By Ron VandenBoom
Row after row of gleaming brick buildings line the massive parade grounds where uniformed soldiers march in precise cadence to the rhythmic beat and blaring trumpets of a military band.
Col. Thomas H. Ruger, commander of the fort, strikes an almost stone like pose as lines of uniformed infantry and mounted cavalry march past the reviewing stand. Ruger's gold braid and spit-and-polish demeanor fail to reflect the seasoned officers true feelings as he silently watches the procession. Sentimental emotion is not permitted of a high ranking military officer and besides, this is not a time for sentimentality, this is a time for accomplishing a mission a mission of securing this vast untamed territory for westward expansion.
The year was 1879 and the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who had defeated Col. George Armstrong Custer just three years before at the Battle of the Little Big Horn were now in Canada and the Army feared hostile raids across the border. Blackfeet Indians to the west were also threatening other Indian tribes now living in Montana Territory.
Strategically, this new fort, known as Fort Assinniboine, was one of the most important in the western United States. It was also one of the largest with a permanent garrison of about 800 troops and 200 civilians.
The more than 100 brick, stone and wood buildings composing the heart of the 500,000 acre reservation were the latest design in military architecture.
"This was no fly-by-night operation," said Gary Wilson, president of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association. "They spent some really big bucks on this place."
Pointing to the tower on the end of the old Bachelor Officers Quarters, he explains that this is one of the things that makes Fort Assinniboine a significant historical attraction.
Prior to this time, forts in the West had been built primarily of adobe or wood, Wilson said.
Fort Assinniboine, however, contained underground plumbing, a library, officers and enlisted clubs, a hospital, a school, a church, and an ice house, and barracks for a regimental band.
About 300 horses could be stabled at the fort and blacksmith work was done mostly by civilian employees.
One building, still standing at the old fort, was built by the enlisted men so officers and their ladies could hold plays, balls, and dinners.
The Hop Room, as it was called, was the social center of military life.
Wilson describes it as a place where ladies in elegant gowns would dance with officers in dress uniforms and dinners and plays were presented for the exclusive entertainment of the upper-crust of military society.
Among those attending social functions in The Hop Room was First Lt. John J. Pershing a brash young Army officer with an eye for the ladies who would later rise to fame as commander of American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War One.
As Wilson tells the story, Pershing became enamored with Idonia, the 15-year-old half sister of Hanna Elizabeth McCullough, the wife of Robert McCullough, who, in about 1895, was running the Fort Traders business on the post.
During a social gathering in The Hop Room and after one too many libations, Pershing's rude advances toward Idonia incurred the wrath of Hanna. In a toe-to-toe confrontation, Pershing received a sever tongue-lashing from the enraged half-sister and was severely reprimanded by Col. J.K. Mizner a Civil War hero and commander of the fort at that time.
It might have been the end of Pershing's career, Wilson suggests, had it not been for a visit to the fort by Maj. General Nelson A. Miles, then general-in-chief of the Army.
Miles is said to have been so impressed with Pershing's talents as a hunting guide that he transferred him to Washington D.C. as an aide-de-camp.
Pershing had been in command of H Company of the 10th Cavalry, a unit of black "Buffalo Soldiers" stationed at Fort Assinniboine. Historians continue to debate whether it was Pershing's command of Black troops at the post that gave him his famous nickname "Black Jack," or a later incident over a prank at West Point that led to the name.
Life at Fort Assinniboine was almost elegant when compared to other western forts in the West during that period, Wilson said.
"All the officers had servants black servants mostly," Wilson said, launching into another humorous story.
"A number of white women were sent to the fort as servants," he said. "But they kept marrying the troops."
Wilson said the commander finally wrote Washington requesting the army send the ugliest girls they could find "preferably girls that were cross-eyed," he said.
No great military confrontations can be attributed to the fort and, in fact, the greatest battles seem to have been to be found with loneliness, boredom, and desertion. Demon rum also led many to spend a night in the fort's guardhouse.
The Spanish American War also saw large numbers of troops depart Fort Assinniboine never to be returned. Then a fire in the water tower building in 1911 signaled the final gasp of the fort, when the Army decided not to rebuild it.
By 1913, the last of the units were withdrawn and the buildings sold to the state for use as a college.
No money was appropriated for the college, and before long, the buildings fell into disrepair.
Today, the property houses the MSU-Bozeman Agricultural Experiment Station and has been declared a national historic site.
Much work remains to be done to preserve the fort for future generations and the Preservation Association is working hard to gather the funds necessary to develop the site into a first-rate tourism attraction.
The first step is to stabilize and preserve the remaining buildings. Preliminary work has already started on weatherization and stabilization, roofing, door and window coverings and preserving wooden porches on existing buildings.
More than $20,000 in archeological work has so far been completed on the fort, and fences have already been erected to keep cattle from damaging the buildings. Plans for converting one of the old cavalry stables into an interpretive center also exist. A parking lot and picnic area to the north of the fort is also being planned.
According to Wilson, the site will eventually offer living history exhibits, a touring wagon, and self-guided tours.
As many as 25,000 visitors a year are expected to visit the fort when it is completed, Wilson said.
Tours of the Fort are currently available for $3.50 for adults, $1.50 for students 6-12. Children under 6 are free.
Tours can be arranged by calling 265-4000 or 265-8336.