A Grand Old Flagpole

You're a Grand Old Flag(pole)

By Carla Kelly, former Fort Union Park Ranger

 
 
The flagpole snapped above the cross bracing.  A lightning rod was the only tether between the broken pole.
The flagpole snapped above the cross bracing.  A lightning rod was the only tether between the broken pole. 

NPS Photo

In August of 2007, with a crack heard around Fort Union's courtyard, the reproduction flagpole, built 22 years earlier by the Fort Union Muzzle Loaders Association snapped. A symbol of commitment, the 1985 flagpole had been the first tangible sign that Fort Union Trading Post –gone since 1867 but not forgotten –was going to rise again.

The combination of wind, a tangled flag, and rot did the deed. "Time and weather took its toll," Muzzle Loader Paul Bauer said.

On June 20, 2009, a new flagpole built by that same group of fur traders will be dedicated during Rendezvous. It's still a symbol of what happens when people work together for a common goal.

The new flagpole has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to reconnect friends. Bauer was one of the early members of FUMLA, who, through the years, had left the organization to concentrate on other projects. It had been ages since he had been to a Rendezvous, but when he came in 2008 and looked at the truncated remains of the old pole, something happened.

"This isn't good," he remembered thinking.

The solution was obvious. The Muzzle Loaders started a conversation with Andy Banta, superintendent at Fort Union. The result was a really long pole in Bauer's front yard. "They used my place to build it because I have the longest driveway," Bauer joked. "I tell people it's going to be a hitching post for elephants."

 
1985 reconstructed flagpole, with fish weathervane in front of old modular visitor center.
1985 flagpole, the first reconstruction at Fort Union, with fish weathervane in front of old modular visitor center.

Nps Photo

Banta was particularly pleased with the Muzzle Loaders' interest in crafting a second flagpole. The staff at Fort Union had been undergoing the careful planning required, and Banta was aware of the potential huge expense involved. His less-than-encouraging example was a pole replacement at Fort Scott National Historic Site costing $60,000.

"We ended up with the best possible plan," Banta said. "The Muzzle Loaders Association would rebuild the flagpole, and the Friends of Fort Union –through North Star Caviar –would provide $10,000."

The fur trader reenacting group certainly knew how to tackle a new flagpole. They had done it in 1985, back when visiting Fort Union required considerable leaps of creativity to imagine America's premier fur trading post on a practically bare field.

Through the years, there had been discussion about reconstructing Fort Union, but it was no secret that the National Park Service did not look –still doesn't –with a kindly eye on reconstructions. The Park Service needed some nudging from North Dakotans and Montanans familiar with the history of the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence; activist senators and community leaders; more flexible Park Service leaders, and a progressive new superintendent.

Adding a flagpole to the mix helped turn the talk into action. In 1982, Dave Finders moved to town from Iowa. Finders had belonged to a mountain man group in his home state, and was disappointed that the group in Williston had become inactive.

 
Volunteer smooths out surface of new flagpole with hand tools.
Fort Union Muzzle Loader Dave Finders using hand tools to even the surface of the flagpole.

Photo Courtesy Paul Bauer

Unknown to Finders, his wife placed an advertisement in the paper and on the radio, inviting folks to a meeting to jump start the group. Finders remembers, "Vicki told me, 'You're going to the bank basement tonight to talk to a lot of people.'"

There were, and Finders did, which led to the Fort Union Muzzle Loaders Association. One of the first items on the agenda was to build a flagpole at Fort Union. Today, no one in the group really claims credit for the idea. "There was just a general consensus that such a thing would bring attention to Fort Union," Bauer said.

The first hurdle was getting permission, which was hard to come by until Paul Hedren became superintendent in 1984. Fresh from Golden Spike National Historic Site, Hedren was a newly minted and ambitious superintendent. "Paul was all for it," Finders said.

Through Hedren, the Muzzle Loaders connected with Rick Cronenberger, historical architect with the National Park Service. Using old documents and illustrations, Cronenberger drew the plans for a replica of the pole that had graced Fort Union's courtyard from the 1830s to the 1850s, when it finally fell down. That 19th century pole was replaced by a flag tower, situated in the southwest corner of the fort.

According to the Muzzle Loaders, donations came from all over town for the flagpole, indicative of community interest that would soon lead to the donation of many more dollars for the fort's reconstruction.

