Fort Sisseton celebrates 150 years

DT Wagon owners, Jim and Susan Patrick prepare a meal the 'cowboy way' during the Fort Sisseton Celebration. Photo by Cassandra Swanson

The northeastern part of South Dakota celebrated Ft. Sisseton Historical Days June 6-8.

Founded as Ft. Wadsworth in 1864, renamed Ft. Sisseton in 1876, the year of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the centennial of the United States, and decommissioned in 1889, the year South Dakota became a state, Ft. Sisseton celebrates its 150th anniversary in August. Given the importance of the occasion, the organizers had planned some special events. But the attendance at historical festivals is dependent on the weather. Luckily the weather was beautiful this year.

“The Fort has a 22 acre garden. This year, a group of people took about an acre of that ground and are working it with horse-drawn equipment,” said Katie Ceroll, Regional Park Supervisor for northeastern South Dakota. “They actually planted potatoes about a month ago, but visitors this weekend will get to watch them plant wheat and corn,” she explained prior to the event. “Then in August, they’ll harvest and visitors can watch that too.”

Another feature at this year’s festival was the restoration of the last flag that was lowered over Ft. Sisseton. “That flag was given to a family, and they passed it down and passed it down, and passed it down, and returned it to us. And we said, ‘You know what, we’re going to do something with this.’ So a team of conservators is working on the flag this weekend, and all through the year, and we hope to have it on display next year.”

Regular events include a military encampment, a mountain man rendezvous, black powder rifle and tomahawk competitions, a chuckwagon cookoff, and a Grand Ball on Saturday night. “It was beautiful this year,” said Ceroll. “The work some of those women put into their dresses, it was just amazing.”

Steve and Cassandra Swanson and family have been coming to the Ft. Sisseton Historical Days for nine years now with their family business Cowboyography, giving people a taste of the cowboy life. In Cassandra’s case, that’s literal, as she operates the Chuckwagon Cookoff at the event. “We’ve got six wagons this year, and in the Kid’s Pie Cook-off, we had two extra kids, so I let them use my stuff.”

Circumstances have forced the Swanson’s to scale back their Cowboyography engagements, but Cassandra said they simply had to come to Ft. Sisseton. “My kids couldn’t miss this one,” she says. Son Clell plays the fiddle, Caleb plays mandolin, Cole plays banjo, and daughter Cloe plays the bodhran, a handheld bass drum that came from Ireland.

“This is the real deal, here, this is living history,” says Cassandra. “The mountain men, the cowboys, the farming, all of it. If you want to see what the West was really like, I would tell you to put down Ft. Sisseton for the first weekend in June and come visit. I think it was really good that they added the ranch rodeo and the Chuckwagon Cookoff to let people know about the cowboy way of life.

“Steve and I got to spend the first four years of our marriage cowboying in Montana. When Steve’s family wanted us to come back to the farm near Canton, we thought we were done being cowboys. But we found a way to enjoy the cowboy life and show others what it was like.”

Recipes shared by the Swanson family:

Cowboy Beans

1pound pinto beans – wash and pick through, soak overnight. Boil in a large pot with smoked ham hock, large chopped onion, 3 oz. green chilis, 1 tsp oregano, 1/2 tsp. salt – cook at a simmer for 4 hours till beans tender and juice thickened. Season with additional salt, pepper and garlic according to taste.

Real Cowboy Biscuits

Line oven or use cake pan – spray. Mix 1 1/2 cup flour, 2 tsp baking powder, 3 tsp sugar 1/4 tsp. salt together. Crumb in 3/4 cup cold butter. Add 2/3 cup milk. Knead as little as possible, roll 1/2 inch thick and cut 2 inch biscuits, makes 12. Bake in 450 degree oven 10-12 minutes.

Spotted Pup

A great dessert for any meal and so easy to prepare. Was a favorite treat among chuckwagons as the ingredients were portable and easily available.

1 cup rice

Handful of raisins

1/4 cup molasses or sugar

Cinnamon to taste

1 Tbs vanilla

1 Tbs rum may be added to become rum raisin pup pudding which is very good during cold months.

Put everything in the pot and bring to a boil; stir frequently until water is absorbed by the rice. Good by itself or add a topping such as pecan or cashew nuts, fruit such as peaches also makes a good topping.

Next year’s celebration will be: June 5-7, 2015. Go to for more information.