A podcast dedicated to our volunteers and living historians who bring history alive at Fort Union. Each episode will highlight a different living historian and find out why Fort Union is important to them.
Leif: Hey fur trade fans. I'm Leif Halvorson summer seasonal Ranger here at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, and thank you for joining me in the trade house today for the first episode of a new podcast series called “Stewards of History.” They are people who go out of their way to make special events, like our annual Rendezvous, the tremendous success that it is each year. And the truth is we can't do it without them. They're people who take the roles they play seriously and do their darndest to accurately portray life at Fort Union so that visitors can better understand what took place here and as they do so they become part of what is the ongoing history of Fort Union. So this series is dedicated to them our stewards of history. And it's my hope that as you get to meet these very special people that you'll come to understand why places like Fort Union means so much to them, and maybe, just maybe, whether it be here or wherever your historic site is, you might also decide to become a steward of History. On today's episode. I'm honored to be joined by one of our Fort Union volunteer living historians. Mr. David Finders, and Dave is no stranger in any sense of the word to the site, and for literally decades, he's been a part of the ongoing history of Fort Union. Dave, thanks for joining me today. Dave: Thanks for having me Leif. Leif: As I said earlier, we are out here in the trade house. We've got the first fire of the season crackling in the hearth behind us here and we’ve got some smoke going through here with the draft and stuff. We're enjoying our first batch of coffee of the season, too, which is exciting that I haven't forgotten how to make the coffee in the hearth. We’re probably going to hear wind. We can hear birds chirping in the background. It wouldn't surprise me if we hear the ground squirrels chirping at each other and depending on what time it is, we'll probably hear a train also in the background, and that's not poor editing. Those are just the sounds from here in the trade house, that we've spent so much time in. So who's Dave Finders? Where are you from? What kind of jobs have you done Dave? And how did you get interested in history in general? Dave: So I like that bit about the train because when the whistle blows I like to think it’s a steam boat on the river. Leif: Oh, yeah. Dave: Yep. So to answer your question Leif, I'm originally from Iowa. Born and raised there in a little town of about 1300. people and got interested in history because my dad was very interested in history. He read extensively and talked a lot about it, and I, in high school worked my way through all the leather stocking tales. They are rather hard books to read. But I found James Fenimore Cooper's writing about Natty Bumpo, old Hawk Eye, and Deer Slayer, and all that just kind of, that got to me. And wish I’d gotten into this earlier, but during the bicentennial, 76, Iowa opened up deer hunting for “other than shotgun.” I didn't want to hunt deer with a shotgun, and I’m not a bow hunter, but muzzle loaders, and I thought, “I got to try that.” My wife, bless her heart, ordered out of Sears and Roebuck, no less, my first black powder rifle. And took me a while to figure it out. Took me quite a while, and my dad who also picked up a Muzzleloader, to find caps, powder, lead, but we got into it and things kind of snowballed from there. Leif: Brandon Delvo likes saying “welcome to the sickness,” the way we just keep on going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Dave: Yeah, you know one of our friend’s, Rod’s girlfriend, years ago when I worked on her phone, she told Rod that she had met me, his eccentric friend. Leif: So you explained about growing up in Iowa your father sparking this interest in history. You serve in the Army for a while, right? Dave: Yeah three years. Leif: And then after that you were a lineman? Dave: Actually before I was a lineman on a highline crew, electric for just a local, just a one-man owned operation and then I went into the service. Yeah, I'm a veteran. And I come out, I was always looking to go into clerk work. I thought get out of this construction bit. But when I applied for the job, I wrote on the back of the form that I had driven a boom truck and the telephone company happened to be looking for a boom truck driver. So I said I'll give this a shot. You know, I'll try it for a couple of months and 33 years later, I was still trying to figure out, Okay, so I ran out of a job there. I was low on seniority and it was either transfer to Oklahoma, or Texas some, big cities, or this place. I didn't know anything about up here in Northwest North Dakota. Well, I'm not a big city man. So I said, yep send me the North Dakota. Can I can I go out and take a look first. They said, “No, just go.” Leif: Before you change your mind. Dave: Well, it could have been Watford, Dickinson, or Williston. You know, I've had a lot of good things happen in my life. And one, was I wound up in Williston. And I had helped form a muzzleloading club and it was the Troublesome Creek muzzleloaders. And I hated to leave that bunch of good companions down there. But when I got here, here was this old fort site. And so I had a teepee. Didn't hardly know anybody and there was no activity going on. So I brought my family out, set my teepee up on the campgrounds here over the weekends, and we just spent weekends watching the