Al Nelson

Living a life of history

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Fort Dodge historian Al Nelson holds up a print of one of the designs he's considering for the cover of the book he's working on about the history of Fort Dodge during the Frontier Era.

Fort Dodge historian Al Nelson’s interest in the past goes back to his childhood.

“When I was a little kid,” he said, “my mother had this leather-bound genealogy book. It fascinated me. I’d sneak a peek through it. I was just amazed at the fancy handwriting and script.”

After graduating from Iowa State University, Nelson found himself living and working in a several states including Michigan, Arizona and Colorado.

He returned to Fort Dodge about 14 years ago.

“I came back to Fort Dodge to help with my mom who had cancer,” he said. “It was mostly about finding things to do while I was doing that.”

His first project was a Photoshop map of the Webster County area.

“The document had well over 300 layers,” he said. “It showed points of interest in Webster and northern Boone counties.”

Putting the map together required a lot of legwork and a good set of tires.

“I drove over 3,000 miles in Webster County just to track the places down,” he said. “GPS wasn’t available then. I wish it had been.”

Nelson has several ongoing projects that he’s working on.

One is writing a book about the early frontier history of Fort Dodge.

“I’ve invested a few years of writing,” he said. “Two and a half so far. I’ve got 100,000 plus words already. It will be a substantial book. There is such a wealth of interesting stories associated with Fort Dodge.”

Much of the information that will be included in his book was gathered elsewhere.

“I’ve visited over 160 locations around the country investigating Fort Dodge-related events and people,” Nelson said. “I got that kick. There’s stuff all over the place. One thing leads to another.”

Nelson spent time in various libraries, including four days in the National Archives. He’s also spent time at Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois, a facility dedicated to maps.

“They have over 650,000 maps,” Nelson said. “They have about 100,000 that they haven’t even catalogued yet.”

One of Nelson’s other projects is trying to find out exactly what happened to Wahkonsa.

“It’s the only Indian name in Webster County,” he said.

So what did happen to him?

Nelson isn’t 100 percent sure.

“I’ve debunked a few theories,” he said. “I have evidence but not as much as I would like. I don’t know what happened to him. That drives me nuts.”

Nelson does believe that, at some point in his life, Wahkonsa became a journalist.

One thing he doesn’t like is seeing the name disappear.

“We had a Wahkonsa Township,” he said. “They did away with that name. That was our first township.”

Finally getting the answer would be a feather in his cap.

“That would be the holy grail,” Nelson said.

He’s also studied the life of Bill Tilghman, an Oklahoma and Kansas lawman and gunfighter who was born in Fort Dodge.

“Bill Tilghman has been a very fruitful grail for me as well,” Nelson said.

He’s also found out a great deal about Pauline and Al Swalm, a couple that owned The Messenger in the early 1870s.

Al Swalm spent much of his time away traveling and serving in various ambassador positions.

“She basically ran The Messenger alone while her husband was out,” Nelson said. “She was an inspiring person. She was way ahead of her time as far as woman’s independence.”

They’ll be featured in the book.

“I’ve got a long chapter on them.” he said.

After years of gathering information, collecting maps and documents and visiting libraries, Nelson has a substantial collection of materials.

“I’ve got 22 Bankers Boxes full of paper, a four-drawer file cabinet, a two-drawer file cabinet and piles on my floor,” he said.

Is there some kind of index to all of it?

“I don’t have a card catalog in my head,” he said. “That could get lost.”

When asked why it’s important to study, preserve and remember history, Nelson responded with a quote attributed Cicero.

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child,” Nelson said. “For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history.”

Seeing local history erased is one of the things that really angers Nelson.

He cites various bits of Frontier Era architecture that has been destroyed. Even the view of the Des Moines River Valley blocked by the construction of new shop building.

“The area that’s Haskel Park,” he said. “That was the livery area for the largest stage coach line in the area.”

The Frontier Era that Nelson is writing about what a time of rapid change in Fort Dodge.

“By the numbers,” Nelson said, “Fort Dodge grew more than any other community in Iowa. It grew more than it did from 1900 to 1920 put together.”

That growth was not only in population, but also in industry, commerce, housing and culture.

“The homes from the 1890s are incredible,” he said. “We have many notable Victorian homes.”

Nelson is still on the hunt for information in unexpected places.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” he said. “You’re finding something that nobody else has really found.”

Some of that history, is sadly lost when someone throws something away that may have value.

“We don’t know how much history is lost,” he said. “We do know we’ve lost a lot. People look at something they find, they have no interest in it so they toss it.”

While Nelson is still working on his book and does have much of it written, it won’t be printed for a while yet.

“Within a year,” he said. “Six months to a year.”