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Published: 8/5/2004

Fort Meigs bids farewell to leader

BY RACHEL ZINN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Larry Nelson, site manager at Fort Meigs State Memorial Park, stood his ground at the fort for the past 24 years. He was besieged by budget cuts and controversy over the handling of artifacts and remains found at the site, but he held fast long enough to see the fort through its recent $6.2 million face-lift.

Mr. Nelson left his post Monday when he officially retired as site manager of Fort Meigs along the Maumee River in Perrysburg.

"He maintained the fort through some very, very difficult times," Dr. Richard Ruppert, a member of the Ohio Historical Society board, said. "I think Larry is to be given great credit for holding the fort together and leading the transition."

Mr. Nelson, who declined to speak with The Blade about his retirement, is a nationally respected scholar and author and is well known around the area for his expertise on the Great Lakes region from 1750 through the War of 1812.

"I think he's had a big influence on how people understand the rich history of the area they live in. He has been such a dynamic presenter and advocate for historic preservation," said Adam Sakel, education specialist at Fort Meigs who has taken over as the interim site manager.

Mr. Nelson, who was with the Ohio Historical Society for nearly 30 years, began working at Fort Meigs a few years after the site was restored in 1975. The fort was built in 1813 by Gen. William Henry Harrison.

In the early days of Mr. Nelson's tenure, the site was little more than a "mud hole," Dr. Ruppert said. It had no museum, was only open seasonally, and had winter offices for the

staff connected to an unheated garage.

The historical society oversees the operation of Fort Meigs, but the organization has not always been able to provide adequate funding. In 1993, Fort Meigs was scheduled to close because the historical society was facing reductions in state funding.

Mr. Nelson helped local volunteers raise $47,000 in donations, which was enough to keep Fort Meigs open.

"Larry was instrumental, in my judgment, in saving Fort Meigs," Ed Danzinger, a Bowling Green State University history professor, said. "Larry rallied the troops in the area. He was a great leader during the lean times."

Times changed over the next few years, as the historical society decided to pour millions of dollars into Fort Meigs to upgrade existing facilities and spend $2.4 million to construct a visitor center. The center, which opened last year, includes a museum with artifacts uncovered at the fort site and exhibits designed by Mr. Nelson and Mr. Sakel.

"The visitor center is being looked at by some groups as a model for those renovating their sites," Mr. Sakel said.

The renovations sparked controversy when construction crews dug up remains of the Spafford family and Native American remains. The historical society quietly brought in archaeologists to excavate the site and take the remains to the society's anthropology laboratory in Columbus for analysis.

After a public outcry, the Spafford remains were returned, but the Native American remains are being kept in Columbus.

Mr. Nelson and historical society officials said at the time that the excavations were legal, but Barbara Mann, a member of the Native American Alliance of Ohio, said the digs violated a federal law that requires anyone who discovers Native American remains to contact a recognized Native American spokesman.

"We were unable to get them to return the remains that they illegally took," Ms. Mann said.

Mr. Nelson, who received a doctoral degree several years ago from Bowling Green State University, has written two books and edited other books and articles. His publications have won several awards, including one from the Ohio Association of Historical Societies and Museums for his book Men of Patriotism, Courage, and Enterprise: Fort Meigs in the War of 1812.

"His publications have been well-received. I think he's made a significant contribution to the history of the period," said Michael Pratt, director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg College. "He has always been interested in bringing history to the public."

Mr. Nelson organized several academic conferences in the region, taught at Bowling Green State University's Firelands College, and gave many lectures to scholars and the public.

"His opinions and ideas are often sought by members of the historical community all over the country," Mr. Sakel said. "He is a very energetic and knowledgeable speaker. Few people would leave a talk given by Larry without being more interested in the history of the area."

Local volunteers are continuing a campaign to raise money for the fort so the site will not have to rely on the historical society for funding. Since beginning in April, the campaign has raised about $900,000 of its $1.5 million goal.

"I hope [Larry's] remembered for holding the fort together in tough times," Dr. Ruppert said. "He managed it as it changed from being a not very good place to visit to being a first-class site."

Contact Rachel Zinn at

rzinn@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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