Fort Benton citizens rebuild historic fur trade post

Posted on 18 September 2009

 By Glenn Himebaugh

If you would like proof a small town can improve its economy and assure its future, even in the face of slowly declining population and uncertain agricultural conditions like those on the high plains of north central Montana, take a look at Fort Benton.

Blessed with a rich history and an attractive location on the Missouri River, Fort Benton, population 1,500, has long been in the tourist business, touting such attractions as its scenic levee, Montana's oldest building, its oldest operating hotel (the Grand Union), the Museum of the Upper Missouri, and the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, among others. Now, residents are restoring the town's namesake-Fort Benton itself.

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Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Montana

Their goal is to recreate the site to mirror the original fort built by the American Fur Co. in 1846 as a trading post with the Blackfeet Indians. An original blockhouse, built in 1847, has been stabilized and serves as the fort's crown jewel. It's Montana's oldest building and reportedly is the oldest building still standing anywhere that was associated with the fur trade. Clearly, Fort Benton folks are strong believers in the "build it and they will come" adage, and even though the project's far from finished, they already can point to some encouraging numbers to support that claim. "Between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2003, the [partially rebuilt] fort was open two hours a day three days a week," says Dave Parchen, chairman of the five-member Fort Restoration Committee.

"We manned the fort with volunteers and attracted more than 5,000 visitors." That doesn't count folks who attended special events. For example, 600 locals and visitors enjoyed a bison barbecue at the fort during the 2003 Fur Trade Symposium. Blackfeet Indians set up an encampment on the grounds and helped re-enact the 1846 ceremonies that had opened the trade in buffalo robes and, later, beaver pelts. Parchen, who teaches art and science at Fort Benton High School when he's not working on fund-raising, archaeological digs, and other tasks associated with the fort's reconstruction, traces the project's roots back to 1996. "We thought that in the face of agricultural conditions and declining population we'd capitalize on our history to ensure our future," he explains, adding that the project has had the added benefit of deterring "pot hunters and vandals" that had previously trashed the three-quarter-acre site on the banks of the Missouri numerous times.

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Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Montana

From the beginning, Parchen says, the Blackfeet have been involved in the restoration. "We're raising the money and doing the interpretation at the fort," he notes, "but they've agreed to help us with the interpretation by giving us their perspective. We run our ideas past their elders." At the outset, the federal government's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) strongly supported the fort's reconstruction, Parchen recalls, even planning a visitor center there. But all that changed when President Bill Clinton took office. "We were left in a lurch," Parchen says. Nonetheless, he adds, "a bunch of us got together and decided to move ahead with the first archaeological dig." From the beginning, funding was crucial. The committee turned first to the River and Plains Society, Fort Benton's historical society. Next, the Lippard/Clawiter Foundation, which supports projects in Choteau County, chipped in $5,000-enough to finance the early digs. The foundation has continued its support. Seeking larger donations, committee member Sharalee Smith accepted the challenge of writing grants. Among her successful efforts: $50,000 from the U.S. Forest Service that financed construction of the first building, the trade store, and $39,000 from Travel Montana that paid for the second building, the warehouse. "This county has a long tradition of preserving its history," declares Smith in explaining her enthusiasm for the job. "That is one of the first things that impressed me when I moved here."

As examples, she points to the Baker House, an adobe structure constructed in 1867 by pioneering Fort Benton trader I.G. Baker, and St. Paul's Episcopal Church, built in 1880 and still in use. "We're finding new sources interested in helping us with both construction and interpretation costs," says Parchen, attributing that to increased interest in the fur trade and the Lewis and Clark Expedition bicentennial. (Lewis was in Fort Benton in 1806.) Joining Parchen and Smith at the restoration committee's monthly meetings are members Bob Doerk, Larry Cook, and Pam Schoonover, as well as Jack Lepley, chairman of the River and Plains Society, who serves as the committee's resource person. But community involvement is widespread, ranging from Parchen's art students to local contractors. As many as 30 residents have turned out for the digs, unearthing nearly 70,000 trade beads and other items ranging from coins and bullets to dice and cards, even Chinese vermillion paint used by the Indians to adorn their bodies.

The digs, in conjunction with diagrams drawn when the military occupied the fort in 1869, have verified the original location of all the buildings, Parchen explains. Mayor Rick Morris notes the fort "is an important part of Fort Benton's history and heritage" and will attract more visitors. "I give the committee a lot of credit for what they've accomplished," he says. The city leases the site to the committee for $1 a year. Five more buildings must be reconstructed to finish the project, which has no target date. The next scheduled one is the bourgeois quarters, which housed the chief agent and his family. "We could probably do it for $900,000 in addition to what's already in it," Parchen estimates.

"We've stretched dollars all along. Our long-range goal is to completely rebuild the fort and allow visitors to step back into the 1850s." Beyond that, he adds, "We'd like to serve as a model for other communities. We're fortunate in that we have a lot of history here, but we want to encourage others to do the same type of thing." Parchen smiles and adds, "Also, we want to let other communities know this: Don't let the government tell you that you can't do things!"



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