A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The first highways into the prairie grasslands of what would later become South Dakota were the rivers used by the earliest adventurers, explorers, mountain men, and fur trappers.  For the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century travelers west of St. Louis, their road was the Missouri River.

It was the vast interstate highway from St. Louis to the far northwest.  There were no literal signposts to show the way.  The travelers noted the position of islands, bluffs, forts, and tributary streams to determine their location.

Fort Randall, one of the most important military posts on the Upper Missouri was established in 1856.  The chapel at the fort was erected in 1875 and the furnishings were all constructed by those stationed at the fort.

Fort Randall was closed in 1892 and the buildings sold.  The chapel was the one building which was not sold.  At one time it was thought that local citizens might purchase the building and establish it as a church were area citizens could worship.  This did not happen.  It soon became the target of vandals and hundreds of individuals who were compelled to carve their names into the native chalk rock walls.

In July of 1896, four years after the fort was closed, a violent twister struck the chapel and it was practically demolished.  Half the roof of the church wing was blown away and some of the walls were torn down.  Again in 1898 the same thing happened, this time the twister striking the south end of the I.O.O.F. hall and tearing away about half of the roof.

This building had an interesting history.  It was constructed early in the 1870s when Fort Randall was at the height of its glory as the finest and liveliest of frontier military posts.  Chalkstone furnished the material for the principal portion of the building, which, from an architectural standpoint, would have done credit to any town of 5,000.

The second Odd Fellows Lodge organized in South Dakota met in the chapel.  After the fort had been abandoned by the war department, the lodge room was still maintained by members of the order.  I. O. O. F. members were accustomed to traveling thirty or forty miles to attend meetings.

These meetings were held in what was one of the best and most handsomely furnished lodge rooms in the state.  A general feeling of regret and loss was felt when citizens throughout the state learned of the disaster which had overtaken the old chapel.

At the time, newspapers recommended:  “If money can replace the structure in its old condition, Odd Fellows, especially in the southern portion of the state should by all means take the steps necessary for repairing and preserving the birthplace of Odd Fellowship in the region.”

In the early 1920s there had been much discussion in the newspapers of what was called “The Mystery Church” located on the abandoned Fort Randall site.  Because of this interest, Doane Robinson wrote a two-page story entitled “The Mystery Church” for the 1924 edition of “South Dakota Historical Collections.”

The church was erected in 1875 and was built of chalk rock which was quarried two miles south of the fort.  Four infantry companies were stationed at the fort.

“Some of the soldiers,” wrote Robinson, “organized a Lodge of I. O. O. F. which was No. 2 of Dakota Territory; No. 1 was started at Yankton.  The members of the I. O. O. F. made a deal with the Quartermasters Department to erect the building.  They were to furnish the labor and the Government was to haul the stone and saw it and put it on the ground.  (When chalk rock is first taken out it is easy to saw and it is quite soft.)  It was to be a large building.  The center room was to be the I. O. O. F. hall; the east wing was to be the church for all denominations, it was called Christ’s Church; the west wing was to be the post library.  The building was always used for the purpose for which it was built until the fort was abandoned in 1892.”

The church was furnished very nicely; all the pews were two and one-half inch thick black walnut.  It had a large organ, and also a large bell that could be heard for miles.  All of this was paid for by the soldiers and citizens who were employed at the fort.

After the abandonment of the fort, and before the buildings were sold, different towns wanted to get the church furniture and had taken the matter up with the War Department in Washington.  Jim Stephens, of Springfield, came to the fort with teams and an order from the War Department to get the furniture and bell.  He did succeed in getting the bell loaded in a wagon when citizens living nearby objected to him taking the property as it did not belong to the government.  However, he did take the bell and it was used as the fire bell at Springfield.

When the Government buildings were sold at public auction, the Government offered its interest in the chapel for sale.  No bids were offered for it at that time.  It was later sold at a private sale to J. H. McLaughlin, who was custodian of the fort.  He was paid $70 for his services.  Mr. McLaughlin sold the church furniture to Mrs. Thompson of Fairfax who had the walnut made into fine furniture.

By 1924, hundreds of names had been written on the inside walls and carved on the outside of the structure.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on February 28, 2024