As Old as Dirt
A drive through the Prickly Pear Canyon, on Interstate 15 north of Helena, makes a perfect afternoon drive. The narrow, twisting canyon offers, arguably, the best stretch of driving on I-15. Below the road, Prickly Pear Creek (and further north, the Missouri) twists like a blue cord on the narrow canyon floor. Cliffs, in bands of red and green, rise above the road, topped by pines and the clear blue of Montana's sky.
Next time you drive down that stretch of road, think on this: you're winding your way through the oldest exposed rock in Montana. One billion years ago a shallow inland sea, or perhaps a massive lake, covered western Montana from what is now Butte to the Canadian border. As the waters receded, the mud from the sea floor dried, forming (over millions and millions of years) the multi-hued mudstones that color the Prickly Pear Canyon. Geologists have named these rocks "Spokane Shale" after the Spokane Hills to the east of Helena. Iron in the mud caused the color differences. Layers that formed with little to no oxygen exposure became green. Layers that had more contact with oxygen turned pinkish-red (caused by the iron particles oxidizing-essentially rusting). That's all well and good, but these are some of the oldest rocks in Montana, normally so many other layers of rock would cover them you would never see these mudstone flats. Thank Montana's seismic activity. Seventy million years ago (for those of you keeping score, that's about nine hundred and thirty million years after the shale began to form) the earth crumpled and shook in a series of events that formed the Rocky Mountains. These earthquakes twisted and folded the area, giving us the Prickly Pear Canyon and the leaning layers of Spokane Shale that make it so beautiful.
Tags: geology, intro science, Helena area, roadtrips, highway markers, Missouri River
The Old Man, Fly Fishing, and a Hat
When I grow up, I want to be Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs through It.
Think about it, he spent a lifetime as one of the most acclaimed professors at the University of Chicago before retiring to the woods of Montana, where he spent his days writing, fishing, drinking bourbon, wearing an amazing hat and cussing tourists. That's the dream. Oh, and he wrote some of the most evocatively beautiful descriptions of the west ever conceived by humankind.
That hat, oh, that hat.
By now, of course, writing about Maclean is about the least original thing a Montana blogger could possibly do, but I can't very well help myself. No doubt every would-be hipster woodsman-philosopher in western Montana has a tattered copy from which they quote long passages whilst drinking fashionably cheap beer and sitting in fashionably sketchy bars. And yet, despite my instant distrust of anything hipster and fashionable, I was hooked (heh) the first time I read the novella.
In a later post, I'll justify including River
in a blog dedicated to Southwest Montana, and I don't intend to bother with summary, synopsis, or even analysis of the book. What I really want to talk about is Norman Maclean. Before he was a writer, Maclean was a teacher, and one of the best. For forty years he taught English at the University of Chicago, one of the top humanities schools in the nation. Three times he won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, an honor usually bestowed upon a teacher only once. Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Steven would occasionally tell students that the best way to prepare for a law degree was to take Shakespeare from Maclean. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds impressive. He wrote a few academic articles and worked on an unfinished history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn while teaching, but he didn't publish his first book until 1976, three years after he retired at the age of 70.
In 1981, Pete Dexter, a reporter from South Philadelphia spent a few days in Maclean's Seeley Lake cabin, writing a profile for Esquire
. In the profile, Maclean emerged as a lovable, albeit curmudgeonly, old man. In the middle of work on his second masterpiece, Young Men and Fire
, he would spend the morning meticulously writing and re-writing paragraphs, then take a bath in Seeley Lake. In the afternoon, he would fish, hike, drink bourbon from a mason jar, and cuss what he called "the marijuana set" in the public campground near his cabin. A friend once described him as "frequently profane, yet never vulgar." Although he had the academic chops to rival any of his colleagues, he enjoyed his role as the rough-cut Montanan amongst Chicago's urban intellectuals. He was a man who wrote a peer reviewed neo-Aristotelian analysis of King Lear
and a story called "Logging, Pimping, and 'Your Pal, Jim'."
The Blackfoot River, made famous by Maclean.
