Leaving Glacier, we angled down Route 89 back to Great Falls, making a complete oval in our route because we wanted to visit Fort Benton. After that, we planned to continue on to Harve then drive across the top of Montana on Route 2, which would have us driving due east just miles from the Canadian border.
Fort Benton claims to be “the birthplace of Montana.” Lewis and Clark explored this area and in 1846 the American Fur Company established a trading post that became the biggest buffalo trading operation ever. The discovery of gold in 1860 brought a rush of people and businesses to fuel the growth of the town and helped it earn the reputation of being “the toughest river town in the west.” Keelboats, then later steamboats, brought loads of merchandise and passengers up the Missouri River from St. Louis, and the town developed into the mercantile center for Montana and beyond. Cowboys ran great herds of cattle along the Whoopup Trail that extended from Fort Benton up through the western Canadian provinces. There are three museums in Fort Benton that reflect the land and the history of this region.
The Museum of the Upper Missouri is housed in the rebuilt fort with its original blockhouse still standing. Inside the fort, Blackfoot culture is depicted and a recreated trade store shows the kinds of goods that would have been exchanged for the buffalo skins and other pelts that were shipped to destinations down the Missouri River.
From the fort we were told to follow the buffalo footprints to the Museum of the Northern Great Plains. We didn’t quite know what that meant, but it became clear the moment we spotted the big hot pink buffalo footprints running down the middle of the road in front of the fort.
The Museum of the Northern Great Plains is actually a two-block square collection of museums that hold the story of the early settlers. Just inside the entrance, the Hornaday Gallery honors William Temple Hornaday, an eminent zoologist-conservationist for the Smithsonian Institution. In 1886 Hornaday collected six buffalo from the almost decimated remaining wild herds. The skins were mounted and displayed at the Smithsonian until 1957, and those bib silent forms helped to tell the story that spurred people to action to save the remaining buffalo. Hornaday, Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir are three of the major individuals credited with saving so much of the natural land and wildlife available for us to see today.
The buffalo grouping ended up in storage in Montana for forty years until in the 1990s when they were located and moved to the Museum of the Northern Great Plains for extensive restoration before being put on display. The great bull was the inspiration for the buffalo in the seal of the Department of Interior and is also used on National Park Service badges. In addition to the buffalo, the gallery holds historic Western art, documents and photos.
A massive old building in the complex houses most of Montana’s Museum of Agriculture and its collection of farm equipment spills out into the Homestead Village, a collection of 1920s’ era buildings furnished to represent the shops, businesses and homes that would have lined any main street of the small towns that sprang up along the railroad tracks across this state and the West.
Back inside the museum, we wound our way through displays, some of them focused on items that seldom come to mind like a collection of darning eggs in a variety of woods, colored glass, and painted surfaces, or a collection of jacks titled, “Lifting Power By Hand.” I really enjoyed some domestic vignettes that managed to encapsulate home life, showing the changes over three distinct eras and even including political buttons to help date stamp the times.
Further on, a root cellar with its shelves stocked with vegetables raised in the family garden reminded me of the half basement my father and mother dug beneath our house back in Illinois. That cool, dark space held jars full of tomatoes, beans, pickles, jams, jellies and all the other produce they had raised over the summer…the food that would keep us fed over the winter months. We also learned about everything from quilts and washing machines to crops, combines and threshers. It was like a 3D encyclopedia of Montana life.
Don and I were impressed with this comprehensive collection, the variety of topics, the quality of the displays and the information they provided. As we were leaving we stopped to tell a member of the staff how much we had enjoyed our visit and we asked him to share our compliments with the curator. He explained that the museum was essentially a home grown endeavor and that when it was being developed any teacher signing a contract to teach in a Fort Benton school was expected to lend a hand in creating the museum. Based on what we had seen and enjoyed, we know that the local students of that era must have benefited from a fine and stimulating education as well.
We had already learned so much, but we still had the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center to visit and wondered what it could add to all that we had seen. This was where we were introduced to the natural history of the region. Examples of local fish, birds and other wildlife are on display, including the figure of this playful bobcat forever entranced by a feather swaying from a twig.
Another interesting item is Chief Joseph’s Winchester Model 1866 Carbine. Chief Joseph was the Nez Perce leader during the time when the U.S. government was attempting to remove him and his people from their tribal lands in Oregon and to resettle them onto a smaller reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph and some other leaders led over 700 men, women, and children over a thousand miles in an attempt to reach Canada and achieve political asylum…all the while they were being pursued by the U.S. Army. They ultimately lost this battle, known as the Nez Perce War, and Chief Joseph surrendered, but not before bringing the plight of his tribe to the attention of the American people and earning lasting respect for his heroic efforts.
In addition to the museums, Fort Benton has a levee walk and historic district walking trail that takes you past about a dozen buildings from the 1880s plus others from the early 1900s, when the town was a booming business center on the Missouri River. The historic Grand Union Hotel (1892) was fully restored in the 1990s and makes a great location for a night’s stay in this historic town.
Fort Benton is also known because of a dog named Shep, the working companion of a sheepherder who died in 1936 and whose body was shipped back East for burial. After following his master’s coffin to the rail station, Shep spent the next five and a half years meeting every train as it arrived in hopes of greeting his friend once again. Shep became old and feeble and died in 1942 when he fell under a train. His grave is on a nearby hill and overlooks the tracks below. It is marked by an obelisk and a nearby life-size sculpture looking down on the railroad tracks below. In the park along the river, there is also a memorial statue that was erected in Shep’s honor on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
Fort Benton is no longer the bustling, brawling boom town it once was, but it certainly deserves a visit. The town itself, its proximity to the Missouri River, the legacy of Lewis and Clark’s Expedition, and the impressive collection of museums that tell so much about Montana’s history made this a very worthwhile stop on our tour.
FOR MORE ADVENTURE: This is Part 9 of 12 in our drive from Maine to and from Glacier National Park. If you would like to follow along with us, the first installment was Des Moines, Iowa, and the next stop is in Havre, Montana.