Visitors to the Lower Sioux Agency historic site near Morton can expect lots of “new” this spring and summer following its grand reopening Memorial Day weekend.

After two years of closure because of budget cuts and management disagreements, the site will open Friday with a new manager, new staff and lots of new programming.

An open house will kick off the busy summer Saturday, during which visitors can tour the grounds — including the 1861 warehouse, walking trails and gardens — play games and learn how to construct a teepee and plant gardens.

Such hands-on activities and kid-friendly events will take place throughout the summer under Manager Tom Sanders’ direction. With 25 years experience working at historic sites, including Jeffers Petroglyphs, where he’s still manager, Sanders has been working with Minnesota Historical Society officials, community members and Lower Sioux Community residents to chart a new course for the site.

“One of the main things we heard across the state is (people) wanted a Dakota voice and a Dakota presence in the story,” said Sanders who took over as manager in April. “We need to take in a strong Dakota voice and look at what’s happened there.”

To accomplish this, two Dakota people are on staff at the site and members of the Lower Sioux Community will help with special programs, including demonstrations and panel discussions.

The site grounds will remain the same, although Sanders is working on furnishing the warehouse. The exhibits, which depict events before and during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, will not change.

The Lower Sioux Agency site was the only of seven historic sites slated for closure because of budget cuts that actually closed July 2004. The others, including Fort Ridgely near New Ulm, were kept open by volunteer organizations and donations.

The same would have been true for the Lower Sioux Agency, but the Minnesota Historical Society, the tribal council of the Lower Sioux Community and the Redwood County Board disputed who should manage the site. The Lower Sioux Community wanted to manage the site, which the society supported, but the commissioners wanted the historic property to remain state owned.

A bill passed during the last legislative session, which allots $700,000 to the seven affected sites, allowed the Lower Sioux Agency to remain state owned and to reopen this spring. The site received $68,000 to cover expenses through June 30, and a larger cut from then until June 30, 2007.

Bill Keyes, the society’s assistant director for historic sites, has worked with the commissioners and the Lower Sioux Community during the past few months to come up with ideas to make the 2006 tourist season at the site a success, he said. All three groups put the arguing behind them and agreed the future of the site is most important.

(The Historical Society determined which sites would close by how many tourists visited each site per year, among other factors. About 6,000 people visited the Lower Sioux Agency site annually, as opposed to 75,000 at Fort Snelling.)

Sanders, who worked for many years at Fort Snelling, says he has plenty of ideas to keep the site fresh and interesting to tourists. Since he took over management of Jeffers in 1998, the site has upped its number of annual visitors from 6,000 to 12,000.

New special events will be held to draw in crowds, such as a hands-on pottery event in August during which visitors can create their own coil pots and watch potters from the Lower Sioux Community throw pots on a wheel. A panel discussion, including Lower Sioux Community scholars, will be held in July to discuss how treaties and government policies changed the course of history leading up to the Dakota Conflict.

During the open house the tribal dance group Cansa ’yapi Oyate will perform in the afternoon.

Six former members of the Lower Sioux Agency staff resigned recently in part because of disagreements with how Sanders will run the site. But staff members declined to comment on the record.

Members of the Jeffers Petroglyphs staff also will work at the Lower Sioux Agency to make up the difference.

“I think the change at Lower Sioux Agency presents an opportunity to rethink interpretation and make changes,” said Ben Leonard, director of the Nicollet County Historical Society in St. Peter. “The exhibits were updated several years ago, and it makes sense that programmatic interpretation would be updated as well.”

Leonard said he’s enjoyed working with Sanders so far and hopes Fort Ridgely, which the Nicollet County Historical Society manages, and the Lower Sioux Agency site can collaborate in the future.

“We’re looking for the site’s voice,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to figure things out. ... You can’t produce the same story every day.

“Our idea is to engage people and to make them want to go out and learn more.”

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