Maclean embodies a contradiction. Like many Montanans, he was skeptical of outsiders, yet for four decades his book (and Robert Redford's 1990 movie adaptation) has done more for Montana tourism than any campaign we could conceive. I think that many Montanans, and especially writers, struggle with this contradiction. On the one hand, we take irrational pride in our heritage, see ourselves as an exceptional breed, set apart by the virtue of place. On the other hand, Montana really is pretty amazing. And we want to share our joy of the state with others. Like Maclean, most Montanans are a blend of poet and curmudgeon, struck by constant awe of the beauty of Montana.
Girl from the Gulches
If I'm not careful, my mind will relegate Montana's gold rush days to a dusty haze of saloon brawls and hangings, populated by a pungent assortment of what Laura Ingalls Wilder might call "rough men" using "rough language" (yes, a twenty three year old guy did just quote By the Shores of Silver Lake, and no, he feels no shame). Sure, Montana hosted its fair share of brigands and bandits, and if the old town maps with the euphemistically labeled "female boarding" establishments are anything to go by, Montana saw more than its fair share of lasciviousness. But, during those same years, Montana was a beautiful land of opportunity and, it would seem, not a half bad place to grow up.
I just finished reading Girl from the Gulches, a book that is not only historically accurate, but will bolster your faith in human decency, a rare combination. Born in 1852, Mary Sheehan and her family followed the gold rushes to Colorado and then Montana before moving to Southern California. Mary married Peter Ronan and moved with him back to Montana. Peter eventually took a job as the agent for the Flathead Indian Reservation. In a typically corrupt and disreputable business, Peter Ronan served the Reservation for over a decade with honesty and justice. In 1929, Mary Ronan recounted her story, from 1852 to 1898, to her daughter Margaret. In 2003 Ellen Baumler, the Montana Historical Society's interpretive historian, edited this manuscript and published it under the title Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan.
Major, and Senator, Martin Maginnis. From wikipedia.com
Mary's story reads like a who's-who of Montana history. As a school girl in Alder Gulch, she took lessons from Thomas Dimsdale, editor of Montana's first newspaper, and apparently hosted George Ives and other members of Henry Plummer's gang. In Helena
, her social circle included the Maginnises, Rumleys, Galens, Fisks, Holters, Mings and more, all famous names, in Montana history at least. After she married and lived on the Flathead Reservation, she hosted other notables, including Fathers Ravalli and Palladino, and Chiefs Arlee, Michell, and Charlo. Mary knew many of Montana's greats and treated them as friends.
I found the book interesting too because Mary viewed the unpolished west with love and joy. She writes of playing all over the hills around Virginia City, oblivious to vice and danger, though her mother always sent her on errands with the command "now run Mollie, and don't be afraid." She said she knew that the "fancy ladies" who populated much of Virginia City "were not 'good women,'" though she "did not analyze why." In the rough mining town of Helena, she wrote of sleighing parties with oyster soup, long walks to Broadwater hot springs, Latin lessons, and theaters, oblivious and unconcerned with the "viciousness that […] was flaunted on the streets of every mining camp." Mary can at times appear naïve and paternalistic, especially when discussing Mexicans in California and Indians in the Flathead, but her stories always abound with compassion. In her own way, she has a keen eye for the plight of the disenfranchised.
Helena, ca 1870. From wikipedia.com
This post was supposed to go into my "Follow So-and-So
The 1884 Salish delegation to Washington, D.C. The delegation included Chief Charlo, four of Charlo's head men, Peter Ronan and Michel Rivais, an interpreter. From wikipedia.com
through SouthWest Montana" series, but the academic in me couldn't resist writing a review. Besides, fascinating as the book is, location-wise it touches mainly on the big three-Bannack
, Alder Gulch, and Helena-which have already featured plenty of times in the "Follow So-and-So" series (it also spans a time period fairly well covered by the series, please if anyone knows of books about SW Montana before the gold rush or after WWI, help a blogger out, and comment on our Facebook page). But it is a fantastic little book to read as you travel through SouthWest Montana, and the section about her time in the Flathead is the perfect segue as you travel from SouthWest Montana to Glacier National Park.
Oh, and if you haven't yet, you need to check out Ellen Baumler's blog: www.ellenbaumler.blogspot.com
for more Montana history.
