New Chapter Begins: Fort Owen Reopens to the Public on July 1

Posted June 28, 2021

This story originally appeared in the Ravalli Republic.  Written by Perry Backus.

A new chapter is set to begin soon at Fort Owen State Park.

On July 1, the gates will officially open to one of Montana’s smallest state parks that preserves a place with a long and storied past.

For the first time since the state took ownership in 1937 from the Stevensville Historical Society, visitors will have more than a couple of parking places to choose from.

Those who chose to make the trip will travel on a brand-new asphalt road to the entrance of a recently completed parking lot large enough for 13 cars and an RV or two.

The park they’ll visit remains much the same as it’s been for years. The only original structure still standing is a portion of the East Barracks that was constructed out of adobe bricks. It was built sometime in the 1840s or 1850s.

The changes have just started for the location of the first permanent white settlement in Montana.

“It’s a brand new chapter and we are excited to be able to share it with people,” said the park’s manager, Maci MacPherson.

A new interpretive plan is in the works to enlighten visitors of Fort Owen’s importance to Stevensville, Montana, and Native Americans.

“The current exhibits are dated and faded from the sun,” MacPherson said. “They are showing their age. We want to take the time to learn more about the stories of this place and think about the best way to tell those stories.”

The state plans to hire a contractor who will guide the public process to develop the interpretive plan.

“No one is sure what that looks like yet,” MacPherson said. “We will have community meetings and seek input from the Tribes, Friends of Fort Owen and St. Mary’s Mission. We want to give everyone an opportunity to offer their input on why Fort Owen is so special.”

All of it’s a far cry from a few years ago when challenges of access and concerns from the previous landowner made state officials wonder if the park could be saved.

A new landowner with a generous heart and a $507,500 grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust has changed the outlook for the important parcel of Montana history. The state legislature also earmarked $80,000 for the site through the Department of Commerce’s heritage program.

The Helmsley grant paid for the land where the new parking lot is located and its construction. It also paid to pave the road that crosses private land to the historic site.

But that’s just the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

“We have a long list of preservation needs that haven’t been met in a long, long time,” MacPherson said.

Chief among those is ensuring the adobe walls don’t crumble.

The Friends of Fort Owen are leading the charge to find adobe material that will both fit with the historical character and be strong enough to keep the walls standing.

That organization’s chair, Margaret Gorski, said the Montana History Foundation has provided a $9,500 grant the group is using to research the original adobe clay to ensure whatever is used to patch the walls is as close as possible in composition and color.

The friends group formed originally to encourage the state to persevere in preserving the park.

“What’s happening now is basically the fruition of why we established in the first place,” Gorski said. “Four years ago, we felt the state was on the verge of shutting this place down. Things have turned around 180 degrees … a new owner and the work of the friends group showed that Fort Owen was important not only to the state and Ravalli County, but to Montana as well.”

“No one is about to walk away from that place now,” she said. “We are the living, breathing example of how important citizen advocacy can be. Citizens are important when it comes to public lands decisions. It took some perseverance and some stick-to-itness, but we’ve shown state parks that we’re a group they can rely on and take seriously.”

“The parking lot and new access opens up the door for more people to drop by and see what Fort Owen is all about,” Gorski said. “It’s going to become much more attractive for school kids and education programs. We know there are opportunities on the horizon.”

Personally, Gorski would like the state to consider re-creating one of the bastions that once graced the fort.

“It would be cool, but I know we have to get a fence in first before we start raising money for a bastion,” she said. “We have to walk before we run.”

The park officially reopens on Thursday, July 1. It will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For updates or questions, people can call MacPherson at 406-273-4253.