Fort Benton’s Heritage Development: 3 Museums, 3 Messages

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Fort Benton in 1984 had one dominant interpretive place:  The Museum of the Upper Missouri in the local city park facing the Missouri River.  The museum is still there and thriving–on an early Sunday afternoon in May 2013 it had plenty of visitors.  Still the same too were the exhibits–dioramas told much of the story, a reflection of the long, deep influence of the dioramas prepared for the Montana Historical Society’s museum installation almost 30 years earlier.  At MHS, as it installed a new exhibit in the late 1980s, dioramas and recreated villages disappeared in favor of more artifact-driven exhibits but at the local levels many museums still feature dioramas.  And to my mind, they are almost like bits of culture-laden folk art.

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The Museum of the Upper Missouri focused not just on Native American-white relations, the trade, and the creation of Fort Benton.  It spent just as much space exploring the post-gold rush steamboat era, the development of Fort Benton as an urban center, and the general frontier to settlement thesis that still dominates the narrative of northern plains history.  After all the museum was “the place” so naturally it captured all of the areas of possible historical interest, even extending into the region’s early ranching history.

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As the “place” it was also the logical location for federal trail programs to hand their hats, or at least trail markers, from displays about the Indian Wars to Lewis and Clark and to the Nez Perce Trail.

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The museum, outside of ranching, did not serve the region’s 20th century history that was tied much less to the river (except as a source of water to be dammed for irrigation) but to the land and its transformation through massive federal funded irrigation projects and the homesteading boom into the agricultural landscape that you immediately encounter in Chouteau County once you climb out of the Missouri River bottomlands and up to the plains landscape to the north.  Thus, at the north end of town, and actually closer for tourists exiting U.S. 87, came the Museum of the Northern Great Plains.

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Here is the typical 20th century technology museum, first depicted at the Greenfield Village Museum of Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, and copied by literally hundreds of midwestern and western institutions.  A large building encloses a progression of agricultural technology from plows and tractors to automobiles and combines and onto the household.Image

And then outside of the museum doors are representative buildings–artifacts themselves of rural life, ethnic diversity, and corporate standardization, especially in the mini-gas station.  These museums are more like large-scale community attics–almost anything

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and everything is here, except for central unifying themes.  I arrived, somewhat excitedly, hoping that finally someone had the space and the wherewithal to tackle such major themes as the U.S. Reclamation Bureau and projects like the Milk River Project.  After all, the place markets itself as Montana’s agricultural history museum. Rather I found a celebration of the individual, those who stayed and made it– which then made sense when you stop and consider the isolation, the demanding climate, the difficulty of making an arid landscape bloom.  

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The latest addition to the museum landscape of Fort Benton comes courtesy of the federal government and the Bureau of Land Management–the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument interpretive center for all things federal in this part of the Missouri River country.  The building attempts to compete with the White Cliffs of the Missouri itself, and it is a modernist architectural wonder, reflecting region, topography, materials, and culture.  

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As a homage to the river itself, the building may work, but it is difficult to compete with the beauty of the Missouri at Fort Benton, even if you are on the west end of town by the old public water works.

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The Upper Missouri museum, as you would expect from a 21st century installation, tells a big story, from natural resources to prehistory to Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce, and large-scale recreations of steamboats.  And of the three museums it has the great, decisive advantage to my mind, of actually touching the Missouri.  It is the river at this location that made Fort Benton and here the river dominates the experience.

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All three museums reflect their time of creation and target specific audiences.  But you still end with the reality of three museums for just one place–the story is told loudly and often in Fort Benton, from three different vantage points and from multiple types of historical markers scattered across the town, especially at the riverfront.  Discerning heritage tourists will take it all in and get it.  But you wonder about those who stop by, in a rush to get to Great Falls, to Glacier, or heading home to some place back east.  Fort Benton in its historic riverfront buildings looks old but tired, and rather than constructing yet more new buildings to contain the history, one thinks–why not adapt the historic buildings–and tell the history in the actual places that it happened.  There is more to Fort Benton than meets the eye but how come a visit here makes you feel still like you are on the outside looking in, that just underneath the renovated surface may be a reality worth exploring.

