature.
Other recurring events include a summer picnic and a winter social.
The organization has a web presence and issues a newsletter, reaching out to descendants of pioneers.
It is "very effective" in fulfilling its mission - keeping alive the memory of New Ulm's founders - and connecting people back to New Ulm and their family heritage, notes Gebhard.
"It's a well-rounded way of preserving history."
By Kremi Spengler; photos by Steve Muscatello; archive photos courtesy of Brown County Historical Society