 
Volunteers stand in front of portion of new flag pole
Fort Union Muzzle Loaders Association members stand with pride in front of a portion of the new flagpole. Left to Right Paul Bauer, Dennis Borud, Dave Finders, Roger Olson, Dave Evanson and Tim Soiseth.

Photo Courtesy Paul Bauer

The first flagpole came from Montana Dakota Utilities lumber yard. The flagpole was built on site, complete with the crosspiece crow's nest, climbing pegs and "fishy" weathervane.The flagpole, 63 feet high from the ground up, went into an augur-dug hole to a depth of seven or eight feet, precisely where the first pole had been located. Archeologists had found remnants of the first pole, and even underground cedar crosspieces.

And the rest truly was history. "I think the flagpole watches over the fort," Finders said. What came next was the Bourgeois House in 1987, followed by the palisades and bastions in 1989 and the Indian trade house in 1991. What stands today is called a partial reconstruction.

The flagpole history has repeated itself, using many of the same builders and Cronenberger's old plans. Bauer has nothing but admiration for the Muzzle Loaders' abilities, which have matured over the years. "It's been a real treat to work with the skill sets each member brings to the project," he said. "For example, Dave Evanson is a master cabinet maker, and Roger Olson lays down beautiful welds on the iron work. Everybody is willing to pitch in."

 
Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative truck delivering new flagpole to Fort Union
Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative truck delivering new flagpole to Fort Union

Photo Courtesy Paul Bauer

The selection came from Lower Yellowstone Rural Electric Association: two pressure-treated cedar poles. "Cedar poles make excellent building material, and they're good for resisting bad weather," Bauer said. Association member and Park Service employee Dennis Borud did the purchasing, and he and Bauer selected the pole.

"We were a lot younger when we did the first one," Evanson said, "but we learned a lot. We used better materials this time. It should last a long time." The vision of time will play into the 2009 dedication. Superintendent Paul Hedren, now retired and living in Omaha, Nebraska, has been invited to speak about the past. Current superintendent Andy Banta will speak about the present and future, according to Bauer.

But first the flagpole needs to get to the fort. Because, obviously, there are buildings now where once there was an open field, this flagpole had to be constructed at Bauer's house, with the Muzzle Loaders working evenings and on weekends. The builders were able to reuse the metal and parts of the picket fence that surrounded the old pole. The weathervane fish took a nosedive in 2007, but has been repaired and will top the new pole.
 
Volunteers pose in front of completed and installed flag pole
Fort Union Muzzle Loaders Association Members stand in front of installed flagpole.  Left to right: Orville Loomer, Tim Soiseth, Dave Finders, Dave Evanson, Dennis Borud, Paul Bauer and Roger Olson.

Photo Courtesy Paul Bauer

Lower Yellowstone REA will transport the assembled pole to the trading post. There will be a bucket truck inside the courtyard to set the pole. The Muzzle Loaders will complete the finish work on site, and the dedication will be June 20, during the annual rendezvous.

"We really appreciate the Muzzle Loaders' dedication," Banta said. "They carried our efforts forward in such a timely fashion. It seems so fitting, too, since they constructed the first flagpole."

"It's been a pleasure to work on the pole," Bauer said recently, as he looked around his living room, full of his flagpole buddies. "For me, it's also been a way to reconnect with friends."

 
Flag Raising on new flagpole, visitors in foreground stand and salute
Visitors stand watching the flag rise during the 2009 Flagpole Dedication.

Photo Courtesy Wendy Johnson

In Appreciation For All Their Accomplishments

(excerpted from the 2009 Flagpole Dedication Program)

A special thanks to the following members of the Fort Union Muzzle Loaders for volunteering over 350 hours during the construction of the new flag pole:

Dennis and Mary Borud
Paul and Cheryl Bauer
Roger & Cheryl Olson
Tim Soiseth
Jim Gunderson
Dave and Arleen Finders
Dave & Penny Evanson
Ron & Janice Swenson
Orville Loomer
Rod Lassey
Jim Hoeflin
John & Jo Dorsey

Thank you Friends of Fort Union for funding this project.

Thank you to the following businesses that made this possible:

Lower Yellowstone Electric Cooperative
Mountrail Williams Electric Cooperative
Petroleum Services, Williston, ND
Rockstad Construction Williston, ND

Thank You to the following National Park Service Employees for their participation during installation.

Tim Sipper
Dennis Borud
Dave Carr
Dave Zethren

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

15550 Highway 1804
Williston, ND 58801

Phone:

(701) 572-9083

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