At 96, Nina Marcum’s memory and opinions are as sharp as her Wii bowling game.
“I scored a 177 yesterday and messed up at the end or I might have gotten to my record of 201,” she said from her home in Edina.
Her key to memory retention? “Just lucky, I guess.” We’re all lucky, in fact, because Nina Marcum is the last living person who once called Fort Snelling’s iconic Round Tower her home.
“I was upset when they made us move out in 1938 so they could make a whole museum out of what had been a lovely home,” she said. “They wrecked it and made it a messy looking place, don’t you think? I’m kind of ashamed and haven’t been back since I don’t know how long.”
Nina was the fourth of five children of the late Fort Snelling electrician Thomas E. Marcum. When he landed the job in 1918, the Fort had no housing for married couples. So the electrician converted the old Round Tower, a key frontier military outpost dating back to 1820 on the high bluff where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers converge.
“[It’s] perhaps the most significant landmark in the entire history of Minnesota and the Northwest,” longtime Minnesota Historical Society Director Russell Fridley wrote in 1956.
Over the past 210 years, the fort’s perch has housed 1805 explorer Zebulon Pike, slave and failed Supreme Court litigant Dred Scott, two Dakota executions in 1865, countless school field trips — and Nina Marcum. Her younger brother, Bob, was shot down over Berlin in 1944. Her three older siblings — Thelma, Abrilia and James — have passed on, too.
That leaves Nina (pronounced NINE-ah), who moved into the Round Tower when she was a few months old in 1919. “I was born in the bed of our duplex nearby and the whole thing cost $5,” she said.
Girlhood was idyllic in her family’s limestone citadel. “It was a lovely home and large enough you didn’t feel like you were living in a circle,” she said.
Fort personnel ironed their sheets. “There was a bakery that sold us one-pound loaves of bread for two cents,” she said.
Her father dug a fishing pond in their expansive front yard.
“There were no cars rushing by and, at the end of the block, the streetcar would take us to a swimming pool,” she said.
Her Kentucky-born father wired the place up with all the latest electrical gadgets. “We had two phones and an electric stove before anyone had electricity,” Nina said.
According to a dazzled 1926 newspaper reporter: “This squat little fortress, with its medieval loopholes for defensive rifle firing, is now an up-to-the-minute residence topped with radio antennae bringing in the invisible news of the world.”
Nina’s mother, Bessie, the story went on to report, stashed her jams and jellies “in the triangular recesses in the thick stone walls that flare from narrow porthole slits, made to shoot through. … [She] presses an electric button or turns an electric switch to operate her electric stove, her iron, her waffle iron, her toaster, sewing machine, curling iron, vacuum cleaner, percolator, heater, washing machine and water heater, not to mention assorted floor lamps and table lamps.”
After spending her first 19 years in the Round Tower, Nina and her family moved out when her father landed a job in Omaha — and state historians capped decades of talk and decided to make the fort a museum with the Round Tower as its central symbol.
The military provided maintenance until severing ties in 1946, forcing the museum to close for 18 years until the Historical Society reopened the fort in 1964 amid a massive renovation.
When she left, Nina had just graduated from St. Paul Central High School in 1937 and would go on to the University of Minnesota and a long career in Washington as a secretary for an Air Force general. “My annual salary went from $1,000 to $12,000 in 30 years,” said Nina, whose stock market acumen nicely augmented that government pay.
Nina had no children, but remains close with her many nieces, nephews and their offspring.
“She provides a little vindication for all of us who would tell the story of our grandparents growing up in the Fort Snelling Round Tower at show and tell in school, only to have teachers and classmates insist that didn’t happen,” said Bob Marcum, a nephew from tiny Lawler, Minn., in Aitkin County.
Leslie Marcum, 58, recalls visiting the History Center lobby years ago and seeing a photo of her great-grandmother in the family’s pie-shaped home. She has amassed a file of historical documentation since then.
And 77 years after they were evicted, Nina Marcum is ready to let bygones be bygones.
“My father was a very smart man and he made it livable,” she said. “I sometimes ask people if they’ve ever visited the museum and smile. I plan to go out there real soon.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org