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Windbag Tales


I think that most people who go to the Windbag Saloon do so to say that they ate in a former brothel. Don't get me wrong, the food is good, but it's really the notoriety that draws customers. The Windbag operated as a brothel, first under Ida Levy, and then under "Big Dorothy" Parker. The police finally closed the brothel in 1973, but before that Big Dorothy was much loved figure in Helena. Last time I was in Helena, I heard a story related to Big Dorothy's.

Apparently Ida had quite a sense of humor. One winter she went out and bought a whole bunch of yellow ties. Whenever Helena's most prominent citizens visited her establishment the Madame would take them aside and ply their ear, tell them that they were her favorite customer, etc. etc. Then she would present them with a beautiful yellow tie and ask them if, as a special favor to her, they would wear it to the New Years' Eve ball. According to the teller of the tale, when New Years' rolled around, half of Helena's most important residents showed up to the Civic Center doors sporting brand new yellow ties.

Last August, Ellen Baumler wrote two excellent articles about Ida Levy and Big Dorothy on her blog and she included a similar story, which I realized only after I had written this piece.




Ivan Doig's Prairie Nocturne


Admittedly, most of Ivan Doig's Prairie Nocturne  takes place beyond the scope of this blog-largely in the far-flung reaches of New York and Central Montana's Rocky Mountain Front-but I couldn't pass up an excuse to reread it.  With my sincerest apologies to Whistling Season, I think that Prairie Nocturne is Doig's best work.  For one thing, his ornately literary voice lends itself much better to third person than first.  For another, the book contextualizes Montana in the larger world of the 1920s, an era I find fascinating.  

Prairie Nocturne could be described as the story of Monty Rathburn, a black choreboy on the Double W ranch with an inspired voice and an eye for bettering himself.  It could equally by described as the story of Susan Duff, the prickly vocal teacher and daughter of pioneers who takes Monty under her wing.  Susan played a minor role as a schoolgirl in Dancing at the Rascal Fair, neatly dovetailing Prairie Nocturne with Doig's English Creek Trilogy (English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride with Me Mariah, Montana).   It might even be described as the story of Wes Williamson, part owner of the Double W whose aspirations for the ranch seem to encompass all the vastness of the Montana plains.  All this and more, Prairie Nocturne ranges over topics the way Williamson cattle range over land.  Suffrage, Prohibition, Harlem in the '20s, and the Great War all lend their tales to the book.  Nearer to home, Doig addresses cattle barons and cavalry, the railroad and honyonkers, drought and the Klu Klux Klan, and-ever his strongest suit-the battle to carve a living from the unforgiving Montana land.

Perhaps most importantly, enough of the story concerns Helena for me to justify a post on the book.  However, come to think of it, most of the action in Helena is turning point and climax, and I'm loath to give anything away.  I suppose you'll just have to read Prairie Nocturne on your next visit.    




Elephant Graveyard
I ran across this post on the Montana Moments blog the other day, it’s too absurd to pass up.  Here it is in my own words:

A white board fence blocks off a square of earth at Dillon’s Beaverhead County Fairgrounds.  The fence encloses a small tree and a square of granite.  The granite memorial reads:  “PITT – Killed on this spot by lightning Aug. 6, 1943 while showing with Cole Bros. Circus.  Last of the John Robinson herd of Military Elephants.  May God bless her.”

Yes, the Beaverhead County Fairgrounds doubles as an elephant graveyard—with an occupancy of one.  Around the turn of the century John Robinson’s Military Elephants formed the largest domestic elephant herd in the world.  However, the financial panic of 1919 forced Robinson to sell the majority of his herd to the Ringling Bros.  Robinson didn’t sell the four oldest.  Instead, they lived out their retirement at his farm in Terrance Park, Ohio.  Robinson died in 1942, and his widow gave the last remaining elephant, Petite (nicknamed Pitt) to the Cole Bros. circus.  By then, Pitt was 100 years old.

