Messerly leaves legacy at Ft. Stevenson

GARRISON – His positive impact on Fort Stevenson State Park will last for many years.

Dick Messerly, manager of Fort Stevenson since 1992, officially retires from his position at the end of this month. He’ll leave behind a vastly different park than the one that greeted him 21 years ago.

“When I came here, there was absolutely nothing here that gave you any idea why this was named Fort Stevenson,” recalled Messerly. “My first goal, right away, was to build some kind of interpretive center to explain what Fort Stevenson was all about.”

The result, after nearly 10 years of dedicated work, was the construction of a guardhouse based primarily on notes, drawings and pictures of the old fort. The original location of Fort Stevenson lies underneath Lake Sakakawea a few miles from a southern point in the park.

Messerly worked with various groups to secure funding and construction of the replica guardhouse that graces the park today. It overlooks Lake Sakakawea and is an easily visible landmark for boats on the water.

“The guardhouse was perfect. It says ‘fort’ all over it,” remarked Messerly.

Visitors to the guardhouse today will discover an interpretive story of the original Fort Stevenson. The guardhouse is also the focal point for the park’s annual Frontier Military Days, a time when re-enactors help bring alive the history of the old fort that once anchored the military’s Middle District of the Department of Dakota.

While working on creating an identity for the park, Messerly boldly introduced what would become one of the widest reaching and most notable events held at Fort Stevenson each year.

“In 1992 I was working with the Garrison Chamber and Tourism Committee and asked, ‘Why don’t we start a bicycle tour?'” recalled Messerly. “It’s where you ride 400 miles in a week.”

According the Messerly, the initial response was, “Who would come on that?”

“But they were open to it,” added Messerly. “We got 100 people the first year and it has grown ever since. It has been a way to promote the area and grow the park.”

The event spawned by Messerly is CANDISC, which stands for “cycle around North Dakota in Sakakawea country.” This year will mark the 21st anniversary of CANDISC. A field of 300 riders is expected to participate in a 371-mile, seven-day ride from Fort Stevenson to Lake Metigoshe State Park and back.

Messerly said he got the idea for CANDISC from his earlier participation in a similar bicycle tour while residing in Iowa. It was from Iowa State University that he earned a degree in parks and recreation. After a stint as a building contractor, he began applying for jobs suited to his education.

“I applied for an opening at Lewis and Clark State Park in 1992. It turned out that Fort Stevenson was open at the same time. They gave me the choice of which park I’d like to go to,” Messerly said. “With the access to Minot and Bismarck and all the potential, I chose Fort Stevenson.”

The best known park along Lake Sakakawea at the time was Lake Sakakawea State Park at Pick City. Messerly knew Fort Stevenson was in need of improvement and promotion. He set some goals and worked at achieving them. The list included the planting of trees, lots of them.

“I love trees,” smiled Messerly. “The first year I was here we planted 200 trees. The next year I said we were ordering 6,000 trees and they told me I was crazy. Now we have the Trooper Forest out there. We partnered with school kids who planted 500 to 600 trees a year. They come to see them now and the trees are 30 feet high. They can’t believe it! We’ve planted about 50,000 trees in the years I’ve been here.”

Many of those trees supply shade for campers staying at the park. A portion of the park’s 10 miles of hiking trail, another improvement added during Messerly’s time as manager, snakes through trees and native prairie.

“It is fun to see on a Saturday afternoon the professional hiker with his walking stick, pack and hiking shorts passing somebody. Then there’ll be a mom, pushing a stroller along, with her flip-flops,” said Messerly. “People really do enjoy the trees and the hiking trails. It’s been fun to see.”

Messerly was cleaning out his desk and file cabinets this past week. A few visitors stopped in and gave him a bad time about his seemingly impossible filing system. The reality is the main offices at Fort Stevenson are crammed into a portion of what is a maintenance shop.

“They always said I had the worst office in the whole state,” laughed Messerly.

Through the years, Messerly maintained that his office was good enough and that funds could be better spent elsewhere in the park. However, after 21 years in cramped office quarters, the park is finally scheduled to construct a new visitor’s center and park office. Messerly will get to see it. He expects to remain close to the park.

“Actually, my wife and I purchased three acres of land about a mile and a half north of the park. We’d like to build a home there. I’d like to do some volunteering, some recreational biking and sailing. I have a small 20-foot sailboat and like to kayak and canoe.”

Messerly said he was leaving the park to a very capable replacement and that he didn’t want any future decisions to be based on what he might have done. He said he feels it is important for park managers to do things as they believe they must be done.

When asked about his lengthy service to Fort Stevenson State Park and what he’d like people to remember about them, Messerly replied, “I suppose the number one thing is that we worked together with Garrison and various groups, improved the park and saw it grow. It was a group effort, I think. I know I’ll miss the people and the relationships that I’ve built over 21 years.”

Messerly will be missed too, but he leaves behind a vibrant park that will continue to be a favorite destination for thousands of visitors every year.