Everyday thousands of people drive by the entrance to Fort Owen State Park on their way to Stevensville. What was once a busy center of trade in Western Montana now sits quietly off the road nearly swallowed up by the working buildings of the Fort Owen Ranch. This small one acre Montana State Park is the site of many firsts in Montana and, along with the Historic Mission at St. Mary’s, contains the remains of the oldest buildings in Montana. It was the location of the third church constructed by the Jesuits in their mission to bring Christ to the resident Salish Indians.
John Owen came west as a sutler with the US Mounted Riflemen to protect the military posts along the Oregon Trail. After he resigned from the military he arrived in the Bitterroot Valley in 1850 with his Shoshone wife, Nancy. On November 5, he signed a contract of sale acquiring the church Improvements of the St Mary’s Mission. John Owen began a major building program in the 1850’s and turned the site into a major hub of trading activity.
John Owen continued with an active trade business until his wife died in 1868, after which time his health and the condition of the Fort began to deteriorate.
In 1937 one acre of land containing the historic structures was donated to the Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks to preserve this important historic site for future generations.
Over the years the Park’s management and development for visitors has been constrained by the limited area available for parking, the operations of the Fort Owen Ranch, and the severely limited budget of Montana State Parks.
In order to help Montana State Parks manage Fort Owen State Park a group of citizens has recently formed a new non-profit organization called Friends of Fort Owen. They have recently filed their Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, and have elected a Board of Directors. Their mission is “to work in partnership with Montana State Parks to build our collective capacity to save, restore, maintain, develop, enhance, and interpret Fort Owen State park and its associated sites and artifacts for future generations. We work to build recognition of the historic significance that Ft. Owen played in the settlement of the Northwest and the United States, and strive to enhance its visibility as an educational and economic/tourism asset to the community of Stevensville, Ravalli County and the State of Montana.”
The new Board was recently surprised and pleased when Colleen Meyer, Executive Director of the Historic St. Mary’s Mission gave them a gift and their first donation “The Journals and Letters of Major John Owen; Pioneer of the Northwest 1850-1870”, printed in 1927. Margaret Gorski, President of Friends of Fort Owen said “We are so pleased and humbled. We can’t think of a better gift to inspire and motivate us to get to work.”
Anyone interested in joining this new group will be cheerfully welcomed. Call 406-552-2072 to find out how to join. Plans are in the works to launch their “grand opening” event with horse drawn wagon rides to the Fort during Heritage Days on June 23.