Montana's American Pastime
Monday marked the official opening day of baseball season (because Australia is a make-believe land and games that happen there don't count) which has turned my mind to thoughts of spring, and America's pastime in Montana:
In a 1970 article for Montana: The Magazine of Western History
, Duane Smith made an interesting observation: the National League, baseball's first intercity professional circuit, formed in 1876. That same year, an army of Lakota and Cheyenne annihilated the Seventh Calvary under the command of George Armstrong Custer. Smith writes "while the easterner settled back to enjoy his Sunday afternoon of baseball, the westerner was still settling his land." Maybe this isn't a problem for everyone, but while I can easily imagine baseball happening in the 19th Century east, the thought of baseball in the 'wild west' seems absurd. In fact, baseball was immensely popular in the west. Miners loved the game, and played it whenever-and wherever-they could. A Helena reporter described an 1867 game thus:
The ground for the playing of the game was especially selected with a view to the wants of the players, nice green clusters of prickly pear being abundant for the purpose of breaking the force of an occasional fall, prospect holes being situated nearby, to serve as "catchers" in case the animated ball stoppers failed, ditches all around in which to gently fall and lave one's weary limbs and a graveyard near at hand ready for service in case of death.
Helena, circa 1870. Good luck trying to find a flat place to play ball here. Photo: helenahistory.org
Not just the field differed from modern times. While essentially the same game we enjoy today, early baseball, even into the 20th Century, would have looked much different. For one thing, there was much more audience participation. During the 1900 season of the short-lived Montana State League, the Great Falls Tribune asserted that upwards of 400 Helena fans surged onto the field in response to a disputed call. This audience participation left the umpire cut and bleeding. In facts, fights involving players, umpires and fans occurred at almost every game during the Montana State League's 1900 season.
In the early days, at least, people didn't care too much about the national teams, they were much more interested in the goings-on of local clubs. Even after radio and television made following national events easier, local clubs retained a strong support base well into the 1950s. John Mihelich writes that good baseball players could be sure of working the best shifts in the Butte mines, and tells of local clubs recruiting players from Idaho and beyond. One Butte player, Sonny Hicks, actually stopped playing for St. Louis to return to local clubs in Butte, because he could make more. In Butte, each neighborhood had a team, and passionately supported it. In an interview that Mihelich conducted, one woman described:
The little old ladies from McQueen that used to come just because their team was playing. Anytime McQueen played, they'd come to the ball games, and they had little glasses of whiskey with them. They drank during the game, and they'd root for all the players from McQueen.
Which is just about the most fantastic image ever. Today, baseball still has a foothold in Montana. In addition to 5 minor league teams, college teams and high school teams, many towns have club leagues where people of all ages can come together and enjoy the sport.
Duane A. Smith, "A Strike did not Always Mean Gold." Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 20, 3 (1970).
James A. Scott, "'If It Don't End in Bloodshed': The Montana State Baseball League, 1900." Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 47, 3 (1997).
John Mihelich, "'Baseball Was Our Life' Amateur Baseball in Butte Montana 1920-1960." Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 5, 2 (2009).
Granite Ghost Town
Granite ghost town, once a city of three thousand, sprawls over the top of a mountain southeast of Philipsburg. Today, only a few dozen buildings remain, scattered throughout the trees. Some, like the mine superintendent's house, seem to be in the process of restoration, others, like the Methodist Church, are noticeable only because of a state parks sign. We never did find the Presbyterian Church, though our map insists we walked right past it.
From Philipsburg, Granite is incredibly easy to find. At the four-way stop (the intersection of Sansome and Broadway, as far as I can tell, the only four-way stop in town) turn south on Sansome (which is also Highway 10A). Go under the railroad tracks and on the left, about a half mile from town, is a road marked "Granite." In all, less than five miles from the heart of Philipsburg. Incredibly easy directions, still a difficult place to reach. The road quickly turns into a one-lane track that feels the need to climb straight up the mountain. The road is rutted and narrow. I know that it's possible in a car, because we met one on our way up, but you'd want to have really good clearance and a completely dry road. Four-wheel drive is definitely the way to go.
