April 25, 2019

Family Life and the Fort Peck Dam

by Kelly Burton
MHS Film Archivist

In keeping with the reputation of its home state, Montana’s Fort Peck Dam is outsized in stature. At 21,026 feet in length and over 250 feet in height, Fort Peck Dam is the largest hydraulically filled dam in the United States. The reservoir created by this dam, Fort Peck Lake, is 134 miles long, has a 1520-mile shoreline (longer than the California coast), and is the fifth largest man-made lake in the U.S. Ownership of the dam and lake are held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it was this federal agency that began construction of the structure in 1933 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. At its peak in 1936, the Fort Peck Dam project employed over 10,000 workers and created dozens of boomtowns that would eventually disappear after completion of the structure in 1940.



Construction of Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)


Construction of Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)

Some of the Montana Historical Society’s more detailed and memorable images of Fort Peck Dam and its construction come from the Van Faasen family home movie collection. Jerold was born in Holland, Michigan in 1913, and Ruth was born that same year, in Libby, Montana. Jerold describes the couple’s meeting in the donation paperwork for the collection: “Ruth Shanahan and Jerold B. Van Faasen both arrived at the Fort Peck Dam Project on the Missouri River in Northeastern Montana in October 1935. Ruth was assigned duties in the Finance Section and Jerold was assigned duties in the Engineering Field Office for the Diversion Tunnel Construction. Ruth and Jerold met for the first time about a year later through a mutual friend. After a two-year courtship, they were married in the Glasgow Methodist Church Parsonage on September 24, 1938.” Jerold’s engineering work led to several relocations between Montana and Washington State over the years, and during this time, the couple raised three daughters. Many of the Van Faasens’ work and life events were captured on 8mm film, and these reels provide us with a rich portrait of life in the American West during the 1930s – 1960s.


Construction of Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052) 


Jerold Van Faasen in the Fort Peck Dam offices (MOV 0052)

In May of 1994, Jerold and Ruth donated thirty-eight 8mm film reels to the Montana Historical Society’s Photo Archives (MOV 0052). In the donation paperwork for the Van Faasen family moving image collection, the origin of this cinematographic hobby is described thusly: “The amateur movie activity started when Ruth gave Jerold an 8mm Bell and Howell ‘filmo’ movie camera for Christmas in 1938. This led to 30 years of the filming of construction of civil and military projects, family events and vacations, friends and relatives and special events. Many of our vacations included the families of our siblings.” An amazingly thorough sixty-one-page document accompanies the Van Faasen donation, with a detailed description of every shot contained on every numbered reel. Many of these films pertain to Jerold’s work as an engineer on the Fort Peck Dam and Glasgow Air Force Base in Montana, along with other infrastructure projects such as the Hungry Horse Dam in Montana and the Bonneville Dam on the Washington/Oregon border. A notable face in the Fort Peck Dam footage is that of President Harry Truman, whose visit to the facility on May 13, 1950 was filmed by Jerold. Family trips were also frequent, with Waterton-Glacier, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce Canyon, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, and Yosemite among the leisure destinations chosen by the Van Faasens. Complementary home movies pertaining to the family’s time in western Washington were donated by Jerold and Ruth to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry in 1994.


Recreation at Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)



Recreation at Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)

In addition to the donation of family films to the Photo Archives, the Van Faasens also gifted their Bell & Howard 8mm FILMO Sportster film camera and various other pieces of filmmaking equipment to the Montana Historical Society’s museum (1994.28) in 1994. An autographed memoir by Jerold Van Faasen, “Making it Happen: A Sixty-Year Engineering Odyssey in the Northwest,” was acquired in 1998 by the MHS library (620.00973 V26M), and this 264-page personal history serves as an insightful companion to the home movies. Finally, Ruth and Jerold contributed individual accounts to the New Deal in Montana/Fort Peck Dam Oral History Project housed in the MHS archives (OH 1071 and OH 1087), with interviews being conducted by Rick Duncan in the town of Fort Peck on August 3, 1987. Ruth’s account states that the couple’s years at Ft. Peck were “a wonderful part of our lives. A cosmopolitan group of people, opportunities that you don’t find everywhere, everybody cared about everybody it seemed and we really enjoyed living in Fort Peck.” (OH 1071)


Harry Truman at Fort Peck Dam, May 13, 1950 (MOV 0052)



Al Van Faasen feeding chipmunks at Glacier National Park (MOV 0052)

With the help its first Federal Grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2009, the Montana Historical Society was able to create new, enlarged 16mm preservation prints and negatives of three Fort Peck-related films from the Van Faasen family moving image collection. These three reels can now be viewed as one continuous 43-minute silent film on the Historical Society’s Moving Image Archive YouTube playlist:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gteLdW66Mc&list=PL99klIdTK43mUYKq0tk7D8ga_IlqFrpu8&index=20&t=2255s

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