river go by. And then my wife kind of noticed I was languishing, and I had talked to a few members of a defunct club and asked them what they thought if I maybe tried to start a club. In the meantime, my wife, bless her heart, got a hold of the newspaper, got ahold of the TV, got ahold of the radio, and put out a notice that there was going to be a meeting to start a muzzleloading club. And then she told me I was going to go talk to about a hundred people. Leif: You got volun-told. Dave: Pretty much. And there were about 50 people at that meeting, and while most of them are out of it, out of this now, or have moved when the downturn in oil, things like that. Paul Bauer was one of the first at that meeting and Dennis Borud, one of the maintenance men here. And as clubs go, you have a few ups and downs, very few downs, mostly ups. I have met some great people, I’m sitting across the table from one. Leif: Well thanks, Dave. Dave: And that's kind of how it went and Paul and a fellow named Jim Gunderson and I, spent weekends out here in 85 building a flagpole. We had help from the rest of the club some, and it was dedicated in 85’. And then there were some real influential people in town, city leaders that kind of got on the bandwagon and started pushing for this, and we had a senator, Mark Andrews, who was quite influential in getting funds for the Fort. And I'm just kind of proud, if I can say it, to be in on the start of all of this. Leif: Well, if it weren't for the efforts of you and the other members of the club, and your wife kind of instigating you into situations and stuff, We wouldn't be sitting in the trade house today, because 91’-92’ is when they finish the reconstruction here, and if it wasn't for all the awareness that you guys brought to what Fort Union is and how important it was, they wouldn't have lobbied Congress. They wouldn't have passed that act where they allotted all that money to be able to secure the land to preserve it and to reconstruct what we're sitting and right now, that we get to share with people. So yeah, I don't think there's anything wrong with being a little bit proud of being a part of that, you know. Dave: Yeah, one thing the club did, and that almost burned us out, that we, to bring notice to what we wanted to do, we went to every are fair in the whole, what you call, Community, in the surrounding communities even walk down streets and shooting rifles. We camped at some real weird places, and times and, like I say, we did so much of that it almost burnt the club out. But then, once things started rolling, we realized what we had, and were happy for it. Leif: Yeah, all that hard work paid off. Dave: Yeah it did. Leif: We’ve got our park. Several years ago, within the park service, we had that “Find your Park” campaign ,and you had, and in fact, you helped build it as well, to. A lot of the guys in the club did. Dave Evenson. He was a part of the reconstruction efforts here. He’s the president of the Fort Union muzzleloaders Association. Lots of different folks within the organization that, even assisting in the archaeology aspects and stuff. And yeah, so the club from its inception kind of paired very well with what was going on. And as the site was being built it had its own group of volunteers right from the get-go, which I'm not sure how often that actually takes place really. That's kind of a special thing that we've got here, as a result of that. In what different ways have you been a part of the site? Dave: Well, I do enjoy the living history part and along with the club. We've had a project every Labor Day since, I’d say, the early 90s. We built buildings within the walls. We build a fur press, a couple of different kinds, wheelbarrows, corrals. Yeah, might be talking almost 30 years worth of with building something. And I did, after retiring after 33 years of the telephone company, I did come out here and work a handful of seasons as a seasonal Ranger. Did enjoy talking to people, and just at Rendezvous and living history events. And even times when there wasn't something going on just to come out and talk to kids after the year of school, and they would bring kids out, and I could give him a little shot of History. Just enjoy being here. Leif: What are some stories, maybe some “you had to be there moments” from events that you've been a part of here while you've been spending your time volunteering ,working with the public, because that's what we're doing when we're out here, interacting with them, answering their questions, teaching the history, but when the public goes away, sometimes there are different memories that can end up taking place within the camaraderie, that is, the living historians, when the site is closed for the day. Dave: Oh, yeah. Yeah one of the interesting things I can remember from a very early ground level, and some of those days were like a hundred degrees, no wind, and we're standing out there on the prairie, very little shade, except what we put up, no trees, and up from the south comes this beautiful rain. It was going to be wonderful. It stopped in the middle of the river! But just, yeah some, at some of the events we did the camaraderie through different shooting on the park site before anybody found out and put a stop to it. Leif: Things were different back in those days. Dave: Yeah, they were. Leif: In your time here, you have worked with thousands of visitors that have that have come through here. Our annual Rendezvous, we usually see between three and five thousand people on those weekends, and each year you're out here in the trade house, you're talking to the