The Cole Bros. toured the country, and on August 6, 1943, they stopped at Dillon for a one night show.  The elephants had just finished their act when a thunderstorm came up.  The elephants huddled together.  A clap of thunder and flash of lightning left the other elephants and their handler stunned, and Pitt dead.  The circus performers and townspeople held a funeral and buried the 102 year old pachyderm.  The next year, when the circus was back in town, a granite marker was laid at the foot of the grave, where it sits to this day.

I found this story at, but it also shows up on and in Montana Curiosities:  Quirky characters, roadside oddities & other offbeat stuff by Ednor Therriault.




The Dead Bring History Alive
Even the ghosts at Bannack talk about history. That is the lesson learned from this year's hugely successful Bannack Ghost Walks. Throughout the month of October, guides led groups of visitors on nighttime tours of Montana's first gold rush town. Perfectly normal. Except for the ghosts. The past residents of Bannack wandered the streets once again (OK, they were volunteers in period garb and pale faces, but on dark misty night…). Some meandered through the crowd of onlookers, others had stories to tell. Stories of when they lived in the town. The intent wasn't so much to scare as it was to present the history of Bannack in a new and interesting way. Even so, some of the monologues-like the crazed ramblings of Henry Plummer-were spine chilling.

Most people probably know the history of Bannack-how a group of "Pike's Peakers" discovered gold in Grasshopper Creek, how the discovery spurred Montana's first gold rush, only to be eclipsed the next year by the gold around Virginia City. Most people also know that Bannack was Montana's first territorial capital. And people should know about the Vigilantes who rounded up Sheriff Henry Plummer's gang of highway robbers and hung them. The Ghost Walks, however, tell a slightly different story. They tell the smaller, more personal stories of Bannack. The Ghost Walks address the little details, the people that fall through the cracks. It's a macabre and spine tingling evening to be sure, after all, it's a tour of a ghost town in October. But it is also a historical evening. I recently read an interview with Lucy Pick, an historian and author, in which she mentioned the difference between writing history and historical fiction: When you write history, you look for the broad implications and questions, and you can gloss over the small details. When you write historical fiction, you need all of those small details, and it is the small details that make the past really come alive. The Bannack Ghost Walks are certainly an event that makes the past come alive. The Walks are done this year, but they'll be back next year, just in time for Halloween. Congratulations to all of the volunteers that made the Walks such a success this year.




Take a Tour in Butte
I am a big proponent of parking the car and simply wandering through a town's downtown (or in the case of Butte, uptown) district, impulsively buying snacks along the way. In Montana, where even the biggest downtowns are only a few blocks square, this works out quite well. Even so, it is nice to have an orientation to the town before you begin your wanderings. This is why I like tours. A tour will never replace semi-aimless wandering, but when added to a long wandering session, can produce amazing results. Butte offers not one but three ways to orient yourself in the city.

The cheapest and probably most common option is the Old No. 1 Trolley. This two hour tour takes you around the uptown, pointing out important landmarks such as the Berkley Pit, The World Museum of Mining, and Joe's Pasty Shop. The driver/guides are well versed in Butte lore, and provide an excellent overview of the city's history. In addition, the tour provides a good overview of the city's geography, which can be extremely helpful and prevent you from driving around for forty five minutes looking for a place to eat a pasty. The tour includes a stop at the Berkley Pit viewing stand.

For a more detailed and intimate look at Butte, two private companies also operate in the town. Founded by Butte's former Historic Preservation Officer, Butte Urban Safari Tours (B.U.S.T.) offers custom tours for up to 10 people at a time. B.U.S.T.'s guides come with a wealth of information about the town, but no scripted tour, instead each tour is fluid and dynamic, adapting to the tour takers. B.U.S.T.'s use of six person electric golf carts allows the tours to access places-like Butte's many colorful alleyways-inaccessible to buses.

For those who would rather stretch their legs, Old Butte Walking Tours offer hour and a half long walking tours of the mining city. The company has a number of standard tours but also gladly customizes, offering ghostwalks, evening, and underground tours. Many of the company's guides also take part in Butte's annual historical recreations, and all have a deep passion for the city.




