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Hunt is on for materials to repair one of Montana's oldest buildings

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Posted at 5:37 PM, Jul 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 20:41:57-04

STEVENSVILLE  — Today if you need bricks, you drive to the store. But Montana's pioneers made their own. And that's a problem for Bitterroot historians.

Today if you walk along the banks of the Bitterroot River, you're primarily going to find sand and gravel. But somewhere along this river, or up in the foothills, lies the answer to one of the Valley's real architectural mysteries.

In the very early days of Montana, most pioneers used what was most readily available, timber, to erect their buildings. Consequently, many have nearly disappeared.

The exception is here at Fort Owen. Not only was it not built of logs, but it used adobe construction, the popular approach in the tree-less regions of the Southwest.

"It's the first example of Mexican and Hispanic architecture here in Montana. Seems hard to believe that that's true, but it is," Friends of Fort Owen historian Philip Maechling explains.

It's always been a question as to why John Owen would choose to use adobe, a material we didn't see in Montana to construct the barracks. But the bigger question is where did he get the materials for this wall?

Owen's journals are full of dozens of entries on the adobe project, as his hired workers made thousands of adobe bricks. But nowhere does it say where the "mud", or clay came from. The Friends of Fort Owen think it might have been somewhere along the river, but they are stumped. So the search for the source is fanning out across the valley.

"We're looking for a source to be able to demonstrate how to repair the original adobe wall for the Fort Owen east barracks, which was built in the mid-1850s," Maechling tells me.

That remaining wall needs repairs too. Without the original source, Maechling says they'd be happy to just find a close replacement.

"And it can even be a clay soil that we can compact into adobe blocks, adobe bricks, to demonstrate how John Owen built this Fort to begin with in the mid-1850s, which is its own unique story."

The project is not only critical to preserving one of the oldest buildings in the state, but the Friends are hoping to hold an event in September to show how it was done.

"To teach people the interesting way of putting a building together when all you have is the materials that are available to you on site with your own labor," Maechling says.

The Friends of Fort Owen have teamed with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana History Foundation to make the repairs. If you have any historical background that could help the "adobe hunt", or a source of alternate materials in the Bitterroot, you can call Philip Maechling at 406-529-4873.