Curator's Corner Blog

Monthly Archives: July 2015

Teepee Burner Ceiling

On the grounds of Fort Missoula…

Teepee Burner Ceiling

The other day, I snapped this picture while wandering the grounds of Fort Missoula. To me, it looked like some kind of celestial map, or maybe a planetarium. I asked my friends what they thought it was and got the following answers: the eyeball of a giant steel chameleon, a kaleidoscope looking at a forest, the ceiling, the inside of an old silo, a stained glass window, and, a personal favorite—the time-traveling, dinosaur space ship from We’re Back, a bizarre animated children’s movie about, of course, time-traveling dinosaurs.

What do you think it is?

The most precise and accurate answer came from my friend Chris: “That’s a dome ceiling, poorly welded together. The green and red part is a mesh top that’s sagging inward and full of mold (unlikely) or a similar dome of netting, but extending conical, showing silhouettes of the trees.”

Well, yes, kind of. I took the photograph while standing in the center of the teepee burner at Fort Missoula on a bright, sunny day, looking straight up into the mesh ceiling. Named for their resemblance to Native American teepees or wigwams, teepee burners were once used by sawmills to burn leftover sawdust and slabs of wood, generally at night when the glow from the fires could be seen for miles. Before the Clean Air Act of 1970, they were ubiquitous across the Pacific Northwest—signs of a healthy timber industry. In the Missoula Valley alone, there were eleven operating teepee burners in the 1940s and 1950s. Imagine driving into the valley on a moonless autumn night, the sky lit up by scattered torches of fire. Imagine the smoke drifting into the air, blocking out one star at a time until the smoke itself took on the shape of something silhouetted against the darker night—a bear, for instance, or a fish. Like finding faces in the clouds.


The teepee burner on the grounds of Fort Missoula

The teepee burner at Fort Missoula is 5½ stories high, consisting of 18 forty-foot panels and a 15-foot high dome at the top. Normally, the domes, or screen spark arrestors, are made of wire mesh to keep burning embers from escaping. The teepee burner at the fort also has a fiberglass covering over the mesh to protect the structure from the elements. The fiberglass was painted orange and yellow to resemble an operating teepee burner. The colors and size of the Fort Missoula burner enables hikers to locate the fort from as far away as the M. Trust me, I’ve tried it!

After this initial exploration, my mind immediately jumped to the next set of questions: how did the museum go about moving this enormous structure, and, maybe more importantly, why? It couldn’t have been an inexpensive process, right? Originally, the teepee burner was built for the S&W Sawmill just north of Darby. It was moved in 1973 to the historic pioneer village erected by the Bitterroot Valley Historical Society at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds in Hamilton and then, just over 30 years later, given to the museum at Fort Missoula to better preserve it. The burner was dismantled in 2005 and over the following year, volunteers prepared an 18-sided foundation, sandblasted and painted the 40-foot panels and finally erected the new teepee burner on October 8, 2006. Just to give you a sense of the commitment here: it took 12,000 pounds of sand to sandblast the panels, 100 gallons of paint to paint them, and 594 bolts to stitch the entire thing together. Before the stitching together even began, volunteers spent 4 hours sandblasting each panel and then two hours painting it (remember, there are 18 panels). That’s a lot of work!

Lifting the ceiling of the teepee burner

Lifting the ceiling of the teepee burner

The building is pretty empty inside. It feels magical, standing in there alone, looking at the chinks of sky sneaking through the mesh. Back in 2006, Scott Kuehn described it nicely, “Tepee burners are funny because, while this one is 45 feet in diameter and 55 feet tall, if you go inside one it’s like walking into a cathedral. It seems like it doubles or triples in size.” Scott is the chair of the Society of American Foresters, the group responsible for erecting the teepee burner and maintaining the Forestry Interpretative Area on the museum grounds, which includes a steam powered sawmill and a locomotive.

