Every Bird Has His Day
The real question is: will grandma cook opossum for Thanksgiving this year? Opossum may not be on many Montana menus this Thanksgiving season, but a century ago, serving opossum seems to indicate the height of class.
While browsing Chronicling America's database of Montana newspapers I came across a page from the Thursday, November 24, 1892 edition of the Helena Daily Independent. The page began: "This is the one day in every 365 when the turkey overtops the bird of freedom and becomes, for twenty-four hours at least, the national bird." The paper then goes on to detail all of the things to do and places to eat on Thanksgiving. Chief among the offerings was the Hotel Helena, offering a meal not "excelled anywhere." The gourmet menu included, among some fifty other dishes: Green Sea Turtle Soup, Cromesquix aux Truffles (battered meat balls with truffles), Lobster Mayonaise, Charlotte of Apples au Cognac Toast, Young Stuffed Turkey and Civet of Opossum, a la Pomeroy. I have no idea how Civet of Opossum a la Pomeroy might be prepared, as the only references to "civet" I can find point to a cat-like mammal in East Asia. But there it is, on the menu alongside truffles and sea turtle soup.
Lest you think this might be an anomaly, another entry began "Do You Like 'Possum?" and invited readers to the Independent Block, where the A.M.E. church hosted a "toothsome dinner" complete with "possum and sweet potatoes and great big fat turkeys done to a turn." Every bird may have his day, but in Helena, 1892 the poor turkey risked edging out by North America's only marsupial. I guess I can't object to the consumption of possum, even prepared "a la Pomeroy" (whatever that may mean) but I have to wonder, where did the cooks procure the meat?
Although they received top billing, these weren't the only meals in town (they are however, the only ones offering opossum). The Chamber of Commerce, the California Wine House and the Bon Ton restaurant ("Jack Sparrow, proprietor") all promised "toothsome" meals. The Murphy Gospel temperance union also provided a Thanksgiving dinner for only a quarter a plate, unless, of course, that seemed too steep, in which case "those who cannot afford to pay will be perfectly welcome." Several organizations threw Thanksgiving parties, including the Helena wheelmen, a group appearing to consist of bicycling enthusiasts. Oh, and if you couldn't stomach the taste of turkey, fear not. John Wick of the Paragon, listed among the "gentlemen who dispense liquid refreshments" bought and roasted every pig on the market, for a meal which promised to rival the finest turkeys in the state.
Even on Thanksgiving, commerce must continue. For those of you who couldn't care less about possum cutlets, but keep a careful eye on the market, bananas were selling for twenty five cents a dozen. Also, Fred Camers ("All the New Novelties in High-Class Rubber Footwear") was offering a selection of winter shoes for between seventy five cents and two dollars. So there it is, Thanksgiving 1892, complete with possum, pigs and "all the dainties and substantials to be had on the market."
View the actual newspaper page - The Helena independent., November 24, 1892
Tags: Thanksgiving, holidays, food
No doubt many people are getting ready for long trips to visit relatives this Thanksgiving, so here's a story about Brother Van, one of Montana's most famous travelers.
As an itinerant Methodist preacher during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, William Wesley Van Orsdel probably logged more miles crisscrossing the state than anyone else in history. He arrived in Fort Benton, Montana around 1874 and instantly charmed the rough and brawling saloon crowd of the port city. His honesty, enthusiasm, and straight-forward manner quickly earned him the nickname "Brother Van." He seems to have been welcomed where ever he went, from the seedy saloons of the mining camps to the villages on Montana's Indian reservations. As an energetic circuit preacher, he got himself into more than a few scrapes. Legends surround the roving pastor, most of them at least partly true.
According to a tale re-told by Fort Benton historian Ken Robinson, Brother Van was in Yellowstone with a group of tourists when a lone gunman held them up. When the gunman demanded Brother Van turn out his pockets, the missionary replied "You wouldn't rob a poor Methodist preacher, would you?"
"Are you a Methodist preacher?" the bandit asked.
"I certainly am."
After a few moments' pause, the robber announced, "You can lower your hands; I am a Methodist preacher myself."
In another story, told at the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, Brother Van was riding a train when it was boarded by Kid Curry, a notorious Montana outlaw. Apparently, when Kid Curry learned that his victim was Brother Van, the robber pulled five dollars out of his hat and gave it to the preacher.Photos are Courtesy of the Great Falls Tribune
Things didn't always go so smoothly for Brother Van. Once, in a story recounted by historian Myron J. Fodge in Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Brother Van walked into the town of Radersburg, near Townsend Montana. The townspeople accused him of being a horse thief, and wouldn't believe him when he denied it. In desperation, he climbed up on a wagon and began singing hymns. Although not an especially talented musician, Bother Van was famous for captivating people with his singing. He sang hymn after hymn until finally the people of Radersburg relented and let him go free.
