11 Things to Know about SouthWest Montana History
1. Mining is kind of a Big Deal: The first large amounts of U.S. citizens came to SouthWest Montana because of mining. From placer mining to the open pit mining of the Berkley pit, the history of SouthWest Montana after 1863 is the history of mining and mining innovation. The Alder Gulch diggings were the richest placer gold fields ever discovered, and in its heyday, Butte was one of the world's largest producers of copper and silver. 2. There is a long Native American history:
The lack of a reservation means that it can be easy to forget about the Native American history in SouthWest Montana, but it shouldn't be overlooked. Bands of Shoshone travelled extensively in the area, and Bannack was named for the Bannock Indians encountered by the first prospectors. As early as 700 A.D., Natives considered the Gates of the Mountains area sacred, and local tradition holds that by common consent no warfare was allowed in the Boulder Valley. The Big Hole Battlefield near Wisdom is on the Nez Perce Trail, which commemorates Chief Joseph's historic flight from the U.S. Army. 3. Lewis and Clark are a Super Big Deal:
I don't know if you know this about the Northwest, and about Montana in particular, but we are obsessed with Lewis and Clark. Seriously, it is almost all we talk about. In fairness, L&C did spend nearly a quarter of their trip in Montana, and followed the Jefferson and Beaverhead Rivers across SouthWest Montana. Beaverhead Rock marks the meeting of the Expedition and the Shoshone tribe that led them across the mountains safely.4. SWMT history is more than just vigilantes (but vigilantes are also a Big Deal):
Seriously, the Vigilantes were only active for a few months in 1863-64, and yet no Montana history is complete without them. Why? Well, it is a pretty fascinating story, and it probably helped that many Vigilantes went on to
become some the most important public figures in early Montana. 5. It has always been the capital of Montana:
Bannack was the first territorial capital, then Virginia City, then Helena, and when it came time to pick a state capital, the race was between Anaconda and Helena (spoiler, Helena won). I don't know what conclusions you can draw from that, but there you are. 6. Butte:
Sure, it's underwhelming from I-90, but nothing beats Butte history. Butte was one of the largest producers of silver and copper and earned the title "Richest Hill on Earth." Butte was one of the first cities in the world with electricity, and had as much ethnic diversity as New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. It is a fascinating town with a rich history and a promising future. 7. Loads and loads of Irish:
During Butte's heyday, the Irish made up a quarter of the town's population, the highest concentration of Irish in any city in America. The 2010 Census called Butte the most Irish-American city in the country. Our first territorial governor was an Irish rebel, and for years Marcus Daly ruled Butte and Anaconda like an old-fashioned Irish chieftain. SouthWest Montana has a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, but the Irish are the most prominent. 8. The Civil War was also a Big Deal:
You might not think it (what with the whole not-being-a-state and no-where-near-the-war), but it was. Many of the first miners in Montana were Southerners (or from border states like Missouri) who fled west during and after the War. Early politics consisted mostly of Unionists trying to keep Southerners out of power, and vice-versa. It's probably no coincidence that Thomas Meagher was a Union brigadier general before he was appointed the first territorial governor. 9. There were lots of Chinese people:
At one time, SouthWest Montana was very ethnically diverse, but it is easy to forget about the Chinese population because the vast majority moved away. Forbidden from mining, East Asian immigrants worked on the railroad, opened mercantiles, laundromats, and restaurants. Some became influential civic and business leaders. Anti-Chinese laws and racism during World War II drove most of East Asians from Montana, but the culture lives on in places like the historic Mai Wah Museum in uptown Butte. 10. But not all of the stories about the Chinese were true:
If you want to get state historian Ellen Baumler riled up, mention Chinese tunnels. There are tunnels and basements under many Montana towns, but there is really no evidence these were the handiwork of the Chinese, or that anyone used the tunnels to mine for gold. 11. It's not all about Butte and Helena:
There were scores of mining camps (now mostly ghost towns) scattered across the region; Montana's first cattle and sheep pastured in this corner of the state; and the Jefferson and Madison River drainages offered mountain men a fortune in beaver pelts. Sure, Helena, Butte, mining, and vigilantes were all important, but when it comes to exploring SouthWest Montana, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
8 Things to do in a SouthWest Montana Spring
1. Lewis and Clark Caverns:
Montana's first State Park, the Caverns showcase Montana's unique geology. A tour of the Northwest's most impressive limestone caves takes about two hours, and involves roughly two miles of hiking, most of it inside the caverns themselves, which stay at 50 degrees no matter what the weather is like outside. However, there is a handicap accessible option. The park also has miles of biking and hiking trails. Tours start May 1, but the Park is open all year. 2. First Day of Fishing and Tap into Ennis:
. Ennis, one of the most legendary fishing towns in the west, celebrates the opening day of the fishing season with Tap into Ennis, one of the only combined Spirit and Brew fests in the state, featuring only Montanan breweries and distilleries. Fish all day, and then come back to town and indulge in Montana's best alcohol. May 16.
