STEVENSVILLE — It's one of Montana's smallest, but most historically significant state parks. And now, with a major upgrade underway, Fort Owen is finally getting some of the attention it deserves.
In the story of Montana's settlement, tiny Fort Owen looms large. A transition point from the original St. Mary's Mission, to a Bitterroot landmark with Montana's first sawmill, grist mill, farm, and school.
“Fort Owen's role was really much bigger than just an extension of the mission or an extension of the ranch itself," observes Philip Maechling of the Friends of Fort Owen. "This was the economic center of activity for settlement.”
Loren Flynn, Park Manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2, agrees, "no one’s ever disputed the significance of Fort Owen and in terms of its historical significance. It's a matter of how do we best both preserve this site and interpret it to the public.”
Now, for the first time in decades, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is able to rework, and restore. It's a path cleared by the cooperation of Myla Yahraus, who purchased the ranch three years ago, pledging to honor the site, and improve access.
"That really changed the tenor of the conversation, allowed us to get where we wanted to be for a long time," Flynn said. It also gave the state a full acre for a new parking area.
"We’ve got to first fix the access issues and get people into the site with the improvements to the road and a new parking lot," Montana State Parks Foundation executive director Coby Gierke explained. "Then we got to preserve what's here. These old structures on-site need some preservation and some TLC.”
That's already started, with the replacement of some roofs this past winter, and plans to patch the historic adobe walls.
“For whatever reason, sprinklers were set here to keep this lawn nice and green in the summer, and those sprinklers wore away a lot of that old adobe. The plaster inside the walls is failing and falling off the walls, so we're going to be doing a lot of little things like that. And then reaching out to folks like the Salish Kootenai Tribe, and make sure that their voices are told in the new interpretive plan that we develop," says Gierke.
Preserving a place of peace, where archeology surveys are already adding to the story with new artifacts.
“They all were right here out in these fields," Maechling points out. "And one of the great things about this place now is that we can tell the story and the fields are still here.”
The park will remain closed during this restoration phase. It's also important to point out that historic places like this are closed to private citizens looking for artifacts. That's against the law."
Flynn sees the project as a new beginning for Fort Owen.
“Hopefully it's going to help you know the folks who live here on this ranch, you know, and hopefully like make it clear to people where they should park. And it will give the community. I think, a better sense of pride of this place.”
Major funding for the work at Fort Owen comes from a $507,000 grant from Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust with an additional $25,000 from the Rapp Family Foundation and $9500 from the Montana History Foundation.