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
Racing to the Sky
What are your plans for this weekend? Watching the Olympics? Buying ice cream to make up for the fact that you forgot Friday is Valentines Day? Do your plans involve racing 350 miles through snowy Montana wilderness, enduring freezing conditions with little sleep? Seem crazy? For the past 29 years, participants in Montana’s Race to the Sky have done just that. The 350 mile long dogsled race is one of Montana’s oldest and (as an Iditarod qualifying race) most prestigious dogsledding events. This year, a total of twenty mushers and dog teams will take part in the event’s three grueling races.
Eight teams are signed up for the premier event—the 350 mile Iditarod qualifier. The race runs from Camp Rimini, outside of Helena, to Elk Park, a few miles outside of Butte. The race restarts in Lincoln for a 200 mile loop from Lincoln to Seeley Lake and back to Lincoln. Eleven mushers plan to compete in the 100 mile adult race which runs from Lincoln to Seeley. Only one musher, 16 year old Spencer Bruggeman from Great Falls, will compete in the 100 mile Junior Race. Six racers are Montana natives, the rest come from as far away as Pennsylvania to compete in the race.
We’re no Alaska, but Montana has an interesting dogsledding history. During World War II, Camp Rimini—the official start of the race—played host to 900 dogs and about 125 mushers. The dogs and mushers were training to take part in a planned invasion of Norway. The invasion never happened, instead, the teams went to Alaska, Canada and Greenland where they helped rescue downed aircraft and airmen. Race to the Sky was created, in part, to honor the soldiers and dogs of Camp Rimini. This year, during race festivities, the organization will be fundraising for U.S. War Dogs Chapter 1. This is a nonprofit which advocates on behalf of dogs serving with the U.S. military in warzones.
Even if you, like me, have no intention of ever running a 350 mile dog race in the dead of winter, you can still enjoy the race. Festivities start Friday with a Vet Check at the Fairgrounds in Helena. That evening, there is a meet and greet and spaghetti feed at the Fairgrounds. Meanwhile, Lincoln is hosting something called the “Delectable Delights Contest” and a family friendly dance, which could make for a good last minute Valentine’s Day date, should you be in need of such a thing. The 350 mile race starts at 10:00am on Saturday. The restart is at 2:00pm in Lincoln on Sunday, and the 100 mile races start at 3:00pm on Sunday. The 350 mile awards ceremony takes place on Wednesday the 19, in Helena.
Visit racetothesky.org for a full schedule, race map and musher bios.
View our video of the Race to the Sky from a previous year!
Swish and Glide on the Continental Divide
Inspired by the coming Olympics, we have decided to experiment with snow sports, specifically cross-country skiing, which has the distinct attraction of being immensely cheaper than its alpine cousin so off we went to Chief Joseph Pass, outside of Wisdom.
As we stopped at a trail crossroad to look at a map, we saw a figure hurtling down the steep trail to our left. The dark figure was crouching low on his skis, pelting down the hill with an impressive amount of grace. We shuffled as quickly as we could to the side of the path, out of his way. Just as he neared the fork in the trails, he toppled over in a flurry of skis and a cloud of snow. Sprawled on the trail, he looked up at us, beard coated in snow and said, "It's my first time. I didn't want to run into those trees."
There was, we assured him, no judgment from us. Neither my wife nor I have the slightest clue how to stop (or for that matter, do much steering) while going downhill on cross-country skis, and I have an unfathomable tendency to topple over while skiing on the flats. Fortunately, cross-country skiing seems a very welcoming sport. When we first tried cross-country a few weeks ago, a passing stranger showed us how to ski up hills, a good thing too, otherwise we would have spent the entire day mere yards from the trailhead. Later in the day, another stranger explained the concept of going down hills without crashing (having downhill skied quite a bit, I didn't pay much attention. I am here to report that the two types of skiing are not interchangeable). Our trip to Chief Joseph Pass last weekend was equally welcoming.