3. Grant-Kohrs Ranch:
Spring means baby animals at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch. This National Historic Site celebrates 150 years of agriculture in Montana with guided tours of the historic ranch house, ranger-led talks about the history of the ranch and agriculture, self-guided walking tours, and plenty of hands on kids' activities. Open year-round.4. Old Butte Historical Walking Tours:
There are a number of ways to tour Butte, but the Old Butte Historical Walking Tour gives you an up close and personal look at this historic mining city, taking you down alleys, through buildings, and even underground to the speakeasies and jail old Butte. Most tours last about two hours, and reservations are required. Remember that you'll be walking the entire time, and tours are not handicap accessible. Call for reservations. 5. Tizer Gardens:
Montana's only fully certified botanical garden and arboretum, Tizer Gardens is one of the hidden gems of SouthWest Montana. The gardens contain thousands of plants, shrubs and trees from around the world, and spring is a perfect opportunity to see some of the early-blooming wonders, or to buy plants for your garden at home. Nursery opens April 11, Gardens open in May. 6. Big Hole National Battlefield:
Open from sun-up to sunset, the Big Hole National Battlefield commemorates a battle between the U.S. Calvary and the Nez Perce under Chief Joseph, and is part of the Nez Perce Trail. Visitors to his historic site can watch a 30 minute video oriented them to the area and history, and then follow one of several self-guided tours. In addition, the area makes an excellent place to picnic and fish.7. Tour the State Capitol and visit the Montana Historical Society Museum:
Perfect for rainy spring days when the weather won't cooperate, the State Capitol and the MHS Museum are right across the street from each other. Hour-long tours of the Capitol focus on the art, architecture, and history of this beautiful building, frequently voted one of the most beautiful state capitols in the U.S. Montana's Museum, right next door, showcases the history of Montana, with displays highlighting every era of the state, and one of the largest collections of C.M. Russell paintings in the world. 8. Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge:
Located in Montana's extreme south, this nearly untouched wildlife refuge is one of the most ecologically diverse in the whole system. From the grasslands of the Centennial Valley, through the wetlands of the lakes, and into the Continental Divide of the Centennial Mountains, Red Rock Lakes NWR is home to a diverse array of wildlife, and in the spring, that means babies. Trumpeter Swan cygnets, elk and moose calves, deer and pronghorn fawns, hundreds of species of birds, and carpets of new wildflowers welcome visitors. Spring at the NWR doesn't get under way until mid-May and early June.
A Distinct Lack of Robbers at Robbers Roost
The fact that no robbers ever roosted at the old stage stop between Virginia City and Sheridan has never stymied the legends of secret assignations and bloody murders that haunt the old inn.
In 1863-64, Henry Plummer and his murderous band of road-agents known as the ‘Innocents’ did terrorize the Bannack to Virginia City stage route, but they couldn’t have met at Robbers Roost, because the inn wasn’t built until two years later, after Plummer and his gang had taken up permanent residence in Virginia City’s boot hill.
The inn at Robber’s Roost was an important landmark in the early days of the Montana Territory. It was on the ever busy route between the Territory’s first two capitals, and is one of the last surviving log stage stops in the state. In 1875, Bill Fairweather, one of the original discoverers of gold in Alder Gulch died at Robbers Roost. He was 39, penniless, and in the last throes of alcoholism. No robbers roosted at the inn. No murders happened beneath its roof. But maybe, just maybe, the ghost of Bill Fairweather still wanders its grounds.
Montana's Jim Dolan: The Land as a Gallery
It's fitting that one of Montana's best-known artists got his start in a welding class. Jim Dolan, whose larger-than-life metal sculptures are scattered across the state, came to Montana to pursue a degree in agriculture from Montana State University. He chanced upon sculpting during a welding class-creating small pieces out of scrap metal and nails. Dolan grew up on a ranch in California and has parlayed his understanding of the natural world into incredible sculptures. Working with metal gives many of Dolan's pieces a rough-hewn feeling that manages to capture the subject without looking entirely life-like. As he once said about the remarkable horses that grace a hill outside of Three Forks: "They're not horses; they're images of horses."
