Lolo National Forest, Montana, 2008
by John Cramer of the Missoulian
Passport in Time: Volunteers help restore historic homestead
May 21, 2008
PHILIPSBURG - Way back in the woods west of here, another bit of Montana's 19th-century history is being resurrected.
Nearly 30 years ago, in 1979, the U.S. Forest Service bought the Morgan-Case Homestead, which included a primitive cabin built in the 1890s by a former slave and her common-law husband in the upper Rock Creek watershed.
The agency also bought the adjacent Hogback Homestead, another 160-tract with a rundown cabin surrounded by mountains, streams and wetlands that remain among the most sublime under the Big Sky.
The homesteads had important recreation value for hiking, camping and fishing, but rangers wanted to burn the dilapidated buildings.
C. Milo McLeod, then a young seasonal archaeologist for the Forest Service, was aghast. He argued that the homesteads should be preserved, a glimpse of living history that shouldn't be discarded like so much trash.
"The first time I saw both homesteads, it was really impressive because of the degree of historical integrity," he said. "Most successful homesteads went into private ownership, so the Forest Service was very fortunate to get them."
McLeod's supervisors relented - after he showed them the Byzantine paperwork that would be required to demolish the structures - and decided instead to let them molder into the ground.
McLeod took it as a victory, although he had no plan, money or workers to fix up the homesteads. But he figured the Forest Service's attitude toward historic restoration would eventually come around.
He was right.
McLeod, who is now nearing retirement as the forest archaeologist for the Lolo National Forest's Missoula Ranger District, helped lead the $150,000 restoration of the Hogback Homestead from 1990 to 1995. It has become the most popular cabin rental in the Forest Service's Northern Region.
And now the restoration of the Morgan-Case homestead is nearly done. The project, which cost more than $200,000, was overseen by McLeod and Gene Thompson, recreation forester for the Missoula Ranger District.
The project may be complete next week, and the cabin could be available this summer for public rental.
The two homestead restorations took years of work by volunteers in the Forest Service's Passport in Time program.
Since 1988, the nationwide program has offered people, most of whom are retirees, a hot meal and a bunk or tent site - as well as a moose stamp in a faux Forest Service green passport - in exchange for some hard labor on archaeology and historic preservation projects.
Over the years, the volunteers have helped stabilize ancient cliff dwellings in New Mexico, excavate a 10,000-year-old village site in Minnesota, clean vandalized rock art in Colorado and excavate a 19th-century Chinese mining site in Hell's Canyon in Idaho.
"It's amazing the quality of work that gets done, given the complete range of skills these volunteers have," from master tradesmen to novices, Thompson said.
Maggie Pittman, Missoula district ranger, said she would like to lift a hammer, a saw or a paintbrush on a Passport in Time project.
"It's a very cool program that brings a variety of folks together from all walks of life," she said. "When I grow up, that's what I want to do."
The Morgan-Case and Hogback homesteads, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, are among thousands of historic buildings nationwide that federal land management agencies open for rental.
Fifteen volunteers were chosen for the Morgan-Case restoration this spring from among 60 applicants who wanted to work on the high-profile project.
They saw snow, rain and sunshine recently - and one day, clear skies prompted one volunteer to put down his hammer and do some trout fishing for a while.
"We told him just this once," McLeod said, jokingly. "Our volunteers work hard, so they deserve a break."
Carol Ellick, an administrator with a New Mexico nonprofit group that's part of the Passport in Time program, decided to volunteer for the Morgan-Case project.
"I love getting my hands dirty," she said.
The homestead was built in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Annie Morgan, a former slave who reportedly had been a cook for Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Joseph "Fisher Jack" Case.
Their original one-room cabin was expanded into four rooms - a kitchen, two bedrooms and a family room - by the three families who owned it over the years.
The cabin was stabilized in 1997 to prevent it from collapsing and the restoration started in 1999. The project includes a range of structural and aesthetic improvements, including installing a few modern amenities such as electricity and an equipped kitchen.
Exterior work included a new fence, rock retaining wall and storage shed with a vault toilet. Water comes from an hand-pumped well outside.
For Forest Service officials, restoration of the Morgan-Case and Hogback homesteads has been a complex task over the years, shepherding volunteers, securing funding, keeping wildfires away, finding the right mix of historic integrity and modern usage.
"As an archaeologist, it's been a pleasure to see these homesteads reborn," McLeod said. "I'm so thankful we bought them in 1979 or else they would have been subdivided into trophy homes."