This historic central Minnesota park is almost unrecognizable after a tornado flattened it
Work to clear out timber could start as early as mid summer and the park could be reopened in the fall.
STAPLES — "It's hard to comprehend the extent of the devastation until you see it," Bob Swenson, a Wadena County Park Board member said while standing among a battlefield of fallen oak trees at Old Wadena County Park, northwest of Staples.
He along with other board members, on Wednesday, June 22, were getting a look at what was once Wadena County's most iconic county park. It was a setting filled with towering oak trees on a high overlook above the pristine waters of the Crow Wing River.
It's now a tangled mess of fallen trees including some 30-40 acres of pine plantation and oaks with nary a tree left unsnapped in the path of a Memorial Day EF-2 tornado that spawned out of a large storm system that caused damage throughout central Minnesota.
Wadena County parks maintenance supervisor "Ranger Glenn" Motzko is a one-man care taker for this park like all nine Wadena County parks. Getting the phone call on that May 30 night about took his breath away. He was busy cleaning up from the storm as it passed through in Parkers Prairie when he took a call from someone who happened to get a first look at Old Wadena. They told him the beloved park was gone.
It's not exactly gone, but it's certainly not what it once was, or had become over the last 40 years.
The park board met there to go over steps to move towards recovery at the site. Minnesota DNR Forestry staff surveyed the area and they plan to bid out clearing of the trees by the first of July. Once that's complete, the group will be able to take a better look at what they are working with. It was mentioned that they may at some point be seeking volunteers to help cleanup the park. Heavy discussions on rebuilding the park will take place in the fall.
The latest centerpiece for the park was a large pavilion, just completed in 2018. It was completely ripped apart and parts of the steel roof are now laying scattered in the toppled pines. Preliminary talks are to replace the pavilion. The foundation was damaged slightly and all poles snapped. This structure would be one item covered by insurance.
"It's done many weddings and graduation parties so far," Wadena County parks administrator Deana Malone said of the new pavilion. A graduation party had just taken place at the site prior to the storm.
"Thank the good Lord they were all out of here by 10 on Sunday," Malone said.
Malone is clearly saddened by the damage at the park but is hopeful for what can be made of the park following these changes.
"I got kind of choked up because I'll never see it like that again in my lifetime," Malone said.
Early talks include adding some large trees back to the grassy campground area to replace the destroyed trees. Swenson mentioned trying to preserve an oak tree stump so people can remember the damage that changed the face of the park.
Malone shared that it's quite possible that the park could be reopened in the fall at least for day use if not for camping.
Currently, the road to the park is closed. The county asks people not to enter the park as it's currently unsafe to walk around with so many fallen trees. Walking paths are impassable at this time. Malone and Motzko were able to make their way from the campground to the Little Round Hill, the area of the historic battle site. That area of the park did not sustain much damage.
Motzko has been working to preserve and improve the county parks for 24 years. He can remember this place even before that when it wasn't a park, growing up in the area as a kid. The pine plantation that was knocked flat was once a farm field back in the 1960s before the county obtained the property and turned it into a county park in 1964.
"You've got to preserve it," Motzko said. He's had more than a few conversations with people over the decades who have done senseless acts to make a mess of the parks. He said things have gotten better. But this natural disaster will take years to recover from.
While much was lost, some people have inquired about the park's perhaps best known tree, the Warrior Tree, a massive white pine that's been around since the 1800s. It's still standing tall just above the bog walk which is also safe and sound, still afloat. An old ox cart that was built last year and set on display was narrowly missed by falling oak trees. Another small shelter and diorama in the park were untouched.
Old Wadena had 80 individual campsites rented and another five large campground reservations from May 1 to Oct 1, 2021. That's a big chunk of the camping funds the parks department won't be making this year.
"It might be open for camping his fall, but I highly doubt it," Malone said.
It's possible, once the site is cleared, that the park could bounce back with even more campsites in the future in the newly formed opening.
Old Wadena Rendezvous
The parks primary gathering, the Old Wadena Rendezvous, will not be happening this summer, typically held each August.
The Old Wadena Society sponsors the annual Old Wadena Rendezvous and Folklife Festival every August in the Old Wadena Park as part of its mission to share information about the natural environment and history of this area of north-central Minnesota. The park is situated on the banks of the Crow Wing River, one of the best canoe rivers in Minnesota.