The names are imbedded in the lexicon of our language. They stand like stalwart sentinels, sounding echoes of the people who founded this western frontier town so long ago.
Oleson, Crawford and Snell are but a few of the names we know so well and yet so little. They knew this community when it was young and growing, but today our knowledge of these people has faded into the past.
Many more left their mark upon this community, asking only that, from time to time, we pause to remember the people behind these familiar names.
But how much do we really know?
“I think it was named after one of the founding fathers of Fort Dodge,” replies Mitch Harms when asked how Snell-Crawford Park got its name.
Not a bad guess and typical of the folks we visited with regarding the origin of such well-known local names.
Harms and several friends were enjoying a hot afternoon at Snell-Crawford Park while taking a bit of shade in one of the shelters.
For good reason, Snell and Crawford parks today function as one. There was a time, however, when their identities were independent.
It’s easy for drivers along North 15th Street to miss the stately brick columns bearing the Crawford name that mark the original entrance to this wooded park with its winding streams. These days entrance to both parks is gained from Williams Drive.
Crawford Park was a gift to the city of Fort Dodge from Robert and Margaret Crawford and E.F. and Mary (Crawford) Armstrong in 1910, according to “The History of Fort Dodge.”
Robert Crawford’s reported claim to fame was the development of a product known as “Gopher Death.” Produced by the Fort Dodge Chemical Company, “Gopher Death” was a popular solution to that familiar problem across the nation at the time — and perhaps might even find a market yet today.
Snell Park originates from Thomas Snell and his son, Richard. While the elder Snell dates his history in Fort Dodge to the 1860s, it’s believed that his son never lived in the community. The son worked as a banker in Chicago, from where he directed development in parts of Fort Dodge. The family deeded what is now Snell Park to the city of Fort Dodge in 1915.
While the people behind the names of Snell-Crawford Park are no longer familiar to present-day park users, the gift they left behind has endured.
Hunter Thompson stopped by on a recent afternoon to play a game of disc golf.
“I come here a lot to play with friends, and it’s fun,” he says.
Other folks could be seen nearby, dipping their feet in the stream, spreading a blanket under the shade of a tree for a picnic and simply relaxing.
Back to Harms and his group of friends. We asked them about the origin of Fort Dodge itself.
“Was it named after Dodge Trucks?” Joey Gerdes asks with a laugh.
Clever, but not quite. However, they all get high marks for knowing the city’s history as an early-day fort on the western frontier. Originally called Fort Clark, it was renamed Fort Dodge, for Henry Dodge, a military man and statesman of his day. Some also credit the naming jointly to Henry Dodge’s son, August Dodge.
Henry Dodge was a veteran of both the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War. He served as territorial governor of the Wisconsin Territory from 1836 to 1841, which at that time included present-day Iowa.
While the city grew out of a frontier fort, the military presence soon left and a prosperous community took root in its place.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a name that has lent itself to more family memories for area residents than Oleson and Oleson Park. It’s the place of summer band concerts by the Karl King Band, the place where baby boomers rode the steam engine train, and the place with the zoo and the wading pool that gave folks a chance to cool off on a hot summer day.
Before Oleson Park came a man known as Olaf M. Oleson. Born in Norway in 1849, Oleson arrived in the United States in 1870 and found work on a farm in the Fort Dodge area. “The History of Fort Dodge” notes that he graduated from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and built a thriving drug store in Fort Dodge.
A mover and shaker of his day, Oleson also served as president of the Fort Dodge Telephone Company and Light and Power Company. He was also involved with the Fort Dodge Hotel Company and the Iowa Trust and Livestock Company, historical records indicate.
Eventually Oleson entered politics, was elected state senator and served the district in 1882 and 1894.
The original tract of land that made up Oleson Park was sold to the city of Fort Dodge by Oleson in 1906. Oleson and his wife, Julie, gave the second tract of land to extend the park in 1930.
Remarkably, especially for life expectancies of his time, Oleson lived nearly a century, passing away in 1944. Julie Oleson, his second wife, lived until 1965, well into the years when baby boomers were making memories riding the tiny steam engine train that chugged through the park in those days. (Oleson’s first wife, Lucy, passed away in 1904. No children were born to either union.)
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Oleson Park without talking about another big name in Fort Dodge history: Conductor Karl L. King.
A veteran of circus bands, including the Barnum and Bailey Circus, King gained fame for the marches he composed. In all, he published some 280 musical compositions. King lived from 1891 to 1971 and is buried in Fort Dodge.
An Ohio native, King moved to Fort Dodge in 1920, taking a position as conductor for the Fort Dodge Municipal Band, which he would continue for more than five decades.
Eventually, both the band itself and the white band shell that draws thousands to the annual summer concert series were named in King’s honor.
Like generations of Dodgers, Shawn Hynes grew up attending summer concerts and today takes his own children to hear the band when he can.
Standing in the shadow of the King statute at the Fort Dodge Public Library, Jaylen Hynes, 10, wasn’t really sure who King was but gave it a good guess:
“Was he the president?” he asks with a questioning look.
Well, no, but if the people of Fort Dodge could have elected their own president, they just might have chosen King — and would have done well to do so.
Hynes wouldn’t mind playing in a band some day and favors the bass guitar. Sister Brooklynn, 7, says she’d be happy twirling a baton.
Perhaps most of all, this young brother and sister pair say they simply enjoy visiting the Oleson Park Zoo and cooling off on the splash pad on hot summer days. Earlier generations may recall a wading pool of up to about 2 feet in depth. The pool was later replaced with the splash, which allows even more people to enjoy the spray of cooling waters all summer long.
As for Webster County itself, most folks can guess that the county name was drawn from one of the best-known national figures of the day: Daniel Webster.
Webster served in the U.S. House for 10 years, U.S. Senate for 19 years and as U.S. Secretary of State. Along with Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Webster, of Massachusetts, gained notoriety as the “Great Triumvirate.”
While school children still learn about the works and words of these men in history classes, it is perhaps well for the people of Webster County to recall a few of the man’s own sayings and beliefs.
He was unabashedly a man of faith and encouraged his countrymen to remain as such.
“If we abide by the principles taught in the Bible, our country will go on prospering and to prosper; but if we and our posterity neglect its instructions and authority, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us and bury all our glory in profound obscurity.”
Webster was also known for his commitment to the land and would have marveled at the production (even in a drought year) from the fields of this county that bears his name.
“Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.”