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Fort Assinniboine - the beginning of north-central Montana

'If it weren't for Fort Assinniboine, there might have not been a Havre'


February 23, 2018

Ryan Welch/Havre Daily News

Before Montana became a state, before the name Havre had ever been emblazoned on, or staked in, any part of the Hi-Line, there was a Fort Assinniboine.

"If it weren't for Fort Assinniboine, there might have not been a Havre," said Candi Zion, a historian and former chair of the Havre/Hill County Preservation Commission.

At the time of its establishment, the fort stretched 220,000 acres. That large swath of territory covered a portion of present-day Havre, as well as Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

Today, less than 20 percent of the military infrastructure survives.

Recently, as a result of a small group of local residents who've been working hard for the last four years, Fort Assinniboine has been upgraded in national recognition and is one step from a monumental breakthrough.

The fort was first nominated for national recognition in 1984, but the most recent nomination, approved Jan. 26 by the Montana State Historic Preservation Board to be sent to Washington, D.C., could mean big things for the fort and the region.

Zion, who is the main writer of the National Register of Historic Places Registration nomination form, said it should be smooth sailing from here.

This kind of recognition could improve tourism and make grants easier to come by, those involved in the work say.

"This re-establishes what we always suspected, that it was a very significant fort, and it's right here in our backyard," said Becki Miller, historic preservation officer for the Preservation Commission. "I think it's a huge untapped tourism resource."

Now it's up to the keeper in Washington.

"Once it goes to the keeper, it's reviewed once again," she said. "But since the state review board accepted it, usually those go without a hitch and they just automatically put them on the National Register of Historic Places."

Zion pieced together a large portion of the 138-page National Register of Historic Places Registration form. The bibliography for the form lists 98 sources comprising books, electronic resources, historic documents collections, interviews, correspondence, newspaper-magazine articles and other papers.

The information in this article is based on Zion's research.

Fort Assinniboine served a major role in U.S. military and diplomatic relationships, not only with the tribal nations of the area, but also Canada. The fort served as the key component of a military strategy to secure the international border with Canada "with respect to an overall policy of intimidation and containment of the Native American nations between 1879 and 1903."

Fort Assiniboine's main function was border patrol and engagement with the Cree, Metis, Blackfeet and Sioux. Its location between the Blackfeet reservation to the west and Fort Belknap to the east led to interaction with the Gros Ventre and Assinniboine nations as well.

The size and scale of the 220,000-acre military post and military reservation established it as one of the most massive in the United States, the nomination form says. During the fort's years of military use - 1879-1911 - as many as 104 buildings stood, "neatly arranged around the 2,000-foot long parade ground," the nomination says.

Most of the buildings were built with locally produced load-bearing red brick, with nativestone foundations, and slate roof surfaces. Zion said the brick is an indication that the U.S. government intended Fort Assinniboine to be a longtime fort. Many forts being built around that time were made of wood.

Some bricks from the fort were brought in to build Pershing Hall at what was then Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern. It was named for the commander of Allied Forces in World War I, Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, who served as a lieutenant at Fort Assinniboine.

"While fort personnel rarely engaged in battle, its role in the United States' military and diplomatic relationships with tribes and Canada proved crucial. The mere fact of the fort's existence undoubtedly dissuaded, or at least caused pause to consider, possible actions by Native Americans," the nomination research says.

Between 1879 and 1903, Fort Assinniboine and its area of influence was the place where the United States' evolving relationships between tribal nations and Canada played out. The existing buildings, sites and structures constructed and used between 1879 and 1903 retain enough integrity to convey the fort's association with these nationally significant events.

This nomination also emphasizes the significance of the Northern Agricultural Research Center - NARC - the operation that assumed the property after the fort was decommissioned. State contractors for the experiment station razed most of the other army buildings from 1925 to 1927. NARC occupies 6,960 acres of the fort territory. The research center conducts and promotes ag and natural resource studies, scientific investigations and experiments relating to agriculture, natural resources and rural life and to disseminate this information to the people of Montana.

