EAST HELENA — During World War II, the mountains near Rimini played host to a specialized group of soldiers, training hundreds of sled and pack dogs for military use. Later this year, there will be a new marker commemorating that history – thanks to some help from East Helena teens.
Last week, 15 welding students at East Helena High School were hard at work in the shop, putting together a metal frame that will eventually hold a historical display about the Camp Rimini War Dog Reception and Training Center.
“We’re building a pavilion, just so people can go and see the history of what happened there and do all that stuff,” said Kaeben Bushnell, an EHHS junior. “It’s a pretty cool site to go hang out at.”
Students cut out metal brackets using a computer-controlled plasma cutting table, and they welded baseplates onto the large metal columns.
Teacher Casey Harris says he’d been looking for a community project for his students to work on.
“We would like to do as much community work as we can,” he said. “The students really enjoy it, and it’s a great way for them to be able to see their work out in town and have their name tied to something.”
Harris’ father serves on an honor guard with Dave Cogley, a volunteer at the Montana Military Museum. That’s where the idea of collaborating on a Camp Rimini marker got started.
Camp Rimini was originally built as a Civilian Conservation Corps facility in the 1930s. Then, from 1942 to 1944, it became one of several US Army dog training centers. Because of its snow conditions and mountainous terrain, it specialized in preparing sled and pack dogs and their handlers. Hundreds of dogs were eventually put to military duty, for everything from hauling equipment to recovering downed Allied pilots in areas like Greenland and northern Canada.
Today, all that remains of the camp is a few foundations near the Moose Creek Campground. There is a display at the Montana Military Museum at Fort Harrison, including historic photos and sleds like the ones these teams would have used. Much of it came from Dave Armstrong, a well-known local veteran who served in the Camp Rimini dog training program and continued working with dog teams throughout the war. He helped preserve and share the history of Camp Rimini, and he also became one of the founders of the Race to the Sky sled dog race.
Armstrong died last year at the age of 100. Ray Read, director of the Montana Military Museum, says that makes it more important than ever to create a permanent reminder of the dog training program.
“We felt that he had brought so much forward to tell the story that it was important for us to create a legacy,” he said.
Read says they have been working to put together a historic marker at the site of Camp Rimini for decades. Recently, the US Forest Service helped them find a site near the campground, where Cogley has already poured a concrete pad. The museum came up with a design. Harris then had his students figure out what materials they would need and how much it would cost, and the museum staff ordered the materials.
Read says the collaboration with EHHS has been a great help.
“What they’re doing here, they’re giving us a resource that we can’t find,” he said.
Last week, Read and Cogley visited the classes to share some of the history of Camp Rimini, including showing archival footage from the dogs’ training.
“I appreciate their knowledge, their interest in this process,” Read said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group.”
“I thought it was very interesting,” said Bushnell. “It’s really cool that it happened up in Rimini – somewhere so close and local.”
Once the classes finish their work, the metal columns will be powder coated to give them a long-lasting protective finish. Read says the plan now is to install the project at the Camp Rimini site once the weather gets better. They hope to hold an official dedication sometime this spring.
“I just want them to be able to really understand the history and just have a good place to see what happened up there,” Bushnell said.
You can find out more about Camp Rimini and the war dog program at the Montana Military Museum. It’s open on Thursdays from 9 am to 4 pm, and at other times by request. Because it is on Fort Harrison, visitors must bring a photo ID to gain access.