In the Northern Rockies, at least 800 old cabins, fire lookouts, and ranger stations still stand on federal and state public lands. These structures, nestled among fir trees and dotting the banks of creeks are of immense historic value and are irreplaceable. They were built by early forest and park rangers, homesteaders, and ranchers, who worked with hand tools and hard earned ingenuity. Right now, the skills that are necessary to maintain historic buildings are in the hands of a very few people, but in the forest service northern region, the historic preservation team has been working under the authority of the National Historic Preservation Act to help remedy the situation in a partnership program between the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. Since 1991, these highly skilled craftsmen have been rejuvenating buildings constructed between 1880 and 1940 throughout the Rocky Mountain region, making repairs to weathered out roofs, walls and windows, and in the process, the team has been annually training some 50 to 70 federal and state public lands employees.
The crew’s work is important for two reasons; getting things just right ensures that the historic integrity of each building is not diminished and good facilities maintenance makes sense, so that every new nail, every piece of glazing, and each shingle or shake will last for another generation to appreciate. The trainees learn a mixture of craft and art and how to breathe new life into some of the nation’s most treasured structures while maintaining the historic traits that make these buildings unique. The team has worked under the guidance of Bernie Weisgerber, a journeyman carpenter and graduate of the National Park Service Williamsport Preservation Training Center, the only federal facility of its kind. At famous places like Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn and Montana’s Bannack State Park and at other less well known facilities throughout the northern Rockies. The historic preservation team has trained people like forest service employee, Dave McEldry.
This is Cougar Peak Lookout on the lower national forest, north of Thompson Falls. It has fallen into disrepair. It hasn’t been used in a number of years, and we plan on restoring it for the cabin rental program using techniques that I have learned at the preservation training workshops sponsored by the Forest Service and the Department of Interior. The old lookout has some problems with paint, windows, and old cedar shingles that are going. Lookouts in general, are very unique as pieces of architecture. It’s very important that we preserve the uniqueness of these buildings and preserve them in such a way that their original function is still evident.
The historic preservation team offers an average of four training workshops per year. The training takes place on site, with the team working side by side with men and women who will be responsible for the long term upkeep of the buildings after the teams work is finished. The team has taught managers how to investigate historic structures and plan preservation projects. They’ve also taught trainees how to repair and replace windows and doors, wood shingles and shake roofs, stabilize and restore log structures and redo masonry, painting, and coatings. Bannack State Park’s John Horning was one of the team’s trainees.
We have a quite a number of buildings here at Bannack and the windows are a major maintenance problem for us here. We would like to try and keep the glass and as many of the sash in the buildings as possible and keep the birds and animals out of the buildings. The old glass, the putty, the design of the windows are all important features that we need to look at and be able to repair without changing or taking away from what was originally intended by the people that originally constructed the buildings. The training has helped me identify proper procedures that are needed. I’ve brought them back, and we’ve taught that to my crew, and it takes some special training and some special techniques to keep the historic integrity intact on these buildings, and the training offers not only the hands on experience, but also emphasizes the state of mind that you really need to have.
TW Service’s Fred Paulson, who works in Yellowstone National Park, attended several of the historic preservation team’s workshops.
Our main project is to restore the historical structures in Yellowstone. The Old Faithful Inn is our main concern right now. We’re doing the log work on the building. We’re also restoring the windows on the building. The training that have taken with Bernie, I have had a log training with him, we have also gone through the window training, which was really beneficial to us with the techniques of glazing, how to deal with the old fabric and like I say, we’ve used it in these windows behind us here. I have a large number of employees. They’ve also taken the roofing training from Bernie, which was very beneficial to us up on the top, around the crow’s nest area. We have redone that this spring and that was very helpful to us.
Along with the hands-on-workshops, the historic preservation team has developed a training session for administrators on sensitivity to historic preservation. What’s more, the team provides trainees with hard to find tools; tools that are required to match the historic techniques originally used when the buildings were constructed.
As word of the historic preservation teams’ work spreads across the northern Rockies, administrators like the Lolo National Forest’s Greg Munther, have begun to realize the value of the team’s skills.
So what we’ve been able to accomplish to get the project done is about the same costs we would by contracting, and we’ve also been able to transfer those skills to our trainees. I can’t think, as land managers, anymore common ground than historic to work in common for common objectives. And it’s worked very well on our projects recently, where we’ve had some pilot projects going between the Park Service, the BLM, Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Forest Service working on similar projects together. Each local facility manager needs to have a collection of skills, necessary not only to manage their structures, but also to be able to train the people that they have to work with, on how to take care of these structures.
The bulk of the buildings restored under the direction of the historic preservation team are still used as ranger district headquarters, fire lookouts, work stations, or housing for forest service crews. Others are widely used by the public as interpretive centers, museums, and rental cabins.
It’s really important in this day and age to preserve what little we have left with our historic past. As many people know, one time, old buildings such as this were considered a liability to the government rather than a resource. Well, the few that remain today are very important as they are our touch with a past that is rapidly changing.