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SERVING OUR VETERANS: Camp Gilbert C. Grafton

By Staff | Apr 26, 2019

I became a resident of North Dakota in late 1995 when I moved to Rugby. Despite living here for over 23 years, and only about a one hour drive away, I had never visited Camp Grafton at Devils Lake. I was fortunate to finally visit this site just this last April 6th, when I attended an American Legion Central District meeting there. I was amazed by the size of this complex with many large and modern facilities and buildings. Long gone are the days when troops were billeted in tents or small tin huts. These are all gone; replaced with impressive housing units. The entire Camp is quite amazing to see for a first-time visitor.

The story of Camp Gilbert C. Grafton dates back to 1867 when Fort Totten was established by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry as one of several forts in Dakota Territory, which were built to protect prospectors traveling to Montana and Idaho where gold was discovered in 1862. During its early years, the site, now known as Camp Grafton, went by different names. During the first encampment held there in 1891, the camp was named in honor of Andrew H. Burke; North Dakota’s sitting governor at the time. By 1902, the site’s name had changed to Camp Lawton, in honor of Major General Henry Ware Lawton, who commanded the division to which the 1st North Dakota Volunteers were assigned in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War. The practice of naming the training area for a well-known admired individual lasted until 1921 when the name of the site changed to Rock Island Military Reservation. This name lasted until 1924 when the site was once again renamed to honor the memory of Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert C. Grafton, of the 164th Infantry Regiment. Grafton, a Fargo, North Dakota native, had maintained membership in the North Dakota National Guard (NDNG) since the territorial days and had deployed with the 164 Infantry Regiment during WWI. While overseas, he developed a serious illness which resulted in his death on February 5, 1919. He is buried at St. Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucort, France. Governor Norman Brunsdale made the name official through executive order in 1952.

The Fort Totten Military Reservation was officially created on January 11, 1870 pursuant to an executive order signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. Initially, the Fort Totten Military Reservation included 11,000 acres and was located within the borders of the Devils Lake Indian Reservation which had been established in 1867. Rock Island (site of present day Camp Grafton) was annexed to the Fort Totten Military Reservation on October 7, 1873 as part of President Grant’s executive order. Because of the ample stand of timber, Rock Island became known as the Fort Totten Wood Reservation during this time. Due to a drop in the water level at Devils Lake, it was later discovered that two of the “islands” had become peninsulas Grahams Island and Rock Island. In 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed an executive order to change the boundaries of the Fort Totten Military Reservation to include the two peninsulas. By 1890, the military was no longer needed at Fort Totten and the soldiers were withdrawn and the buildings and grounds at Fort Totten were turned over to the Secretary of the Interior for use as an industrial training school for the Indian youth.

On July 6, 1894, that part of the former Fort Totten Military Reservation known as the Fort Totten Wood Reservation was ceded to the State of North Dakota for “the use of the militia of the state and for the public purposes not inconsistent with such use.” A concurrent resolution passed by the fourth North Dakota Legislative Assembly (1895) accepted the land donation on behalf of the State of North Dakota. At that time the Fort Totten Wood Reservation was transferred to the State of North Dakota. It included the southern two miles of the Rock Island peninsula. Today, Camp Grafton contains sixteen hundred acres, most of which are heavily wooded and ideal for military training.

The person generally credited with the idea of securing the site as a permanent camp of the North Dakota National Guard was Heber M. Creel, a prominent Devils Lake businessman, former Army officer and was also appointed as the North Dakota Adjutant General (1905-1907). The NDNG’s first encampment at what is now Camp Grafton was held in July of 1891. The first building at the encampment site was completed in 1902. It was a stone warehouse built for storing tents and other equipment. In addition, a wood frame caretaker’s residence, a water tank, and tower were built. Also completed about this time was a rifle range. Two years later, a barn was constructed to house the horses, which were used during annual encampments. By 1906, it was estimated the value of the buildings, land, timber, and other improvements located at Camp Grafton was $200,000.00.

Since that time, the Camp has continued to expand and grow to its present size. Millions of dollars have been spent for these upgrades, additions, and improvements. As the NDNG grew in size, its need for additional training areas also increased. Camp Grafton proper was limited in its ability to support units during their annual training periods. This problem was solved when the 1985 State Legislature authorized the NDNG to purchase over eight thousand acres of land and lease another five thousand acres near Warwick, ND as a battalion size training area. This area has since come to be known as Camp Grafton South. Camp Grafton South provides adequate training areas for engineer training activities such as earth moving operations, demolitions, and bridge training. Several large small arms ranges have also been completed at this site.

Today Camp Grafton is much different from its early days when its only flurry of activity occurred during the annual two week encampment periods. With the establishment of the North Dakota Military Academy (now known as the 164th Regional Training Institute or RTI) at Camp Grafton, year around training in engineer subjects and Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) leadership courses is offered not only to NDNG members but also to active duty and reserve component soldiers and units from across the entire country. In 2010, a new building dedicated for the use of courses taught by the 164th RTI, at a cost of 30 million dollars, was completed. In addition, the 164th RTI also conducts courses for the North Dakota National Guard Officers Candidate School. In 1949, Guard officials determined the financial impact of annual encampment at Camp Grafton to be under $200,000. Today, with year around training, the financial impact to the state and surrounding area can be measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

As I share some of this history of Camp Grafton, I hope you think about the thousands of National Guardsmen who have received training at this site throughout the history of North Dakota. From all our previous wars, up until present day conflicts, men and women have walked through the front gate of Camp Grafton and left as well-trained soldiers. Their well-deserved reputation and record of exemplary service to our state and nation speaks for itself. Let us always be thankful and appreciative that we have such a fine military training center in our state. Let us continue to be supportive, in every way, for all our military personnel who honorably serve both our state and nation.

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