Fort Benton and the National Stage

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In February 1984 one of my first assignments on the grand field study of Montana known as the state historic preservation plan survey was to check on the progress of the restoration and reopening of the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton.

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Chouteau Co Ft Benton Grand Union Hotel 1The work was still underway then, but the result after 30 years of local investment and engagement, assisted mightily by the state historic preservation office and other state groups, is impressive.  The Grand Union is a riverfront anchor on one of the nation’s most important river towns in all of U.S. history.

Chouteau Co Ft Benton Old Bridge 9The success of the Grand Union is mirrored in another property I visited in my 1984 day and a half in Fort Benton:  the reconstructed Fort Benton.  There were bits of the adobe blockhouse and walls still standing in 1984, as they had for decades as shown in the old postcard below.

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What the locally administered Museum of the Upper Missouri managed to do was to protect a vitally important site of national significance, and then through its own museum exhibits, try to convey the significance of the place to those who happened to discover it.

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In the past 30 years, the museum and its supporters managed to continue protecting the archaeological remnants of the fort but also to rebuild the fort to its mid-19th century appearance.  This reconstruction is no small feat, and naturally requires staffing, commitment, and monies to keep the buildings and exhibits in good condition.

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A few steps away is another preserved historic building, the I. G. Baker House, built for one of the town’s leading merchants and traders, in weatherboard-disguised abode, in the traditional central hall plan of the mid-19th century.  For decades, it has been a passive historic site, opened to the public, with rooms and collections protected by plexiglass.  You already have to know much to appreciate the jewel this early bit of domestic architecture represents in understanding the building traditions of the territorial era.

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These successful heritage development of the hotel, the fort, and the preservation of the I.G. Baker House, however, has not spurred a greater recognition of the significance of Fort Benton to either national audiences or even residents of the Big Sky Country. When I mention Fort Benton here in the east I typically get blank stares or a quick change of topic.  But the town was the westernmost port on the Missouri River, the first interstate exit if you will into the northern plains and northwest.  From Fort Benton ran trails and roads into western Canada, Washington State, and into the mines of the Rocky Mountains.  The building of the Manitoba Road in the late 1980s eventually meant the town’s importance as a river port was bypassed, but from the mid-19th century into the 1880s, Fort Benton was THE place for commercial expansion, riverboat travel, economic exchange, and the deeper cultural exchanges of the fur trade, with all of those events shaping the national economy and culture.  How can such a legacy become diminished? Why? Is it the central Montana location?  The lack of national folklore heroes?

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Fort Benton is doubly valuable because it is a town with layers, as I have discussed in earlier postings.  The town, unlike many of Montana’s early settlements, was no ghost town, instead it was a town with its frontier river port layer, its territorial layer, and its homestead boom layer all competing for attention. The past lives side to side with the present in Fort Benton and thus, it has the potential to shape the future of the town, and this region, in ways that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

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Now it is time to stress to our national representatives that it is time for America to cast its eyes, and its support, for the preservation and heritage enhancement of a place that tells so much of the nation’s story.  Here at Fort Benton is a living historic town, a place where you can stay a bit and learn how the country has grown, changed, and together can better face our uncertain futures. The residents have made a lasting commitment–it is now time for Fort Benton to reach the national stage.

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Montana’s Best Restaurants–in a historic building

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I take pride in my effort to travel the state of Montana and listen to its residents to learn about its history and its special places.  And I take great pride in creating this WordPress site where I can share my findings with you.  But back here in the south, few ask me about Montana history–most want to know where to go to eat and drink when they encounter the Big Sky Country.  So to get into the holiday spirit(s) and have a good cheer (just wish there was some place in Tennessee to get Tom and Jerry mix), I will offer my favorite Montana restaurants–but only those in historic buildings.

I have already spoken about many favorites, such as the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe (above) and the Oxford Bar and Double Front Cafe in Missoula, the M&M Bar and Cafe in Butte, the Izaak Walton in Essex, and especially Chico Hot Springs in Pray.  If you have only one stop in Montana, make it Chico–I always do.

The Izaak Walton is the only “new” restaurant in the bunch, the rest being mainstays of my field work in 1984-85.  But they are only the tip of the iceberg–and I am not talking salads either.

Nope I am talking beef and booze, be in at the Wagon Wheel in Drummond (above), or the much more fancy digs of the Montana Club in Helena.  Whatever you do in Montana, you don’t want to miss the beef. It would be a Dirty Shame if you did (thank you, Yaak!, below)

There are the classic supper club steakhouses of central Montana such as Eddie’s Supper Club, a stone’s throw from the gates of Malstrom Air Force Base, and Borrie’s, nestled in the Black Eagle neighborhood, both in Great Falls.

Throughout rural Montana, it is the classic cafe, always good for breakfast but really superb for pie.  And you don’t want to miss Montana pie, be it from Glen’s in Florence on the western end of the state to the Wagon Wheel Cafe in Choteau to the Dell Cafe (in an old school house) in the southwest corner to the Madison Valley’s Ennis Cafe to the Eat Cafe in White Sulphur Springs (right in the middle of the state). Indeed my favorite pie stop was once the small cafe at the Dude Rancher Lodge in Billings–but I understand that place has changed in recent years.

What has really been great to experience over the last 30 years is the number of “fine” dining places to come about.  In Helena, back in the early 1980s, it was On Broadway, still going strong today.

masonic-hall-helenaBozeman has boomed with many new chef-driven restaurants but of the downtown establishments my favorite for good fresh, creative food remains the Co-Op Downtown nestled within the Gallatin Block, a historic building, tastefully renovated, in the downtown historic district.

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In Billings, it is Walker’s Grill–a rather newcomer on the stage but now a staple of downtown life in Billings, and a big part of its re-vitalization in the 19980s, just as its neighbor to the east, the Rex Hotel restaurant, was the first really successful adaptive reuse project on Montana Avenue, the city’s old railroad corridor.

Another railroad era hotel that has gone through various restorations before meeting a happy conclusion is the magnificent Grand Union Hotel and its bar/ restaurant in Fort Benton.  Here is a place worth a long drive–for there is so much to see and explore in this mid-19th century Montana place.

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I have already ranged across a good part of the state–what about the eastern third, that vast landscape north and east of Billings.  Winnett on Montana Highway 200 has a great local bar/ steakhouse (below) while for an endless abundance of eastern Montana fare img_0252head to Miles City, which is the place to go if you wonder, still, “where’s the beef” and a city that is the proud home of the famous Montana Bar.

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Oh yes, let’s go way up north to the state’s northeast corner and take in the Fort Peck Hotel and its equally good lounge and restaurant.  Here is a New Deal era building, set

img_8109within New Deal landscape that forever changed the look of this region in the 1930s.  Locals and tourists mix together–because the hotel is the only place to go, unless you want to backtrack to Glasgow and check out Sam’s Supper Club on U.S. Highway 2, and its equally neat 1960s roadside look.

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Ready to go–hope so.  At least everyone is now in the holiday mood for the feasting to come.  Happy holidays, and thanks for checking out my explorations into historic Montana.

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.