Brother Van loved to recount this tale. "I once saved a man's live with my singing," he would boast. When enthralled listeners demanded, "Whose?" Brother Van would chortle "Mine!"
Photo 1 is of Brother Van
Photo 2 is of "Brother Van Hunting Buffalo" by C.M. Russell, 1909
Tags: history, Montana characters, outlaws, Radersburg, Yellowstone
The Boulder Bath O' Lava
The Richest Hill on Earth…the largest placer deposit in history…Southwest Montana has more than its fair share of mineral wealth. Ever wonder why? The Montana Department of Transportation has a couple of Geological Roadsigns answering that very question, and I've summarized them here:
The Elkhorn Mountains northwest of Townsend were not always the peaceful mountain slopes you see today. 81 to 74 million years ago, the Elkhorns were an explosive area of volcanoes. Magma that reached the surface erupted in violent eruptions that rained ash and rocks for miles. In fact, the volcanic field covered a diameter of over one hundred miles. These explosions buried countless animals, including the dinosaurs whose fossils have been found in the Two Medicine formation near Choteau. So many volcanoes exploded that in some places, the volcanic field got up to three miles thick. Volcanoes kept erupting, but the debris was so thick magma could no longer reach the surface of the earth. The magma at these lower levels cooled very, very slowly. As it cooled, it turned into granite, forming the huge granite slab that extends from Helena to Butte. Geologists have dubbed this slab of rock the Boulder Batholith: "boulder" refers to the huge granite boulders strewn across the region, and "batholith" means a slab of cooled magma.
As the magma cooled, it cracked. Extremely hot solutions of melted minerals filled these cracks, and became part of the batholith. Southwest Montana's mining boom, easily the richest in the state, was (and still is) fueled by these veins of gold, silver and copper in the Boulder Batholith. Where these veins were close to the surface, weathering caused the minerals to wash into the gravels of stream beds, forming placer deposits of precious metals. Elsewhere, the veins remained deep below the earth's surface, waiting to be mined.
Whew, that's just about as much geology as I can handle, but it does help explain the history of Southwest Montana.
Tags: geology, intro science, highway markers, roadtrips, Boulder, Townsend, mining
A Philipsburg Afternoon
On Sunday, we spent the afternoon in Philipsburg. Like most towns in Montana, it has calmed down considerably from the summer rush, and while I saw a few other visitors on the street, for the most part the town was very quiet. Our first stop was UpNSmokin Barbecue because by the time we got into town, it was closer to two than one and we still hadn't eaten lunch. UpNSmokin is a very recent addition to the Philipsburg scene. They opened their doors a little over a year ago, and just moved into a much bigger place. They were recently ranked 47th out of the top 100 at the Jack Daniels BBQ cook off. The menu only has five or six items on it that change a couple of times a day, based on what they feel like cooking. After a delicious meal of tri-tip sandwiches and potato salad, we hit the street.
Most of the businesses in Philipsburg cluster together on Broadway, in a collection of historic century-old buildings, which makes wandering up and down the street a perfect way to spend an afternoon. First stop, the sapphire shops. Philipsburg started as a mining town, and sapphires have become a major business in the town. Opal Mountain Gems, Gem Mountain, and the Sapphire Gallery all offer on site mining experiences using traditional placer mining techniques. These three, along with other shops in town carry a beautiful selection of custom jewelry and art.
We wandered through several sapphire filled stores before we made our way, as all visitors to Philipsburg must, to the Sweet Palace. This is important, so listen pay attention: the Sweet Palace is NOT OPEN ON SATURDAYS. If you visit Philipsburg on a Saturday, you will get jewelry and antiques and art and beer, but no candy. You will be sad. If you come any other day of the week, however, you will get all those other things and candy. Plan accordingly. In the Sweet Palace's glass fronted kitchen, just up the street, you can watch them make fudge, craft chocolates and pull taffy. Then go to the store and salivate over the thousands of selections, and eat a grizzly paw (Caramel, dark chocolate and cashews) or two, because dark chocolate is healthy, right?
Our next stop was one I had been anticipating with almost as much excitement as the Sweet Palace. The Philipsburg Brewing Company. Like UpNSmokin, this is a fairly new establishment, but they have quickly made a name for themselves. There's no better place to drink a beer, the bar even has a chilled copper strip running its length so that your brew always stays cold. After numerous samples, we decided to split the spectrum. I got their seasonal imperial stout, rich and delicious and as dark as beer can get. My wife ordered the Razzu Raspberry Wheat. It was pink. Maybe this is nothing special, but I've never seen anything like it. She said it was like drinking raspberry lemonade, only better, because it was beer.
