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DEC

18

A Montana Hanukkah
The annual Hanukkah celebration in Montana's capitol building has been going on for five years now and gathers together members of Jewish communities from across the state, community members, the lieutenant governor, and rabbis for a celebration including the lighting of menorahs, prayers, blessings, speeches, the consumption of latkes, and the playing of the dreidel (which, incidentally, is not a word recognized by spell check). There are only a handful of Jewish congregations in the state, and a semi-reliable source (Wikipedia) put Montana's 2008 Jewish population at as low as 1,000. This wasn't always the case. At one time, other Montana cities, like Helena, boasted Jewish congregations. During the boom years, three different congregations called Butte home. Now, just one congregation, B'nai Israel, remains in Butte. With a building built in 1903, the congregation with some 30 members is the state's oldest. Congregations in other parts of the state are flourishing. Bozeman, for example, now has 3 congregations of its own. The capitol's annual Hanukkah celebrations starts at noon today in the rotunda, and everyone is invited.

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DEC

11

Georgetown Lake

Georgetown Lake looks deceptively remote. Over 6,000 feet above sea level and encircled by three jagged mountain ranges-the Anaconda Pintlers, the Flint Creek, and the Sapphires-Georgetown seems like a secluded mountain fastness. In reality the area teams with life. Vast wildernesses attracts backpackers and day hikers alike. Ghost towns hidden in the timbered ridges draw history buffs. Discovery Ski Area draws winter thrill-seekers. The lake, the lake entices boaters, campers, and, above all, fishermen who, even in the dead of winter, bundle onto the ice, lured by the fish that call the lake home.   

One hundred years ago, cattle grazed on the creek bed now submerged beneath 16 feet of water. In the 1890s, Bi-Metallic of Philipsburg dammed the headwaters of Flint Creek, creating Georgetown Lake. From the dam, the water plummets straight down 700 feet, roils through the old power plant and flows peacefully into the Flint Creek Valley. The dam takes water from the very bottom of the lake, creating an unusual flushing effect. In essence, the lake has gotten cleaner, despite increased development. The lake supports populations of Kokanee salmon, and monster brook and rainbow trout. The relatively shallow and small Georgetown Lake has established itself as one of Montana's top ten fishing destinations, rivalling contenders like Canyon Ferry and Fort Peck.

Check out these awesome winter adventures you can have around Georgetown and the rest of Southwest Montana.

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DEC

4

The Account of Canton
Many feet of water should cover St. Joseph's church. Built in 1875, on the banks of the Missouri River in the town of Canton, Montana, St. Joseph's is Montana's seventh oldest church, and was the first built by community members, rather than a religious order. The rich ranchland around Canton supported some of the oldest settlements in the area, and the Canton post office began operation in 1872. Three years later community members, many of whom hailed from Canton, New York, started construction on St. Joseph's. With its arching windows and fan light over the door, the white clapboard church references the Colonial Style common in the east but quite rare in Montana.

Canton lay far enough upstream from Canyon Ferry that construction of the first dam in 1898 didn't affect the town. However, the Bureau of Reclamation's much larger dam, which began construction in 1949, certainly did. Between 1949 and 1954, most of the buildings in Canton and along the Missouri between Townsend and Canyon Ferry were simply abandoned to the rising waters. Traces still remain on the bed of Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Community members of Canton, however, couldn't bear to see their church witness the same fate and so campaigned to have the church moved out of the reach of the lake. St. Joseph's now rests on a knoll near the Canton cemetery, two miles from its original site. Today the building has become a community center on the little-traveled east side of Canyon Ferry. The church hosts free musical and historical performances during the summer months, and families gather in the church park and picnic area year-round.

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NOV

21

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.

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NOV

13

Ivan Doig's Prairie Nocturne

From ivandoig.com

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.    

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NOV

6

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 ellenbaumler.blogspot.com, but it also shows up on roadsideamerica.com and in Montana Curiosities:  Quirky characters, roadside oddities & other offbeat stuff by Ednor Therriault.

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OCT

30

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.

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OCT

23

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.

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OCT

15

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.

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OCT

10

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.

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