Historic Structures

Old Fort Randall Church, Fairfax South Dakota

Date added: October 8, 2021 Categories: South Dakota Church

The only visible remains of historic Old Fort Randall, located in Gregory County, South Dakota, is the ruins of an old church. These ruins are on the right bank of the Missouri River, immediately downstream from a large earthfill dam (named "Fort Randall") that was built in the late 1940's.

The site of the Fort was selected in 1856 by General William S, Harney, Commander of the Sioux Expedition, after spending a winter at Old Fort Pierrea. He suggested that the new post be named after Colonel Daniel Randall, "late Deputy Paymaster-General". On 26 June 1856, the post was laid out and construction began. The exact location of the original Fort is not definitely known for according to the Surgeon General's Report for 1875, it was for the most part torn down, and a new post was built during 1870-72, under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel E. S. Otis, Twenty-second Infantry.

Fort Randall was, in its day, an important military post. In addition to providing military protection to settlements up and down the river, it was a focal point for receipt and distribution of supplies. The Port played a key role in hostilities following the Minnesota Sioux uprising in the early 1860's, in the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870's and in the Dakota land boom of the 1880's. Many Indian fighters, merchants, and adventurers whose names are legendary lived at the Fort at one time or another or made it their headquarters.

Fort Randall was at one time one of the finest of the government military stations. It had officers' residences and barracks ample to house a garrison of 800 men. The parade grounds were said to be the finest of any. It was bordered by rows of trees;, planted in early days, which in later years attained a large size. (From news clipping of 1896).

Little is known of the social activity of the garrison for the first twenty years after the building of Fort Randall. In 1875 soldiers of the Fort conceived the idea of building a church. Funds were solicited from the surrounding country and competent carpenters were selected from among the troops. Native material was generally used in the construction. Rock was gathered from the neighboring fields for the basement, foundation, and as fill for the massive walls. Chalk-rock was quarried from the nearby bluffs and used as a veneer for the entire building. Cottonwood for rafters and sheathing was cut locally and presumably sawed in a sawmill located on the reservation. Much white pine was used for shingles and trim, and red pine was used for the trusses and heavier members. Lodge No. 2 of the I.O.O.F. was also organized at the Fort about this time. Their members received unofficial assistance from the Quartermaster Department in the quarrying and transportation of the chalkstone blocks used in the construction.

A print from the archives of the Office, Chief of Engineers, is the nearest thing to an authentic original plan of the church available. This plan was not closely adhered to, apparently because the construction of the church became a community venture rather than an official project, and it was decided to make the building more of a social center and incorporate a room for lodge meetings. It is interesting to note that the dimensions of the library and the church proper of the original plan conform very closely to the measurements taken of the building in July 1947.

Numerous contemporary descriptions reveal the interior of the church as a thing of beauty. The pews and other fixtures were of highly polished black walnut. According to an interview in 1947 with Mr. Charles F. Pratt of Fairfax, South Dakota, a resident of Gregory County since 1885, an organ was also secured and was located in the balcony. Very little information is available on the heating system that was used, though it generally is agreed wood was used as fuel.

Fort Randall was officially abandoned in 1892, though it was but a skeleton post after 22 July 1884 when the adjoining military reservation was relinquished. The Government buildings were later sold at public auction, but not the church. Private sales disposed of the fine church furnishings. Some of the the black walnut was made into house furniture; several pews went in the making of a pulpit for the Congregational Church at Fairfax, South Dakota. One pew survives as an exhibit in the museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society at Pierre, The marble plate which was over the door of the Lodge Room is also in the museum. The church bell is believed to be at either Wagner or Springfield, South Dakota.

About 1896 a small cyclone struck the building and tore off approximately half of the roof over the chapel proper. Later a second cyclone struck and the south portion of the lodge roof disappeared. Since then the church suffered greatly at the merciless hands of vandals and nature, and the photographs well attest to its precarious condition.