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Roger Natte: Keeping Fort Dodge history alive

To Roger Natte, history is a living, breathing thing. Even in these unsettled times.

The coronavirus pandemic has given Fort Dodge’s preeminent historian time at home to recall similar circumstances facing residents of the city throughout the years of its existence.

“I’ve been thinking of previous epidemics affecting Fort Dodge,” said Natte, who has researched the city’s history for six decades. “Historical Society records tell us about epidemics in the past. Numerous stories of people heading west through Fort Dodge and deaths from cholera and buried in Webster County in the 1800s. The commanding officer, Samuel Woods, at the (Fort Dodge) military post lost his entire family to cholera in Kansas.

“In 1907 we had a typhoid epidemic here. It was spread through polluted water. We got our drinking water at that time from the Des Moines River, the same place where we disposed of our sewage. Two things resulted from this. One, the Catholic Church opened Mercy Hospital here, the first ‘real’ hospital in the city. And two, we began to dig deep wells down to pure water. We were the first in Iowa. Des Moines still uses the river.”

Until COVID-19 changed the lives of us all, Natte was spending much of his time at the Webster County Historical Society offices in the Fort Dodge Public Library, completing work on three book projects. Natte oversees the society’s collection of historic photos (12,000 of them, from 1945 to 1970), articles, books and more. He has written more than two dozen articles related to Iowa history and has served on several history-related boards and commissions.

The first book project – ”Your War: Our Heroes” – is a collection of memories of World War II veterans from Fort Dodge gathered 20 years ago.

“I was working with the Golden Kiwanis Club,” he said. “Many of the members were WWII veterans. I encouraged them to write down some of their memories, short items one to three pages. About 20 responded with some pretty good stuff. They were meant to be published, but instead they got filed. And now all of the writers have passed away. The past year a lady who is working with us under a seniors employment program dug them out and got them published. We have added other things which are related to the war and Fort Dodge.”

The second is a history of African Americans in Webster County, working with Charlene Washington, a black woman who came to Fort Dodge in 1962 from Meridian, Mississippi.

“She brings an interesting perspective since she grew up in the ‘Jim Crow’ South during the Civil Rights movement,” Natte said. “When she first contacted me, she said that she knew nothing about the black community in Fort Dodge prior to her arrival. Could I help her? Me? A Dutch kid from a small town in northwest Iowa who had never talked to a black person before I went to college? It’s been a very worthwhile project.”

The third is a book on the history of the Swain-Vincent House, built in 1871 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The three-story, red-brick house is located at 824 Third Ave. S.

“One of the things I try to do is to put things in some context – the people who lived in the house, the nature and culture of the Victorian times in Fort Dodge. It’s been fun.”

None will be best sellers, Natte said, “but I do think that they will be a contribution to understanding Fort Dodge.” And as is the case with other publications, they will be available in the Historical Society library, including his most successful book – “Fort Dodge: 1850-1970: A Photo History” – with all profits going to the society.

Natte has been chronicling the history of Webster County since he first came to Fort Dodge in 1959 to student teach at North Junior High School as he was completing his degree at Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls.

He was born in Sibley, in the northwest corner of Iowa, one of three children of Berdina and William Natte. His father was a carpenter – a good profession to be in when a housing boom began when veterans of World War II returned home. The family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for greater work opportunities for his father. And during their five years there, a life’s change took place for Natte, his brother Bill and his sister Marilyn.

“With more opportunities in a bigger city, my mother was insistent that we kids would have those experiences, so we participated in everything,” Natte said. “During the summers we lived at the Public Museum. I was in the Junior Geologists and Junior Historians day camps which met once a week. Art museums, the furniture museum, visited Indian mounds, even went to see the Freedom Train on tour. Not all of these impressed a 12 year old but I remember dearly going to these and coming back with the idea that these were very important things. Mom also said we should try new things and take advantage of opportunities and experiences that were offered. In hindsight that seems to have stuck with me throughout my life.”

The family returned to Sibley where Natte graduated from Sibley High School in 1956. He majored in history and social sciences at Iowa Teachers and during his student teaching in Fort Dodge at North Junior High, he taught eighth grade American history.