public, and there are a lot of days to when we don't necessarily have a specific event going on, but you're out here in the trade house as well, talking to people. What have been some of your most bewildering or frustrating moments, that you've had with a visitor a group of visitors. Dave: Oh, I'll mention one. This wasn't a visitor. This was a reporter from town, that wanted to ask a few questions and took him up on the Bastion, and we talked about various events like kids games, and what actually happened here at the fort, and who worked here, bourgeois. And we discussed a lot of things, and he must not have stretched his time out long enough, because he asked started asking me the same question over again, and pretty soon I had this blank look on my face, because I'd already explained all I could, and when it was finally cut, he got this real worried look on his face. And says “I'm really sorry I put you through that.” And then there was a reporter, young man, from Sidney, and this was one when Dave Evenson was bourgeois, and we were down over the bank, and that was a hundred degrees and no wind, mosquitos. And this young man. He sees the coolers we have and “what's in there?” Well, okay. It's Period-correct cooler, wood box, but we explained we can't go out and shoot a deer every day or Butcher a Buffalo. We have food in there and that's how we, you know, keep food. “You got beer in there!” No, no we have food in there. “You got beer in there, don't you?” Listen listen, so we get ahold of the article he wrote in the Sidney paper, “Buckskinners have beer in coolers.” Oh, yeah. Okay. Leif: Sometimes folks like to fixate. Yeah, that's got to be what's going on there. Nah, this is what it no. No, it's not. It's got to be this. Okay, fine, whatever. So in contrast to those scenarios, what have been some of your most rewarding moments that you've had here at Fort Union? Dave: Some just in associating with in the camaraderie I’ve had with various reenactors, and some just like being in the trade room here, people that ask good questions, are really interested, and have taken a picture and sent me a large photograph of myself, or you know, with them or alone or whatever. It just, it makes me think they appreciated what I what I was trying to do. So I was thankful for that. Leif: Those moments like that, where you're able to engage with the visitor, where it ends up being, because we've, every ranger who's out here, every volunteer who's out here, we've got kind of a basic outline in the back of our head, where we talk about the operations of this reception room and the trade room, to set that stage for the visitors, to what Fort Union is, but when you can have a visitor ask questions, and you're no longer going through that outline in the back of your head, where their questions are driving the conversations. That's fantastic, because they're genuinely interested, you know, they're finding out what they want to know about it. And the answers that you give sometimes spark other questions. And those are special moments that makes the “not so special moments” makes up for all of those Dave: And on the flip side. I've had a few incidents, one where a fellow shot right past the trade room door, or into the courtyard, shot back into the room and said “Where are the rides?” I said, “What? This is not an amusement park.” Out the door he went mumbling. Leif: For our listeners that, maybe you've never been to Fort Union, you haven't Googled it or anything like that. So Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, owned and operated by the American Fur Company, to begin with gets built in 1828, it shuts down in 1867, and it’s not a military post. It's a trading post. There are these large white bastions or block house looking things on the northeast corner and the southwest corner and we've got these tall 15-foot whitewashed walls. And there's this the Bourgeois house. It's where the post manager lived that was a the fanciest building that was here, and you've got these red roofs, and so from the highway you see this fort, that I suppose to some, might look like some kind of fancy amusement park perhaps. Dave: Red roofs, green doors. I mean, Wow, white washed. Yeah, and I had had another fellow, and okay, I get it. Some people come here, I think maybe just come into a cool room and talk, and I've had times where I didn't have to say a thing. One fellow give me his life story of how he was related to the head man of the Wild Bunch because his last name was Cassidy. I didn't have the heart to tell him that that was some assumed name, but you know, he was happy being here. Leif: Yeah sometimes after the intro of what this is, we've talked farming with people, we've talked about old tractors, talked about grandkids, all kinds of stuff, and have a wonderful time talking with those folks for 45 minutes. Didn't really talk about history a whole heck of a lot. But you know, they really enjoyed their time here, and they really enjoyed the atmosphere, and they had a good experience while they were here. And that's that's important. Dave: That's some of the reasons why we're here. We hope to do give, like you say, give them a good experience. Yeah, they'll remember that's good. Leif: A lot of the visitors that we have that will come through the doors at Fort Union, a lot of times, we are an incidental stop along the way, if you're going on The High Line, Highway 2, you might see that there's a National Historic Site here on the map. So they swing down on Highway 5 or come out of Williston or up from Fairview and Sidney, and stuff, and it's kind of a stop of