Boulder Hot Springs is a really cool place!
Boulder Hot Springs Inn and Conference Center perches halfway up a hill three miles from Boulder. More than forty hot springs bubble to the surface on the property, reaching from 140 to 170 degrees. Water from the springs fill the swimming pool, steam rooms and plunges, and heats the entire hotel, greenhouse and chicken coop. The Inn is a century old building, built in the Mission Revival style, with curving baroque gables, adobe walls, red roofs, and a long, beautiful veranda, supported by arching pillars and populated by wooden rocking chairs. During the first half of the twentieth century, it was a hopping tourist destination, luring, among others, both Roosevelt Presidents and Warren Harding. It continued as Boulder's main attraction into the sixties. However, by the time Anne Wilson Schaef bought the property in 1989, the place was a disaster. Time, weather, vandals, and woodland creatures had done a number on the interior, and leaking pipes had developed into a full-blown waterfall.

Today, only a series of glossy black-and-white photos bear witness to former decrepitude (awesome word) of the Inn. The thirty-some rooms have been restored and refurbished with brass bedsteads and turn-of-the-century fixtures. The original lobby and dining room have also been restored and turned into a beautiful conference and retreat center. Twelve of the rooms are Bed and Breakfast rooms. They are the largest rooms, include a full bathroom, and come with a delicious breakfast every morning. The remaining guest rooms offer a cheaper (but no less comfortable) stay. They don't come with breakfast and each floor shares shower facilities. The focal point of the Inn is the bathhouse, which includes a dining room, a well-appointed lobby, massage facilities, and plunges. The bathhouse maintains its turn-of-the-century design with separated men's and women's sides. Then men's side includes a steam room and hot pool. The women's side contains a steam room, a hot pool, and a cold pool. The Inn also includes an outdoor co-ed swimming pool. The inn sits on 250 acres of land bordering the Deerlodge National forest, offering countless hiking and strolling possibilities.

A metal sculpture by New York artist Frederick Franck sits on a hill overlooking the Hot Springs. Named "Seven Generations," the sculpture expressed the Iroquois tradition that any decision must take into account how it will affect the seven generations to come. The Hot Springs took this notion as one of their guiding principles. To that end, they feed the kitchen scraps to their chickens, and use the chicken manure as compost. The greenhouse includes herbs, kale, tomatoes, and even a fig tree. Dotted here and there around the property are fruit trees and herb patches. The same water used to heat the rooms gets piped through the greenhouse and the chicken coop. They locally source as much food as they can, and have worked hard to make the Inn a place of rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation.




Taking a Trip to Tizer Gardens

When you go to Tizer Gardens, it is worth knowing what you're getting into. You can go knowing nothing about the place and have a really good time. But if you know facts then your enjoyment turns to wonder. Tizer Gardens is the only full time operating Botanic Garden & Internationally Accredited Arboretum in the region. They have over 500 different types of perennials, 450 different conifers, and 500 different deciduous trees. They are the northernmost testing ground for the Plant Select program and one of the testing grounds for the All American program. Every few seconds as we wandered through the garden, owner Richard Krott would pause to point out another rare plant from Siberia or South Africa or Turkistan or countless other countries, including some extremely rare plants native to Montana. But you don't necessarily think about all that as you wander through their gardens. Mostly the thoughts that float through your mind have more abstract themes like "lovely," "beautiful," "peaceful," and "serene." The flowers, shrubs, and trees offer a riot of colors whatever the season. We went last weekend, and frankly I was a little worried that we had missed the peak time. But, as Richard will tell you, all times are the best times to go. The gardens start blooming in early spring, and keep up the pace until Tizer closes in October. There were even, to my surprise, flowers that only really start to flourish after the first freeze. Each season brings something new to the Gardens. They weren't as green and full and flower-filled on our visit as they are during the summer, but between the late-blooming flowers and the changing leaves, the place was simply exquisite. I'm pretty sure you could go there constantly and find something different. There are so many strange and unique plants. If you get the chance, mention your favorites to owners Richard and Belva. They can provide endless information about each of the rare and exotic plants in their collection.  They love Montana, they love Prickly Pear Creek, and most of all they love their plants.  