Granite only lasted about sixteen years, from 1877 to 1893, but in its heyday it boasted a brewery, a soda pop bottling facility, an ice rink, a roller rink and a newspaper, in addition to the usual saloons, hotels, restaurants and red light district. Most unusually, the town never had a cemetery. The townspeople shipped all their dead to Philipsburg because the ground was too hard to dig graves. Today, only a few structures remain, but the combination of native rock and brick work in the Union Hall, the Mills and the superintendent's house lend themselves particularly well to photos. In addition, the view from Granite is spectacular, as the mountain drops off into the valley and the valley rises into the distant spine of the Pintlers.
The remaining structures of the town are scattered all across the mountain, so be sure to give yourself a few hours or more to hike along the walking trail (marked with signs that say "GGW" I guess for "Granite Ghost town Walk") that meanders through the forest and hits all of the attractions. The ghost town has very little signage, but the Philipsburg chamber of commerce has written up a walking tour that you can get at the information center in town or print off here. In all Granite is absolutely worth the trip.
The Methodist Church, or, The Miners Union Hall, in Granite. The Pintler Mountains. The back side of
a rusting barrel in a hole. one of the most elaborate buildings Discovery Ski Area
The Pilot and the Cathedral
Here's a tale that has all the trappings of a good Montana yarn. Legend has it that some time in 1945, a military fighter plane roared through Helena and flew sideways between the twin spires of the Helena Cathedral before disappearing over the mountains to the north.
I first heard the story as a kid, riding the Last Chance Tour Train
, listening to the guides weave stories of Helena's history. Although the tours are great sources of information, for many years the tale of the pilot and the Cathedral fell into the "it could be true" category. The verifiable facts are these: the interior walls of the towers are 60 feet apart, and the towers reach 230 feet into the air. Beyond that, well people claim to have seen an airplane, but who knows for sure?
According to the Montana Catholic
, the diocese of Helena's monthly newspaper, in 2011 disputes over the legend were put to rest. Retired Air Force Col. Raynor Roberts claimed that he was the pilot who flew through the spires. In 1945 Roberts, who went to high school in Helena and flew in Europe during World War II, was flying a P-51 fighter from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona to Great Falls. As he flew over Helena, he prankishly buzzed the houses of his mother and girlfriend, and then the young daredevil tilted his plane sideways and squeezed between the Cathedral's spires.
It's the perfect Montana story: scant on evidence and long on legend. Whenever I look at the towers of Helena's Cathedral, I can't help but imagine a P-51 squeezing between the crosses.Tags: history, Helena, legends, Montana characters
What would you do for a loaf of bread? The Alder Gulch Flour Riots
Remember in November, when winter weather was fun and exciting? It's getting less so now. The thought of a cold and snowy spring brings to mind (at least to my mind) a colder and snowier spring. The winter of 1864-65 started out calmly enough. A September issue of the Virginia City based Montana Post noted that winter made the route from Salt Lake to Montana difficult, and suggested that home owners be sure to stockpile provisions. When snow closed the passes completely in December of 1864, no one was very alarmed. In fact, the price of flour-the most important food in Alder Gulch at the time-dropped slightly in February 1865 to between $22 and $26 for a 98 lb. bag of flour. A month later and 40 foot drifts still clogged the passes. Flour sold for $30/sack, then $40, then $47. On April 2, a gang of starving prospectors decided they didn't much care for the free market, and forced merchants to sell at $25 a sack. Inspired, community members tried to seize flour stores from a merchant. A stand-off between sheriff's deputies and community members narrowly avoided developing into a full-fledged fire-fight. Within 2 weeks, prices had entered the absurd. Flour supplies had dwindled to almost nothing and merchants charged as much as $100 for a sack of flour. On April 22, a group of over 400 citizens, led by a man waving an empty flour sack on a stick, marched into town.