opportunity. A lot of times they’re actually headed to Glacier and happen to see that we're here, so they stop. Many visitors we just have once, this is the one time that they're going to be here. So you're hoping that they're going to get as much as what they can out of the site and understand what the site was, as concise as it may be. What is something that is important to you that every visitor should know when they stop here at Fort Union? Dave: For one thing, we try to dispel a lot of Hollywood. We want them to know that this was a peaceful negotiation and a profitable trade on both sides. Jim Hanson, well-known historian, said you did not cheat these people. The Indian women were so astute in their bartering that they would take a piece of cloth, singe it in the fire, and count the threads. So we want people to understand that it was… Okay the native people have hunted, they have Buffalo. They have more Buffalo than they need for bedding, clothing. Why not come here and trade something that they have excess of for something they could not produce? And so, yes, we try to dispel that that Hollywood image, you might say. Leif: Hollywood has done a wonderful job of fabricating a number of things. They're fun to watch and they're entertaining. However, they're not always history, unfortunately. Dave: My wife now, and I've been very fortunate to have had two wives, and one young gal I was explaining this to, got this look on her face and said, “At the same time?!” And I said no. But yes, my wife Arlene tells me I have created a monster because she now looks at Hollywood westerns with a jaundiced eye. Leif: Sometimes at our house a video will be paused, and my wife Kim will scrutinize what's on the screen and she'd say like “That style of dress wasn't available then.” And then she looks at me. She goes, “Look at that. You broke me!” Dave: Yeah and Arlene will say, “They're much too clean,” because she re-enacts with me she understands. Leif: So speaking of re-enacting and things like that, what's it like being a volunteer and a living historian? What's it like being a part of, what a lot of times we refer to as being a part of, “the hobby?” Dave: One thing we try to stress, if we're talking with the public, is honesty, and know seriously what you're talking about. Study it. And in being a living historian, we try to portray it as well as we can. We want to give the people a factual idea. And once again, not that Hollywood thing. And give the people a real experience while they're here, something they can latch onto and understand. I've been to other places and really appreciated living historians, or reenactors, or people who worked at parks at this good job, and I've been really let down by some of the young people that had their nose in a book, behind the desk, and didn't even look up, and knew nothing about the place. So we try to give them a better experience. Leif: We kind of owe it to the visitors. Brandon Delvo, who's another one of our living historians, is friends of ours. I was watching him in an engagement with visitors at a different site. We were at an event, he'd said to this mom and her daughter who had come and was asking him questions, and he said, I think he got asked. “Why do you guys do this the way that you do?” you know, like why are you, Brandon and I had won a lottery for the participants to be able to sleep inside this reconstructed building. It was a military post, Fort Casper, and the bunks, they slept two guys to a level, head to toe, side by side. And so that's what Brandon and I had done, slept head to toe, side by side, because that's what they had done then. And that gave us the opportunity to experience that for ourselves and understand what that was like so that we could better interpret this site that we were guests at, we were volunteers at that weekend for that event that was taking place. And so she said “Why do you guys do this? Why do you go to these lengths?” And he said, “Well, because you came here, you know, you met us halfway, because you were interested in something. It might have been history. It might not have been. It might have been just some convenient thing to do because you guys are bored or whatever, but you came here. You met us halfway. And so we want to make sure that we can meet you halfway as well, too, and do this as best as we can, so that you can understand what was actually taking place.” That's kind of the mindset that a lot of us try to have, anyway. [Train in background] Dave: If you listen real quietly, you might hear that Steamboat whistle and right about now the cannon should be going off to great the steamboat. Leif: It's the good old 2:46, right on time. Dave: You just pulled a Dennis, didn't you? Leif: Yeah. Why should people do it we do? Why should they become volunteer living historians? Dave: For one thing, once you get into it, you'll find you just might enjoy it. Another thing is for the camaraderie and for the way we can explain history to people. Hopefully people have an interest in history and we like to like to talk about that. Like I said, I got interested in this because I wanted to shoot a black powder rifle and I had a quite a learning experience in that. It's just something some people try a little bit. And go away. It's not for everybody. But some people get into it and the more they do it the deeper they delve and the more interesting and enjoyable it becomes, and I know one sitting across the table from me that’s that way. Leif: Because of those experience, that's why I'm here in NPS uniform today. Had I not become a volunteer, had I not become a living