But hurry! They are planning to close for the season on October 19th.




Chinese in Montana

A large mural occupies one end of the barrel vault window in the Montana state capital. The picture represents the driving of the final spike of the northern pacific railroad. Ulysses S Grant stands in the front, wielding a sledgehammer. Several proud businessmen flank him. Typical Montana types fill out the rest of the painting-prosperous cowboys, miners, an army officer, Indians. The painting, as Ellen Baumler, Montana Historical Society's Interpretive Historian, points out, doesn't tell the whole truth. "Absent, however, are those who actually did the work laying the tracks across Montana: the Irish, the Chinese, and other laborers."

It's not at all uncommon to see official commemorations ignoring the Chinese presence in Montana. By now, however, it should be pretty common knowledge that Chinese labor was instrumental in the construction of the railroads. Chinese laborers came in droves to help build the railroad, but their presence in the area goes back much further. Like others in California and Utah, the Chinese followed the gold strikes into the Montana territory. Unlike the other miners, they couldn't stake a claim. Some Chinese crews found work combing over sites already mined and abandoned by American miners. The fact that many managed to make a decent living no doubt contributed to the growing prejudice against the Chinese. Most Chinese however, took periphery jobs. They became launderers, grocers, and druggists. Some, like Dr. Huie Pock, became relatively influential. They were always, however, treated as second-class residents. During Butte's heyday, between one and two thousand Chinese lived in the city, operating hundreds of businesses. Unions and management alike, however, refused to allow the Chinese to work at the mines. Montana's Chinese population declined into the 20th Century as a result of stringent immigration laws and anti-Chinese sentiment. Today, Butte's once thriving Chinatown is mostly vacant, and Helena's doesn't exist at all.

Huie Pock, second from left, and his son, on the stool. From

In fact China's most enduring legacy in Montana is a myth: the myth of the Chinese tunnels. Most of the state's downtown areas have some sort of tunnel system, which came to be called "Chinese tunnels," in the assumption of some sort of clandestine Chinese plot. Outlandish legends abound, much to the frustration of Ellen Baumler and others. In fact, many businesses (Chinese and non-Chinese) operated out of basements, and many buildings had extensive underground vaults simply because rent was cheaper. Many of the tunnels connecting businesses were steam tunnels. Miners of all ethnicities no doubt dug many tunnels under the streets of mining towns, some of which probably still exist. Historians agree, nothing in these tunnels distinguish them as Chinese. And yet the legends persist.

The Mai Wah Society in Butte celebrates the actual legacy of the Chinese in Montana with very impressive museum displays in Butte's Mai Wah building. They also celebrate the Chinese New Year with fireworks and a parade each February. The beautiful silk dragon, the centerpiece of the parade, was a gift from the people of Taiwan to the Mai Wah in 1998. Montana's connections to China will no doubt grow in the coming years. Last winter longtime Montana senator Max Baucus was appointed ambassador to China. Recently he was instrumental in welcoming a Montana trade delegation to the country.  If you want more information about the Chinese in Montana, the bookstore at the Mai Wah Museum has an excellent selections of publications.




Not All Who Wander are Lost: Uptown Butte on Foot without a Plan
On my recent trips to Butte, I went to some cool museums, took fun tours, and ate delicious food. I also spent a lot of time just wandering around. The activities are fun for sure, but there is something very alluring about just wandering around a place, looking at things.
Butte has an air of dilapidated grandeur. Ornate Victorian mansions and elaborate brick buildings give testimony to the wealth and diversity that once passed through the streets. Peeling paint and boarded windows bear witness the present reality-a city of 30,000 built for a population three times as large.









