LUVERNE, MINN. – From his home overlooking the tallgrass prairie, the writer Frederick Manfred wrote heroic tales about the American West and the people who lived in it, saying later in life that it was more the prairie's choice that he live there than it was his own.
Some of those stories fell onto the page in a one-room tower in the center of Manfred's unusual house, a wood-and-stone perch built into a bluff at Blue Mounds State Park in the southwest corner of the state.
The house still stands, 27 years after Manfred's death, but today its future is in doubt.
A new initiative from the state Department of Natural Resources would remove most of the house to replace it with a trailhead area and picnic tables. A survey asking the public which of three versions of the plan is most preferred has alarmed preservationists and Manfred's fans because it appears the DNR intends to move quickly.
"We feel that there is a lot of troubling facts" about the state's plan, said Freya Manfred of Stillwater, one of two surviving children. Freya said she moved into the house at age 15, after her father bought the materials salvaged from a Luverne school that was being torn down.
Thick wooden beams and red Sioux quartzite stones quarried locally were hauled to a bluff Manfred had purchased from a farmer, and a local contractor helped him build. His writing "teepee" atop the tower was a single room with large windows from which Manfred claimed he could see three states, and, at night, the lights of dozens of communities spread across the prairie's expanse.
The three-bedroom house has no basement, and its north wall is the stone bluff itself. It served as the state park's interpretive center after Manfred moved out, but years of moisture weeping off the rocks and into the home's structural supports have caused serious decay, according to the DNR.
A structural engineer in 2015 found a beam nearly disintegrated by rot, and the DNR closed the facility to the public. A review by St. Paul engineering, architecture and planning firm TKDA, released last year, determined the building would need $2 million of renovations to reopen as an interpretive center. That cost included tearing down and rebuilding the structure, running new water lines and replacing mechanical, electrical and sewer systems, according to the DNR.
"We're just not seeing a way to stop that moisture intrusion into the home," said DNR spokesman Steve Hennessy.
The state's plan would instead remove much of the structure but leave some of the stonework and foundation because it also functions as a snake hibernaculum. The survey asks the public to submit comments by April 5.
It's not hard to find people in Luverne today who have strong memories of Manfred. He towered over most of his neighbors, standing 6 feet 9, and was known locally as a tireless raconteur.
"He'd walk to town and it was just like seeing a mountain man," said Dave Smith, a lifelong Luverne resident and son of the town banker. "He had a big old huge fur coat and a fur hat and he'd walk to town, Thursday nights. The bank would be open and he would sit down and start talking to my dad and he'd tell stories and I'd just sit there, enamored."
Manfred's many poems and novels won plaudits from the New York Times and from his literary friends, including the celebrated novelist Wallace Stegner. His stories were often set in the region around Luverne, which he called Siouxland. His novel "Lord Grizzly" — a finalist for the 1954 National Book Award — tells the nonfiction tale of Hugh Glass, who was brutally attacked by a bear and then left by others in his party to die. Glass' tenacious survival was retold in the 2015 film "The Revenant," starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Freya Manfred said her father lived a literary life throughout the 1960s, with writers coming to the bluff house for readings and dinners. From 1960, when the house was completed, until 1973, he owned it outright. He then sold it to the state with the family's understanding that he would be allowed to stay until he died.
Two years later, according to the family, the state told him to leave because it had other plans for the property. Manfred eventually built another stone house nearby and lived there until his death in 1994 at age 82.
Attorney Ben Vander Kooi Jr., a lifelong friend of the Manfred family and the executor of the literary estate, said historic preservation hasn't always been easy in Rock County. A movement in the 1980s to tear down the old courthouse was nearly successful.
"It's now a prized piece of architecture," Vander Kooi said.
Vander Kooi said he's certain he could find state historic preservation funds to help preserve at least portions of the Manfred house if the DNR gave its permission.
"There are very few homes of Minnesota writers that have been preserved," he said.
If the whole house couldn't be saved, Vander Kooi said the state should preserve the central tower where Manfred wrote.
"People could at least go up and see what Fred saw," he said.
That plan appeals to another one of Luverne's famous sons, the photographer Jim Brandenburg. The former newspaper and National Geographic photographer was born and raised in Luverne, and he said his life's work was set in motion by a random meeting with Manfred when he was a teenager.
He had walked along a set of train tracks one day up to the prairie near Manfred's home when "this giant walked up," Brandenburg said. Manfred was burning prairie grass, a common practice to renew the land, and stopped to talk to his young visitor.
"He sat down on one of the rocks and we talked and talked and talked. You meet someone in life, it doesn't have to be particularly powerful in the moment, but it can stay with you forever," Brandenburg said. He would go on to study prairies, and years later when he took his first assignment for National Geographic, it was about efforts to save the tallgrass prairie.
A compromise with the DNR that would preserve sections of the house without a costly rebuild would allow it to stand for cultural, historic and educational programs, Brandenburg said.
"It's worthy of taking a deep breath, giving a little more time, a little more thought," he said, "and instead of dismantling the whole house, I really think it deserves quite a bit more than that."
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329