By Bethany Monroe DeBorde
Montana History Foundation grants will help pay for restoration projects at two historic Chouteau County buildings, the I.G. Baker House in Fort Benton and the Collins School outside Loma.
“Awarding grants is the most important thing we do every year,” MHF President/CEO Charlene
Porsild said in a press release. “The future of these history projects relies on grant funding, and we are delighted to help preserve Montana history by offering support.”
The Montana History Foundation awarded a total of $134,451 to historic preservation projects around the state this year, increasing their all-time grant awards total to $843,985. These awards included $6,084 for the I.G. Baker House and $5,000 for the Collins School.
Both Chouteau County projects are under the nonprofit umbrella of the Fort Benton Community Improvement Association, known locally as the CIA.
I.G. BAKER HOUSE – FORT BENTON
The modest I.G. Baker House, located at 1604 Front Street, played a big role in local history and is the oldest private home still standing in Fort Benton.
It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has served as a mini museum since the 1970s. With cracked walls and a settling foundation, the house is falling into disrepair, so the CIA has commissioned a Historic Structure Report to evaluate needs and create a prioritized list for restoring the home, said Fort Benton CIA President Dan Nelsen.
Historic architect Ken Sievert and architectural historian Ellen Sievert plan to finish the report this spring, Nelsen said.
“The Historic Structure Report is a first step in the process to preserve the I.G. Baker House for another 150 years,” Nelsen wrote in the grant application.
The house is owned by the city of Fort Benton, but the CIA is in charge of its maintenance. In addition to the $6,084 they will receive from the Montana History Foundation, they also have $2,000 from the Lippard-Clawiter Foundation and funds from other sources set aside for the report costs.
Nelsen said they will have to prioritize tasks based on funding available, but they plan to start construction this summer.
Brothers I.G. and George A. Baker started a mercantile business in Fort Benton in 1865 and the adobe home was built for I.G. Baker’s wife in 1867, according to a history compiled by local historian Ken Robison.
Thomas Meagher, acting governor of the Montana Territory, famously dined in the I.G. Baker home on the evening of his mysterious drowning in the Missouri River in 1867.
Mrs. Baker didn’t stay long in Fort Benton, but the house was remodeled and became home to several other prominent residents over the years, including members of the Conrad and McLeish families.
Dollie McLeish was the home’s last resident. After her death in 1968, her son William donated the house to the Fort Benton CIA and it was later deeded to the city.
In the 1970s, a National Park Service grant provided funding for restoring the home and it opened as a museum.
COLLINS SCHOOL – LOMA
The Village of Loma received $5,000 to put toward stabilizing the Collins Schoolhouse, which can be seen from Highway 87. The Village of Loma has federal nonprofit status through the Fort Benton CIA and is responsible for operating the Loma Earth Science Museum and restoring Collins School.
Gar Wood, who donated the Collins School to the Village of Loma, said the school was likely built in either 1900 or 1912, but he hasn’t been able to determine which year is correct.
“It’s a landmark between Great Falls and Havre,” Wood said. “A lot of people take pictures of it and a lot of artists have painted pictures of it.”
They plan to use the grant to replace the west side of the roof and provide some fire protection by spreading gravel around the building.
“There was a metal roof on it before, but the wind has just taken it away,” Wood said. “There’s still bits and pieces.”
They are waiting to hear back from the Steele-Reese Foundation this summer on another $5,000 grant request, which would allow them to finish the re-roofing project and possibly install some windows and doors. They also plan to spray the exterior with a preservative.
“We don’t want it to look new; we want it to look like it’s had a long life – and it has,” Wood said.
The school’s bell disappeared in the 1950s and Wood was told some Fort Benton High School students salvaged it to use in their own school. He hopes to replace the bell.
Collins School was named for the landowner who donated the property. It was owned by the Loma School District until 1948 and it likely served as a schoolhouse until the 1920s, Wood said. Farmers hit tough times in that era and many left their homesteads. Soon, Collins School was no longer needed.
The school remained an important fixture in the community, serving as a community hall and election polling place. The school district sold Collins School to a private individual in 1948 and Gar Wood bought the building about 40 to 45 years ago.
Wood’s dad considered using the school to store fertilizer and the Woods also thought about remodeling it into a house, but neither idea came to fruition. At one point, the school survived a fire thanks to a quick-acting highway patrolman who pulled out a fire extinguisher.