Stevensville’s Fort Owen: 2018 Update

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Fort Owen is one of Montana’s most significant historic places—where interaction between American traders and Native Americans date before the Civil War—and it is one of my favorite places, for both its layered history and the beauty of its location. I rarely pass on an opportunity to see how this little place is hanging on in a rapidly suburbanizing part of the state.

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From my visit in May 2018, the news is still good.  All of Ravalli County is growing like gangbusters (we knew that the recent four-lane US Highway 93 would have that type of impact), but the fort retains a strong sense of place.

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The buildings and structures are well maintained, aided immeasurably by the neighboring ranch family who constantly keeps an eye on the place.

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The interior of the fort building is solid enough and conveys in its material and design a mid-19th century feel.  What needs help, though, are the exhibit panels. They are what I encountered in the mid 1980s, meaning that new research is not reflected in the content nor are they as graphically compelling as, for example, the exhibits at First Nation outside of Great Falls.

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Montana State Parks are jewels, but even the most sparkling jewel needs polishing every now and then.  It is time to give that new look and due justice to Fort Owen.

 

 

 

 

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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On to Ravalli County via US 93

IMG_2882When most people think of Ravalli County they think of the ever suburbanizing northern half, as you take U.S. Highway 93 south–a four lane highway–from Missoula and encounter the new suburbs of Florence.  But if you use U.S. Highway 93 from the southern end, you find a very different place, one that starts with Ross’ Hole.

IMG_2887There are few more beautiful places in the state, even on this cloudy day in 2012, the hole beckoned, as it has for centuries.  In western American history, its importance has multiple layers, from ancient Native American uses to the peaceful encounter between Flathead Indians and the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.  Without the horses the expedition acquired from the Flathead, its journey would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

ross holeMontana “cowboy” artist Charles M. Russell painted the scene as a prominent historical mural in the House of Representatives chamber at the Montana State Capitol in 1912. His composition, as I used to like to point out when I gave state capitol tours in 1982, emphasized the centrality of the Native Americans in the region–the expedition were minor characters, in the background of the painting’s right side.  The place name Ross’s Hole refers to Hudson Bay Company trader Alexander Ross who traded there in 1824.  Hole was a trader and trapper term for mountain valley.

Ravalli Co Ross Hole interpretation, US 93, SulaAt the time of the 1984 survey, Ross’ Hole was interpreted by this single wooden sign, now much worse for the wear of the decades.  But like many important landscapes in the state, today you find a rather full public interpretation in a series of markers sponsored by the Montana Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Sula is the primary “town” of Ross’ Hole, and its 20th century settlement history is chartered by two community institutions.  A local grass-roots preservation group has done a great job of restoration of the historic school building–a one-room frame building that fits into its rural surroundings brilliantly.

The Sula Community Club dates to 1915, although its clubhouse is a more recent building of rustic log style–while the nearby Sula Post Office is a more contemporary, bland take on “rustic”style.

Nearby all three of the buildings is a historic beaver slide hay stacker, another reminder of the early 20th century ranches that represented a new era in the hole’s history.

IMG_2881Any trip to Ross’ Hole would not be complete with a stop, however brief, at the roadside architecture-a log bungalow–home to the Sula Community Store, which can basically provide you with about anything you might need while traveling on U.S. Highway 93.

 

 

 

Ravalli County Sula country store, US 93And the coffee is always hot, and strong.