The story snippets below are from former Friends of the Sibley Historic Site newsletter, signs around the site, and other postings. Please enjoy!
The Daughters to the Rescue
The Sibley and Faribault Houses may have been doomed to collapse if not for a Minnesota River excursion taken by Julia M. Johnson and Lucy McCourt in 1090. Mrs. Johnson was a dean of women at Macalester College and Mrs. McCourt a new member of the St. Paul chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Mrs. Johnson pointed out the importance of old Mendota and lamented the condition of both the Sibley and Faribault Houses. The two homes – then being used as vegetable warehouses – were decrepit, with overgrown yards, broken windows, and crumbling stonework. Rail-riding vagrants further damaged the homes as they broke into the houses seeking shelter.
Mrs. McCourt quickly dispatched a letter to Archbishop John Ireland about the houses. By January 1910, she had heard from the Archbishop that the church was willing to donate the Sibley House and the adjacent brick summer kitchen to the St. Paul chapter of the Daughters. In March, the Daughters eagerly accepted the responsibility of caring for the properties.
Over the course of five short months, the Daughters worked to put the old Sibley residence back in order. The first purchase was a broom for fifty-five cents. Sibley’s daughter, Mrs. Sarah Sibley Young, toured the house with Mrs. McCourt, pointing out how the house was arranged during her childhood, and donated twenty-five dollars to the restoration effort. She also made a gift of Nathaniel West’s biography of Henry Sibley as the first book for the site library.
The Daughters held a grand opening celebration on Flag Day, June 14, 1910. The Fort Snelling band entertained the crowd, and Archbishop Ireland and Governor Adolph Eberhart made speeches lauding Sibley and the efforts of the Daughters to preserve his legacy. Several Sibley descendants attended and donated several items that are on display in the house today.
Furnishing and Expanding the Site
After the opening ceremonies in 1910 the DAR got down to business. National rules prevented the state organization from owning the property, so the women set up the Sibley House Association (SHA), which consisted of Minnesota DAR members. The restoration of the house was a major undertaking, and the DAR (and DAR chapters) funded various projects such as re-roofing, refurbishing, and setting up a caretaker’s residence in the 1854 Sibley summer kitchen.
Several of the larger chapters in St. Paul, Duluth, and Northfield undertook furnishing the rooms. The furniture, paintings, books, clothing, and handiwork came in from all chapters. Many valuable 19th-century artifacts were donated to the site in the early 20th century, though most had no connection to the Sibley family. Nearly all of the objects you see in the houses today were collected by DAR members.
The ladies also began expanding their holdings around the Sibley House. In 1924 the SHA purchased the DuPuis House and land from the Fee family for $1000. The ladies converted it to a teahouse, intending to use the profits to help fund the restoration and operations. The teahouse opened in 1928 and became a popular dining destination in the 1930s and 1940s.
The other major building on the site, the Faribault House, apparently stood vacant after being abandoned as a warehouse around 1914. The Minnesota Department of Highways assumed ownership of the Faribault property in the 1920s, and in 1934 offered to help convert the landscape around the houses to a more park-like setting. The building was documented and restoration plans were developed as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, a New Deal program that began in 1933. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), another New Deal program, began the work of restoring the dilapidated house. The following year, the DAR acquired the property from the state by swapping land fronting Highway 13 that was needed for road improvements.
The DAR completed the restoration in 1938, with the first floor becoming a meeting space for local chapters. The second floor was converted to the “Sibley Indian Museum,” which featured Dakota and Ojibwe objects that had been collected by Episcopalian Bishop Henry Whipple in the 19th century. The DAR acquired over 500 objects from the Whipple Collection, several of which are still on display.
Tea Room Craze
Jean Whitaker, author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, explained how this craze arose because of a growing desire of women in America for more independence and the right to vote. A Tea Room run by women was a business operation that was acceptable to the public at that time.
When the Minnesota DAR formed the Sibley House Association to restore the Sibley House and open it to the public as Minnesota’s first historic Site, they established a tea house to provide the additional funding they needed.
The original home of Hypolite Dupuis, built in 1854, was purchased by the Minnesota Daughters of the American Revolution in 1924 and remodeled for a tea house in 1928. A spacious verandah was built on the east side and a large glass-enclosed porch was added on the west side. Thousands of guests to the Sibley Tea house each season until it closed in the 1970s.
