SouthWest Montana's Writer-Historian: Ivan Doig
I am a hypocrite. I am very proud of my own vocabulary. Sometimes if I write what I think is a very good sentence with lots of elaborate words, I will read it again and again, congratulating myself on my own cleverness. When I read, however, I much prefer things that are blunt and realistic. I enjoy reading poetry, and poetic prose, but it better be the likes of Dick Hugo, Bill Kittredge or Norman Maclean. The sort that socks you in the gut. This has always complicated my reading of Ivan Doig. His triad of books detailing the Montana misadventures of Morris Morgan (which for want of a better description I have decided to dub the "Morrie Trilogy") could best be described as a writer's love letter to words. Or, to use a description more in keeping with the tone of the book 'a wordsmith's missive of absolute affection to verbose verbiage.' In the second two books-Work Song, and Sweet Thunder-Doig writes from the point of view of the main character, Morris Morgan. This choice (while a good one) inevitable leads to flowery, unnecessarily elaborate prose and utterly unrealistic dialogue.
That being said, Doig has done something extraordinary with these books. The trilogy very accurately captures the first few decades of the 1900s, a period of great transition in the United States. While Whistling Season (the first book) focusses on the rural agriculture of high plains Montana, the next two move us into Butte, one of the most important urban industrial centers of the west. Both books center on the Anaconda Copper Company's dominance of the state, perhaps the most important theme of 20th Century Montana history. Work Song addresses labor relations, and the Union's fight against the Company. Sweet Thunder takes a slightly different tack by exploring the Company's near monopoly of the press. Doig carefully incorporates a great many details-both significant and trivial-which add to the accuracy of the books.
Given the subject matter, it wouldn't be difficult to imagine a bleak, gritty, noir-ish trilogy. Doig does something entirely different. In book review language, Doig has written a delightful romp through Butte in its heyday. He has festooned the playful writing with colorful characters. The Sweet Thunder cast includes the fastidious Morrie, level-headed Grace, a pair of retired Welsh miners (who aren't related but look the same), a street-urchin called Russian Famine, and a doleful Editor-in-Chief. Morrie lives in the dilapidated mansion of a comically gruff vigilante-turned-librarian who embezzles library funds to build a collection of priceless books. This is Dickens-Lite. You are never quite sure if you are reading a social commentary or a social comedy. For that reason, I love this trilogy. Doig writes with knowledge and clarity. He has done his research, and perhaps most impressively, he makes it fun.
The two books of the Morrie Trilogy that take place in Butte are:
Work Song (Riverhead Books, 2010)
Sweet Thunder (Riverhead Books, 2013)
Southwest Montana: Fighting the Winter Blues one Adventure at a Time
Winter in Southwest Montana. It can be cold. It can be long. But it can also be a lot of fun. Made last year, this video showcases some (but not nearly all) of the incredible opportunities a Southwest Montana winter offers
. Ice fishing
, ice skating
, ice sailing, downhill skiing
, cross country skiing
, snow shoeing
. . . the list goes on and on. Of course, if the cold weather doesn't agree with you, there's plenty of warmer ways to stay busy this winter. Stop by a brewery
, a distillery, or a café
. Catch a show at the Grandstreet, the Myrna Loy
, or the Orphan Girl
. Browse through the region's unique boutiques. Most importantly, whether you spend your day outside or inside, make sure to explore all of the delicious places to eat in Southwest Montana.
There are plenty of ways to spend a cold, windy January in SouthWest Montana. The region's breweries, distilleries and cafes are definitely an option. Ice fishing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, those too are options, but really kind of normal, don't you think? Why not try something different, something that makes even downhill skiing and snowmobiling seem tame? Why not strap yourself into a fiberglass shell supported by three narrow runners and let the wind hurtle you across the frozen surface of Canyon Ferry at speeds of between 30 to 70 plus miles an hour?
Canyon Ferry is a winter playground, and weekends find the area full of people ice skating, ice fishing, playing ice hockey and doing other things that start with the word "ice," so I can't say for sure that ice sailing is the most popular sport on the frozen lake, but it is probably the wildest. Ice boats-narrow fiberglass hulls on top of three runners and fixed to a large triangular sail-hurtle along canyon ferry from Christmas until March, maybe even longer if the lake's two feet of surface ice stays frozen. In the last 40 years or so, Canyon Ferry has become a destination for ice sailing. The lake is wide and long in an open valley, giving ice sailors plenty of room to maneuver and make the most of the steady wind that blows through the valley. The combination of generally dry conditions and frequent wind helps keep the lake's ice smooth and free of snow, perfect conditions for ice sailing.
One of the best ways to learn more about ice sailing on Canyon Ferry is take MT Highway 287 to the Silos boat launch, which is about 7 miles north of Townsend, on any weekend. There are almost always ice sailors out there. They seem to know all that there is to know about ice sailing at Canyon Ferry,
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.
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.
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.
I think that most people who go to the Windbag Saloon do so to say that they ate in a former brothel. Don't get me wrong, the food is good, but it's really the notoriety that draws customers. The Windbag operated as a brothel, first under Ida Levy, and then under "Big Dorothy" Parker. The police finally closed the brothel in 1973, but before that Big Dorothy was much loved figure in Helena. Last time I was in Helena, I heard a story related to Big Dorothy's.
Apparently Ida had quite a sense of humor. One winter she went out and bought a whole bunch of yellow ties. Whenever Helena's most prominent citizens visited her establishment the Madame would take them aside and ply their ear, tell them that they were her favorite customer, etc. etc. Then she would present them with a beautiful yellow tie and ask them if, as a special favor to her, they would wear it to the New Years' Eve ball. According to the teller of the tale, when New Years' rolled around, half of Helena's most important residents showed up to the Civic Center doors sporting brand new yellow ties.
Last August, Ellen Baumler wrote two excellent articles about Ida Levy and Big Dorothy on her blog and she included a similar story, which I realized only after I had written this piece.
Ivan Doig's Prairie Nocturne
Admittedly, most of Ivan Doig's Prairie Nocturne
takes place beyond the scope of this blog-largely in the far-flung reaches of New York and Central Montana's Rocky Mountain Front-but I couldn't pass up an excuse to reread it. With my sincerest apologies to Whistling Season
, I think that Prairie Nocturne
is Doig's best work. For one thing, his ornately literary voice lends itself much better to third person than first. For another, the book contextualizes Montana in the larger world of the 1920s, an era I find fascinating. Prairie Nocturne
could be described as the story of Monty Rathburn, a black choreboy on the Double W ranch with an inspired voice and an eye for bettering himself. It could equally by described as the story of Susan Duff, the prickly vocal teacher and daughter of pioneers who takes Monty under her wing. Susan played a minor role as a schoolgirl in Dancing at the Rascal Fair
, neatly dovetailing Prairie Nocturne
with Doig's English Creek Trilogy (English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride with Me Mariah, Montana
). It might even be described as the story of Wes Williamson, part owner of the Double W whose aspirations for the ranch seem to encompass all the vastness of the Montana plains. All this and more, Prairie Nocturne
ranges over topics the way Williamson cattle range over land. Suffrage, Prohibition, Harlem in the '20s, and the Great War all lend their tales to the book. Nearer to home, Doig addresses cattle barons and cavalry, the railroad and honyonkers, drought and the Klu Klux Klan, and-ever his strongest suit-the battle to carve a living from the unforgiving Montana land.
Perhaps most importantly, enough of the story concerns Helena for me to justify a post on the book. However, come to think of it, most of the action in Helena is turning point and climax, and I'm loath to give anything away. I suppose you'll just have to read Prairie Nocturne
on your next visit.
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.
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.