Without a single altercation, this group searched all of Virginia City and confiscated every sack of flour they found. They made a thorough search, finding sacks beneath floor boards and hidden in haystacks. I can't think of a better word, but I hesitate to call the thing a 'riot.' No buildings burned, no fights broke out. A few opportunists tried to loot a store, but they weren't affiliated with the 'rioters.' For each of the 82 sacks confiscated, the group issued a $30 promissory note. Then they took the flour to Leviathan Hall and sold it. If a man could prove he had no flour, he could buy 18 pounds. If he had a family, he could buy more. As the supply dwindled (which must have happened quickly) the ration dropped to 10 pounds. A month later, the first flour trains made it over the passes, and Alder Gulch returned to normal.
Perhaps you've been wondering how far 82 sacks of flour would go? Before I finished this post praising the restraint of the 'rioters,' I decided to crunch some numbers. Eighty two sacks, at 98 lb. a sack, amounts to 8,036 lb. of flour. Had the ration started at 10 lb. a person, the committee could have distributed enough flour for about 803 single men. But the ration started much higher, 18 lb. a person, which means that out of a starving population of over 10,000, the committee managed to feed less than 800 people. Look at it another way: a loaf of bread uses about 1 lb. (3.5 cups) of flour, meaning that the committee confiscated enough flour for 8,036 loaves of bread. Assuming that the bread was distributed evenly (and you can bet it wasn't) and assuming 10,000 people lived in Alder gulch (some estimates put it upwards of 11,000) each person would have gotten eight tenths of a loaf of bread.
The winter before the bread riots, public outcry resulted in the formation of an extralegal committee that was responsible for nearly 20 hangings, so I'm impressed with the level of restraint shown by the citizens of Alder Gulch in the 1864-65 winter. I also think that the merchants (who were making a 20% profit when flour was $22.00) may have gotten a little greedy. However, this time around, I'm left to wonder, "What was the point?" What do you think, were the ad hoc rationers heroic? Or were their actions, like the flour sack banner of their leader, empty?
Johnson, Dorothy M. "Flour Famine in Alder Gulch, 1864." Montana: The Magazine of Western History.
7, 1 (1957).
Underhill, W.M. "Historic Bread Riot in Virginia City." The Washington Historical Quarterly
. 21, 3 (Jul 1930).
Pictures from: www.virginiacity.com. The first photo is a picture of Virginia City a few months before the bread riots, and the second is The Star Bakery, in Nevada City, which has been open since 1863.
Follow Mollie Atwater through Southwest Montana
March is Women’s history month and 2014 marks the centennial of women’s suffrage in Montana. By happy coincidence, I just finished reading Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman’s Work by Mari Grana. The book follows the life of Dr. Mollie Atwater, a physician who worked in the mining camps of Bannack and Marysville before moving to Helena, where she crusaded for, among other things, women’s suffrage and the TB hospital in Galen. The book paints a vivid picture of Progressive Era Montana and sheds light on just one of the many extraordinary women who helped shape the state. Pioneer Doctor makes an excellent companion as you travel through Southwest Montana.
Bannack—Mollie’s big break came when she took a contract as the doctor in Bannack. Today the town is a state park and open-air museum. Visitors can wander through the many buildings, including the Meade Hotel, and go ice-skating on the Bannack ice rink.
Helena—As the state capital, Helena was the logical place for an activist like Mollie to live. From the capitol building to Last Chance Gulch, Helena offers a rich portrayal of Montana’s past. The Women’s Mural Project is set to unveil two brand new murals depicting women’s role in Montana history in the State Capitol in November.
Marysville—Today a blend of modern residences and abandoned buildings, Marysville once boasted over 5,000 people and some of the richest mines in the area.
If you are looking for more information on women in Montana history, the Women’s History Matters project website is a treasure trove of Montana’s history. Among its wealth of information, WHM features a list of places that figure large in the state’s story. Southwest Montana’s offerings are St. James Hospital in Butte, the Women’s League Chapter House in Deer Lodge, the Morgan-Case homestead in Philipsburg, and the Ferris/Hermsmyer/Fenton Ranch in Madison County. You should also visit Virginia City, and the Water Company office owned by Sarah Bickford.
How Much Wood Could a Wood Bank Bank?
A few weeks ago, Governor Bullock presented the annual Serve Montana Awards. These awards recognize outstanding community volunteers and organizations dedicated to serving the needs of Montana. As frigid temperatures continue to cover the state, it seems only appropriate to profile the organization in SouthWest Montana that received an award.