The ski trails spider web around Chief Joseph Pass in a convoluted network of over twenty six kilometers of easy, medium and hard (green, blue and black) routes. Maps of the area show less developed roads and trails that stretch out even further. Being utter novices, we stuck to the green trails. In all I think we skied five or six kilometers. At a gentle pace (and a break in the warming hut) it took us a little over three hours. Three glorious hours. Volunteers from the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club groom the trails each week and maintain the whole area very professionally. The bright blue sky glinted over green-black pines heavy with fresh snow. The only sounds were the muffled swish of skis and the squeaks as we pushed our poles into the fresh powder (also the panting as I labored my way up the hills, but that is neither here nor there).
The warming hut is a big cabin with a loft and a basement. It sits up the trail maybe a kilometer from the parking lot. A huge kettle of water steams on a raging wood stove in the middle of the room. Packets of hot chocolate and apple cider, donated by the Loose Caboose in Missoula, sit on the counter of the small kitchenette. Signs on the walls ask visitors to keep the door shut, be responsible and conserve the drinking water, which gets drug in on a sled every day. Three long pine tables, surrounded by benches, accommodate skiers eating lunch or playing board games from the cabin's shelves. The heat from the fire and our aching muscles lulled us into drowsiness, so that it was difficult to focus even on finishing a game of cribbage. I am not, I grant you, an authority on warming huts, but that one has to be a model of its kind.
The last kilometer of trail slid by, and we got to our car as the shadows lengthened to dusk, tired and hungry but content. We knew as we drove down the road, a fingernail moon rising over the mountains, that good food, good beer, and good music awaited our return from a day of adventure in SouthWest Montana.
Some things I've learned:
- Wear layers. Cross-country skiing can be a workout. Stay safe and warm obviously, but on a sunny day chances are you'll cuss your heavy parka the whole time.
- Ear muffs are a great invention. Hats are way too hot, but if you take off your hat your ears will freeze.
- Bring plenty of water. I don't want to scare you away, but it can be a work out, and eating snow just isn't the same as guzzling water. Also bring energy filled healthy snacks.
- Wear water wicking inner layers and water proof outer layers. You will sweat. Also, you will fall.
- Bring a camera. Remember to use it. Don't drop it in the snow
- Where: Chief Joseph Pass -Highway 43, twenty five miles from Wisdom. Less than a mile east of Lost Trail Powder Mountain Ski Area.
- Price: Free. The area exists on donations, and grants. There is a donation box at the parking lot. Be sure to sign in at the trailhead, grant money depends on how many people use the trails.
- Equipment: You will need skis. Ski rentals are around $10 a day, and you can get them at most sporting goods stores.
Montana's Ocean View
The National Weather Service's winter storm warning for today
reminded me of some research I did a while back about Montana's tropical past. So, brew a cup of something warm, plan a cross-country ski trip
for this weekend, and imagine yourself on Montana's tropical beaches. Or, you know, get back to work, whichever you prefer.
Three hundred fifty million years ago, a warm shallow sea covered the area of what are now the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Actually, the ocean level was so high that most of the western hemisphere was underwater. People who know about such things compare the water that covered Montana to the Gulf of Mexico-warm, shallow, and thick with tiny marine organisms. When these creatures died, their bodies sank into the muddy sea bed. Over time (millions and millions of years) their skeletons compressed and metamorphosed into Madison Limestone-the pale gray rock so common in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
Limestone is an interesting material. On the one hand, it is porous and calcite (the main ingredient in both limestone and Tums) is relatively easy to dissolve, leading to the creation of the spectacular formations of the Lewis and Clark Caverns and the other caverns that dot Southwest Montana. On the other hand, Montana's dry climate and alkaline soil makes Madison Limestone the most durable rock in Montana. Most of Montana's mountains feature limestone pinnacles, and most of the cliffs and ridges and most noticeable features (like the dramatic canyon along the Clark Fork, or the Beaverhead formation by Dillon) are Madison Limestone. Limestone's durability in the Montana climate also means that it has featured in many of the state's iconic buildings, like the Montana State Capitol.
Tags: geology, intro science, Lewis and Clark Caverns, Dillon, Montana State Capital
A Camel Runs Through It
Take a moment and picture Virginia City's main street in July of 1865. It's the height of the gold rush, so quite a few people wander around, doing their Saturday shopping. Horses wait patiently at hitching posts. Perhaps a few wagons or mule trains unload their goods. Although too early in the day for much carousing, don't be surprised to see a wild-eyed bronco careening down the street. A classic mining camp scene.