historian, and not joined the muzzleloaders, we wouldn't be sitting here today. I've got the summer job that I've got now, when I'm not teaching during the rest of the time, because I was a volunteer, because I was interested in the history, and had it not been for the Fort Union muzzleloaders Association, I wouldn't be here today. So it kind of goes to show the impact of what something like that can do. It’s incredible, and it means a lot. Dave: You mentioned one time when we were doing a re-enactment, I think I was at Lewis & Clark, and you looked at me and you said, “I remember you.” You were a young man. I must have struck a chord. Eccentric again, I suppose. Leif: So I'll do a little back story on that. You were saying that there was times the club was going to all these different events and you guys were kind of burning yourself out a little bit. One of those events, it two separate occasions, actually, one of the times was at the UMM Camp outside of Epping. And you were there in one of their buildings in your historic clothing and you were talking to this young group of Boy Scouts about life on the frontier. About the fur trade. And I remember very distinctively you talking about parched corn and me trying to fathom ust what in the world is parched corn. And you were talking about different things that you could eat and so on and so forth. And then I met you again later. There at Lewis and Clark State Park for something else. And then years later, after I got married I moved back home with my wife and kids, we stopped out here at an event. It was living history weekend and I got introduced to you because a friend of ours that was in the club, that we’d gone to college with, Briana, she said, “You should get in on this Leif. You should become a part of this. Let me introduce you to Dave Finders. And so she brought me over and as we talked, the more we talked I remembered he was the guy from when I was in Boy Scouts, that talk to us at one of the events. It's neat the way you were just volunteering, you were just talking to a group of boys and the impact that that would end up making here. We are all these years later sitting down talking now. Dave: It’s a good feeling to know, you know, things like that hit a cord somehow, sometimes. Leif: You’ve kind of talked about this a little bit already. In some of the previous questions that we were talking about. What suggestions do you have, Dave, for people wanting to be volunteers, wanting to be living historians, and along with that, not just for them, but also for interp staff. So for folks like me, we're in the summertime, whether it's at Fort Union or it someplace else. We've got folks in the in the Park Service working as seasonals that go from site to site eventually hoping to get themselves a spot as a permanent Ranger someplace. What suggestions do you have for all those folks? That would be help them be successful in regards to being able to do our jobs here, whether to be volunteer or Park staff, in regards to visitors and taking care of the things of the site its history, and all that? Dave: One thing I would suggest is delve into whatever site you are at. Delve into it as much as you can, so you can be a good part of that site. If you see these reenactors and you think you'd be interested in, please discuss with them so you won't go off on a tangent and buy a lot of stuff you really don't need. Or things that are incorrect. You can get by without spending a lot of money and do this correctly. A lot of people look at what we have and have built and accumulated things for over 45 years. So don't think you want to jump in and get everything I have right away. Leif: It's a gradual ongoing process. Dave: Yes it is and you can improve yourself a little all the time. And that's a good feeling, too. But glean all the knowledge you can from people that are very willing to help you. Leif: Is there anything else that you want people to know? Dave: Just, I've been blessed with, like I say, two women that enjoyed this hobby with me. The one I was married right here at Fort Union, my second wife Arlene, and I told gal that I worked with for a number of years, a very good friend. And she told a very good friend of hers. And we each told our immediate relation, sisters or brothers, that we were going to get married. We didn't tell anybody else. We just figured all of our friends were going to be here, and they were! Yeah, I've been very fortunate that I kind of stumbled into this life. And met a lot of good people. Well, once again like the fellow across the table, thank you, Leif. Leif: Well, thank you Dave, for everything that you've done for the site, for everything that you've done for all the other volunteers. I've benefited from the knowledge that that you've had. Like you said, glean as much information as you can from all of those folks around you. Delve into the books. That's something that I've done my best to take to heart. I've gained so much from you and so many of the other members of Muzzleloaders, so thank you for that. Thanks for everything that you did to make this site possible. And thanks for everything that you continue to do. Sure appreciate it Dave. Dave: Thank you, Leif. Leif: Well, from here in the trade house. I'm Leif Halvorson, summer seasonal ranger here at Fort Union. Dave: And I'm Dave Finders, been a seasonal Ranger, and reenactor for 45 years or so I supposed. Leif: And thank you for listening today, on “Stewards of History.”
The first episode of Stewards of History is an interview with Dave Finders, a long time volunteer and past Park Ranger at Fort Union Trading Post.