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Independence Day at Fort Missoula started with a very important moment for 87-year-old Missoula native Warren Little: his induction into the Sons of the American Revolution, whose members trace their lineage back to the founding of the nation.

“My great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War along with his two brothers. My dad was in World War I, I was the Korean War and my son is a Vietnam vet,” Little said.

A Missoula native, Little spent most of his life in California working as an FBI agent before returning to the area when he retired.

“I couldn’t get back to Montana fast enough,” he said.

Because his great-aunt was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Little knew he would qualify for membership, but that didn’t stop him from decades of research to push his family history back farther.

“It’s been a 50-year genealogical search. I started looking into it at the Library of Congress back in the '70s,” Little said. “I just had an interest in how far back I could trace the Littles. I’m back to 1741 now.”

While the Missoula chapter of SAR is relatively new, president Don Murphy said the state branch is one of the most active in the country, and dates to 1894.

“It’s growing because more people are starting to understand because of their ancestry and how they can get involved,” he said.

Murphy delivered the oath to Little on Wednesday, swearing him in as a “descendant of one of the patriot heroes of the American Revolution.” Little’s son-in-law Bart Bauer pinned the rosette of blue and buff — the colors of George Washington — onto Little’s lapel.

The ceremony ended with a reenactment of the enlistment process during the Revolutionary War, with Missoula SAR chapter secretary Francis Weigand pressing a 1745 silver shilling — originally minted under the reign of King George II — into Little’s palm as his first “payment” for service, then delivering his first salute.

“It is indeed an honor,” Little said. “It’s a grand organization. They do good work and I hope in my remaining days I can help.”

***

In keeping with tradition of Independence Day at Fort Missoula, a team from the Society of American Foresters started up the 1916 J.I. Case steam engine that powers the sawmill’s blade for a demonstration.

James Maxwell manned the controls, building up to the 80 pounds of pressure needed to drive the blade.

“My first experience with this engine was when I was about 10 years old. It was at the fair, and they let me blow the whistle. I just kept coming back and now I’m up here,” he said.

At the front of the engine, Mike Seitz used a brush on a long rod to clean out the flues at the other end of the boiler, with each stroke pulling out thick yellow pitch from the burning wood.

“All that soot and stuff reduces the heat transfer and makes this whole thing less efficient,” Seitz said.

Nearby, Dan Job — who collects tractors — did circles in an open field aboard his 1920 International Harvester Titan, its nearly 100-year-old iron oxidized to a dull brown.

“Sometimes it’s finicky,” Job said, adding that to start the machines requires him to lubricate the engine by hand. “It’s been taken care of. I baby it.”

Families gathered to watch the pieces of machinery, with a few stopping by a table from the Western Montana Exploration and Mining Association, where Bruce Cox helped 4-year-old Liam Ellenbecker hunt for gemstones.

After screening a bag of earth from the Gem Mountain Area near Philipsburg through water, Cox spread it out on a board and showed Ellenbecker how to use a pair of tweezers to pick out a half-dozen pieces of sapphire from among the stones.

“Just keep at it, look for the little bits of glinting in the sunlight and that’s them,” Cox said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.