Now answer me this, did a train of camels plod through your imagining, humps swaying precariously as they strode down Virginia City's steep street? No? Well they should have. Although not as iconic of the American West as, say, the horse, camels had a brief but storied career in Montana's gold fields. According to historian Ellen Baumler, for a few years in the 1860s, camel trains were a frequent sight on Montana trails. In a curious way, it makes sense. While a mule could carry maybe 250 pounds and travel ten to fifteen miles a day, a camel could easily haul 800 to 1,000 pounds, and travel over thirty miles a day. Camels could make week-long trips without water, would eat anything they found, and their hoofless feet had no problems with Montana's steep, rocky trails. Oh, and their clear third eyelid that helps them see in sandstorms? Also very useful in blizzards, as it happens.
Image from Beartooth NBC
A blurb in the July 29, 1865 edition of Virginia City's Montana Post notes that a train of camels stopped traffic as a crowd gathered to watch the ungainly animals take on a load, and the books that I've noted down below have other tales of camels in Montana.
Unfortunately, camels just didn't fit. Apparently they smell terrible, and any horse or mule that caught a whiff of camel scent would panic and bolt, leaving whatever they happened to be carrying strewn across the trail. And, while the Post said that they behaved with "lamb-like docility," camels can be violent grudge holders, making handling them treacherous. By 1867, camels were the stuff of legends in Montana. I don't know about you, but I always get a chuckle out of imaging those exotic "ships of the desert" roaming around the Montana landscape.
More on Camels in Montana:
Donald C. Miller, Ghost Towns of Montana: A Classic Tour Through the Treasure State's
Historical Sites (Globe Pequot, 2008) 50.
Ellen Baumler, Montana Moments: History on the Go (Montana Historical Society, 2010) 2,
Ellen Baumler, "When Camels Came Back to Montana," Montana: The Magazine of Western
History 50, 2 (Montana Historical Society, 2000).
Tags: history, books, newspapers, animals, Virginia City
The Sheep and the Queen
Montana loves royalty. Other people’s royalty. It goes without saying that Montanan’s would not respond well to a monarch trying to rule us, but visiting us? That we enjoy. The town of Silver Star boasts that Prince Edward (later, Edward VII) spent three nights in the Silver Star Hotel in 1878 (frankly, I’ve been hard pressed to find evidence that Edward ever visited Montana, if anybody could point me towards a source, I’d appreciate it). Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied earned his place in Montana lore by exploring and documenting the peoples and animals of the Missouri and Marias rivers in the 1830s. Then there’s the recently revealed story of Prince William spending a summer in Montana in 1992. To my mind, however, the best tale of a royal visit comes from the Twentieth Century.
In 1926, Queen Marie of Romania travelled by train from New York to Washington State. Apparently, the point of the journey was to see how Americans lived, and to dedicate a museum/curiosity shop in Washington, owned by Sam Hill, the organizer of the trip. That seems like an awful big production just to open a curiosity shop, and newspapers at the time suspected that she was really trying to schmooze the U.S. into giving Romania a loan. But, back to the story. Queen Marie took the Northern Pacific Railroad through Montana, which, she had heard, was home to the finest sheep in the world. She demanded to see a flock of these famous sheep. Organizers contacted Soren Beck, who ran a sheep ranch out of Garrison and arranged for him to have the pick of his flock grazing near the railroad tracks. When the train made its brief stop at the ranch, Queen Marie declared, “In the state of Montana, amid rugged and beautiful mountains, whose flanks are covered with the longest, finest grass I have ever seen, I viewed for a moment a flock of sheep of finest wool. These sheep were the property of Soren Beck, one of the world’s most successful sheep men.”
His friends joked that Beck never sold a single sheep from that band. He felt his “royal” sheep were too good for market.
The story of Soren and the Queen comes from the Montana Stockgrowers Association collection of histories of Montana’s oldest ranches: The Weak Ones Turned Back, The Cowards Never Started: A Century of Ranching in Montana (Word Wright, 2009).
