Butte’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 maiwah.org. 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.
Exploring Butte's Pasties
Miners called them "letters from home" and what beautifully written letters they were. Packaged in pastry envelopes and containing nothing save beef, cubed potatoes, salt, pepper, and perhaps, the merest hint of an onion, there could be no better letter from home. The miners would take pasties to lunch with them. Without sauce, the pies made little mess, and the miners could hold onto the crimped crust of the pastry pocket, keeping the rest of the food clean. In the rest of the world, the Cornish are most famous for their pasties. In Butte, the beef pies mostly get associated with the Irish. Whatever the origin, pasties quickly became a Butte staple. They were the perfect workman's food-cheap, hearty, portable, and delicious.
My first Butte pasty came from the Park Street Pasty. Today, many people put gravy on their pasties, but I ate it in the traditional manner-unadorned and slightly warm. I must admit I was a little bit unsure of the whole thing. It seemed like the kind of food that deserved gravy. I was worried that it would be dry, and maybe a little bland. My first few bites seemed to confirm my suspicions, but the more I ate it the more I enjoyed it. The flavors were subtle and simple, but they were made for each other. The beef and the potatoes, accompanied by the merest hint of onion create a symphony of flavor in your mouth.
The next time I needed a meal in Butte, I went to Joe's Pasty Shop. There, in the name of research, I ordered my pasty warm with gravy. I found, and I am still shocked to see these words on the page, that I preferred my pasty without gravy. Don't get me wrong, the gravy covered pasty was delicious, but the gravy overwhelmed some of the subtler flavors in the beef and potatoes. That being said, however, it was a pretty warm day. I can imagine that on a cold, blustery day when the snow drifts around the streets, cutting into a piping hot pasty covered in steaming brown gravy would be just about the most comforting experience in the world.
Top Things to Do in SouthWest Montana this Fall
I have a hard time thinking of September as fall. The days are still warm and sunny. Plants are still green, and the world has not yet been invaded by pumpkin spice masquerading as a legitimate flavor. But. Fall is coming. The crispness will turn to coldness. The leaves will turn to orange. You will regret your decision not to bring a jacket. You must take measures to prepare yourself for the crisp fall air, the rioting fall colors, and the profusion of gourds (Oh! The Humanity!), and the flood of cider. This year, I'm not quite sure how I feel about the coming of fall, I was really enjoying summer. But then I started thinking about all the things there are to do in SouthWest Montana during the fall, and I started to get excited:
Fishing: Fall means fewer anglers and more aggressive fish. Make sure to check the weather before you go, though, fall weather can be finicky.
Hot Springs: Fall is a great time to hit up one of southwest Montana's many hot springs. The crisp fall weather will make you relish the hot springs even more. And fall adds a different dimension to the scenery around the springs.
Fall Festivals: Summer may be peak festival time, but there are still plenty of fall themed festivals to choose from. Including the Butte-toberfest, Townsend's Fall Festival, Tizer Garden's Scarecrow Fest and many more.
Hunting: With SouthWest Montana's diverse terrain, fall offers the chance to hunt deer, antelope, elk, waterfowl and gamebirds.
Ghost Towns: Some of the buildings might be closed down for the winter, but visiting ghost towns in the fall-with the deciduous trees looming around you-makes it a far different experience from visiting in the heat of summer.
Animals-Many animals, including elk, move down to lower elevations during the fall, making your chances of spotting SWMT's many species all the better.
High School Sports: Nothing is quite the same as watching a high school football game, maybe while munching on a hamburger or a walking taco from the concession stand. With volleyball, soccer, and cross country going on too, there's something for everyone to enjoy.
Ghost Tours/Cemeteries: Bannack, Virginia City, Helena, and Butte all offer ghost tours during the fall. Or you can visit one of the region's many historic cemeteries for a slightly creepy twist on SouthWest Montana history.
Even if you're not sure how you feel about the end of summer, there are so many fun things happening in SouthWest Montana this fall you can't help but be excited for fall!
It is still summer in SouthWest Montana, but fall creeps closer and closer. This year I'm not at all looking forward to the shortening of the days and the cooling of the weather. If you like me, are lamenting the things still to be done this summer, take heart. Fall brings with it a host of new activities to occupy our time. Among those is fall fishing. During the fall, the fish get more active, hunting for food to bulk up for the cold months of winter. Some of the really big fish, the ones that had carefully hidden under rocks all summer, get careless, and are more likely to bite. Brown trout get more aggressive as they get ready for the spawn in November, and Rainbows flourish in the late season hatches.