Artwork on Site
With its stunning scenery, the Sibley Historic Site has attracted artists throughout its history. In the late 1890s the Sibley Historic Site was home to a summer art school.
In May 1996, Sibley House Association President Dorothy Bennett signed the documents that donated the Sibley Historic Site to the State of Minnesota and all the collections at the Site to the Minnesota Historical Society.
While Lisa Krahn was the Site Manager for the Sibley Historic Site in 1996, she discovered two paintings of young Dakota women by Paul Kane in a drawer in one of the buildings at the site. Krahn got them framed and hung them in the fireplace room on the first floor of the Faribault House. One theory was that these had been painted while Kane was on location rather than in a studio using sketches he had made. Rhea Nyquist, a long-time Sibley tour guide, says that on tours they would point to the red blanket the woman was wearing and tell visitors that Sibley’s Dakota wife was called Red Blanket Woman.
Nyquist also said that in a room on the second floor off the corridor where a series of photos of Bishop Whipple are still displayed were portraits of two “friendlies.” One was John Other Day, a leader of a small band of Wahpeton Dakota. The other portrait was Old Betts, who was the mother of Taopi, who, like John Other Day, was also a “friendly.” Taopi worked to protect captives during the U.S. Dakota War. According to Nyquist, Old Betts was a fixture in pioneer St. Paul – selling berries, Indian crafts, running her own ferry service and agreeing to have her picture taken. She probably resided around Lake Augusta on a piece of property Sibley make available to “friendlies” who were no longer welcome in their community.
In 2023, Site Supervisor Jack Nord found a hand-drawn portrait Sarah Steele Sibley. The Minnesota Historical Society believes it is a self portrait she drew of herself and her dog when she was a teen in the late 1830s.
Fort Snelling's Lion
Lion was the first of his kind to walk the Territory. He was a gift from Captain Martin Scott to Henry Hastings Sibley in the mid 1830s. At that time Sibley was a bachelor fur trading living in Mendota along the Minnesota River. The dog (named Lion) was the first imported breed of his kind. the 1/2 Irish wolf-dog and 1/2 Scottish gray-hound’s massive size made him hard to miss. Sibley was an avid hunter and Lion was Sibley’s sidekick and favorite hunting partner.
In 1841, Lion was forever preserved on canvas by painter Charles Deas. The portrait puts Fort Snelling on the map in unique ways – a place for artists to study and perfect their skills, one of the earliest renditions of a domesticated animal in the Territory, and by sheer size – a whopping 57″ x 75″ finished canvas. Lion lived at the Sibley house until his master married in 1843. Mrs. Sarah Sibley said, “Out” to Lion and Lion settled in at Fort Snelling.
Other tourist painters and solders made Fort Snelling the subject of their work including U.S. Army officers Seth Eastman and Edward K. Thomas. Together civilians and soldiers chronicled the place and people of Fort Snelling.
Take a selfie with Lion by Charles Deas at the Historic Sibley House in Mendota. The house is Minnesota’s first brick construccted house and home of Minnesota’s first governor. The site and grounds are a hidden gem and provide an easy walk to the Minnesota River where Lion stands tall.
The home is also an excellend example of early stone architecture in the Fort Snelling Historic District. During construction, similar 19th century stone structures were unearthed. The structures were paved over by the MN Historical Society.
Gardens at the Sibley Historic Site
When the Daughters of the American Revolution established the Sibley House Association (SHA), they planted a garden beside the Sibley house in 1910 that included peony, bleeding heart and cosmos flowers. You can still see those plants on site today.
Volunteers from the Mendota Heights Garden Club and members of 7 different Minnesota DAR chapters keep the gardens beautiful on the Sibley Historic Site. Many of the plants were donated from the gardens of club members, including many Minnesota native plants.
In 2023 Site Supervisor Jack Nord started a project to replace landscaping around the Dupuis House with Minnesota native plants.
Mendota is home to the endangered Rusty Patched Bumblebee, the Minnesota state bee. Plants such as aster, salvia, cosmos, Liastris and bachelor buttons provide nectar or pollen for a range of pollinating insects. You can find all of these plants and more on the Sibley Historic Site.
You can make a difference by getting involved in continuing the preservation of the Sibley Historic Site. Schedule a tour, visit our gift shop, and/or make a donation.
We welcome new members and look forward to adding you to the Friends of the Sibley Historic Site. Please join us!