Butte is a city with a future. A vibrant culture and famous festivals keep Butte bustling. But as I walked around I couldn't help taking pictures of old falling apart things. Because Butte is a city with a past, too.










I was struck by the number of painted-on advertisements that the buildings had. Many businesses still sported these long-out-of-date billboards, a beautiful reminder of the city's past.




Some of the old buildings have found new uses. The Copper King Mansion, once the home of Copper King W.A. Clark now serves as a bread-and-breakfast.









At the Jailhouse Coffee, baristas serve espresso in Butte's first official jail and city hall.










Others have served the same purpose ever since they were built. Built in 1903, the B'nai Israel Temple has served Butte's Reformed Jewish population for over 100 years, making it the building in the longest continuous use for any congregation in the state.










Whatever their stories, the buildings in historic Uptown Butte serve as powerful ways to experience the past and present of the richest hill on earth.






Butteā€™s Asian Treasure Trove: The Mai Wah
Once a bustling Chinatown, today only a few crumbling brick buildings sit on the block of Mercury Street between Colorado and Main in Uptown Butte. Two of those, the Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai, house almost all of the remnants from the street's Chinese past. Built in 1899, the Wah Chong Tai was the nucleus of Butte's Chinatown. The building contained a mercantile with imported Chinese goods, an herbal shop and a noodle parlor. In addition, the building served as an unofficial bank, post office, community bulletin board, and meeting space. The Mai Wah, built in 1909, served a similar purpose, with a noodle parlor upstairs and a series of stalls selling various goods on the ground floor. At the time, between 400 and 1,000 Asians lived in Butte, almost all of them in the two blocks that made up the city's Chinatown. Excluded from the underground mining operations, most Chinese worked on the periphery-laundries, tailors, noodle parlors, and truck gardens. In 1914, Butte contained at least 62 Chinese businesses.

Today, very little remains of this vibrant Asian population. Across China Alley, fronting Main, the Pekin Noodle Parlor continues to serve soupy bowls of noodles. Besides that, the Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai sit in a largely desolate part of town, mostly overlooked by tourists. Inside, the two buildings contain a treasure trove of artifacts curated by the Mai Wah Society. The Mai Wah building houses a small museum quality display of Butte's Chinese history, a reproduction of a Chinese doctor's office, a reproduction of a Chinese shrine, and a small gift shop. In the Wah Chong Tai building, the sunlight filters over precarious stacks of baskets and boxes. Packages tied in brown paper elegantly labeled with Chinese characters fill the display cases. Containers of dried herbs, fireworks, and signs in Chinese fill the walls. The furniture and merchandise in the Wah Chong Tai building are all originals, salvaged from the store in the 1940s. Upstairs, where the noodle parlors used to be, visitors can access three rooms. One contains a museum display of the Chin family, the owners of the buildings. The second contains displays about the Mai Wah Society, including artifacts (mostly porcelain shards) uncovered in Society sponsored excavations, and-the crème de la crème-an elegant silk dragon given to the Society by the people of Taiwan, and used in the annual Chinese New Year parade. The Society has done very little work on the third room, which was the noodle parlor kitchen and still contains the stove, noodle drain, ice box and other implements used until the parlor shut down in the 1940s.

When people think of Butte, they usually think of the underground mining, the Irish, and the scores of other European nationalities that made the city such a colorful place. When people visit Butte today, they often go to the World Museum of Mining, the Mineral Museum, and other such places, but they often overlook the Mai Wah, and the two blocks of the once thriving Chinatown. These other places tell important pieces of Butte's history, and are definitely worth putting on an itinerary, but don't make the mistake of overlooking the Mai Wah. These two old brick buildings tell one of the most fascinating and important chapters of Butte's story, a chapter too often overlooked.

For more information, visit I also found a really interesting article about the Mai Wah and the New Year parade in the 2012 Winter edition of the Montana Magazine, called "Uptown Chinatown," but I have been unable to find a copy of that article online.


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