The essential thing, when writing a blog post, is that you eat as much as possible. So, after luxuriating for a long while in the Brewery, we headed across the street to the Doe Brothers Soda Fountain. Doe Brothers serves enormous scoops of Wilcoxin's ice cream, a Montana classic. Sure, it was just ice cream in a cake cone but, like everything in Philipsburg, it was generous, handcrafted, and delicious.
Tags: towns, Philipsburg, food, sapphire mines, breweries, candy shops
Empty Mansions: Follow W.A. Clark through Southwest Montana
Empty Mansions opens in mystery. Two mansions and two palatial apartments dot the country, vacant and pristine, meticulously maintained by an army of workers for an employer neither seen nor heard. As the story unfolds-painstakingly researched and masterfully told-we begin to see that it is in fact two stories. One, the story of Huguette Clark, the mysterious centenarian recluse who owned the houses, and the other, the story of W.A. Clark, her father, whose tenacity and mercurial instinct raised the fortune that built the mansions.
W.A.'s rise mirrors that of Montana. He came to the Bannack gold rush with five dollars in his pocket, and over the course of the next half century extracted a wealth of imperial proportions from the earth of Montana. In Empty Mansions Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman charts the story of W.A. Clark, from his humble beginnings to his position as one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, in large part because of Butte copper. As you travel through Southwest Montana, visit the sites whose stories intertwine with that of one of America's wealthiest men.
Bannack-tour the ghost town where Clark began to hone his instincts peddling eggs and produce
Deer Lodge-For a brief time, Clark lived in Deer Lodge, working as a banker. Tour the Deer Lodge Museum Complex for a taste of the life he led.
Helena-Clark's power and money made Helena the capital of Montana. Take a ride on the Last Chance Tours train to hear tales of the capital fight and to view the ornate houses built by some of Clark's bitterest rivals.
Butte-Clark made Butte, and Butte made Clark. Visit and tour his grand "Copper King Mansion," now a B&B. Wander through the Clark Chateau Art Center, onetime home of his son and business partner Charles Clark. Take the Old Trolley No. 1 for a two hour tour through the history of Butte.
Anaconda-Marcus Daly, Clark's chief rival in the war of the Copper Kings, created and developed Anaconda to serve his smelter, now the focal point of Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park. Anaconda forms part of the Butte-Anaconda Historical District, and features the acclaimed Marcus Daily Historical Society museum.
Wherever you go, be sure to browse the many bookstores for other accounts of the Copper Kings, especially Montana historian K. Ross Toole's Montana: An Uncommon Land (University of Oklahoma, 1959) whose chapters "Butte to Paris and Return," and "The War of the Copper Kings," place Clark in the broader historical context.
Granite Ghost Story
The wind was picking up. Leaves swirled on the ground, and rattled on the trees. In Granite Ghost Town, high above Philipsburg, the beautiful fall day was quickly turning to winter. The boarded windows of the Mine Superintendent's house glared out at me as I crept though the trees, looking for good camera shots. Ghostly whistling rose from somewhere in the quickly darkening forest.
It was my wife, inexplicably whistling "Eye of the Tiger."
I know of no ghost stories featuring Granite, the abandoned mining town above Philipsburg, Montana, but I am sure that the town boasts its fair share. In fact, I've never been much good with ghost stories, but it's almost Halloween. So here's what you should do. Go to the Montana section of your book store. The mines and buildings of Southwest Montana are rife with tales of the undead. Some classic books on the subject are Spirit Tailings and Beyond Spirit Tailings both by Ellen Baumler (Montana Historical Society), but there are countless other books out there. Or, visit Ellen Baumler's blog, she's been publishing spooky stories throughout October. If you're in Southwest Montana, find some time to visit the region's many ghost towns, or the Deer Lodge prison, which has tons of haunted stories.
