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.

Chouteau Co Ft Benton Front St Baker House

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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Lake McDonald and its boats

Flathead Co GNP Lake McDonald

The second week of January 2018 was one of both good and bad news for historic preservation in the Big Sky Country.  First came the good news out of the State Historic Preservation Office in Helena about the National Register of Historic Places listing of two more Lake McDonald boats at Glacier National Park.  The DeSmet, shown above, has long been my favorite.  It has navigated the calm waves of the lake since 1930.  Designed and built by John Swanson of Kalispell, the boat became an important way that the increasing numbers of automobile visitors to Glacier could experience the lake and it helped make the Lake McDonald Lodge a stronger resort experience.  Quite an amazing piece of craftsmanship from Swanson, and so few of his creations remain today.  And as the photo above documents, the boat visually complements the setting–a reminder that the human presence is so small and insignificant compared to the majesty of the mountains.

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The bad news also came from Northwest Montana:  the demolition of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish.  Now there is no way in Montana to have a direct experience with a work from America’s best known and greatest architect. I have spoken about the preservation needs of this architectural jewel earlier in this blog–and like the loss of the Mercantile Building in Missoula last year, development pressures lacked the patience, and the vision, to see anything but a possible empty lot, where a modern “historic” take–the fake past in other words–could stand.

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Such an attitude in Whitefish is doubly disappointing because in the 35 years I have visited this great mountain railroad town, the real history continues to disappear in favor of a fake, quasi-western feel past, as above. Call this progress if you will but in reality it is just another step into the abyss where Whitefish will longer be distinctive but just a place, like hundreds of others, trying to create a sense of identity and capture again what they once had.