What with bow and bird hunting, Saturday football games and the end of tourist season, the rivers in Montana are surprisingly empty. The days are cooler and crisper, which can make a nice change from the hot and mosquito-y days of summer, and the rivers of SouthWest Montana turn gold as the cottonwoods and willows change color. True, the peak fall fishing season is still a ways away, but it is better to make plans early, especially if you want a guide
. Many guides move on to different work after Labor Day when the summer season winds down.
Exploring Downtown Helena
One of the best ways to explore a town is to go to its downtown area (unless you're in Butte, in which case you should head uptown). Unique shops and delicious eateries buzz around downtowns like bees around a hive. However, sometimes, it takes a little bit of orientation to figure out downtown, and Helena has the perfect answer.
The tour train is one of the best ways to start a trip in Helena. I can't claim that it did a very good job orienting me geographically (leaving the trolley station, it took me 20 minutes to make the 4 minute drive between the capitol and the walking mall) but it does give a good sense of the scope of stories you can find in the Queen City. The hour-long tour takes visitors on a tour of the capitol, through the mansion district and into Last Chance Gulch. The guide points out the most interesting features on each block, telling the stories of the people who have lived there. At the most important (and photogenic) sites, the trolley slows down so that riders can take photos. The tour train works well as an introduction to the city, a way of figuring out what bits you want to see more of. It helps, too, that the train tickets acts a coupons at half a dozen downtown business, earning holders discounted souvenirs and free ice cream. The tour isn't a replacement for wandering around Helena on foot, but it is a good opener, a way to break the ice between you and the Queen City of the Rockies.
While you're in downtown Helena, there's one stop you can't miss. Begun in 1922, the Parrot Confectionary has been a Helena institution for over 90 years. In fact the store existed as soda fountain even earlier-in the 1910s-but after a change of ownership it reappeared in 1922 as one of Montana's premier confectionaries. The Parrot occupies part of the bottom floor of the historic Lalonde Building on Helena's walking mall. Today, the Parrot is famous not only for candies with recipes dating back to the 1920s, but also for its old-fashioned soda fountain, serving up delicious malts, milkshakes, homemade ice cream sundaes, ice cream sodas and flavored colas.
The first time we decided to walk through Helena's walking mall, we found our way blocked by a complete lack of people. Dark storefronts blankly watched us as we wandered down the street, narrowly avoiding a street sweeping machine and a worker with recycling. The shopkeepers, citizens and tourists of Helena apparently consider 9:30 am an unthinkable hour to venture forth into Last Chance Gulch. The whole thing reminded us eerily of our trip to Virginia City a year ago. Every morning my wife and I scramble to make it to work on time, and yet on vacation we regularly show up before the town has had a chance to turn itself on. You'd think we'd learn by now that 10:00 am is the universally acknowledged decent hour at which to begin touristing.
When we got there, the creek wasn't even running.
We have impeccably bad timing. Last year-on the same trip that we haunted V.C.-we tried to experience the nightlife in Ennis on a Monday night, to disastrously uneventful results. Hoping to avoid the same mistake, we headed to Helena on a Wednesday night, knowing that Helena's famous Alive @ Five would be sure to entertain, only to find that rain had pushed the band inside and driven the street vendors home. So really this morning was just following the trend of impeccably bad timing.
Fortunately the Placer Center hides a small coffee shop in its lobby. Said coffee shop-one Sweet & Savory by name-opens its doors in the very small of the night-the ungodly hour of 7:30 am, if you can believe it. Sweet & Savory serves green tea chai. Chai. Brewed with green tea. I hope this is a thing in other places because dear goodness is it amazing. Later in our trip we managed to experience all of the fun shops and unique history of Last Chance Gulch, but there was something incredibly satisfying about wandering through the deserted mall, sipping a new discovery, soothed by the whir of the street cleaners.