Those living on the grounds are all NARC employees, said research associate Roger Hybner.


Dressed in his winter’s warmest, Chairman of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association Ron VandenBoom gave a partial tour — in areas not barricaded in by mountains of snow — of the grounds Wednesday morning.

“You’re standing in one of two of the largest forts in use at the time,” VandenBoom said, adding that the other large fort at the time was Leavenworth.  “No expense was spared to make this.”

Up until the July 4, 2015, hailstorm, 14 of the original 104 brick and stone building still stood, VandenBoom said. The 2015 storm blew a tenuous structure down, bringing that number down to 13.

The Interpretive Center, which is the former Post Library adjacent to the evident Bachelor Officers’ Quarters building, is the point of entry, per se. It’s where guides meet with guests before taking them on tour.

The building was first a fort library, and after the agricultural center took over in 1915, it served as offices for employees. Now the structure is on its way to becoming a museum. Many of the rooms are still empty, while others, such as the Gary Wilson Room, is starting to fill up.

“This is the beginning of our museum,” VandenBoom said.

A few artifacts — such as green beer bottles with round bottoms — in the room named for the late Havre historian and founding member of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association, have already been collected. The reason for the round bottoms, VandenBoom said, was because the military figured soldiers would drink less if they couldn’t set the bottles down. How much truth there is to that being a real motivation for the military, VandenBoom said, he didn’t know.

On the eastern wall hangs a letter written by Canadian rebel leader Louis Riel on March 18, 1880, to Colonel Black of Fort Assinniboine. Rifle bullets rounded up off the grounds are also on display. VandenBoom has also collected charcoal tiles that came off the roof of one of the buildings during the 2015 storm and put old fort photos on them.

Plans include accruing more old artifacts and expanding the museum, VandenBoom said.

The next building in the tour was the Officers’ Amusement Hall, once the “fanciest building in the fort.” To open the large garage-size overhead door, one had to trudge through four feet of snow. After getting stuck in the snow en route, VandenBoom decided to sit that part of the tour out and let reporter and photographer fend for themselves.

The Amusement Hall was where all the social activities were held, including dances and balls, usually put on by the soldiers’ wives, VandenBoom said.

Today the Amusement Hall is a shell of what it once was. The walls are peeled or hollow and the floors down to the wood planks. There is very little that indicates its glory days. However, come summer 2018, music will once again fill the hall, VandenBoom said, as there are plans to have local bands play during the busy months of the fort.

West of the amusement hall is the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters building, which stands out not only as the largest of the buildings, but the most ornate, boasting a turret on its eastern edge. The building has six apartment complexes, and each housed about two officers.

“These officers were lucky guys,” VandenBoom said, adding they even had indoor bathrooms, whereas the enlisted men had outdoor bathrooms. At first, before pipe plumbing, “indoor plumbing” meant a shoot and a waiting bucket on a lower floor. Every apartment had a servant girl who cooked, washed laundry and cleaned, whereas, again, enlisted men did not, VandenBoom said.

The fort jail building, south of the Interpretative Center, was able to house up to 50 prisoners at a time, VandenBoom said. Given the size of the fort and the surrounding town, that was a significant size for a jail, VandenBoom said he thought.

Ryan Welch/Havre Daily News

The kitchen was in the basement of the building, and what is believed to be the former cafeteria, is a room with a slide shoot in the middle and several long plank tables suspended in the air by wire.

After the fort was closed, the jail building was sold to the city of Havre. Now the building, minus some of the bars off the windows, sits empty.

Getting food to Fort Assinniboine was not always easy, as time was usually an enemy of produce. For that reason, a root cellar was built, VandenBoom said, to store and keep cool the food that was grown on the grounds.

That’s all of the tour that Mother Nature allowed. But once the snow melts and ice thaws, the fort opens for tours again.


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