A cold wind is sweeping across Southwest Montana and somewhere clouds heavy with snow are forming. Believe it or not, ski season is fast approaching. This post is about a trip I took a few years ago, to my mind the perfect winter weekend. Early one Saturday morning in late January, we started out from Missoula headed for Discovery Ski Area. Interstate 90 was dry, but the wind swirled snow around us. At Drummond, we turned south off of I-90 onto the Pintler Scenic Route. The Pintler Scenic Route follows the Phillipsburg Valley between the Flint Range to the east and the Sapphire and Long John Mountains to the west. The clouds were low, and the jagged white spires of the mountains cut dramatically against the gray backdrop. Around Phillipsburg, the valley stretches out broad and flat, and the road closely follows the meandering Flint Creek. The red of the willow brush, brown of the grass, white of the snow and blue of the creek made for a postcard perfect drive, despite the low clouds. South of Phillipsburg, we climbed through the Flint Creek Canyon, then followed the shore of the frozen and windswept Georgetown Lake until we came to Southern Cross Road, about twelve miles past Phillipsburg. From there, we followed the signs to for about four miles until we reached Discovery.
I'm not an especially good skier, so we spent most of our time on the smaller runs, but with 67 trails and 2,200 patrolled acres, Discovery has something for everyone. I'm told that the backside of the mountain has acres upon acres of steep runs and mogul fields that are utter perfection.
I may not be the best of skiers, but I gave it my all, and after a day at Discovery I was completely exhausted. From Discovery we headed southeast, through Anaconda and then east on I-90 to Fairmont Hot Springs. There is no better way to top off a day at Discovery than to soak in Fairmont's hot springs. I love to sit in the outdoor hot tub at night and watch the snowflakes melt as they meet the steam from the pools.
We stayed a night at Fairmont, and then with heavy hearts turned back to Missoula and another week of college.
Adult Full Day: $40
Adult Half Day: $32
Child (12 and under): $20
Senior (65 and over): $20
Easy Chair: $12
Child (5 and under with an adult ticket): Free
Rooms start at $155
Tags: skiing, Fairmont, Discovery, winter activities, road trips
Born of Flame and Ash
In the west, summer means wildfires. From the infamous Mann Gulch fire of 1949 to the 1988 Yellowstone firestorm, Montana’s fires have become the stuff of legends. They have burned themselves into the collective memory of the state, so that someone like me—who was not yet born in 1988—can speak of the Yellowstone fires with a familiarity born from years of hearing the tales. I wrote this post a few months ago, when smoke from local fires turned the sun red and the world smelled like it was being barbequed. The fire season in Montana has come to a close, and now, before winter sets in in earnest, seems like a good time to breathe the crisp fall air and think about summer wildfires.
Fires have speckled Montana’s past from the earliest days of American settlement, and no doubt before. It as not, however, until the turn of the twentieth century that Montana had the capability to do more than look on the conflagrations with impotent awe and fear. Feeling challenged by nature’s might, and aided by the inexhaustible civilian army of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the authorities opted for a policy of containment and suppression. The Forest Service developed the 10 am policy, meaning that fires should be contained by 10 am the morning after they were reported. By the sixties things started to change. Foresters and environmentalists began to recognize the importance of wildfires on wilderness ecology. Slowly, policy began to transform from one of suppression to one of protecting humans and property, but allowing forests to burn.
In his work, historian Stephen Pyne points out that ancient man used to view fire as both a destructive and a creative force. That view has, in recent years, once again gained acceptance. The lodgepole pine, one of the most common trees in the Northern Rockies, needs fire. The heat from fire opens the tree’s cones, allowing the spread of seeds. Fire reduces the tangle of undergrowth, and destroys deadfall and debris, giving plants room to thrive. As any farmer who has ever burned a field or ditch can attest, plants seem to love the natural cycle of fire. Grass returns quickly to the area, pushing green and lush through the ash, thriving on the nutrients released by the blaze. As you travel through Southwest Montana and Yellowstone National Park, you can easily see fire’s mark. Gray-black tree skeletons loom tall, a constant reminder of fire’s destructive power, but a riot of green flourishes closer to the ground, trees and bushes, tender green, born of the flame and ash.
Yellowstone 1988 burn area, in 1989 and 2006. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Although often painfully destructive and tragic, fire is an essential factor in experiencing Southwest Montana. Many authors have tried to make sense of this phenomenon, so emblematic of the west. Stephen Pyne has written a wealth of books on the history of fire around the world, especially in the American West. Norman Maclean grounded his meditation on fire in time and space, recounting the tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire is his novel Young Men & Fire. Montana on Fire! By Michael Moore provides an overview of the summer of 2000, one of the largest fire seasons in Montana history. Finally, the Missoula Independent recently published a feature called, “Nature’s Great Act,” a gripping account of the Yellowstone fires of 1988.
What are your experiences with fire in Southwest Montana?
