What is the most iconic landmark in Fort Wayne?
The Old Fort, of course!
The source of modern Fort Wayne’s beginnings, the Old Fort boasts an active community of volunteers that reconstructed it over 40 years ago. These volunteers continue to maintain it, and enthusiastic groups of historical reenactors bring the fort to life about once a month.
I often visited Old Fort Wayne as a kid, talking with reenactors, touching the wood beams, smelling the wood smoke fires, and jumping whenever cannons were fired. Thanks to my experiences there, I developed a love for history. Thanks to the volunteers who continue to preserve and showcase the fort, my kids (and thousands of others) can visit and get every bit as entranced with history as I did!
Old Fort History
With Fort Wayne’s three Rivers, Fort Wayne has been a strategic location for centuries. The St. Mary’s River and the St. Joseph River join together to form the Maumee River, which flows out of Fort Wayne to Lake Erie. The Miamis established the village of Kekionga here. When the French and British came to the area, they made a claim to this area, as well.
The best way to hold that claim was by making a fort. France had trading posts and a fort in this area until the French and Indian war. The British then had control of this area, but the fort was burned in Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763.
Fort Wayne marks its official founding in 1794, when the first American fort was built on the site, under orders of General Anthony Wayne. (He was nicknamed “Mad” Anthony Wayne, so Fort Wayne’s professional basketball team is the Mad Ants–isn’t that great?) The last time Fort Wayne’s fort was used as a fort was way back in 1819.
Flash forward to the 1970s, when city leaders put their heads together and decided to reconstruct the fort for educational purposes, tourism, and as a source of local pride. There has been all kinds of drama to keep this place maintained, but the fort is currently mananged by Historic Fort Wayne, Inc, and they are doing an amazing job of preserving the space and Fort Wayne’s history!
The Physical Fort
The fort itself is made of six buildings, enclosed by a wood stockade fence. The blockhouses on opposite corners housed cannons for defending the fort, and windows which jutted out, giving defenders a better view (the windows were very limited, for both defense and warmth purposes).
Of the remaining four buildings, one was for the commanding officer and his family. Another was shared by the other officers. The largest building, the one that houses the entrance to the fort, was home to all the enlisted soldiers, and where soldiers would get their supplies. The hospital was the remaining building, which served as a multi-purpose building, depending on the needs of the fort at any given time.
In the last few years, more buildings have popped up on the grounds of the Old Fort, which include a blacksmith’s shop, bakery, trading posts, and–mercifully–modern, public restrooms. Volunteers plant and maintain two huge gardens on either side of the entrance to the fort, keeping the plants grown there as authentic as possible to those that would have been planted around 1816.
About once a month, reenactors converge upon the fort. The fort is open to the public on these weekends, and reenactors often protray a specific person who either did or could have spent some time in Fort Wayne in the early 19th century (or whenever the historical theme of the weekend was).
This year, the fort will be open:
January 25 for Nouvelle Annee
February 22 for Winter Garrison 1812
February 29 for Revolutionary War Garrison
March 7 for Civil War Garrison
April 25 for the 13th Pennsylvania Garrison
May 9-10 for Muster on the St. Mary’s
June 6-7 for the Siege of Fort Wayne 1812
July 11-12 for The Five Forts Timeline
August 22-23 for Post Miami 1755
September 13 for Be a Tourist in Your Hometown
October 17 for Fright Night Lantern Tours (tickets required)
November 28 for Joyeux Noel
Generally, for these weekends, the fort is open from 10am-5pm. But double-check the schedules at oldfortwayne.org.
My Family’s Experiences
I took my kids to the fort for the first time when they were 4 and 1. At those ages, neither of them thought it was a good idea!
Don’t dispair, fellow parents! I brought them back this year (ages 10 and 8), and I had to pull them out of there, they were having such a good time! We went on the Be a Tourist in Your Hometown weekend. A group of spinners set up their spinning wheels on the porch of the officers’ quarters, and my daughter was fascinated watching them spin, admiring their dresses, etc.
Another reenactor pitched a tent between two buildings, and he was explaining all about how people started fires before matches were invented. My son is a bit of a pyromaniac and just couldn’t get enough of this man’s presentation. He presenter let people try striking flint with steel in order to get sparks, which was positioned to land in kindling, and then could ignite (with some careful blowing involved). My son got a chance to try, and he could have stayed there all day!
But that was not all! Two women demonstrated open-fire cooking techniques inside the fort. One of the officers on hand showed us around the enlisted men’s quarters. Outside, the blacksmith forge was lit, the bakery sold bread, and a tinsmith set up shop. Despite the constant drizzle that afternoon, my older kids were ready go to live at the fort!
If you have no problems walking and climbing stairs, I recommend parking in the public lot by Headwaters Park and Club Soda (or the City/County parking garage), walk through Headwaters Park, and cross the bridge over the St. Mary’s River. I’m going to geek out on you, but crossing that bridge is like time traveling for me. I love standing there, watching the river, and getting my mind in gear to enjoy life in Indiana two centuries ago.
(Never mind that Ft. Wayne quite likely did not have such an awesome bridge in the 18th century!)
But it really is a great way to enter the fort.
If you don’t want to walk so far, head around to Spy Run Avenue, and there may be parking at the fort. They don’t have a big lot, though, so be prepared to walk!
Hours and Admission
Check above for the 2020 schedule. It is usually open about one weekend a month. Check with oldfortwayne.org for exact dates and times.
The weekends that the fort is open, they usually open from 10 to 5. (Although that does change, depending on the event, so double-check with oldfortwayne.org!)
Admission is free, but there is always a jar for donations at the entrance. The fort is only able to stay open to the public through the efforts of dedicated volunteers and donations, so do leave a donation on your way in or out!
Whenever you get a chance, take advantage of the opportunities to explore history and Fort Wayne’s Old Fort this year!