In 1979, Gallatin Field, Bozeman's airport, installed a flock of Dolan's Canada geese in the lobby, launching his professional career. Since then he has created over 170 public sculptures and innumerable pieces that are now in private homes. The landscape of Southwest Montana acts like a Jim Dolan gallery. He has almost a dozen pieces scattered across Bozeman; the iconic fisherman, as well as the surveyor and the mule team in Ennis. His most recent Montana installation, "Bleu Horses" puts the Dolan penchant for dreaming ever larger. Covering a hill between Three Forks and Townsend, the 39 larger-than-life blue metal horses manage to look remarkably natural, as if the hill was built with them in mind.
This piece (on the right), innocuous and easily overlooked, sits off of the road to Holter Lake and Gates of the Mountains. It captures what makes Dolan such a remarkable Montana artist-although rugged and metallic, the statue looks somehow organic, fitting perfectly into its landscape.
How to Survive the Big Foot Hunt in Elliston, Montana
You know what would make an Easter egg hunt so much better? Darkness. A slough. A gigantic bonfire. The responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages. And Sasquatch.
So basically, Lawdog's Saloon in Elliston should plan all Easter egg hunts ever. In that ideal world, here is how to survive:
Eat a hamburger - Oh. My. Goodness. Easily one of the best hamburgers I've ever had. Giant square patties on a toasted bun, perfectly juicy and steaming hot. Most definitely worth the wait, and it goes perfectly with a Cold Smoke.
Drink a Local Beer - With your burger. The bar has all sorts of local and national beers, hard alcohol, and special Big Foot shots, but the burger and the atmosphere cry out for a Montana Microbrew.
Bring cash - Nothing is more disappointing than finally getting up to the bar, the registration desk, or the food counter, only to have to turn around and find the ATM. Avoid the ATM fees, avoid leaving the bar without a drink. Be able to tip your servers generously. Bring cash.
Order food early - Imagine a kitchen that usually deals with a few orders at a time dealing with 500 orders all at once. Before the hunt, the wait for food was nearly an hour. This isn't a problem since you are hanging out waiting for sunset anyway, but you might as well get your order in early to ensure you have enough time to savor every last bite of deliciousness before the hunt gets under way.
Have a DD - You're headed to the grown-up version of an Easter egg hunt. You're going to want a Designated Driver. And if you are the Designated Driver, awesome! Lawdog's gives you free food, and in some ways the hunt is even more hilariously fun when you are sober.
Tip the cooks - Seriously. They're volunteers, and they are scrambling to get deliciousness into the bellies of hundreds of people who all want their food at exactly the same time. They do a fantastic job and deserve lots of appreciation.
Be nice to the staff - They're almost all volunteers, and you're in their town. They do a fantastic job and deserve all sorts of recognition.
Tailgate - Registration closes at 6:00, but the hunt doesn't get underway until after 8:00. Let's face it, you're not going to find a place at the bar, which means you're going to end up in the parking lot. So find a way to wrap yourself in some blankets and sit down while you enjoy the food and festivities.
Wear boots - This was only the second snowless year, but 500 people tromping around turns snow into mud pretty quick.
Wear appropriate clothing - We laughed at the people who were wearing mechanic's overalls and muck boots, but when the hunt started and they took off, tearing through the bramble and the mud without pause, we realized how smart they were.
Be ready to fall - you're running through the woods at night. Even the DD's trip, fall, and sometimes careen headlong through the willows in search of balloons.
Grab the balloons - There's one Big Foot, but a bunch of balloons, that are redeemable for all sorts of prizes.
Carpool - For the size of Elliston (tiny) and the number of people (a lot), parking was surprisingly convenient, but it still makes sense to carpool.
Have a strategy - I'm not sure what that strategy should be. Someone found the Big Foot up a tree. That person probably had a strategy. The people who found the Rainier bottles? They probably had a strategy. The people with half a dozen balloons also probably had a strategy (sidebar: few things are funnier than watching mildly intoxicated adults tripping through the bushes with a handful of balloons trailing behind). But I can't help you with strategy, because whatever strategy we had, it certainly didn't work.
Have fun - it is a drunken Easter egg hunt in the middle of the night. Who cares if you win? (Is a thing that people who didn't get balloons say). You'll go tumbling through the mud and willows. You'll trip on sticks buried in the grass. You might find yourself standing in a puddle of water. But you'll love every minute of it.
