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Fort Connah supporters await grant announcement

ST. IGNATIUS — If all goes according to plan, the Fort Connah Restoration Society will soon get a much-needed boost in the form of a government grant. Since the group applied for $79,000 in funding from the Montana Department of Commerce’s Historical Preservation Grant Program in November, board members have been keeping their fingers crossed in hopes that they’ll be able to continue restoration work on the old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post just north of St. Ignatius.

“It’s a pretty tough goal,” board member George Knapp explained at the Society’s annual meeting Thursday. 

Competition for the available funds ($3.5 million) is stiff, with about 130 applications totaling $21 million in the mix, Knapp said. But he remains optimistic about the outcome.

“It’s more or less stimulus money ... so I think we have a fair chance of getting something out of it,” Knapp said.

The grants will be awarded in mid-March, he said.

“George did a marvelous job of putting that grant together,” FCRS president Wyman McDonald added.

If the grant comes through, it will pay for continued construction on three 19th-century cabins that Rose Finley Bailey donated to the Society last year. Two of the three Finley cabins, built in the 1870s, are being restored to replace missing buildings around the trading post — of the original three, only one remains. One will feature a dirt floor and sod roof, and one will have a wood floor, just as records describe the original buildings. 

“The grant that we put in for was the three Finley cabins and a bunch more work on the post site itself … water, outhouses, a well … foundations, rafters, roofs for both the buildings,” explained Scott Cameron, an FCRS member and carpenter who spent 111 days last year working on the buildings. “We’re really hoping that this does come through. I’ve kind of committed every other weekend this year (to working at the site.)”

Cameron said restoration of the Finley cabin from 1875, which is the building nearest U.S. Highway 93, is almost complete. The cabin will serve as a visitor’s center for events like the Fort Connah Rendezvous, a weekend-long journey into history where visitors can experience Fort Connah-era life firsthand.

Last May, a rendezvous was the first public event held at the site since a centennial celebration in 1947. The event featured several vendors of authentic wares like beads, handmade baskets, muzzle-loading rifles and buckskin clothing, and live demonstrations of bagpipe and fiddle music, moccasin-making, crafting bows and arrows and hide tanning, to name a few. Shooting competitions at the black-powder-only range were also popular, and the Society plans to include all those elements and more in another spring rendezvous, to be held the first weekend in May. 

“I would like to get to where it’s an annual event for everybody, so we have drummers, dancers … (and) buccaneers,” Cameron said.

Since 2010 marks the centennial of homesteading on the Flathead Reservation, Lois Hart of the Polson Historical Society suggested that the rendezvous include presentations about the intertwined history of Fort Connah and the Reservation. The story of mountain men, the history of the McDonald family (founders of the trading post), the role of buffalo in the life of the tribe and the story of explorer David Thompson would all be relevant, Hart explained. 

Carl Haywood, a retired professor and history buff from Thompson Falls, offered to give a presentation on Thompson. Haywood recently published a book, Sometimes Only Horses to Eat, about Thompson’s life and explorations in Western Montana.

Knapp and the board agreed that Haywood’s presentation and Hart’s other ideas sounded like they would mesh well with the spirit of the rendezvous.

The board also elected officers: Wyman McDonald will continue as president; Joe McDonald was named to vice president; Donna Peck is secretary; and Tammy Steindorf will serve as treasurer. 

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