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Fort Assinniboine becomes a home for transients

 

February 28, 2020



By Keith J. Doll

Havre/Hill County Historic Preservation Commission

Monday, July 2, 1934, the Montana State Board of Education gave the federal government a two-year lease on some land and buildings at Fort Assinniboine. This was to become a permanent transient camp at Fort Assinniboine.

These men of all walks of life didn’t have work or lost their job during the Great Depression. About 100 transient men started to rebuild some of the buildings at Fort Assinniboine to make a home for them. They were living in the south part of the barracks and food supplies were brought out from Havre to be made at the fort. Transients were brought out from Havre and paid for a 30-hour work week. Work included a new heating plant, relaying of water mains, plumbing, plastering, flooring laid, installing woodwork, windows and cleaning the grounds.

As stated on the front page of The Havre Daily News, dated Nov. 21, 1934: In recent years, since the fort grounds became the North Montana Branch Experiment Station, the south part of the barracks had seen a variety of uses, including public meetings for the experiment station, 4-H club camps, women’s camps and farmer gatherings. For at least six years, it housed the annual North Montana Presbyterian Young Peoples Conference. This portion of the building had been kept in fairly good repair, and included kitchen and dining room quarters, an assembly room and several small office rooms downstairs. Three large rooms above had been used for sleeping quarters during camp periods. This portion of the barracks, since the establishment of the transient camp, had been the quarters assigned to the men.

Also, in 1934, the former Holland and Bonine Funeral Home on Fifth Avenue — now where Western Drug Pharmacy was built — was completely renovated and became an in-town transient service. It was renovated by FERA — Federal Emergency Relief Administration. George W. Hullfish, a local businessman, was appointed divisional director of both the local transient office and the transient camp at Fort Assinniboine.

Trucks would take the transients to the Fort Assinniboine camp. Once there, they were registered and had to bathe, their clothes fumigated. New clothes were given when the transient was there for two weeks, or at the time they arrived, if needed. Each man was given three blankets and slept on an iron bunk bed that were two beds deep. The men were each given work duties for limited hours a week, this was credited for their food, lodging and clothing. At the time, the south part of the barracks housed 165 men, when the north portion of the barracks was completed, the barracks would hold approximately 400 men.

They worked out and started a league softball team in 1935; the transients also took up wrestling and boxing. This would help, since the morale for some of the men was low at the time.

On the front page of the Aug. 15, 1935, edition of The Havre Daily News, the headlines read: “Havre Transient Center Is Closed by Government.” The 24-hour transient center on Fifth Avenue was closed. Men were still trucked out to the Fort Assinniboine Transient Camp or told to move on. In a three-day period, about 100 men either went farther west to find work or were assigned for WPA — Works Progress Administration — to work on the Fort Peck Dam. The Fort Assinniboine Transient Camp soon became a “holding tank” for the transient who wanted to “get off the road.”

Sunday, Aug. 25, 1935, the public was invited to an “open house” at the transient camp. A baseball game was planned between the Havre team and the Transient Camp team, along with boxing and wrestling. The members of the camp would show the guests around, pointing out the remodeling, repairs and the renovating they did. The northern part of the barracks was entirely reconstructed and now the whole barracks was used as their dormitory. It contained a kitchen with three large hotel-style stoves, a dining room and a converted assembly room that was used as a dining room. Still, there wasn’t enough room for all the men to eat together, so they ate in shifts. The kitchen and dining rooms were scrubbed down three times a day. Offices and storage rooms were on the main floor. Upstairs, in the north wing was the recreation area, it had tables for game playing or reading a book. A library was being built with donations, curtains on the windows and a used piano for a homey atmosphere. The laundry facilities were in the basement. A large room was set up where the transient could do their own laundry, or in another room the laundry could be done for them by the laundry personnel. The upper level of the south wing was all for sleeping, with bunk beds two deep. On the main level, was also a large bedroom for the men who couldn’t do steps. One of the rooms on the main level was set up for a barber shop with one of the men operating it, another was set up for a first aid room. It was used some of the time by Dr. Duncan Stuart MacKenzie, a Havre doctor who was the camp physician.

Next to the barracks was a stone building with the doors off and windows gone, left to the weather and mice. This building was renovated, concrete floor put in, windows installed, doors put on and shelves made. It became the commissary with hams, bacon, flour, sugar, beans, cereal and other foods, along with razors, soap and items needed. The man that ran the commissary also was a baker in another renovated building. With his new ovens he could bake 300 pounds of bread a day, along with his pastries. One of the largest jobs they had was digging trenches to locate 800 feet of water and sewer pipe. The water pipe was 10 feet deep and most of it had to be replaced. The officer’s duplex was being made into an infirmary with 14 beds. The former guard house was being made into an intake dormitory, where the men would be kept when they first arrived. They would take a shower or bath, have a medical examination, and given a bed with sheets and two blankets. The beds and blankets would be cleaned and deloused every day.

The headlines in the Sept. 12, 1935, edition of The Havre Daily News read: “DISCONTINUE TRANSIENT SERVICE HERE ON NOV. 1.” The Fort Assinniboine Camp was to quit taking in transients Sept. 20, and remain in operation until they all are absorbed by the WPA. Since its inception, it housed between 280 and 320 men. The land and fully equipped buildings would then go back to the North Montana Experiment Station for use of clubs and organizations again.

 

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