In 2004, I received a call from Bob Brown, then Museum director and asked if I wanted to take a trip to Hamilton to look at a potential project. 


The Hamilton Fairgrounds were going to tear down a Tipi burner.  This tipi burner was originally used at the S&W Sawmill in Conner, Montana, and moved to the Ravalli County Fairgrounds in Hamilton, Montana until 1973. They used it a display building for some of their exhibits. But Tipi burners were never weatherproof and leaked on all of their collections. They fiber glassed the dome to shed the water, but every joint of the 55’ tall, 18-sided building leaked. Tipi burners were once plentiful in the Missoula Valley, being used by sawmills to burn waste from milling operations. The Clean Air Act and new technologies turning wood waste into pressboard and paper led to the end of the tipi burners in the 1970s.


Tipi burners, or wigwam burners, were named for their resemblance to the Native American tipi. At one time they covered the Montana skyline, with 11 towers in the Missoula Valley alone. Constructed at sawmills, these 45-55-foot structures were used to burn sawdust and other by-products from the milling process. The use of tipi burners ended with the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.


With no Tipi burners left in the Missoula valley, this had to be saved, but realized the amount of work ahead of us.


I asked Van Neilson who was a road building contractor and D&G Crane (Mike and Harold Davis) if they’d be interested in helping move it. All involved knew of the lost history of these and this last one needed to be saved.


D&G brought down their crane and a lift basket. First was to remove the 23’ and 15’ tall dome. It had a loop of cable from moving it from Conner. After unbolting it, it came off fairly easily. Next was the eighteen 40’ panels. We put “eye-bolts” in the top of each panel and hooked all 18 to the cranes hook. We went round and around unbolting the hundreds of bolts holding the 18 panels together. When the last bolts were out, we lifted all 18 panels and gently laid them down. Tipi burners and like an egg, they depend of the sides of the building for its strength. The panels are no more than some 2” angle iron and some 1/8” sheet metal. Being 40’ long, we needed to lift them in two places so they wouldn’t buckle. We stacked them on a lowboy and brought them to the museum.


The dome was another issue. It was 23’ across and 15’ tall. Once on a truck, way over height. We contracted with a house mover and they moved it in one piece. The power and phone company went along with us up the old highway lifting lines over the dome as we went. They had a pole from the truck over the dome so any lines that did hit, would roll up and over the dome. There was one set of wires that did not clear and I remember seeing the two power poles on either side of the highway start to bend inwards…NOT GOOD. Then at the last minute, the wire sprung free and the poles went whipping back into place. We even had a police escort once we his Lolo and they blocked all the intersections so the truck never had to stop.



We poured a slab of cement just big enough to sit a panel on so we could straighten and repair any damaged parts. With 12,000 pounds of sand, we sandblasted the outside of the panels. We painted all of the panels and the dome. Trying to figure out what color to paint the dome, we thought these glowed in the dark, so why not paint it like it’s glowing. I took a rosebud torch and heated up a piece of metal and tried to match the colors of that glowing piece of steel. It was close, but that’s why the colors on the dome. We bolted two panels together so we’d be able to lift two at a time. Being very careful not to bend them.


Being in Missoula City limits, the city made us get an architectural stamped drawing for the Tipi burner and design an 18 sided, 4’ deep foundation. Luckily, I had worked with a local mechanical firm on bridges for my work and they designed and stamped a set of drawings for our building permit. I’ve done a fair amount of building, including foundations, but never a 18 sided building. Being 18 sided, all of the corners were 200 so not too bad. We were able to build the plywood forms and ready for the cement.


What was a two-year project all came down to a weekend in the fall of 2006. Again, Van Neilson and his crew and D&G crane were there to put it back together. That week I received a call from the Local Ironworkers union and they said they had heard about us putting up a steel structure. I though, oh crap, but they were a great asset. Turns out, as the Ironworkers work their way up through the ranks, they have to donate time to the community. The handful of ironworkers that weekend was fantastic help! Once they saw what needed, they jumped right in. This weekend was the culmination of two years work. The week before was like thanksgiving dinner, weeks of planning and all done in 20 minutes. 


We had to plan on how to guyback the panels as they were stood up, all new bolts, man lifts, hundreds of feet of cable to guy back the panels. The first few panels up fairly easily, and guyed them back. We continued to work our way around, and welding the panels to the foundation as we went. All day long, I feared a gust of wind and two years of work would go flying off into the sawmill. Luckily it stayed calm, but by late afternoon, we were 2 panels short, but everyone was beat, so we buttoned it up, crossed our fingers for no wind that night and started again the next morning. The last two panels went in with a little nudge, but finally it was a complete circle. Crews came behind us and tightened up the hundreds of new bolts in all of the 18 panels.


The dome went on way better than I had ever imagined. I was afraid we were out of round and the dome wouldn’t fit right. We all got up on the cat walk with prybars and the crane lowered in down. It slid right into place. Some final bolts and it was complete.


We could not have done this without all the companies, Iron Workers, D&G Crane and all the volunteers.


In the summer, we’ll be working at the museum and start to hear the bag pipers inside the burner. They love the way the sound resonates off the inside of the burner.