Stevensville’s Fort Owen: 2018 Update


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.


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.



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




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.



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.





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.

200-202 Main St, Gleason Bldg, Stevensville NR

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.


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.