By Tom Hintgen
Otter Tail County Correspondent
The county board of commissioners, on Dec. 21, discussed an analysis of a proposed fish passage at Phelps Mill Park in central Otter Tail County.
This project, if it gains final approval, would provide fish passage for sturgeon and other native fish species at the dam near Phelps Mill and provide protection of the mill foundation.
At the same time the project would be designed to maintain water surface elevations upstream from the dam at Leon Lake.
The five county commissioners are pursuing the analysis with the Minnesota DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We need a thorough study,” said Commissioner Betty Murphy of Maine Township who said she currently has reservations about the project. “I don’t want to see the overall aesthetics of historic Phelps Mill compromised.”
The other commissioners (Lee Rogness, Kurt Mortenson, Wayne Johnson and Dan Bucholz) agreed with Murphy in that they don’t want to approve a project that is lower than what is desirable.
Final placement of boulders and rocks would maximize fish and aquatic species passage.
The lead person for the county commissioners is Kevin Fellbaum who earlier this year was named director of parks and trails for Otter Tail County. He formerly served as county ditch inspector.
Funding for the Phelps Mill fisheries project would come, in part, from the state of Minnesota. More than 20 miles of river within the Otter Tail watershed would be reconnected upon completion of the fish passage at Phelps Mill.
More about Phelps Mill
In 2019 county board members approved the purchase of 71.8 acres of land just north of the current Phelps Mill Park. This will result in a major expansion, more than doubling the park from its current 51.2 acres.
Phelps Mill Park came into being in 1965 when Otter Tail County purchased the mill and surrounding land as a recreational site.
Located in Maine Township, the mill was constructed in 1889. It was designed to produce 60 to 75 barrels of flour per day.
Phelps Mill was very successful until 1900, but after that year business gradually declined. The mill was sold in 1919.
By the 1930s the railway was in place and it became easier for county farmers to ship their grain to Minneapolis. Phelps Mill went out of business in 1939.
Phelps Mill Park is used each summer for the two-day arts and crafts festival, in addition to family picnics and other gatherings throughout the summer. The park also is promoted for attracting visitors to the historic flour mill building.
People enjoy walking across the Phelps Mill pedestrian bridge. Others fish along the banks of the Otter Tail River.