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.

 

 

 

 

Hamilton’s Daly Mansion: A New Interior and New Interpretive Directions

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The story of the Daly Mansion from a shuttered family owned property in 1984-1985 to a fully realized historic house museum 30 years later also reflects well my timeline of engagement with the historic landscapes of the Big Sky Country.  It was a time capsule in the mid-1980s–a house starting to come apart but full of family furniture, papers, and countless treasures.  When the house was saved but the interior furnishings sold at auction, it seemed like a permanent separation.

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My first post on this blog in 2013 about the Daly Mansion and its restoration lauded the determination of the local non-profit to finish the exterior renovation and repairs, and to have the place open to the public on a regular basis.  It was and is an impressive achievement in a time when so-called experts say the era of historic house museums is over. But it was very much an exterior tour–when I visited six years ago, photographs were not allowed, not so much to protect items but because so much remained to be done. The place just did not have a historic “lived in” look.

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In the last five years, the Daly Mansion board and its many local supporters have finished the job.  Key pieces of family furniture, like the settee above and much of the dining room below, have returned, due in large part to purchases and commitments made at the original auction in the 1980s but many objects coming back to the house due to the persistence of board members and the willingness of auction buyers to return items now that 30 years have passed.

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The result is a house museum that depicts well the life of a wealthy family on their version of the 20th century country estate, and now with an appropriate focus on Margaret Daly, who selected the architectural style, purchased many of the furnishings, and kept the estate forefront in Montana luxury for four decades (Marcus Daly died in 1900, before the Colonial Revival conversion of the original house; Margaret lived until 1941).  Margaret Daly’s bedroom furniture had long been in the collections of the University of Montana Library–they are now in their rightful place in the Daly Mansion.

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The lushness, and personality, of Margaret Daly’s private quarters is now the norm across the house, from the first floor parlor to the second floor setting room.

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Even the third floor ballroom, once an evocative but largely empty space, is now used to display and interpret the rather amazing clothing collections of the museum.

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Certainly the words of one visitor during my May 2018 ring true:  “they were rich but had little taste” in the decorative arts.  But for Margaret Daly her Riverside estate was not a showplace as much as a place to escape for the summer.  The hodge-lodge of trendy but individually undistinguished furniture and objects suited that purpose just fine.

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The Daly Mansion is at a new place–a preservation and restoration project that had stretched out for thirty years.  But now the interior story, especially the focus on Margaret Daly, steps up to center stage.  The meaning of Riverside and the Bitter Root Stock Farm is still waiting for a full exploration and analysis.

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Ranches and the Montana landscape

 

Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, MT 278, 45 mmHere is a property category that could be, probably should be, a blog of its own–the ranching landscape of Big Sky Country.  Historic family ranches are everywhere in the state, and being of rural roots myself, and a Tennessee Century Farm owner, the ways families have crafted their lives and livelihood out of the land and its resources is always of interest.

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Wibaux ranch house, 1985.

When I carried out the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the Montana state historic preservation plan, a handful of ranches had been preserved as museums.  On the eastern end of the state in Wibaux was the preserved ranch house of Pierre Wibaux, one of the 1880s cattle barons of eastern Montana and western North Dakota.  The ranch house today remains as a historic site, and a state welcome center for interstate travelers–although you wish someone in charge would remove the rather silly awning from the gable end window.

Wibaux Co Wibaux Pierre Wibaux ranch NR 1Preserving merely the ranch house, and adding other period buildings, is one thing.  The massive preserved landscape of hundreds of acres of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in the western end of Montana is a totally different experience. This National Park Service site

not only preserves one of the earliest settlement landscapes in the state it also shows how successful ranches change over time. John Grant began the place before the Civil War: he was as much an Indian trader than ranch man.  Grant Kohrs however looked at the rich land, the railroad line that ran through the place, and saw the potential for becoming a cattle baron in the late 19th century.  To reflect his prestige and for his family’s comfort, the old ranch house was even updated with a stylish Victorian brick addition. The layers of history within this landscape are everywhere–not surprisingly. There is a mix of 19th and 20th century buildings here that you often find at any historic ranch.

When I was working with the Montana Historical Society in 1984-1985 there were two additional grand ranches that we thought could be added to the earlier preservation achievements.  Both are now landmarks, important achievements of the last 30 years.

Bitterroot Stock Farm painting at Ravalli Co Courthouse 1The Bitter Root Stock Farm, established in 1886 by soon-to-be copper magnate Marcus Daly outside of Hamilton, came first.  I can recall early site visits in 1985–that started the ball rolling but the deal wasn’t finalized for several years.  All of the work was worth it.

Here was one of the grand showplace ranches of the American West, with its own layers of a grand Queen Anne ranch house (still marked by the Shingle-style laundry house) of Daly’s time that was transformed into an even greater Classical Revival mansion by his Margaret Daly after her husband’s death.  It is with us today largely due to the efforts of a determined local group, with support from local, state, and federal governments, a group of preservation non-profits, and the timely partnership of the University of Montana.

Daly Mansion by A.J. Gibson

 

The second possibility was also of the grand scale but from more recent times–the Bair Ranch in Martinsdale, almost in the center of the state. Charles Bair had made his money in sheep and wise investments.  His daughters traveled the world and brought treasures home to their Colonial Revival styled ranch house.  To get a chance to visit with Alberta Bair here in the mid-1980s was a treat indeed.

Once again, local initiative preserved the ranch house and surrounding buildings and a local board operates both a house museum and a museum that highlights items from the family’s collections.

The success of the Bitter Root Stock Farm and the Bair Ranch was long in the making, and you hope that both can weather the many challenges faced by our public historic sites and museums today.  We praise our past but far too often we don’t want to pay for it.

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That is why family stewardship of the landscape is so important.  Here are two examples from Beayerhead County.  The Tash Ranch (above and below) is just outside of Dillon and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  But is also still a thriving family ranch.

The same is true for the Bremmer Ranch, on the way to Lemhi Pass.  Here is a family still using the past to forge their future and their own stories of how to use the land and its resources to maintain a life and a culture.

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One family ranch that I highlighted in my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986), was the Simms-Garfield Ranch, located along the Musselshell River Valley in Golden Valley County, along U.S. Highway 12.  This National Register-property was not, at

Golden Valley Co Ryegate Simms-Garfield Ranch NR 3first glance, architecturally magnificent as the properties above.  But in its use of local materials–the timber, the rocks from the river bluffs–and its setting along a historic road, this ranch is far more typical of the Montana experience.

Similar traditions are expressed in another way at a more recent National Register-listed ranch, the Vogt-Nunberg Ranch south of Wibaux on Montana Highway 7. Actively farmed from 1911 to 1995, the property documents the changes large and small that happened in Montana agriculture throughout the 20th century.

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The stories of these ranches are only a beginning.  The Montana Preservation Alliance has done an admirable job of documenting the state’s historic barns, and the state historic preservation office has listed many other ranches to the National Register.  But still the rural landscape of the Big Sky Country awaits more exploration and understanding.

 

Thanks for Being One of 100,000

Ravalli Co, beaver slide at Sula

Over the weekend, the Revisiting Montana’s Historic Landscapes site received its 100,000 visit.  When I began this project, I thought that if it reached 10,000 people–about the number who purchased copies of my Traveler’s Companion to Montana History in 1986-87 that would be worth the four-year effort to drive Montana roads and resurvey all of the places I first visited in the mid-1980s.  Thank you for being part of this journey, thanks too to the Montana Preservation Alliance and the Montana State Historic Preservation Office for their encouragement and support along the way.

Daniels Co Flaxville 1At this time, my entry on Flaxville, the tiny place above in Daniels County, has received the most views.  Perhaps that changes as I continue to move into the northwest portion of the state, starting with one of the most rapidly changing places in the last 30 years, Missoula County.

IMG_7263I am on the back end of my trek across the Big Sky Country, with probably 50 entries to go–see you soon!

 

Stevensville: continuity in the midst of change

Stevensville commercial HDSince my earlier work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, few places in Montana had experienced such rapid population growth as Stevensville.  The place had just over 1200 residents in the 1980s, and that increased to a mere 1221 in 1990.  But now Stevensville is close to 2,000 in population.IMG_2472

Stevensville Feed and Mill, 407 MainBut enough is still here–like the historic mill complex above–that even as the business changes there is still the feel of an agricultural town at Stevensville. A major reason for the sense of continuity is the Stevensville Commercial Historic District, which has helped to protect the core of the town.

IOOF Hall, 217-19 Main St, StevensvilleAlso, buildings such as the two-story Old Fellows Hall (1912) have been individually listed in the National Register, adding prominence to the historic district. The district has a range of one-story and two-story brick buildings, most from the agricultural boom of the first two decades of the 20th century. A notable exception is a two-story concrete block

Classical Revival-styled bank building, where the blocks are shaped to resemble masonry. You can find this architectural treatment across the state, most often in residential architecture. The Stevensville bank is an important commercial example.

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Stevensville Main St, 300 block oddOne major trend of Stevensville over 30 years is how buildings have been adapted to new uses.  You expect that in a commercial area with a rising population, but here it has happened to such landmarks as the historic turn of the 20th century school building,

Public School (1884) now Methodist Church, 216 College, Stevensville NRwhich is now the United Methodist Church, while the two-story brick American Four-Square house below is the historic Thornton Hospital (1910), but now serves as the Stevensville Hotel.  Both buildings are listed in the National Register.

IMG_2443One area that I really failed to consider in the 1984-1985 work was the diversity and cohesiveness of the historic residential neighborhood.  It too has been documented by a National Register historic district, but some dwellings, such as the impressive Classical Revival-styled Bass House have been individually listed.

Bass House, 100 College, Stevensville 1909Another favorite dates to the 1930s and the impact of the International Style on Montana domestic architecture:  the Gavin House, with its flat roof, its boxy two-story shape and bands of windows at the corners.

Gavin House, 1941, 219 College St, Stevensville, NR, internationalBetween these two extremes of early 20th century domestic design, Stevensville has an array of architectural styles, from the Folk Victorian to the more austere late 19th century vernacular to bungalows to revival styles.

Stevensville residents have used the National Register as an effective tool to commemorate their pasts but also to lay the foundation for a 21st century future in the midst of the some of the most rapid growth in the state.

 

Montana’s Roots in the Bitterroot Valley

St Marys Mission, 1866, Stevensville (p84 61-13)

St. Mary’s Mission, photo 1984

When I arrived in Montana, fresh from Colonial Williamsburg, the state’s early history–the Native American story, the arrival of traders, first the French, then Lewis and Clark, and after that David Thompson out of Canada and the American Fur Company out of St. Louis–captured my attention.  Later came Catholic missionaries, who struck particularly deep roots in the western valleys.  All of those cultures, all of those conflicting needs, views, perceptions–it fascinated me, and those places of interaction and conflict became some of the focal points of my work. Thus, Stevensville was a place I eagerly explored.

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I had my own copy of the lithograph above, a depiction of the Owen complex and “fort” from a federal survey expedition of the 1850s.  So I first went to see Fort Owen State Monument.

IMG_2388Much to my surprise I found a “pocket” park, set almost like you will find historic sites within major cities, except here the site is next to a working ranch.  Not what I expected.

IMG_2391But no complaints either.  We are lucky that the ranchers shared a bit of the ranch and preserved some of the site’s history, especially the one remaining adobe barracks since this type of building and method of construction is so rare to find today. Most western forts are nothing more than archaeological sites.

Fort Owen, Stevensville, Ravalli Co 6The barracks has much to say but public interpretation here has not improved to the degree found at several other state parks in Montana like at First Nations in Cascade County.  We get enough of the story to tantalize the average visitor and perhaps confound the scholar who wants more context.

Fort Owen, Stevensville, Ravalli Co 16The turn of the 20th century historic photo above shows how much was still here about 100 years ago but a storm ripped the roof off one of the barracks, and after all the construction Owen used here over 150 years ago was never meant to last for long.  Traders wished to make an outpost impressive–why would anyone trade with a business that lacked substance?–but it made no business sense to build anything grandiose.

