Former Hudsonite Mike Madell now runs Vicksburg Military History Park

July 14, 2010 —

by Wes Boyd

Back when he was in high school in the 1970s, Mike Madell worked at the Hudson Post-Gazette writing school board and sports stories, taking photographs, and pitching in with all the miscellaneous tasks inherent in running a newspaper and print shop. “It was a great part-time job while in high school,” he said, “And at the time I thought I might go into journalism.”

However, life took Madell in a considerably different direction — he wound up joining the National Park Service, and earlier this year he was named to be the Superintendent of Vicksburg National Military Park.

When most people think of the National Park System, they tend to think of the big and famous units, places like Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. But there are actually 392 National Park units, ranging in size from Denali in Alaska with hundreds of square miles down to Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia, PA, which is not much more than a single house — officially .02 acre.

Vicksburg is one of a good many preserved Civil War battlefields, and historically one of the more important Military Parks. The fall of Vicksburg to General Ulysses S. Grant’s army on July 4, 1963, along with the battle of Gettysburg which occurred at the same time, in retrospect can be seen as the final turning of the tide for the Confederacy. Grant’s campaign to take the town and open the Mississippi River to navigation is regarded by historians as one of the boldest and most innovative of the war.

The park commemorates the campaign, siege, and defense of Vicksburg. The city’s surrender on July 4, 1863, along with the capture of Port Hudson, LA, on July 8, split the South, giving control of the Mississippi River to the Union. Over 1,340 monuments, a restored Union gunboat, and National Cemetery mark the 16-mile tour road.

The park consists of about 1800 acres of restored battlefields, covering a length of several miles almost surrounding the town. “Vicksburg is about the size of Adrian, and in fact reminds me a lot of Adrian,” Madell said, explaining that in addition to the battlefield, which brings about 600,000 visitors to the community annually, there are five casinos on the riverfront. “In some ways it still makes one recall the Civil War. There are many antebellum homes. The park recently acquired the home that housed General Pemberton’s headquarters. (Pemberton was the Confederate general in command.) There is a support beam in the front room that was shattered by a shell during the siege and never repaired.” The house is currently under restoration and is not yet open to the public.

He admits that there are mixed emotions around Vicksburg on July 4; on one hand, it is Independence Day, but on the other hand it is the anniversary of the fall of the city, so that puts a strange twist on things.

“We’d like to have more visitation,” he says. “At one time we had over a million visitors annually, but it’s fallen off in recent years for a number of reasons.” The economy is one of them, of course, Katrina had a profound impact in visitation throughout the region, and on us, where people often stopped off on their way to New Orleans. What’s going to happen as a result of the current oil spill remains to be seen.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is 2011 through 2015, and that probably will be increasing interest — although Madell admits that since the better-known Battle of Gettysburg was fought at the same time, there is more interest from re-enactors being present in Pennsylvania on the 150th anniversary of the battle.

Madell admits that his job is not something he could have expected when he was in high school in Hudson. He relates that he was an “outdoorsy-type” person back then, which led him to attend Western Michigan University majoring in environmental studies. “I was fortunate enough to get a seasonal position with the Michigan State Park system,” he relates, “And I thought it might be my career.”

However, budget cuts left him looking for work. Upon graduation he moved to Minnesota, where he attended graduate school and worked with the Suburban Hennepin Regional Park District, when he was contacted by the National Park Service. “Twenty-four years later I’m still there,” he smiled.

Madell’s National Park Service career began in 1988 when he accepted an appointment as a park planner (socioeconomic specialist) with the Denver Service Center.

Mike has been a superintendent since 2002, serving in that capacity at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and, most recently, at the Missouri National Recreational River. During his tenure at Central High School, he was instrumental in working with park staff and community leaders to plan for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the school’s desegregation. During this time he also led the effort to plan and construct a new visitor center/administrative headquarters for the park, which was opened concurrent with the anniversary events in 2007.

At the Missouri National Recreational River, Madell was instrumental in relocating the park headquarters from O’Neill, Nebraska to Yankton, South Dakota, and was an active participant in a variety of community and regional partnership initiatives. His federal career has included NPS assignments as Chief of Planning and Resources Management for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), acting superintendent of MNRRA, Midwest Regional Chief of Planning and Compliance, and Regional Environmental Coordinator. In addition, he served with the United States Forest Service at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“I like working in the outdoors,” he says. “I like resource management, working with folks. I spend a lot of time working with the Atlanta Regional Office and with Washington, and these days I shuffle more paper than actually work with resources.

However, he still gets to get outside a bit. Vicksburg National Military Park has been suffering a feral hog problem. “No one has made a rototiller as efficient at turning up the ground as they are,” he said. “I put in extra hours to get out and work with that, so I haven’t totally lost touch with resource management.” He explained that the park’s neighbors have helped a great deal in that regard, especially in hunting down the hogs outside of park lands, where it would be impractical to hunt them for a number of reasons.

Away from work, Madell, the son of the late Ray and Blondie Madell of Hudson, is an avid bicyclist, hiker, and dog trainer. He and his wife, Trish, relocated to Vicksburg in January 2010.

For more information on Vicksburg National Military Historical Park, you can go to http://www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm.