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Fort Assinniboine goes national

Local historic fort receives plaque for landing on the National Registry of Historic Places


April 22, 2019

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association Chairman Ron VandenBoom demonstrates Friday how to load and fire an 1873 Springfield rifle that is part of the fort's collection of artifacts at Fort Assinniboine.

After years of work that started with one man's dream, Fort Assinniboine, once the largest fort in Montana, was listed in January on the National Register of Historic Places, receiving the certificate earlier this month.

"It's exciting," Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association Chair Ron VandenBoom said. "It's rewarding and a little bit bitter sweet because this was (former chair Gary Wilson's) dream and he isn't here to see it anymore."

Wilson, a local historian and author of five books documenting Montana's history, was a driving force in maintaining and improving Fort Assinniboine for most of his life before he died at the age of 74 in 2015.

The recognition raises awareness of the local historic landmark and also opens up fundraising opportunities with many more grant sources now available.

A press release from the preservation association says that Wilson believed Fort Assinniboine deserved to receive the status because of the fort's mission of controlling traffic between the United States and Canada.

In 2014, Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association and Havre/Hill County Preservation Commission began working on the application for the National Register of Historic Places, it said.

VandenBoom said that former member of the Havre/Hill County Preservation Commission Candi Zion and commission architect and Historic Preservation Officer Becki Miller worked very hard on the application.

He said that the first thing they needed to do was to find out what they did in order to receive the designation and how much funding they would need to do so.

The press release said that in order to get the designation they would need to collect $20,000 for the application fees and architectural planning.

The preservation association received three $5,000 grants from the State Historical Preservation Office and one $5,000 grant from Havre's Tourism Business Improvement District to pay the fees.

Miller and Zion then meticulously worked on mapping out every building, former and present, of Fort Assinniboine, including those used by Northern Agricultural Research Center, he said. The map encompasses the area from Beaver Creek along the north side of the property all the way to U.S. Highway 87.

He said that after the map and the application was completed it was sent to State Historical Society National Register Coordinator John Boughton in Helena. The process took about a year, and it was not accepted the first time it was submitted.

Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association Treasurer Lynda Taplin said that they had to make several changes because the State Historical Society wanted it to appear differently. But after it was approved in 2017 the application was submitted to the National Parks Service for the National Registry.

In April 2018 Zion received a notification from the State Historical Society that the application was approved.

VandenBoom said that for the next months all they had received was the notification, but when the State Historical Society held its annual banquet in Helena Jan. 18, Northern Agricultural Resource Center Superintendent Darrin Boss, who is also a member of the preservation association board, was awarded the certificate.

Fort Assinniboine is owned by Montana State University's NARC, which started working at the fort in 1915, four years after the fort was decommissioned.

VandenBoom said the association has been able to work well with NARC and would have not been able to achieve Wilson's dream without their help.

"That has been a great working relationship. Darrin has been fantastic," he said. "I'll will go so far as to say that all the superintendents here have been fantastic over the years."

He said that the biggest benefit of being on the National Registry is Fort Assinniboine is now eligible for several large grants, but these grants do require matching funds. He said that the majority of the funding for Fort Assinniboine is private funding, raised by tours and the association's fundraising efforts.

Over the summer months, he said, they have two tour guides.

Taplin said that hopefully being on the National Registry opens more tourism and brings more people.

"They are going to say, 'Oh, that is someplace to see,'" she said.

VandenBoom said that being on the National Registry will unveil Fort Assinniboine to many people inside and outside of the state and attract them to come and visit.

"We've been, I would guess, Montana's biggest-kept secret as far as attractions go," he said.

History of Fort Assinniboine

The fort was established in 1879, and at the time was the largest military post in the west, encompassing more than 700,000 acres, VandenBoom said. The fort was established because after the battle of Little Bighorn, about 3,000 to 5,000 of the Native American forces fled to Canada. The United States feared that the forces in Canada may attack and the country would have no defenses.

The secondary reason the fort was built, he said, was because after the Battle of the Bear Paws in 1877, where Chief Joseph made his famous speech, concluding, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever," before he surrendered to General Nelson Miles, some of the Native forces also fled into Canada.

The U.S. Congress appropriated $100,000 to build the fort, he said, contracting Charles Broadwater, who was one of the four richest men in the state at the time, to build it. He added that the fort was originally planned to be build out of adobe, but Broadwater had introduced a machine which could manufacture 2,500 bricks a day, used to build the fort.

From the years 1879 to 1880 more than 100 brick and stone structures were built, he said. Only 13 of those buildings remain. He added that in 2015 during the hail storm, which damaged many of the homes in Hill County, they lost one building.

Over the years, the preservation association has received several smaller grants and one large grant.

VandenBoom said that during the Obama Administration the fort received a $135,000 grant to refurbish the outside and replace the windows in the guard house. The Shovel-Ready Project grant was also used to repair the gutters of the structure. The structure had internal gutters which were leaking and resulted in interior damage. He added that the flooring and the ceiling of the guard house are still in need of repairs.

"If you don't have a building, what good is a pretty exterior?" he asked.

What future grants will be used for

The top priority of applying for grants will be for stabilization and preservation of the existing structures, VandenBoom said.

"It goes without saying that we would love to see a time come when we could reconstruct certain structures that are particularly valuable," he said. "Yet the amount of money that we are talking about are huge and brick-and-mortar grants are real tough to find. Right now, we want to save the structures that are here."

Most of the structures in the eastern section of fort need stabilization work done, he said. He added that they have lost some of the porches of those buildings. They are also looking at eventually cleaning out and restoring the vacant apartments in the bachelors' officers' quarters.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to restore those someday and give tours of those," he said.

A top priority of the preservation association is to be able to set up their interpretive center so it is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said. In order to come into compliance they would need to install a wheelchair ramp and have handicap accessible restrooms.

"These are all real important," he said.

He said the preservation association is up to standards with the State Historical Preservation Office, but the improvements required by ADA would require improvements to historically preserved buildings.

The State Historical Preservation Office will need to make recommendations on the correct way to make these improvements, he said.

The designation is the culmination of years of work for both Taplin and VandenBoom.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

From left, Philip Sayers, Lynda Taplin, Kathy Sayers Wesley and Ron VandenBoom, who are all members of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association, stand with a new certificate and a 1873 Springfield rifle Friday at Fort Assinniboine. Fort Assinniboine has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, which opens up the fort to more grant opportunities.

Taplin said that Wilson was the one who had originally got her interested in Fort Assinniboine. She added that she likes history and has sat on other historical boards over the years.

She said that in the 10 years she has been on the preservation association board, she has seen many different things but she is glad Wilson's dream of having the fort on the National Registry has come true.

VandenBoom said that he became interested in the fort while he worked as a news reporter. He said Wilson use to come in twice a week and tell the newspaper about everything they were doing at the fort. VandenBoom saw it as an opportunity to volunteer to be the history reporter in the office and often worked with Wilson.

VandenBoom joined joined the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association board in 2001-2002 and has served as the chair for the past few years since Wilson died.

He added that he was glad Wilson got him involved and wishes he was able to see the fort being placed on the registry. Moving forward, he added, he is positive the future looks bright.

"I love it," he said. "I mean it's maybe what I was born to do more or less. We'll keep pushing forward, we're optimistic."


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