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Fort Benton’s heritage development, part 2

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Lobby, Grand Union Hotel, 2013

In 1984, when John Lepley took me through Fort Benton and spoke of the community’s dreams for both preservation and heritage tourism, the vision was compelling but at the same time you had to wonder whether it was feasible.  One morning was spent at the Grand Union Hotel, a marvelous Victorian-era building, right on the river front.  It was then under restoration yet I had spent a night there and the future seemed bright.  But managing heritage assets is challenging and the hotel has passed through several approaches until its most recent owners seem got it right.  In the summer season and on weekend the hotel is a busy place.

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Next Lepley took me to the ruins of Fort Benton and spoke of the pending reconstruction of the fort.  The notion of reconstructing the nationally significant fur trade posts of the mid-19th century was an idea I had heard elsewhere, especially at Fort Union, at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers on the Montana-North Dakota border.

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But Ft Union would be a National Park Service project, with all of that agency prestige and federal funding behind it.  Fort Benton too was nationally significant but the property was not owned by the federal government–a complete reconstruction struck me as ambitious if not fantasy in 1984.  Well, I was wrong:  Fort Benton, mid-19th century, has been reconstructed, and serves as a centerpiece of the town’s public interpretation.

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The fort is not only rebuilt in its exterior–a reconstruction that you can find elsewhere in the West–but it has a completed interior, divided into period rooms and modern exhibit spaces.  Finally there is a property in central Montana that conveys visually and physically what a mid-1800s trading post was like, and just how crucial this mix of private enterprise and Native American relations was to the region’s history.

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The reconstruction also preserves and interprets the few bits of original fort wall that exist–and that were slowly ebbing away back in 1984.

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No doubt the reconstruction of Fort Benton, and the preservation of the remaining fort site, are major achievements for anyone, especially a town and county that are relatively isolated from large population areas like this one.  In 1984, John Lepley shared with me one last set of resources–the riverfront buildings.  There the story still needs to grow.  The recent success of the hotel should spur even more investment into the adaptive reuse of these buildings. Splendid properties they are, and still a potential backbone for the revitalization of the local economy.

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The 1984 story ends here–and I must admit that the progress in heritage development is impressive.  But there is still the more recent history to digest, and that will be the next blog from Fort Benton.

Transformations in Fort Benton, part 1

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In the spring of 1984, there was no doubt that I would spend considerable time looking at the historic preservation issues at Fort Benton, a small county seat today but one of the most important places in all of the northern plains before the age of the railroad.  Here at this bend in the river, shown in a postcard I bought there in 1984, was basically the last stop for Missouri River boat traffic heading west.  The fort dated to the late fur trade era and as the rush for precious metals overtook Montana Territory in the 1860s and 1870s here developed a major trade and outfitting post, with roads running from Fort Benton in all directions.  But the place was a sleepy, almost forgotten town, as the railroads changed routes and the interstates bypassed it by miles and miles.  Landmarks too were there but the old fort had been slowly coming apart, only a recent determined effort by save what remained and then, ambitiously I thought 30 years ago, to rebuild the lost fort and tell fully the story of the fur trade and the significance of the Upper Missouri.

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My guide was John Lepley, who was spearheading the local efforts and a member of the SHPO board.  Another key leader was Joel Overholser. And no doubt, there was some heritage tourism and historic interpretation infrastructure in place.  The Chouteau House, a classic river hotel, was still open, rough on the edges but the place where I stayed and took meals. (It was closed when I visited last in 2013).

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Nearby was the home of I. G. Baker, a pivotal figure in the region’s history.  It was open, and paneled interpretation in place but certainly a property that could “say” more.

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Various monuments and markers could be found throughout the riverfront:  the Mullan Road, the Whoop-Up Trail, and especially the recently installed (1976) State of Montana Lewis and Clark Memorial, a monument piece of public art, sculpted by Bob Scriver with the base by Shorty Shope, another well regarded Montana artist.  The memorial was an American bicentennial project led by the Fort Benton Improvement Association, which Lepley and Overholser served on as commissioners.  Indeed, the state also had donated one of the keelboats used in the film “Far Horizons,” a Hollywood take on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The waterfront told a story, one dominated by Lewis and Clark.

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postcard of Far Horizons boat, c. 1984

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The amount and quality of the public art along the riverfront was impressive, but what struck me as speaking most strongly to the town’s future were two completed projects (the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Missouri River Bridge) and the almost completed restoration of the Grand Hotel, a remarkable Victorian building that spoke to the town’s hopes in the late 19th century.