“For some, the topic was beyond their experiences and their eyes would glaze over,” he said. “I began to wonder if there might be ways to make history more relevant to them. I began thinking of things which might be of a local connection. For example, the Fort Dodge military post was part of the frontier movement and Native American history. The railroads in Fort Dodge in 1860. The expansion of the westward movement and the growth of Fort Dodge. Some of the kids’ grandparents were immigrants from Ireland, Sweden or Germany and some of the churches had ethnic roots. In the seventh grade Social Living, we explored Fort Dodge and how it grew and we began to talk about the buildings – sky scrapers at the time. Once we started this type of discussion, kids came up with their own questions and comments … Once I got started with the kids, it just got me to go further and local history became a thing of its own.”

Upon graduation, Natte was hired to teach fulltime at North and was working there when John F. Kennedy was elected president and the Peace Corps was organized. Remembering his mother’s saying to “take advantage of those opportunities,” he volunteered for the Peace Corps in 1962 and was one of the earliest to go into training and go overseas. Natte was assigned to Liberia, West Africa, and served 30 months. The first year, he taught high school and the rest of the time was a volunteer leader, one of three serving the country.

“The Peace Corps was a life-changing experience,” he said. “It was wonderful. Mom was right.”

Returning to Iowa, he worked for Campbell Soup Co. in a chicken processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota, 22 miles north of Sibley, to make money while finishing requirements for his master’s degree. He applied at Fort Dodge Community College (now Iowa Central CC) and was offered a job teaching history and the social sciences, starting there in September 1965. That was his career home for the next 33 years, until his retirement in 1998.

Natte has been married for 31 years to Joyce Garton-Natte, a retired Fort Dodge dentist who now is on the board of Gateway to Discovery/Hope Sweet Hope Studios, a faith-based residential program offering single women a way out of addiction, homelessness and related issues. He was earlier married 17 years to Joan Mulroney (Flemig) before she died.

Between them, the Nattes have four daughters – Mindy Natte Hadjis, of Cedar Rapids, who was a clinic manager at the University of Iowa Hospitals before she retired (her husband is Alex); Tresia Natte of Austin, Texas, a graduate of Iowa State and the Culinary Institute of America, who has been a chef and social worker; Jill Gilbreath, a registered nurse working in Oklahoma City (her husband is Scott), and Laura Thompson of Papillon, Nebraska (her husband is Brad), who is active in her church. Roger and Joyce have seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Among those beyond his mother who were major influences in his life were Walter Stevens, longtime editor of The Messenger – who taught him history was not just events but it was about people – “he put a human face on events. I like to think that I tried to do the same.” – and Anne Kersten – whose work with the magazines Twist & Shout and FD Today “did more than anything else did much to popularize local history.” Natte is a big fan of the work Dave Prelip does with the Facebook site “You might be from Fort Dodge if…” and the new Fort Dodge Community Foundation web site – “it’s great, a real professional job.”

Natte admits that even his favorite hobbies are related to history: Gardening – related back to the fort where he has replicated frontier and native gardens; his popular music collection of sheet music – focused on historical events and periods; Art – “Fort Dodge has had a strong artistic heritage. We have in our home many art works by Fort Dodge artists.” Even traveling – “I am always looking for connections with Fort Dodge. Last trip to California, we stopped at a Japanese relocation camp. A former Fort Dodge lady was one of the heroes of that episode during World War II for her work with the young people in the camps.”

In 2018 Natte received the William J. Petersen and Edgar R. Harlan Lifetime Achievement Award, one of Iowa’s highest awards for history.

When the Historical Society was founded in 1970, Natte said, it was very active with a membership of about 100, most of whom were older, people of the Depression and World War II generation. Over the years, fewer younger people were willing to take part and the society’s nature changed from membership participation to a focus on the archives, library and research. Today only about four people play an active role.

“There is obviously a need for new blood and volunteers,” he said.

Natte hopes to find volunteers who share his passion of Fort Dodge history, to carry on his work.

“I am really kind of a loner,” he said. “If I see something that I think ought to be done, I do it myself. That does not bode well for the future of the historical library. I am 81 and I don’t know what happens after I can’t go in. I’m looking for someone who is willing to take it on.

“The role of volunteers would be the day to day operation as well as responding to the searches of patrons. If you like history, have an interest in writing, doing oral interviews or are just willing to help out, we would invite you to check us out. We can use you to do a bit of everything or you can just choose a single topic of your special interest. You can work on it a week or two weeks and then move on. I am usually around to provide you with some direction and encouragement.”

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