Grant awarded for critical repairs at Fort Assinniboine

Posted April 22, 2021

This story originally appeared in the Havre Daily News.  By Patrick Johnston.

The Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association recently received a $10,000 grant from the Montana History Foundation, which will go toward repairing the Officers’ Amusement Hall’s roof to fix leaks discovered in 2019.

Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association Chair Ron VandenBoom said the grant is a good start, but the association will need a lot more money to make the necessary repairs.

VandenBoom said he discovered the leaks the grant will be used to address two years ago and the association has been looking to get them repaired since.

“In 2019, I was giving a tour and I went into the building to escape a rainstorm that had hit us and I noticed the rain just pouring through the back of the building,” he said.

Havre/Hill County Preservation Commission’s Preservation Officer Becki Miller, who helped the association get this grant, said the repairs it will fund are necessary and her organization is excited that the association was able to get it.

“It’s a grant that is badly needed because the building roof is in pretty bad disrepair,” she said.

VandenBoom said Miller has been extremely helpful to the association and praised her work.

He said one of the reasons the project is so critical is because it potentially threatens to damage the last remaining painting in the building.

The amusement hall features a stage where officers, including Gen. John J. Pershing, then a first lieutenant, would put on plays using paintings as a backdrop.

VandenBoom said the one that remains, depicting an unknown building and a gate, is in danger of having irreversible damage done if the leaks go unattended for too long and water gets through the drywall behind it.

He said putting the painting behind glass to preserve it was one of the first projects the association ever undertook, and it is irreplaceable.

“It’s one of a kind.” he said.

He said an initial bid for the roof repair project he received in 2019 was for $17,000, but that was extremely low at the time, and recent spikes in the cost of lumber may cause the price to rise substantially. He said he suspects the cost now will be closer to $50,000, considering that nearly all of the underside of the roof will require replacement.

“It’s not just a matter of nailing on some tiles,” he said.

The building’s history

The amusement hall was built in 1886-87 by enlisted men using stones from the Missouri River Breaks and it was, as its name implies, a recreational facility for officers.

“There really was no Havre by that time,” VandenBoom said.

He said soldiers were paid an extra 25 cents a day for their labor, which, even back then, was not a lot of money, but compared to a soldiers’ normal pay it was substantial.

“If that doesn’t sound like much, it wasn’t,” he said. “But back then enlisted men only made $13 a month.”

VandenBoom said the building was primarily operated by the officers’ wives, and, in its time, was fully decorated with tapestries, brightly colored walls and chandeliers.

He said the building would hold dances every Saturday night and had a stage for a regimental band and a kitchen that would be used to cook food for holiday banquets. Both of those areas are in need of repairs, albeit less urgently than the roof.

Further support

VandenBoom said the project is receiving support from Northern Agricultural Research Center of Montana State University as well as smaller grants from local sources, but the association has a way to go before the project is fully funded.

NARC Superintendent Darrin Boss said he and his colleagues at the center are happy to be part of the effort to rehabilitate the building and are happy that the association got the grant from the foundation.

“It is a grand structure that was the centerpiece to many cultural and social activities for the soldiers and their families when the fort was active,” he said. “This stone building is an important part of the fort’s legacy and we are happy the grant funds will aid in the preservation of the building.”

VandenBoom said the grant is one of many the association is trying to get to pay for the repairs that he hopes will be started in early summer, provided they have the money.

He said receiving the grant from the foundation was not exactly a long shot, but grant-seeking never comes with guarantees.

“You can do everything right, put in all the paper work, but as with most grants they have a dozen people applying,” he said.

VandenBoom said Association Secretary Treasurer Lynda Taplin is looking into a lot of grants, but many of the larger ones require matches that they just can’t make.

“The plain fact of the matter is we don’t have that kind of money,” he said. “… If we had those kinds of funds we wouldn’t need the grant.”

VandenBoom said a number of things including the floor, chimney and stage could also use repairs, but the roof is the most critical project and money obtained from grants will go their first.

“Priority is the roof, everything under the roof is secondary,” he said.

With all this work to be done VandenBoom said the association will continue its efforts to find funding.

“Anybody that’s got a small fortune out there that’s looking to donate, hey, we’re here,” he said.

Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association Chair Ron VandenBoom stands in front of a mural in the Fort Assinniboine Officers’ Amusement Hall that was created for plays.

Re-opening plans

Fort Assinniboine has been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but regardless of what happens with the amusement hall repairs, VandenBoom said, the association is planning to resume tours this coming summer albeit with smaller group sizes.

He said Montana State University has provided them expectations for how to safely conduct these tours and they intend to follow them, including limiting group sizes to four or five people.

VandenBoom said he’s not sure what effect the pandemic will have on tourism this summer, whether fear of it will cause a decrease in traffic, or if the isolation will have the opposite effect and increase interest.

Whatever happens, he said, he suspects it will not be a normal year, whether that means they will be packed or empty remains to be seen, but he’s hoping for the former.