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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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.

Square Butte and a spring storm

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One of my favorite Central Montana landmarks and small railroad towns is Square Butte.  Once served by the Milwaukee Road, few travelers find the town today.  Yet several key landmarks remain–the historic late 19th century stone jail is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  

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There is a historic brick school building, a bit worse for wear but still a key survivor that marks the height of the homesteading boom in the county.  

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But my favorite resources are the elevators along the railroad corridor–still standing tall, although in that stormy day–I made it through a pretty strong hail storm about 10 minutes after the photo–the elevators perhaps look dramatic than normal.

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And perhaps most importantly the town still has a local tavern, the appropriately named Square Butte Country Club Bar.  Still an important community center today, as it was in 1984.

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