Minnesota is turning to a 26-year-old to puff some new life into the state’s oldest house museum, and one of its most overlooked: the 180-year-old Mendota home of Henry Hastings Sibley, the state’s first governor.
Despite his young age, new Sibley Historic Site manager Andrew Fox is becoming an expert on Minnesota’s historic homes. After studying medieval history at Augsburg College, he’s worked as a tour guide at James J. Hill’s massive stone castle in St. Paul and William LeDuc’s 1860s Gothic Revival home in Hastings.
Now Fox will be the point man in a partnership between the Minnesota Historical Society and the Dakota County Historical Society. The state will own and preserve the Sibley site, while the county will staff and operate the three restored houses on the property.
While the Sibley site had been open two Saturdays a month in the summer, this year it will be open 1 to 4 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. To begin the new schedule, a grand reopening will be held 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Turning around the Sibley site will be a challenge. John Crippen, director of historic sites and museums for the Minnesota Historical Society, said there are fewer people who want to take traditional tours of house museums. In the end, events such as evening programs or themed social gatherings might hold the key to the Sibley site’s comeback.
“These houses are still really compelling places to experience,” Crippen said. “It is our programs that have to change with the times.”
Since the house was completed in 1836, it has served as a fur trade headquarters, governor’s office, frontier hotel, boarding school and warehouse. The local Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1910 crusaded for its preservation, dubbing it the “Mount Vernon of Minnesota.”
But for years, history buffs and students flocked to Fort Snelling, just across the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, far more often than to Sibley’s place tucked away on the bluffs.
The numbers tell the story. Last year, Fort Snelling drew 76,074 visitors; the St. Paul house of Alexander Ramsey, who succeeded Sibley as governor, 12,361; and the Hill mansion, 58,883. Total Sibley House attendance: a paltry 1,895.
“It has, for too long, been in Fort Snelling’s shadow — both literally and metaphorically,” said Leslie Greaves Radloff, who runs the Sibley Site Committee for the Dakota County Historical Society.
Crippen said he hopes Fox can align the Sibley House’s offerings “with people’s current interests.” Sibley’s complex career in early Minnesota, he said, could help because people have an “appetite to hear about the controversial actions of the past.”
Born in Detroit in 1811, the son of that city’s first mayor and later territorial chief justice, Sibley worked for the American Fur Company when beaver and muskrat pelts fed Europe’s craving for fur hats.
He arrived in Minnesota in the mid-1830s, when the area was still part of Michigan Territory. Sibley ran the sutler’s store at Fort Snelling and set up his trading operation at Mendota — a mispronounced version of the Dakota word “Bdote,” which means “where the two waters come together.”
Sibley’s first child, Helen Hastings or Wahkiyee (Bird), was born in 1841 to Red Blanket Woman, daughter of Dakota elder Bad Hail. In 1843 he married Sarah Jane Steele, producing nine more children.
As the fur trade dwindled in the 1840s, Sibley began to invest in steamboats, land and timber — growing richer and more politically powerful.
After Minnesota became a territory in 1849, Sibley served as its first delegate to Congress; nine years later, voters tapped him as the state’s first governor. When the U.S. government delayed treaty payments to the hungry Dakota in 1862, then-Gov. Ramsey ignored Sibley’s lack of military experience and gave him the job of squelching the tribe’s insurrection.
After the bloody, six-week U.S.-Dakota War, Sibley oversaw the hasty trials that culminated in the largest mass execution in U.S. history — the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862. He led punitive raids in the next two years, pushing the Indians deep into the Dakota Territory.
By then, he had moved to St. Paul and was selling his Mendota properties. Nuns ran a boarding school out of his former house from 1867 to 1878; in the 1890s, the house became an art school. For a brief time, nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church used it for storage.
Then the DAR made the house one of the state’s first preservation sites, eventually expanding the site to include the homes of Sibley’s clerk, Hypolite Dupuis, and fur trader Jean Baptiste Faribault.
Asked about his favorite treasure of Sibley’s, Fox points to the life-size 1841 painting of his Irish wolfhound, a hunting dog named Lion. A reproduction hangs at the Sibley House.
Now it’s Fox’s job to make sure the old house itself doesn’t go to the dogs.
“There’s marketing, research, customer relations — many hats — but we’re enthusiastic about launching this new chapter in the house’s history,” he said.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.