Tags: history, Montana Characters, agriculture, railroads
Take a Ramble through Ivan Doig's Work Song
No trip is complete without a book or two-meticulously researched and preferably adventurous-to give a sense of wherever you visit. If you're visiting Butte, then Ivan Doig's Work Song
fits the ticket. If the polar vortex has you feeling like you never want to leave your house again, well, Work Song
can entertain you there too.
The book's narrator, smooth-talking Morris Morgan, arrives in Butte in 1919 with little concept of the city beyond the vague propaganda promise of the "Richest Hill on Earth." He quickly finds that in a town where the moderate Unions, the socialist International Workers of the World and the corporate Anaconda Company constantly battle for control, it is impossible not to take sides. Even showing up can embroil you in the rough politics of the city. Morrie's smooth tongue and quick wits get him into as many scrapes as they get him out of and as we follow his adventures we also receive a delightfully entertaining primer into the culture and history of Butte. Throughout the narrative, Doig weaves in details of Butte-the hope of the Hill, the blatant corruption, the brutal working conditions, the boozing, gambling, and prostitution-that have made the Butte heyday famously infamous. There are few things more satisfying than visiting a place you've read about, and Doig's beautifully described city easily entwines with the Butte of today. One almost expects to bump into his colorful characters while wandering the hilly streets of town. Things to do while reading the book: Visit Butte.
Take the Old Trolley No. 1
for a tour of Butte history. The Mineral Museum
, World Museum of Mining
, and the Dumas Victorian Brothel Museum
all have displays that will help you understand the book. Or, wander through the streets, marveling at the magnificent turn-of-the-century architecture. Doig writes that Butte looked "as if bits of Chicago's State Street or New York's Fifth Avenue had been crated up and shipped west." Visit Deer Lodge.
In the book, Sam Sandison owned a ranch north of Butte. In reality, the best-known ranch in the region was the one that Conrad Kohrs bought from Johnny Grant in 1866. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch
of today is a fifteen hundred acre interactive National Historic Site that illustrates the development of Montana agriculture from the 1850s to the 1960s. The land of the modern ranch formed the headquarters of Con Kohrs' ten million acre fiefdom. Read Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman.
I know I've already recommended it (Nov 1), but I'll do it again. While Morrie tells the story of Butte through the eyes of the workers, the first quarter of this New York Times Bestseller tracks the rise of W.A. Clark, one of Montana's "Copper Kings" and most powerful men.Read Forty Years on the Frontier by Granville Stuart
. A quintessential Montana pioneer, Stuart tried his hand at just about everything, from trapping to prospecting to cattle ranching. He was even Butte's librarian for a time. Doig based the unforgettable character of Samuel S. Sandison, including a dark and mysterious page of his past, on Granville Stuart.
Ice Age Sculptures
Around 140,000 years ago, glaciers flowed south, carving out the valleys around Ovando, in northern SouthWest Montana. As the Bull Lake Ice Age ended, the glaciers retreated from the area. During the Pinedale Ice Age, between 60,000 and 15,000 years ago, ice covered the region once again. Glaciers again moved into the Ovando/Helmville area, carrying with them rocks and debris-called glacial till-from further north. As the glaciers melted, around 15,000 years ago, they left behind mounds of debris. We can still see these piles of debris-called moraines-in the steep hills around Ovando. The places between the moraines filled with glacial water, forming the area's many lakes, ponds and wetlands. Some of the ice got buried under till. When these chunks of ice finally melted, the till sank, causing large depressions, called kettles. These powerful glaciers also carved the towering cliffs and high peaks of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wilderness Areas. Not all of the debris got deposited in kettles and moraines. As they melted, huge streams of meltwater carried sand, mud and gravel to the east and north, creating the fertile valleys along the Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers.
As you travel through Southwest Montana, especially around Montana Highway 200, you can see glaciers' footprints all over the region, building mountains and carving valleys. If you know what you are looking for, you can follow the Ice Ages' movements through Montana. For more information, visit the Montana Department of Transportation's geomarkers page, or drive along Highway 200, and look for the tell-tale signs.
Moraines and Mountains
west of Ovando on Highway 200
Tags: geology, intro science, highway markers, roadtrips, Ovando, Helmville