For two decades, the St. James Episcopal Wood Bank has provided firewood for heating and cooking to families in southwestern Montana. Father Harry Neeley began the program in 1994. That year, a single volunteer cut, split and delivered 8 cords of wood. In 2013, ninety volunteers delivered over 300 cords of wood. From humble beginnings, the Wood Bank—with the help of churches in Sheridan and Virginia City—has expanded to cover three counties, and serve sixteen small towns in SouthWest Montana. Through the dedicated work of volunteers, the Wood Bank has expanded far beyond its original scope. The Wood Bank now distributes donated reconditioned chainsaws, freeing people from reliance on the Wood Bank. In addition, the church delivers farm fresh eggs (82 dozen in 2013), wool hats and mittens, and grants for school supplies. Even with so many volunteers, Father Neeley usually spends fifty hours a week working for the Wood Bank.
Although not an entirely original idea, the Dillon Wood Bank is one of only a handful of organizations across the country that I have been able to find that distribute firewood to individuals in need. When I heard about it, I was fascinated, it seems like such a practical and creative solution to Montana’s very cold winters. I was surprised to learn that (according to U.S. Census data) nearly 9% of Montana homes use wood heat as their primary fuel. According to Serve Montana, most of the 103 households served by the program represent the bottom 5% of the area’s household income. As energy costs rise, more American’s are turning to wood for fuel, and the Wood Bank of St. James Episcopal Church in Dillon will become an even more vital service in SouthWest Montana.
For a tourism site, this isn’t a very tourism related story, I know. But I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a wood bank ever since I heard of St. James, and as winter shows no signs of leaving anytime soon, I felt like it was a fun story to share. Have a good time in our winter wonderland this weekend, go skiing (the snow’s going to be fantastic) or snowmobiling, or, heck, if you’re in the Dillon area, stop by St. James and see if they’ll let you haul wood for a couple of hours.
Sarah Bickford was born as a plantation slave in 1852 near Jonesboro Tennessee. After the Civil War, she moved to Knoxville and lived with her aunt (biological or adoptive, it’s not yet clear). There, she got a job as a nanny for John Murphy, who took her with him when he moved to Virginia City, Montana in 1870. She worked as a chambermaid before marrying and having three children (all of whom died in childhood). By 1880, her husband had disappeared from the historical record, according to oral tradition he had died. In 1883, she married again, this time to Stephen Bickford, a white farmer and miner who had moved to Montana from Maine in the 1860s. The two were extremely prosperous. Sarah operated a bakery and boarding house as well as a truck farm and orchard. In 1888 Stephen bought a two thirds share in the Virginia City Water Company. Sarah worked as the Company’s bookkeeper until Stephen’s death in 1900 when she inherited his share of the Company. She ended up buying the remaining shares of the company. In an era when segregation was getting worse across the nation, and Jim Crow laws were growing harsher and harsher, Sarah Bickford owned the company that supplied water to Virginia City. She was the only black woman in Montana, and quite possibly in all of the United States, to operate a utility company at that time.
That’s quite a tale, but in recent years it has gotten even more interesting. In 2011, a team of grad students participating in a field class re-discovered Sarah in the Virginia City archives. Sarah’s first husband, John Brown, did not die as previously assumed. Court records from November 1880 indicate that Brown beat Sarah and threatened her life, and that she filed for divorce. The court granted her the divorce and custody of their child Eva, who later died.
Remember, we’re talking about a mining town in 1880, a place we can safely assume is both male dominated and infused with Victorian principles. That Sarah had the courage to take a divorce case to court, and to win, speaks of a character of strength and determination. That she went on to thrive, to build a new family, and to own a utility company before women even had the right to vote makes her one of the most fascinating characters in Montana history.
This newly discovered chapter in Sarah Bickford’s life is so fresh, I can’t find a published account anywhere. Instead, the only place I have been able to find anything is on the website Finding Sarah Gammon Bickford at http://www.sarahbickford.org written by a professor involved with the project.
Tags: history, Montana women, Virginia City, Montana characters