Tags: fires, books, Yellowstone, intro science, intro history
An iconic photo of the Old Faithful
Complex, 1988. Courtesy: Wikipedia
The World’s Most Conspicuous Man
It is impossible to be inconspicuous in Ovando, Montana. This I learned when I drove into town in my flashy rental and there was not another vehicle on the street. I rolled into town around 10:00—the dead hours between breakfast and lunch—and so kept going, following the road to Helmville. The Ovando-Helmville road winds over and around steep glacial moraines before it reaches the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. In mid-September, the North Fork doesn’t have a lot of water running through it, but still enough to tempt me to dive in. After the North Fork, a broad ranching valley unfurls with panoramic views of mountains in all directions. I drove through Helmville, then looped north on Highway 200 back to Ovando. The town boasts that it has more scenery per capita than any other small town in Montana, and I might just believe it. The Swan and Garnet Ranges surround the valley, and the Blackfoot—to my mind one of the most poetic of all rivers, and a fly fisher’s dream—cuts a wide swath through the middle of the valley.
When I got to Ovando, I stopped at the Stray Bullet, one of the town’s two cafes. This hundred year old restaurant gets its name from a bullet lodged in the wall, supposedly from a brawl on the street sometime in the last century. In my continuing attempt to blend in, I ordered apple pie and coffee; I’ve spent enough time in small town cafes to know that coffee might make me seem less an outsider. My stabs at inconspicuousness were thwarted from the get-go. To start with, I was the only person in the café. When two other customers finally came in, the waitress and cook knew them both by name, and this conversation actually happened: The waitress took a phone call, when she hung up the phone she turned to the other customers and said, “That was so-and-so, are your cows out? Because someone’s cows are on his road and they aren’t ours.”
I knew then that I could never blend in in Ovando, Montana, so the next opportunity I got, I asked about town’s museum. It turns out, even if you can’t blend in that’s ok, because people seem more than willing to make friendly conversation with a stranger. I never did get to see the museum—if you head that direction, be sure to set up an appointment; they don’t have enough staff to keep it open all day—but even so the day was worth it, I met great people, ate delicious food, and drove through some of the prettiest scenery Montana has to offer.
North Fork of the Blackfoot The Stray Bullet Ovando from Highway 200
Ovando-Helmville Road A ranch outside Helmville Just outside Helmville
“The Uncrowned King of the Celestial Pathfinders” 1
It might seem like another dreary Monday to you, but September 30 has an exciting Montana tale of daring and adventure:
By 1911, an aviation craze had utterly engulfed the nation. Air shows happened almost daily, and aviators received celebrity treatment with newspapers studiously recording their every feat. In September of 1911, Helena became added to the annals of aviation history due to the exploits of Montana’s adopted hero: Cromwell Dixon. Dixon had all the spunk and personality Montanans love in their heroes. Born in 1892, he had created a cog-driven boat, a box camera and a rollercoaster in his Columbus, Ohio backyard before he reached his teens. At the 1904 World’s Fair, flight captured his imagination, and within a year he had invented an airship and became the first aviator to ever cross the Mississippi. For four years he supported his family flying his handmade dirigibles at fairs and carnivals. However, by 1911, acknowledging that the era of the dirigible had ended, Dixon switched his attention to fixed-wing aircraft. On August 7, 1911, he became the forty third pilot in the U.S. to receive a pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America and, at only nineteen, the youngest registered pilot in America. He immediately signed on with the Curtiss Exhibition Company and began a grueling tour across the U.S. On that trip, he stopped at the Montana State Fair in Helena. For two days he wowed the crowds with spirals and corkscrews and somersaults. On the third day, September 30, he pulled off an even bigger stunt. At two o’clock, he took off from the fairgrounds and, watched by thousands of spectators, pointed his Curtiss airplane, the Hummingbird, west toward the Rocky Mountains. At 2:34, he landed in a field in Blossburg, Montana, becoming the first aviator to ever cross the Continental Divide.
Tragically, at an exhibition in Spokane two days later, an unexpected gust of wind toppled his plane into the ground, killing the young aviator. Although hundreds of thousands of people across the country witnessed Cromwell Dixon’s feats of daring, Montana adopted him as one of its own. Within a year, a bronze plaque on a granite monument commemorated the young airman at the Montana State Fairgrounds. In 1939 the Forest Service dedicated a picnic area and campground in his honor on MacDonald Pass, just off of U.S. Highway 12, near where Dixon landed.
Cromwell Dixon's Aviation License
Photo Courtesy of the NRHC Svoboda Montana Picture Postcard Collection
 Quote from a letter by Montana Governor Edwin L. Norris to the citizens of Blossburg, delivered by Dixon, in which he praises Dixon. Found in: Del Phillips, “The World’s Youngest Aviator: Cromwell Dixon,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 59, 3 (2009).