WEST FORK – When most people build something that they want to be proud to display, they try to make a statement of some sort.
But Kirby Matthew isn’t most people.
As team leader of the U.S. Forest Service’s Region 1 Historical Preservation Team, Matthew has spent decades doing everything in his power to preserve the historical fabric of all sorts of structures so they can be enjoyed by generations to come.
All through the years, he’s always worked in the shadow of those who came before.
“Our statement is that when we’re done, people can’t tell we made a statement,” Matthew said, while taking a break from work on a historic building at the Bitterroot Forest’s West Fork District. “We try to maintain the craftsmanship of the original builders.”
In April, Matthew’s efforts were honored on a national stage when the Society for History in the Federal Government awarded him its annual John Wesley Powell Prize for outstanding achievement in the field of historic preservation.
“Throughout your career at the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, you have worked to stabilize, rehabilitate and restore historic lookouts, cabins, ranger stations, mine sites and other buildings across the United States on federal lands,” the award committee’s announcement read. “Your focus on teaching preservation skills to federal employees is a great model for all federal cultural resources staff.
“For all the amazing restoration work, training others in rustic skills, and spreading the historic preservation enthusiasm and ethic during your career for the federal government, you deserve the Powell Prize for Historic Preservation Projects.”
Rubbing shoulders with historians, archivists and other Beltway bound officials at the awards ceremony in April was an interesting experience for someone who spent most of his life in the woods working on buildings more than a half century old.
As far as he could tell, it was the first time the award had ever been presented to a Forest Service employee.
Bitterroot National Forest historian Mary Williams isn’t surprised by that news. She knows firsthand just how few people in the agency are focused solely on historic preservation.
“We’re the only region in the Forest Service to have a historic preservation team,” Williams said. “They end up working all over the country for both the Forest Service and the BLM.”
That team consists of Matthews and Cathy Bickenheuser.
“The whole heritage program is small even when you put together everyone from the private, state and federal sectors,” Williams said. “We are a close-knit community.”
And many in that community – including Williams – have learned a great deal over the years about historical preservation of buildings from Matthew.
“He’s a terrific person to work with,” Williams said. “There are a lot of Forest Service retirees who have the kinds of skills you need to do important historical restoration work. Kirby works right alongside them while teaching anyone who listen everything he knows.”
Most of the people who win the awards back East are those making policy or doing important archival research or running training centers.
Williams said the people who wrote this nomination titled it: “The Career of Kirby Matthew.”
“We’ve just been very fortunate that there were people here with the foresight and wisdom to create the regional team,” she said. “We’ve also been fortunate that Kirby was here to lead it up.”
Matthew can’t say for sure just how many historic buildings he’s worked on over the years. His best guess would put it somewhere between 300 and 350.
With retirement looming in the near future for Matthew, there are a lot of historic buildings in the region that will never receive his caring touch.
“I’ve told people that I could have made it to nearly every historical building when I started my career 40 years ago,” he said. “Back then, there were less than 200 buildings that were 50 years or older.”
Today, there are 1,200.
When you’ve put your mark on as many buildings as Matthew, people do start to take notice of just how you made things work.
“When I first began doing this, I had a lot of interest in the craftsmanship of my elders,” Matthew said. “It’s kind of odd to be in the situation now where people are starting to take a hard look at my craftsmanship.”
The best part for Matthew is he knows he’s made a difference for the people who spend time on public lands.
“One of the really nice things about all of this is that we invite people to use most of these buildings that we work on,” he said. “We want people to see what it’s like to sleep in a bed surrounded by history or to cook in the kitchen and enjoy a meal there.”
“It offers people a chance to have a little deeper experience,” Matthew said. “Some people will understand the history they are experiencing and others will think it’s just a neat old cabin that they’re staying in.”
“It’s always been our intent to let people experience history,” he said. “That’s one thing that makes it all worthwhile.”