To be clear–time had not turned still at Fort Owen since my last visit in 1984.  You can see good conservation work everywhere and new exhibit cases improve the public presentation.  But you still leave wanting more, and more land would be a start.  You worry

IMG_2389that the open views to the greater landscape which remain as they were in the past might not last in the rapidly suburbanizing upper Bitterroot Valley. The Fort Owen park is still an invaluable national story set within a working ranch–but what if it becomes a pocket park surrounded by a 21st century suburb? The chance for meaningful archaeology–not to

Fort Owen, Stevensville, Ravalli Co 20rebuild the fort as what has happened at its cousins in Fort Benton and Fort Union–but to understand much more about the formative period of Montana history: that could be lost forever.

IMG_2419Luckily at St. Mary’s Mission enough land has been secured that even as Stevensville expands (its population has jumped over 50% since 1984), perhaps the historic site’s future will not be that of a pocket park.

Catholic missionaries led by Father DeSmet established the church here by 1841, although the present log chapel and attached school dates a generation later.  This is still one of the state’s oldest buildings.  The historic church is the setting for a largely memorial landscape honoring the priests, key Indian leaders such as Charlo, and those who set out

to create Christian outreach to the Native Americans, then and today.  While the public interpretation here is robust, it is rarely a dialogue but more like a sermon, always on message, about the values the priests brought.  What the Salish and other tribes thought about it all–from their perspective and in their words or traditions–is rarely given much attention.  Yet the place itself, the setting, the use of logs, surviving furniture brought to the property in the 19th century:  it all can say quite a bit if you stop and look and think.

St. Mary’s is powerful–in the same way that St. Peter’s Mission in Cascade County can be powerful–in how it juxtaposes the faith of the missionaries against the realities of the surrounding culture and landscape.  Especially when you step into the historic cemetery

and look beyond the grave markers and memorial into the built environment and surrounding natural setting, St. Mary’s can imprint you in a profound way.

IMG_2435Let’s hope that future development in and around the historic mission keep these vistas as they are–for it is here that the modern story of the Bitterroot–meaning the last 175 years–begins.

Hamilton’s historic homes

In 1984, I must admit, I did not look closely at the rich domestic architecture of Hamilton, especially during its boom from c. 1890 to c. 1920.  When I thought of Hamilton and the term historic house I was like many other people:  I thought of the Daly Mansion which actually stood outside of the town boundaries.

I missed a big story by being so limited in what I thought as historic in Hamilton.  Just a quick stroll down South 3rd and 4th Streets will unveil an impressive chronological range of domestic architecture types and styles from the rather unadorned frame cottages above to the much more architecturally finished Charles Hoffman House, an important Montana example of Prairie Style in a frame two-story building.

Charles Hoffman, 807 S. 3rd, Hamilton

IMG_2628South 3rd Street also has a strong set of bungalows, Montana style, which means that they take all sorts of forms and use all sorts of building materials.

Then the street also has bungalows that in their symmetry almost become Colonial Revival dwellings, a dash of Tudor Revival, and Colonial Revival proper, along with Art Deco influenced buildings and a Ranch style house thrown in as well, representing the middle decades of the 20th century.

South 4th Street has the same excellent range of home designs, but with a bit more of a touch of the modern and with the second half of the 20th century interpretation of Log Rustic style.

In fact Hamilton has two other worthwhile but unexpected Art Moderne styled houses scattered through the historic downtown.

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Art Moderne, 215 Marcus St, Hamilton

Hamilton has several impressive historic church buildings such as St. Paul Episcopal and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic below, both in splendid takes on Gothic style.

Rocky Mountain Labs is not the only medical building in the historic downtown.  Joining it is the Colonial Revival-styled Marcus Daly Hospital, a historic building constructed in 1930-31 with funds provided by Daly’s wife Margaret.  A new hospital building opened in 1975 and the historic hospital has been converted into county offices.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Marcus Daly Hospital (now gvt building), Hamilton NRMy favorite set of public buildings in Hamilton got back to the theme of town and ranch and how community institutions can link both.  The Ravalli County Fairgrounds began on

Ravalli County Fairgrounds, Hamilton 440 acres located south of downtown on the original road to Corvallis in 1913.  Its remarkable set of buildings date from those early years into the present, and the Labor Day Rodeo is still one of the region’s best.

Despite growth all around them, residents in Hamilton still respect tradition and history and the many National Register properties shown above show how private property owners have been excellent stewards in a rapidly changing landscape. This overview hasn’t shown all of the historic homes but should be enough of an introduction to tempt you to take on your own exploration.