By Tim Leeds
Gary Wilson has set a goal for the operation of Fort Assinniboine as a tourist attraction and he's looking for support from the community.
Not money or even donated time just support.
"We're not asking the public to work out there. We're not asking for money. We're asking for greater awareness," said Wilson, president of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association.
Wilson's goal is to have the fort operating as a full-time tourist site by May 2004.
The reason for the goal is threefold. One is to continue the preservation and restoration of the fort. Wilson said revenue from the tours will fund the efforts of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association, formed in 1988. The association can't expect to depend on cash contributions from the community, he said.
"There isn't enough money to go around in Havre. You can only have your hand out so long," he said.
Another reason is to help the Montana State University Northern Agricultural Research Center. NARC, which has been located at the fort since 1915, has been a great supporter of the association's work, Wilson said. Getting the association's work to be self-supporting will benefit the center, as will stabilizing the buildings it uses for offices and research.
The third is the benefit to the community. Wilson points to Fort Union in Williston, N.D.
"I'd always thought it was pretty spectacular when Williston talks about Fort Union bringing 20,000 to 30,000 people and a million dollars to the community," Wilson said.
The history of Assinniboine helps tell the story of the settlement of the West.
Congress appropriated the initial money to build the fort in 1878, following Gen. George Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn in 1876 and the defeat of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce at Bear Paw Battlefield in 1877.
The fort was built to keep the peace near the Canadian border on the trade route from Fort Benton to Fort Walsh and Fort Battleford in Canada.
In its 42-year career, the fort housed some famous soldiers, including John "Black Jack" Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, and the Buffalo Soldiers, the African American 10th Cavalry.
The goal to have the fort's tourism operation running full time by 2004 has two reasons, Wilson said. One is that it's the 125th anniversary of the initial construction of the fort.
The other is that millions of extra tourists are expected to come to the state during the bicentennial of the voyage of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.
Emily Mayer Lossing, secretary treasurer of the fort association and Havre's historic preservation officer, said people should see the site and find out what the association is working with.
"It's not too late for these buildings," she said. "For the most part the buildings are stable. What they need are a pinch here and a tuck there and they'll be nice."
Promoting the fort would be a great benefit to the area, she said. Studies have shown that people coming to Montana are here to see the state's history and pristine landscapes.
Sharalee Smith of the Fort Benton Restoration Committee and the River and Plains Society said statistics show the fort could draw people to Havre.
Cultural heritage tourism is the largest growing segment of the tourism industry, she said.
"Once people come to Montana and see the national parks they want to see the history, get into the back roads," she said.
Fort Benton, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has promoted tourism for decades. Having most of the community help the effort makes it very successful, Smith said.
Fort Assinniboine is part of the Old Forts Trail, commemorating the trade route from Fort Benton into Canada. But since Fort Assinniboine is only open to tourists on evenings and weekends, it's hard to capitalize on the success of the trail, Wilson said.
There is strong support from community leaders and groups right now, Wilson said, and the association is working to strengthen it further.
Boy Scout Troop 438 has been a supporter of the effort to repair the fort for some time.
Jim Spangelo, scoutmaster and a charter member of the association, said Scouts have done stabilization work at the fort for five or six years.
The Scouts have donated enough time and labor to equal about $40,000 worth of work by contractors, Spangelo said.
The Havre Area Chamber of Commerce has been supportive, and Wilson said he hopes to get more direct help from the Chamber once it completes its Town Square project in September.
"The Chamber can do a lot to inspire support. I consider them a really key part," he said.
NARC superintendent Don Anderson, a charter member of the fort preservation association, said the effort to restore the buildings will benefit the research center and preserve the historical integrity of the site.
The center gave tours of the site before the preservation association "took that load off of us," Anderson said. The center has probably given tours for anyone who asked since it was founded, he said.
Eventually, the center wants to build new research facilities and move out of the old fort buildings.
"That, you might say, is the long-range dream. It's going to take a lot of money that doesn't ever seem to be available," he said.
The center personnel have been a great help to the association, Wilson said. They are very cooperative, help with some of the work and helped to make the required cash match for the CTEP money the association received this week.
The Havre City Council this week approved providing enough money from its Community Transportation Enhancement Program funds to put a major project out for bids. The $80,800 project will will keep the fort trader's post building from falling down, Wilson said. The post serves as the soil lab for NARC.
Completing that is one goal for 2004, Wilson said. Other projects are to complete stabilizing other buildings, weatherizing the openings on all buildings, and building a parking lot for visitors and an interpretive center.
"So we'd have tours all day long," Wilson said.