In 1889, two forest rangers, Than Wilkerson and Hank Tuttle, had just landed themselves the job of patrolling the newly established forest reserve in western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. With only skimpy provisions and not so much as a horse to travel on, Wilkerson and Tuttle found themselves employed, but homeless. So they set themselves about building a modest, one-room cabin. Today, the Alta Ranger Station still stands, a small monument to the pioneering men who built it.
Across the 13 national forests of the northern regions, more than 800 old cabins, ranger stations and other historic buildings hold the tales of one of the nation’s most important public land agencies. These historic buildings with their hand hewn logs and rustic, utilitarian style provide a tangible link between the modern day Forest Service and the Forest Service of days gone by, when forest rangers, often working alone, staked out the government’s claim to the forests and rangelands of the northwest. Within their walls remain untold stories of early days in the Forest Service, stories like Coral Kaufman’s.
Coral Kaufman lived with her husband, Forest Service Ranger Harry Kaufman, for 30 years in the cabin he built in 1905.
Mr. Kaufman and I was married June 21, 1911. There was nothing there when I moved there but the log cabin and a barn and a corral. When we were first married and we got there, all we had was just our saddle horses and a pack mule and a pack horse. And when we wanted food, why, we’d have to go to Big Timber or Livingston, which was a distance of 35 miles.
By their nature, the historic properties owned by the Forest Service, many of which are still in use today, require special care. Once destroyed by natural forces, normal wear and tear or vandalism, they are irreplaceable. In October 1991, the Forest Service Region One established an historic preservation team within its engineering department: A highly skilled group of craftsmen trained to maintain and restore the historic buildings of the region.
Working under the authority of the National Historic Preservation Act, the team has begun rejuvenating buildings constructed between 1880 and 1940 throughout the region. Forest service specialists reviewed applications for 2400 buildings before choosing 180 to include in the team’s initial plans. Though not every one of these has been formally listed, all are eligible for the national register of historic places. This is a working team, who’s job it is to bring new life into worn out buildings. The team rebuilds foundations and replaces logs, constructs roofs, chimneys and porches; restores old doors and windows; and all the while, matches the original materials and craftsmanship.
Getting things just right is important for two reasons: The historic integrity of the building must be preserved and, any maintenance must be done so it will last. Bernie Weisgerber leads the historic preservation team. Weisgerber is a journeyman carpenter and a graduate of a three-year training program at the National Park Service Williamsport Preservation Training Center, the only federal facility of its kind.
To us, the most important thing is of course, the preservation of the building. Most of these buildings in region one actually are the origin of the Forest Service. The other aspect is that it’s just good facilities maintenance. If we put a good wood shingle roof on a historic building, it’s really no different than putting a good wood shingle roof on a new structure.
In the summer of 1992, Weisgerber and his team began work on 14 different old ranger stations and cabins. One of those was the Sage Creek Work Center in the Pryor Mountains of south central Montana, which had its beginnings as a cattle ranch homestead in 1892.
This project consists of really three parts. Log replacement, sill log replacement. We’ve got deteriorated sill logs in various locations around the building. The foundation was badly deteriorated so we’re building new stone pier sections underneath of the new sill logs that are being replaced. And then also another exercise in daubing between the logs here.
Besides restoring the buildings, the teams’ work provides a benefit to local Forest Service personnel who help on each project. These men and women receive training that will be useful in maintaining all the buildings under their care after the team has gone. After all, in replacing a roof or reglazing a window, everything from material selection to execution of the job requires the skills of a craftsman. And the result must not only accurately recreate the original, but must last for another half century or so. Furthermore, the use of hand tools is fast becoming a lost trade. Yet these skills are not only required for work undertaken in designated wilderness lands, but oftentimes are simply necessary to match the historic character of the building.
Each historic building holds unique architectural features. The Black Bear Cabin in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness is built with full dovetail corner notches, craftsmanship perhaps unmatched anywhere in the northwest. And the Judith Guard Station built in 1908, has a pyramid roof that has withstood the weathering of nearly a century. Less dramatic, but nonetheless important, are some of the more subtle traits of these buildings: hand hewn timbers, or a bay window made with logs. Today, many historic buildings are still in use, some as ranger district headquarters, fire lookouts, work stations or housing for summer crews. Others serve as Forest Service interpretative centers, museums, or rental cabins for America’s growing population of recreationists.
From the team’s inception, preserving historic buildings has been a cooperative effort between the Forest Service and a number of other entities, including local historical societies, residents from nearby communities and a variety of state and federal agencies.
The Forest Service historic buildings are nestled among fir trees, or stand among meadows beneath awesome peaks. Others are perched on ridge tops, where they’ve been battered by wind and rain and snow for years on end. No matter where they stand, these buildings are part of the heritage of the Forest Service, a legacy left by the first forest rangers and their families: Independent men, women, and children who lived and worked in the wild plains and hills of the northwest.
In the fall of the year, we’d get snowed in there, see, and in the fall of the year, we’d lay in a supply of grub, as they called it.
Thirty years. I was there 30 years.
And I raised my two children, just a year apart. Worse than twins.
If Harry Kaufman were alive today, he’d be proud that the logs he hauled and hewed are still standing, that the nails he set are still holding his home and office together. As it is, thousands of Americans can still make use of buildings like those constructed by Harry Kaufman and relish their enormous historical value. Both the work of the historic preservation team and the training they impart to other Forest Service personnel provides that it will always be so.