The SouthWest Montana Travel Planner
In February, SouthWest Montana unveiled their 2015 Travel Planners. These slim booklets feature some of Montana's best photographers in luscious displays that should make even those most likely to stay-at-home crave a SouthWest Montana adventure. These new travel planners had me dreaming my next trip, which is handy, considering my job. The travel planners make it very easy to turn dreams into concrete plans. Every location featured in the magazine doesn't just receive a prose description. Every location also shows up on a list and in a map. I've noticed that a lot of travel guides tend to focus on Helena and Butte. Even this blog sometimes runs the risk of being to Helena- and Butte-centric. But the 2015 planner does a very good job of listing activities, adventures, and locations all across SouthWest Montana. The 2015 travel planners break SouthWest Montana into digestible chunks, offering a full list of accommodations in every community in the region. With sections devoted to history, sightseeing, outdoor recreation, arts and culture, breweries and distilleries, communities, events, accommodations, guides, and state parks, you are sure to find exactly what you are looking for, no matter how you want to explore SouthWest Montana. And after looking through the pictures in the planner, and reading the descriptions, you will definitely want to explore SouthWest Montana.
Call 1-800-879-1159 for more information, or to order a planner. You can also order or download a planner online.
Hunting for Big Foot in Elliston
A tradition since 1990, the annual Bigfoot hunt in Elliston is a giant game of, if not drunken then definitely buzzed, nighttime hide-and-seek. Before the hunt begins, Bigfoot (spoiler: a volunteer in a Bigfoot costume) hides himself somewhere among the brush on a 10 acre plot of land owned by the original owners of Elliston's Lawdog's Saloon. Revelers begin to trickle in by mid-day eager to beat the 6:00pm registration deadline. When night finally falls and the full moon rises, the hunt begins. In addition to Bigfoot-whose capture will earn someone the $150 grand prize-Lawdog's hides two human sized beer bottles-each worth an embroidered coat-and scores of balloons containing a total of over $250 in donated prizes.
The raucous and fun-filled good time is Lawdog's only 21+ event, although, anyone 18 years old or older is welcome as designated drivers. The Saloon fetes the Designated Drivers, last year they provided over $300 in free hamburgers, fries and soda. Perhaps because of Lawdog's emphasis on safety, Montana Highway Patrol didn't have a single DUI from the event last year. In fact, MHP actually called the owners and commended them on their management of the event, a rare occurrence indeed.
A Big Foot hunting license costs fifteen dollars, and registration closes at 6:00 pm, although the actual hunt doesn't get underway until nightfall. The length of the hunt varies considerably, the longest hunt to date took about an hour and a half. The Big Foot hunt has been an Elliston tradition for 25 years, and is one of the best ways to beat March cabin fever.
St. Urho's Day: Butte's Warm-up for St. Patrick's Day
Courtesy of the Helsinki Bar
Every March 17th, Butte's reputations as a thickly Irish town and as a wide-open mining town converge in the raucous, beautiful mess that is St. Patrick's Day. Butte's St. Patrick's Day is justly famous, and the city's connection to Ireland well known. Not everyone in Ireland knows Montana, but mention Butte and their eyes light up. They know exactly the place you mean. However, Butte wasn't just an Irish enclave. At one time, Butte was one of the western United States' most important cities, and it attracted immigrants from across the world. Most important to today's blog, Butte attracted Finns. The Finns came later than other groups. However, by the 1920s the population had grown enough to form a thriving neighborhood: Finn Town. Finn Town has disappeared, consumed by the Berkley Pit, but a Finnish population still survives, and clings to its ancient traditions.
The tradition, in this case, is St. Urho's day, which comes from 1950s Minnesota. St. Uhro is a tongue-in-cheek invention, riffing off of the legends of St. Patrick and American folk heroes like Paul Bunyan. According to the story, the Finnish vineyards were faced with a terrible grasshopper problem (this was sometime in the mythic past when Finland had a climate conducive to grape growing). Urho yelled at the grasshoppers, and told them to leave Finland, and they did. All this happened on March 16th, and if you think this seems like an attempt to upstage St. Patrick, you might not be entirely wrong. Over the past 60 years, Finns in America have embraced St. Urho's day as a way to honor their Finnishness. St. Urho is especially popular in places (like Butte) with both Finns and Irish, because St. Urho's Day makes a perfect pre-party to St. Patrick's Day.
In Butte, the festivities center around the Helsinki Bar and Yacht Club, the only remaining Finn Town building. Bar goers elect a "saint" and "lady" of the day who get draped in bright purple and green cloth, stand on the bar, shout out something in Finnish, and then get toasted with shots of purple schnapps. From there, festivities (probably after a few more purple drinks) eventually spill over into St. Patrick's Day the next day. The fact that there are almost 63 different types of grasshoppers and crickets still living in Finland doesn't seem to bother anyone in the slightest.