Adventures at the Gates of the Mountains
10:00 am, mid-June, the present:
Our intrepid blogger and wife leave the Helena Farmers' Market, navigating the unfamiliar streets of Helena.350 million years ago:
A cephalopod dies. Its body drifts through the shallow sea, finally settling in the thick mud of the sea floor. The sea recedes. The cephalopod and mud dry and harden, forming a layer of limestone as much as 2,000 feet thick. The rock heaves and buckles through volcanic, tectonic and glacial tumult. The Missouri river rushes through. 10:30 am, the present:
Having successfully (albeit slowly) navigated the Capital City's streets, our blogger turns onto I-15, headed north. They eat kettle corn purchased from the farmer's market. 1,300 years ago:
Using buffalo blood and red stone powder, a shaman draws intricate pictures on an outcropping of rock above the Missouri. Draw by the rugged, inaccessible beauty of the place, natives of the area will venture into the twisting canyon, in search of spiritual inspiration for the next thousand years and more. 11:00 am, the present:
Our intrepid blogger and his wife have turned off I-15, driven a few miles east and parked in the Gates of the Mountains parking lot. They purchase tickets for the noon boat tour. 209 years ago:
Meriweather enters the area, William Clark takes a small party on foot, and Lewis stays in the boats with the rest of the crew. He writes: This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the water's edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. Every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect. The tow[er]ing and projecting rocks in many places seem ready to tumble on us…it is deep from side to side nor is there in the 1st 3 miles of this distance a spot except one of a few yards in extent on which a man could rest the sole of his foot… from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains. 11:45 am, the present:
Our heroes wait patiently for the noon tour. They are patient people. 106 years ago:
Samuel Hauser begins construction on Holter Dam, downriver from the Gates of the Mountains. The dam is completed ten years later. It raises the water level but does not otherwise alter the canyon. Noon, the present:
Our intrepid heroes board the Canyon Voyager. They spend the next two hours hearing stories of the canyon, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Mann Gulch Fire, and the Hilgers who used to own the area. They see a bald eagle, merganser ducklings, a deer, and a vulture. They take pictures of rocks. They get, despite the application of sunscreen, slightly sunburnt. They have a delightful time, and later eat Wilcoxson's huckleberry ice cream sandwiches.
Perhaps the best advice you will ever receive: When hiking, be sure to bring along a 17 year-old high school soccer player. This way, if you and your party choose not to bring water and then a mile into your hike realize how bad a decision that was, you can send said soccer player running down the mountain to bring back some water bottles. Alternately, you could just remember your water bottle from the beginning.
Mount Helena City Park covers 620 acres on the edge of Helena. Trails crisscross the entire park. Some summit the mountain. Others connect with trails in the surrounding Helena National Forest. We took the "1906" trail. It makes sort of a spiral around Mount Helena, which makes it longer, but keeps it from being too steep. Don't be fooled by the "Powerline" trail. Even though it's really short, it goes straight up the face, and is absurdly steep. "1906," on the other hand, wends its way through open hillside and pine forest, and gives some really spectacular views of the city in the process. On the way down, I think we took "Hogback" and "Prospects Shafts." Neither had as much variety as 1906, but it was nice to make a loop instead of backtracking. The trails we took weren't terribly hard. They were just hard enough that at the end you knew you had been exercising. And the view from the top is absolutely worth it. We went in the middle of the morning on a humid overcast day, but it would make a beautiful early morning or close-to-sunset hike.
A post about the Post
People have been chronicling the doings of Montana for almost as long as Montana has been around. Montana became a territory in May, 1864, before that, it had been part of the Idaho Territory. By August of 1864, Montana had its own newspaper, the Montana Post. According to the Montana Historical Society, John Buchanan published four editions of the weekly paper before selling it to Daniel Tilton. Tilton hired Thomas Dimsdale to edit the paper. Under Dimsdale, the Post had its most successful run. During the vigilante era of 1863-64, Dimsdale's editorials waxed poetic about the nobility of the vigilante cause. In 1866 Dimsdale produced a series of articles about the vigilantes, which he compiled and published as Montana's first book, entitled The Vigilantes of Montana or Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains. Dimsdale died of tuberculosis in September of 1866.
courtesy of Bannack Association
As population and power shifted from Virginia City to Helena, so did the Post
. However, the Post
lasted only a year in Helena before its building was destroyed in an 1869 fire of the business district. After that, the newspaper divided into several different publications. During its existence, the Post was a highly divisive publication. At the time, Montana was a heavily Democrat area. During the Civil War, men in the border states, angry at their homes for siding with the Union, had headed for the Montana gold rush. After the war, Confederate soldiers, having nothing to return to in the South, had also headed toward Montana. In the midst of this anger and disillusionment, the Montana Post preached pro-Unionism and radical Republicanism.
