Twenty minutes. Shift the time frame 20 minutes, and the Fort Osage historic site in Sibley would likely have been lost to a rapidly spreading grass fire on Feb. 18.
But it reopened this week, and officials say that although a couple buildings are closed, visitors will experience essentially the same thing they would have before the fire. Officials were getting bids for repairs this week. Questions of cost and whether insurance can cover repairs are still being worked out, but Jackson County plans to have the work done.
“We don’t believe we have any structural damage,” said said Brian Nowatny, deputy director of park operations with the Parks + Rec Department.
The fort sits on the most commanding position above the Missouri River for many miles. The steep slope down to the river is covered with grass, and that’s where the fire started late in the afternoon two Sundays ago.
An employee in the education center – with only 20 minutes to go in her work day – noticed smoke at 4:40 p.m. and called it in. A little later, and no one would have been there.
“The whole fort could have been gone,” said Jonathan Klusmeyer, the county’s superintendent of historic sites.
Roofs will have to be replaced on two of the five blockhouses. Some of the fence was damaged. Also, officials plan to put the officers’ quarters back into use as a public space.
“Really, after the fire there should be more to view than before the fire,” Klusmeyer said.
He said he’d like people to come away from their time at Fort Osage with a sense of how the young United States of America of the early 19th century was an untested power. Would Napoleon swoop in and take over parts of the continent? What were the British still up to?
“We’re just doing our best just to survive and expand in this time period,” he said of the country.
The fort wasn’t open all that long, from 1808 to 1822, but it has plenty of touches with well-known historical figures. Daniel Boone visited in 1816 to see his friend George Sibley, whose story is closely tied to Fort Osage. Sacagawea, famed for her crucial help to Lewis and Clark, in 1808 or 1809 at least stopped at the river landing, if not the fort itself.
The fort flies the 15-star, 15-stripe American flag of its era. It’s the flag that flew at Fort McHenry and inspired the national anthem. (The nation of course kept adding a star per state but at some point decided one stripe per state wasn’t going to work.)
The fort has several blockhouses and the old factory, that is, a selling house where Native Americans could trade for tinware, candelabra, knives and axes, blankets – the good ones were British, made of wool, eight and a half pounds – and smooth-bored hunting rifles, plus the lead and powder to go with them. The federal government used the fort and the factory as a presence on the frontier and as a means to try to control tribes in the area.
The government abandoned what was called the factory system in 1822, in favor of letting private companies take over trade with Native peoples. The fort closed within a few years and fell into ruin. It was reconstructed in the 1940s.
Klusmeyer said tens of thousands of people visit the fort each year, including lots of school kids.
“We shoot for about third to fourth grade,” he said.
Several years ago the county added the education center near the fort, the site of many ongoing events. One is later this month. The annual War of 1812 in the West symposium, with nine speakers over two days, is March 24-25. It’s free at the education center, and admission to the fort itself is at the reduced rate.