Havre Daily News
Hill County's oldest building will get some much-needed work thanks to a self-proclaimed old-timer trained in bygone brickwork.
Lee Prinzing's skills are rare. Gary Wilson, Fort Assinniboine preservationist, and Craig Erickson, Bear Paw Development Corp. planner, can both attest to that. The two, along with the Havre Public Works Department, have been searching for almost a decade for someone to repair the Fort Assinniboine post trader building. With a grant from the Montana Community Transportation Enhancement Program, they could not find anybody to do the work within their budget.
Thanks to Prinzing finding them, work will start this week.
The specialized construction was the problem, Erickson said, and bids to repair the building kept coming in high.
Project organizers decided this year to get bids on repairing just the building's southwestern corner, which is listing dangerously and threatening to collapse. If that corner goes, it could bring down the rest of the building like a house of cards, Wilson said.
They got two bids for about $60,000 each. In September, after extending the bidding for an extra two weeks, they heard from Prinzing with an offer of less than $30,000.
Because Prinzing's offer was so low, after the corner is completed they'll be able to have him do more work, Wilson said.
The total budget for the project, including materials and design, is $80,000. The Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association and the Northern Agricultural Research Center, which is located at Fort Assinniboine, will each contribute about $5,500. The rest will be paid for by CTEP, which is funded with federal highway dollars.
Friday, while out at the fort for a preconstruction meeting, Prinzing said his bid was low because he knows exactly what has to be done and how to do it. “It's what I do - the restoration stuff like this,” he said.
Unlike the other bidders, Prinzing will not subcontract the brickwork. He'll complete much of it himself, with the help of an 18-year-old employee and visits from some of his semi-retired friends who enjoy the extra work.
Prinzing's company, OTH Construction, is his own semi-retirement. OTH stands for Over The Hill, and his plan for the company has been to pick and choose his projects.
When he heard about the fort project, he knew it was for him, he said, both because of the building's history, and also because of the type of work involved.
Prinzing heard about the project at the last minute, he said, when friends of his asked why he hadn't bid on several CTEP projects in the state.
“They said, ‘Well, this one's kind of a bad one,'” Prinzing said. “I looked at that and said: ‘This one's a piece of cake.'”
Prinzing will prop up the roof and brace the walls before completely removing the building's corner. He'll remove the limestone foundation as well, entirely with hand tools, and then build the corner back up to the roof using as much of the original brick as he can. He'll build a cement foundation, but face it with limestone to match the rest of the building.
Prinzing said the work should take up to a month, and he's scheduled to begin this week.
Once that is done, he'll likely be asked to replace the mortar elsewhere in the building, Wilson said.
As Wilson trailed Prinzing and an engineer from A&E Architects, the firm that made the plans for the repair, he continued to thank his lucky stars that Prinzing found the fort and the project.
“There isn't one guy locally, except maybe one guy in Big Sandy, who can even attempt this work,” Wilson said.
Prinzing learned his trade the old-fashioned way, through an apprenticeship.
He grew up outside Great Falls. At age 17, he looked for work off the family farm and found it apprenticing with a mason.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he said. Prinzing completed five years of apprenticeship.
For more than 50 years Prinzing has continued that work.
Wilson is glad to have his expertise, as well as his affection for the place and the work.
“He has fond remembrance of the fort,” Wilson said. Prinzing told Wilson about a childhood summer camp-out at the enlisted men's barracks at Fort Assinniboine, Wilson said.
Those barracks burned down in the 1950s.
The post trader building, meanwhile, is being used for much the same purpose today as it was 126 years ago - for storage. At the time, it was a warehouse for trade goods. For a period, part of the building was also the county's first post office, Wilson said.
Most of the building is used now by the Northern Agricultural Research Center for equipment storage, and a small section is used as a soil laboratory.