Reconstructing history 

Building a Forest Service museum, timber by timber

From the 1920s until 1970, the Bungalow Ranger Station residence on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest was home to forest rangers and their families. Today the structure stands on a 36-acre Forest Service parcel just past the Missoula airport. So how does a historic, 500-plus-piece log building move 240-some miles? Very carefully. With dedicated volunteers. And for a good cause.

The ranger station, reconstructed piece-by-piece by 14 volunteers over the past two years, is the first structure on the site of what is to become the first-ever National Museum of Forest Service History. Smaller regional museums are in place around the country, but with the Forest Service operating out of about 600 locations nationwide, no centralized museum has existed before.

Next summer’s 100th anniversary of the Forest Service makes this a timely occasion to found the museum—and with 16.9 million acres of Forest Service land in Montana, this state might seem the natural choice for the museum’s site—but in fact a national museum would not yet be in the works at all, much less here, if not for one Missoula resident’s brainstorm around 1990.

Ten-year Forest Service employee Gary Stensatter was working in Missoula as a civil engineer when the old Fox Theater was about to be torn down, and he had an idea: Why not turn the building into a museum to house “tons and tons of [Forest Service] memorabilia. I could envision parachutes fastened to the ceiling,” he remembers.

A few phone calls later, Stensatter was meeting with the chief of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. The Fox Theater didn’t survive, but from Stensatter’s inspiration a new organization was born. In November of 1988, the National Museum of Forest Service History was incorporated as a private, non-profit organization. Its mission: “to collect, preserve, and interpret the entire national history of the USDA Forest Service for the education and enjoyment of the public, scholars, and historical researchers.” Today, the museum board’s plans include raising $3 million to construct and open a 10,000-square-foot museum on the site in the next few years.

“We see our role as supporting the Forest Service, and encouraging them to increase the priority for preserving history,” says museum Vice President Dave Stack.

“The Forest Service has been about resource management, present and future use, and planning for the future,” says museum Executive Director Frank McKinney, “and that’s why I think the past was just put aside, up in the attic, in the basement…If it survived, it was lucky, and now people are realizing they’ve got a lot of stuff socked away.”

The current museum archives building on 14th Street is filled with old uniforms, field phones, pulaskis, maps, heliographs, lamps, files—and even an old portable clothes washer—that have been donated by retired Forest Service members since about 1990. Museum Curator Beth N. Humble tags each item that arrives, much as the Forest Service employees tagged the 500-plus pieces of the Bungalow Ranger Station when it was taken down in 1987.

The home was stored at the Powell Ranger Station over Lolo Pass until a few years ago, when past president of the museum board Gary Brown received a call:

“Dennis Elliott, the acting ranger at Powell, called me one day at home and said, ‘you know, this building is being eyed for fire wood. Do you want it?’ And I told him right over the phone, ‘yes, we want it,’ and so he said, ‘you can have it.’”

With retired forester (now dubbed “master carpenter”) Jack Fisher and a dozen other volunteers, Brown started rebuilding. “We rented a hand-operated elevator, just like a forklift with the forks in front,” he says, “and we would put the logs on this piece of machinery and hoist them up.”

Today the exterior of the residence looks just as it did in the Clearwater National Forest. Retired District Ranger Earl Reinsel, who was the last ranger to live in the residence (with his wife and two children) in the summer of 1970, now lives in Missoula and remembers crossing Oregrande Creek outside the cabin each morning on his way to his office. In the original four rooms, they had generator-powered electricity and an “unreliable” radio telephone.

The restored home is now one large room to accommodate visitors—a renovation that required a roof change. “It was a regular, old-fashioned rafter roof,” says Fisher, “which they could use because [the house] had a main wall running right down the middle for bearing. But we wanted to make it one room, so we had to use trusses.”

While the home isn’t yet open to the public, it has been used for special events. During the recent 50th anniversary Smokejumper celebration, attendees perused the photographs and artifacts displayed in the station.

In the past 20 years, other ranger stations and lookouts have been renovated, too, and are used as rental cabins in places like Rock Creek and Lolo Creek. But many more were burned down by the Forest Service in pursuit of “efficiency” decades ago.

“One of the purposes of the museum is to preserve the traditions of the agency and to help pass those on to the employees,” says McKinney. Stack concurs. Members of the Forest Service are “getting older and grayer,” he says, “so they’re going to have a rapid turnover.” In the last 15 to 20 years, he explains, the Forest Service has cut back on full-time hires, leaving a gap where employees might have otherwise passed down Forest Service practices to a younger generation.

“A lot of the people that worked 40, 50, 60 years ago are dying,” says Stack, “and a lot of things that they saved, the agency didn’t save.” He pulls out an old file donated by a Forest Service employee now deceased. Included it in are letters and maps about early grazing, dating back to 1902. “You know what they say about history,” he says. “If we don’t know our history, we repeat our mistakes.”

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