By Brad Reynolds
Fort Benton carries with it all the history and charm that you’d expect from Montana’s birthplace. Four museums walk visitors through the town’s timeline, from the dawn of the First Peoples to the homesteader era and beyond. The Missouri River, once the “World’s Innermost Port” and best route to Montana Territory, flows gently along Front Street. Century-old structures serve the community to this day.
While it is not always possible for a historic building to be restored to its intended use, creative entrepreneurs are preserving Fort Benton history while also serving a need in their community. The Pioneer Lodge, for instance, was once the Power Mercantile. Named for its founder, T.C. Power, the company was established in 1867 to do business with soldiers, settlers, and Indians. The original structure, built of wood, was claimed by a fire. The structure after that was built of brick in 1882, and it too burned. The building which stands today, also brick, was erected in 1916 and has survived 103 years (thankfully) without catastrophe.
In the 1930s, Power sold his company to local businessmen and rolled the proceeds into a run for the Montana State Senate (which he won). The Pioneer Mercantile continued to serve Fort Benton all the way up until 1985, when Marvin and Winnie Appleby purchased the building and converted it into a hotel and apartment complex.
“At that time, there was nowhere to stay in Fort Benton,” explains Susie Yager, daughter of the Applebys and current owner of the Pioneer Lodge.
Since then, guest houses and B&Bs have come in, and the Grand Union reopened in 1999, but that hasn’t changed the fact that Pioneer Lodge’s waterfront location, historic 1919 façade, and proximity to Fort Benton’s business district make it an ideal place for visitors to stay and residents to live.
“We’re family-friendly, pet-friendly, the building is secure, and we’re close to everything,” says Yager. “It’s not a luxury hotel; it feels like home. It’s where locals like to stay.”
While the Pioneer Lodge is a historic mercantile turned hotel, the Culbertson House is just the opposite—a historic hotel turned mercantile. Wake Cup Coffee, Old Bridge Coffee Roasters, and Golden Triangle Brew Co. all operate within the structure that originally housed the Pacific Hotel (established in 1882), later renamed the Culbertson House.
“We’ve given the building a fresh look and enhanced some of its original charm,” says Amanda Bedford, owner of the building, Wake Cup Coffee, and Old Bridge Coffee Roasters. “You can feel the history when you walk in. It’s special for me to be able to turn it into something everybody can enjoy on a daily basis.”
“It’s absolutely beautiful with a great view of the river,” adds Brandon Roberts, who leases space in the Culbertson House for Golden Triangle Brew Co.
This is Fort Benton’s first brewery in over a century, which Roberts owns and operates with his partner, Stacia Fuzesy.
The pair believes that the Culbertson House’s well-lit interior and historic features (including an elegant Nineteenth Century back bar) provide the perfect setting for a local nanobrewery such as theirs. The brewery’s inviting atmosphere, locally sourced ingredients, and beer names rooted in Fort Benton history (such as Shepweizen), all promote an enjoyable experience for customers.
Likewise, the Culbertson House serves as a delightful backdrop for Fort Benton’s coffee connoisseurs. Bedford opened Wake Cup Coffee, a café and coffee shop, in 2004 with a small restaurant space, a dorm room-sized fridge, and a George Foreman Grill. After outgrowing this location and several others, she purchased the Culbertson House and relocated in 2016.
“I’m an entrepreneur and a dreamer, and I imagined all the things that could be done with this property,” she explains.
In 2018, one of those dreams became a reality; Bedford opened Old Bridge Coffee Roasters, a gourmet coffee company named after the town’s historic walking bridge—one of many Fort Benton landmarks that can be viewed from the Culbertson House’s newly renovated balcony.
“Funding through the city helped us put up the balcony overlooking the river,” Bedford explains. “There’s no other place in Fort Benton like it.”
In each their own way, Bedford, Yager, Fuzesy, and Roberts have provided for their community. Every business fills a niche, and each one proudly keeps Fort Benton’s river front history alive.
“Front Street is as Montana as it gets,” says Roberts.