Ski into a Montana Cabin
The rentable Forest Service cabins scattered across Montana are one of the state's best kept secrets. This winter, four of us made plans to ski into one. We made the reservations in January, back when Montana still looked like winter. I spent the next month frantically checking the weather, panicked that the unseasonable warmth would put a damper on our skiing plans. I need to remember that even when the lowlands are bare, the mountains still have snow. In fact, snow drifts almost made us ski in a lot further than we anticipated. To top it off, a blizzard blew in to southwest Montana on Friday and didn't let up until Saturday night. This made driving difficult but skiing ideal. We stopped three miles from Hells Canyon Guard Station (west of Silver Star) and skied the rest of the way in. The skiing was incredible. The cabin was perfect. I love renting forest service cabins because you are still roughing it, but you don't have to pitch a tent. The four bunks in this cabin had foam mattresses-the most comfortable I've encountered in a forest service cabin (though, admittedly, that's not a high bar). It had a table, chairs, a wood stove, all of the wood you could possibly need, and a random assortment of pots, pans, and dishes. I would always advise bringing a few dishes or pots just in case, but Hells Canyon Guard Station was one of the best stocked cabins I've been to.
We played cards, huddled by the fire, and ate chips all afternoon while snow fell outside, making it my ideal day. The sky cleared by nightfall, revealing the clearest, brightest, and most populated skies I have ever seen. We could have spent ours staring at the sky, except that it was freezing, so we scurried back inside. Sunday dawned bright and sunny and revealed epic mountains we hadn't noticed the day before. The clear sky and inches of fresh powder made skiing out even better than skiing in, and the views just kept getting better and better. I know I write a lot about excellent ways to spend your weekends, but this might take the cake. Skiing in to a remote cabin, playing cards, relaxing by the fire, marveling at the stars (plus three planets and a sliver moon)…this might be the best Montana itinerary I could possibly suggest.
Top 10 Places to See Live Performance in SouthWest Montana
SouthWest Montana has a flair for the dramatic. Each year, the region hosts more live performances than you could possible count. From elaborate annual productions like the Montana Folk Festival, An Ri Ra and the Montana Ballet Company’s Nutcracker to bands playing in bars and cafes across the region, SouthWest Montana will always entertain. There are, of course, far too many venues and performances to count, but here is a list of the top 10 places to see live performances in SouthWest Montana.
1. Grandstreet Theater, Helena—Featuring eight or nine plays and musicals a year, the Grandstreet is home to Montana’s longest running community theater as well as a nationally-known theater school for kids in grades K-12.
2. Motherlode and Orphan Girl Theaters, Butte—The opulent Motherlode Theater was built in 1923, and today serves as a as the home theater for nearly a dozen performance groups and events. The Orphan Girl Theater, on the lower level is a nationally renowned children’s theater.
3. Opera House, Philipsburg—The Opera House Theater in Philipsburg host three different plays all summer long and features an ensemble cast of professionals from across the country.
4. Myrna Loy Center, Helena—Tony winning musicals, indie movies, local bands, visual artists…the Myrna Loy center in Helena provides the community with an endless supply of high quality arts and entertainment all year long.
5. Montana Shakespeare Company, Helena—In addition to offering two professional plays each summer (and occasional special performances like December 2014’s Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus) the Montana Shakespeare Company also offers a fantastic week-long acting day camp for kids. (visit their website here)
6. Living History, Virginia City, Bannack, Nevada City—Throughout the year, volunteers gather in three of Montana’s most famous ghost towns to bring the state’s colorful past to life.
7. Virginia City Players, Virginia City—Specializing in 19th Century melodrama and vaudeville, the Virginia City Players at the Virginia City Opera House is the oldest continuously operating summer stock theater company west of the Mississippi. Plays run from May to September.
8. Brewery Follies, Virginia City—Be prepared for a raucous good time at the Gilbert Brewery in Virginia City. Self-described as a “risque contemporary American-burlesque-cabaret musical and skit show,” the Brewery Follies provide a hilarious end to a day in Virginia City.
9. Live! At the Civic Center, Helena—Helena’s longest running performance art series, Live! At the Civic Center offers a blend of contemporary and classical musical performances all year long.
10. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, Various Locations—Each summer, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks packs a full cast and an elaborate set into a few vans and travels the Northwest, providing incredible theatrical performances to some of the smallest towns in Montana. (visit their website here)