Although not Montana's biggest newspaper, and probably not its best, the Montana Post
was the territory's first. It chronicles a unique era in the birth of Montana.
The Library of Congress has digital copies of the Post, they can be found under "related links" at chroniclingamerica.lo.gov/lccn/sn83025293
Tags: history, Virginia City, Helena, newspapers
What on earth does 3-7-77 mean?
Recently, Brian Dunning aired a piece on his blog Skeptoid discussing the Montana symbol 3-7-77. In it, Dunning covered much the same ground as anyone else who writes on the topic: the fact that the Montana Highway Patrol and other Montana institutions use the numbers in their logos, the five or so main theories, and Fredrick Allen's 2013 book A Decent, Orderly Lynching.
Beyond these, few facts exist to present.
As far as we can tell, the numbers have nothing to do with Montana's first, and most famous, Vigilantes. Thomas Dimsdale, the Vigilantes most vocal supporter, didn't mention the code in his 1865 book, and Nathaniel Langford, a prominent Montanan who participated in the first wave of vigilantism, said nothing on the subject in his 1890 book. As Allen pointed out, the uniquely Montana tag first appeared in 1879, and wasn't directly connected to a lynching until 1885. For about forty years, the code appeared fairly regularly, in situations ranging from shooing vagrants out of downtowns to the lynching of union organizer Frank Little. Today, nearly divorced of sinister meaning, the code shows up on everything from the Montana Highway Patrol to the Big Sky Brewing Company as a short-hand reference to the state's frontier past. What the numbers might have meant to the graffitios who tagged Helena's fences in 1879, we will never know.
In A River Runs through It, Norman Maclean offhandedly assumed that the numbers represent the dimensions of a grave (3 feet wide, 7 feet long and 77 inches deep). Judge Llewellyn Link Callaway, writing in 1929, claimed the numbers represented the 3 hours, 7 minutes and 77 seconds Vigilantes gave miscreants to get out of town. He claimed to have based this theory on his acquaintance with former Vigilantes during his childhood. Other theorists have added the numbers (3+7+7+7) and said that it represented the 24 hours criminals had to leave town unmolested.
In a rare move for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning endorsed the Mason theory suggested by Rex Myers in which the 3 represents either the general number of Masons required to form a lodge or the specific number that formed the first lodge in Montana; the 7 represents the ideal minimum number involved in a decision; and 77 represents the number of Masons in Montana at the first gathering. This might be the first time Skeptoid has ever supported a Mason theory. Myers suggested that maybe the code wasn't so much a warning as a call for a meeting and that undesirable elements learned that the one often proceeded the other. Allen, however rejected this notion by noting first that several prominent Masons during the 1870s-80s opposed vigilantism, and second that the Masons have never been keen on publicly displaying secret codes. In the same article, Allen tossed around the theory that the code urged miscreants to buy a $3 ticket on the 7:00am stage for the 77 mile trip from Helena to Butte-basically a warning to get out of town. Warnings, though, need to be straight-forward so that everyone gets the message. Allen acknowledged that his theory, like the others, was pretty obscure.
A warning, a code, a cipher? Since their appearance on Helena fences in 1879, the numbers have befuddled generations of Montanans. That they had some link to vigilantism seems clear, but what was the nature of this link? Who scrawled the numbers on Montana's history? What was their intent? How did people interpret the signs? These questions we will probably never know, but that shouldn't keep us from speculating. What do you think?Sources:
Allen, Fredrick. "Montana Vigilantes and the Origins of 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History
51, 1 (2001): 2-19.
Callaway, L. L., Jr. "The Vigilante Numbers: Another Look at 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History
25, 2 (1975): 83-84.
Dunning, Brian. "3-7-77: The Montana Vigilance Code." http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4413
Maclean, Norman. A River Runs through It and Other Stories.
New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
Myers, Rex C. "The Fateful Numbers 3-7-77: A Re-Examination." Montana: The Magazine of Western History
24, 4 (1974): 67-70