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I left Fort Benton convinced of two things:  the town had clear preservation needs, not just the fort site but buildings from the Victorian era were decaying too.  But compared to other places that I would visit in 1984, I thought Fort Benton had the one key trait for success–vision, the realization that the steps of the 1970s were just first steps, and many more needed to be taken in the years to come.  Let’s next come back to Fort Benton 30 years later and see how far that vision has reached.

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Finding the Lewis and Clark story at Coal Banks Landing

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Coal Banks Landing, on the Missouri River in Chouteau County, was another site already recognized as significant when the preservation planning survey got underway in the spring of 1984.  Here was yet another documented place associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition:  it took its name literally from the band of lignite easily observed in the banks along the Missouri.

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The landscape here not only speaks to the age of river transportation; to the west at Virgelle you can also find the original roadbed of James J. Hill’s Manitoba Road as it came down from Havre and connected with the Missouri River valley, its route to Great Falls.  Virgelle has National Register-listed properties in its historic pressed tin-sided general store and brick bank; across the road are a school and grain elevator.  These properties marked the forgotten town as a place once prominent along the Great Northern network.

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Coal Banks Landing, in comparison, was a place on the river, with little to tell its story.  Today, however, Coal Banks Landing is a prominent spot, with a modern boat landing, a seasonal interpretive center, and then year-round interpretive markers for its multiple layers of history.

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The landing and its significant Lewis and Clark story are now preserved as part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, one of the state’s most important conservation and heritage tourism developments in the 21st century.  This national monument preserves not only one of the most breathtaking sections of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail it also preserves open land little changed from the centuries of occupation by various Native American groups and scattered often log-built homesteads of the multi-ethnic groups that flooded into northern Montana in the first two decades of the 20th century.

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Little was here in 1984 to help residents and visitors understand the deep significance of the Missouri River.  Today Coal Banks Landing is a must stop for any heritage tourist of northern Montana.

 

Lewis and Clark and finding the “true Missouri” at Loma, Montana

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During the early weeks of fieldwork in northern Montana in 1984, I certainly had notes and reminders to document sites associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Here was one part of the region’s history that had been given its due by generations of historians, and the brown Pathfinder-themed markers of the Lewis and Clark Trail made the historic route one of the state’s most recognizable heritage assets.  Yet as I left Hill County and moved into Chouteau County, heading toward Fort Benton, there was little to mark the story along the Marias River and the decision that the expedition made regarding the “true” path westward–the Missouri River or the Marias River (the latter they had not expected to encounter).  There was a state highway marker at Loma, but that seemed not enough, considering the importance of the events on the Marias and the high integrity of this historic landscape.

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Opportunities not gained during the Lewis and Clark sesquicentennial in the 1950s were not missed during the bicentennial of the past decade.  As you approach the highlands above Loma, a major new interpretive kiosk not only presents a compelling view of the Marias landscape, it also interprets the significance of the location.

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Here is an example of the partnerships now driving the interpretation of the Lewis and Clark Trail:  the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail of the National Park Service being the most important, bringing a consistency of design and message to the interpretation.

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With these partnerships, working with property owners, in place, visitors can experience such key sites as Decision Point, at the confluence of the Missouri and Marias rivers, where the expedition made the correct choice and followed the “true Missouri” westward.  Loma, rather than being a neglected place in the Lewis and Clark story, now has become a centerpiece of the region’s interpretation, thanks to new visions and new installations in the 21st century.

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Traveling the historic Manitoba Line, from Havre to Big Sandy

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The impact of the Great Northern Railway on the settlement of northern Montana really can never be over-emphasized–its mark on the settlement landscape and later transportation routes is that important.  Most travelers, and many residents, do not realize that the railroad, then named the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba, did not initially strike straight across the plains to Glacier National Park.  In 1887 it turned at Havre and headed southwest towards Great Falls, creating a distinct modern landscape along Big Sandy Creek that you may still follow today.

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The first important stop was Fort Assinniboine, a U.S. army base established in 1879, before the first settlers arrived. The army maintained this major base until the 1910s and later in that decade its land and buildings became the Northern Montana demonstration farm, allowing state and federally supported agricultural reformers learn and demonstrate best practices in farming techniques and crops for the region.  Today it remains part of the state’s extension service, which has adapted some buildings for new uses while keeping others preserved as part of the nationally significant story of the U.S. military and its occupation of the northern plains.  

