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



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.


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.



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.


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.



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



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.  



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.  


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.

Image Image


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.



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.





4 thoughts on “Fort Benton’s Heritage Development: 3 Museums, 3 Messages

  1. Dear Sir,
    I write to you in response to your report on Fort Benton, Montana, my home town. After you wended through the various museums to extol their virtues, you ended in the most unlikely of all places-my family’s concrete building! I find it knee-slapping funny as only a Montanan could. Inside the same building, carrying the appellation “The Old Shop” was a steamboat block and tackle, now safely displayed in the museum. You will be pleased to know that the family is in the process of fixing up the facade of the Old Shop. It will read Jos. Sullivan FARM IMPLEMENTS. We also have recovered the other words. Come by for a look later this year (if we get the grant, etc.).
    The builder, Jos. Sullivan of saddle fame built the Old Shop in 1910. Sold out to the Stockman’s Bank in 1926.
    Kind Regards,
    Kelly J. Cassutt, PhD
    New Jersey

      • Hello, I invite you to see for yourself the newly renovated facade on the Sullivan Warehouse, Main Street, Fort Benton. The building lists all sorts of implements for the ambitious homesteader.

  2. I too grew up in Fort Benton. When I was a kid, back in the 60s, I went in that old museum practically every time I went by it – esp. since it was located a block away from home and was between my house and the Tasty Freeze! (Either that shaped me to become a history teacher or the interest was already in my DNA which caused me to wander in there all the time.) Much has been accomplished over the many years in regard to the museums. Maybe you’re right about some of your observations, but it all this takes money – lots of it. This, in reference to the thought of rehabilitating structures to portray the history. At the same time, the entire town reflects its history – from the old store fronts, to the fair grounds, to the old, Carnegie Library and on and on. On a slightly different note, history is centered around people and their stories. I am in the process of rereading all of James Willard Schultz’s books. Many of the stories center around Fort Benton. I know some people criticize Schultz, but my point is that the history is the people, and the people are the history. I get the unifying theme point, but the museums reflect a unifying theme – change! Change, but at the same time continuity with the past. You don’t think of it as a kid, but you’re living right in the middle of it. The entire town is a museum – just like any place. Thanks for the write up. I enjoyed reading it. Maybe someone needs to write something for the visitor center that would bring a theme or themes together. Hi to Kelly Cassutt.- a fellow kid from my youth. What about the reconstructed fort?

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