But does the teepee burner warrant that kind of effort? There are a ton of historic objects out there. Some have more value than others. What does this particular piece add to contemporary conversations? Surviving teepee burners are still littered around Oregon and other timber-rich areas, dotting the countryside much like Roman ruins are still strewn along highways in Italy, mainly left to themselves as an almost natural part of the landscape. Photographer Curt Deatherage made it one of his missions to discover and document teepee burners after he saw one demolished by a tornado near his home in the Willamette Valley. As of 2006, his list contained over 150 existing teepee burners in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana (only 3), and California, many of which he’s photographed and posted on Flicker. Like Scott Kuehn, and like me, he’s impressed by the beauty of the incinerators and the kind of mystical quality they have: “…somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I remembered as a child seeing one of these burners glowing in the night sky, imagining the glowing embers swirling and dancing under the screen must be what a firefly looks like.” But it’s more than that. In a 2010 article documenting the birth of the Oregon Wigwam Burners Association, Deatherage describes the association’s mission to preserve the memory of the men and women involved in the lumber industry—an industry that completely transformed this part of the country. Much like photographs of deteriorating barns or covered bridges, the images are haunting reminders of how quickly the world is evolving.

Perhaps the most applicable conversation about our teepee burner is one that walks the line between history and the present, a conversation not only about air quality and pollution, but about soil, science, government spending, and the ways in which we try to repair the damages we’ve wrought in the past. The S&W Sawmill, home to our teepee burner for about ten years, was founded in 1965 by Milo Wilson and Dee Shook, who had opened the first modern mill in the Darby area in 1954. The Shook Mill, their previous endeavor, was destroyed in ’64 by fire and in fact, a week after the S&W Mill opened the following year, with a work force of about 150 men, the new sawmill caught fire too. A newspaper reported that, “A fire in the chipper shed at the mill caused some damage and threw the chipper machine out of operation for several days—but the blaze was confined to the shed at the north end of the new plant and did not damage the main building.” Still, it gives you a sense of how dangerous (read: flammable) this kind of work could be. The S&W Mill was one of four operating in the Darby area at the time.


Another view of the teepee burner, with our locomotive in the foreground!

With so many sawmills continually burning wood waste, air quality concerns became a major issue, particularly in the Missoula Valley. As many readers will know, Missoula is surrounded by mountains and experiences severe temperature inversions in the winter, making it difficult for polluted air to escape the valley. In 1978, the EPA designated Missoula a “nonattainment area”—meaning that the county was in violation of federal air quality standards, particularly with carbon monoxide (motor vehicle emissions) and particulate pollution. One of the committees organized to address this issue focused on residential wood burning. If even residential wood burning was an issue, imagine what 11 teepee burners could do to the air! We all see the way that the valley traps smoke (particulate matter) during the fire season in the summers—even without teepee burners, the air gets heavy, hard to breath. Some days it’s difficult to make out Mount Sentinel because of all the smoke!

So here we have represented the struggle for clean, breathable air—an ongoing concern around the world. Now back to the S&W Sawmill. The site was an active sawmill until 1998, but prior to 1978 it also “operated as a wood treatment plant that used the chemical pentachlorophenol (PCP) mixed with diesel as a wood preservative. The chemical mixture and its by-products (dioxins/furans) have contaminated the soil and groundwater at the Facility.” The old sawmill is a state superfund site under the Comprehensive Environmental Cleanup and Responsibility Act (CECRA), with International Paper working as the lead liable group responsible for the cleanup—meaning that they’re collecting soil samples, devising a model for remediation, and even dismantling the old buildings onsite. It’s quite a long process! Data confirmed contamination in the water and soil back in November 2004 and the proposed plan and approved decision for remediation will probably not be finished until approximately January 2017, after which the actual cleanup will begin.

The teepee burner is, in part, a catalyst for thinking about the ways in which the past molds the future. They deserve to be preserved not only as an intriguing part of the landscape or as a gesture of respect to the people who built the timber industry, but as a reminder of significant contemporary conversations about land use and preservation—both of ourselves and of nature.

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