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When I visited the fort site in 1984, the highway marker was the primary interpretation.  The farm’s administrators have since worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation office to locate interpretive markers outside of several buildings.  Tours of the complex are also available by reservations.

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 As part of the federal process of transforming the landscape of Big Sandy Creek, the homesteading boom left its mark everywhere in the 1910s.  But also in 1916 the federal government established the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation for the Chippewa Cree.  The Manitoba Road’s intersection with the reservation came at Box Elder, at the border between Hill and Chouteau counties.  In 1984 one of the early Great Northern-era combination depot still stood at the town, although it seemed destined for destruction. Imagine my surprise in 2013 when the depot still remained, but barely so. 

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The gas station’s roadside architecture also faces an uncertain future.  But St. Anthony’s Catholic Church remained a key landmark and along U.S. 87 in the reservation stood a new architecturally distinctive building:  the Northern Wing Casino.  

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Big Sandy is easily the largest town of northern Chouteau County, a place that abounds in surprises.  In 1984 the town’s old homesteader hotel remained, and so many other Montana towns had lost these artifacts of the early 20th century settlement. 

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Thirty years later, the hotel remains in place, as do several other architecturally important buildings, from the Northern Monana State Bank, a vault-like neo-classical style building to the modern contemporary styling of St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church.

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 Impressive adaptive reuse projects also had taken place, with the community turning the historic Great Northern depot into a center for its historical society and museum.  Big Sandy has a t-town plan, with its stem lined by businesses and other ventures, such as the false front Odd-Fellows Lodge or the recently established coffee shop.

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The town’s New Deal era school remained, although the building’s original International Style design was somewhat muted by a new roof and other cosmetic changes. Yet, here was the school that nurtured Jeff Ament, who moved to Seattle and gained fame as part of the internationally significant band, Pearl Jam.  

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Big Sandy has steadily lost population since 1984–600 people remained in the 2010 census–but key landmarks remain standing and in use.  Impressive.  The days of the Manitoba Road are long gone but this early railroad town still makes a powerful historical statement.

Havre’s preservation legacies: final thoughts

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In its first year of existence, this blog has looked at Havre several times, from its historic African American church building located near the Great Northern Railway shops to its impressive statement of modern design, from the roadside architecture of U.S. 2 to the impressive campus buildings at the former Northern Montana University. This is a last look, considering especially the impact of that first generation of entrepreneurs and residents who left behind in the downtown and older residential neighborhoods such an impressive array of buildings and homes.

First and foremost, Havre is a railroad town, with its monumental statue of James J. Hill, the empire builder himself, still standing proud outside of the depot at the head of town’s central business district.  When first established, Havre was little more than a stop where the line turned southwest to Great Falls, the initial terminus.  But once Hill decided to push his mainline directly west of Havre in the first decade of the twentieth century, the town’s history changed drastically.  Havre became the seat of a new county–Hill County–and soon houses all throughout the town competed architecturally with the impressive Beaux-Arts classicism of the Hill County Courthouse, designed by Frank Bossout.

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Bossuot stayed in Havre and left quite a legacy in domestic architecture.  Not all homes are by Bossuot but certainly he was the trend setter.  In 1989 property owners worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office to place a huge chunk of the residential district in the National Register of Historic Places; at the turn of the present century, Havre had created a historic district commission to ensure the continued restoration and preservation of these dwellings.

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This Spanish Colonial design is attributed to builder Charles Harper. The local Catholic Church is also a Spanish Colonial design.

Another key decision made by city leaders and heritage advocates in the new century was the conversion of the monumental Federal Building into a heritage center, where the Clack Museum, once isolated away from downtown at the fairgrounds, could be relocated and other heritage groups could also maintain a presence.  When you pair the colossal Colonial Revival design of the Federal Building with the similarly overstated Mission style of the neighboring Masonic Temple, the town is messed with two architectural anchors for the rest of the century.

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But there is work remaining in this classic town of the Hi-Line:  especially in the commercial area, where muddled rehabs have taken quite a bit away from the grandeur that once marked these streets.

 

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But the spark created by homeowners in the late 1980s, and then added to by heritage advocates in the last decade, has given Havre a heritage tourism foundation, upon which now is a growing heritage tourism industry.  Havre has found its heritage assets, and is building new futures for its residents through the promotion and conservation of its distinguished past.

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