Driving into Fort Benton Montana on an overcast and cool Friday afternoon in late May I stopped and visited the Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center and then drove down to the old levee district. Along the riverfront where steamships once unloaded their cargos of goods from St. Louis and Kansas City the old Grand Union Hotel is still in operation and has been restored to the original 1882 aesthetic. Just downstream from the hotel begins a city park and walking trail full of historic markers and informational plaques detailing the history of this important location. Montana was born here.
I was lucky and met Tommy Willson and his friend Matt. The two of them were coordinating and kicking off the annual Spring Classic Fishing Derby that afternoon. The two of them and a handful of volunteers would, over the course of the weekend, register a couple of hundred fishermen and women, provide free hotdogs and drinks to anyone who wanted them in the cold wind and periodic rain showers, weigh and record about a hundred fish of assorted varieties and give this community a wonderful family centered tradition. An event like this was too much for me to pass so I volunteered to help out if they would let me. I witnessed how the kindness of a few people and local business sponsors were able to create something that the community looked forward to and brought them together. The best part of the weekend for me was seeing the kids come in for the weigh in of the fish they had caught, the excitement on their cold wet faces was contagious and their smiles were certainly of the ear to ear variety.
I parked the Airstream at the end of the old levee in front of the Old Fort Benton Museum and when not hanging around the derby tents trying to be useful or helpful I wondered around town and visited the shops and talked with the people I met. Most of the dining options were in the local bars, always a good place to hear, and have, conversations. Everyone knew about the derby. Everyone I talked to about it loved that Tommy put this together for the town. I don’t know what his motivation for starting this 8 years ago was but I see why he keeps doing it. The kids of Fort Benton. Every kid who participated walked away with some kind of prize, not a “participation” trophy but a real prize. There were a few dozen fishing rods, a few dozen tackle boxes and lots of derby t-shirts handed out to the kids. The business sponsors provided over a dozen bicycles of various styles and sizes that were given as prizes for the fishing competition in the kid’s categories. The whole weekend led up to a very windy Sunday afternoon with a park full of kids who were excited about fishing. It was a sight that I am so happy that I got to witness. It reminded me of my childhood and participating in the fishing derby that they used to hold at South Lake Park in Overland Park Kansas. I won a Zebco rod and reel and a tackle box, just like these kids did this weekend in Fort Benton Montana. Tommy and Matt are making a difference in the lives of the kids in this town and by Sunday afternoon they both looked pretty tired but both were all smiles. It’s a safe bet that they will be right there again next year. Fort Benton isn’t a big town, it has a population of about 1500, but it has a couple of guys with hearts the size of Montana.