Friday, July 31, 2009

Historic Lewistown ...

Since I mentioned the Judith Theatre in Lewistown yesterday, I thought I'd follow up with an historic photo of the place. The Judith was built way back in 1914, but this shot is probably from the 30s or so. You can see the large sign out in front noting that the building was part of the Fox chain. The building next door to the Judith was the Lewistown Elks Home.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Movie palaces ...

I'm a huge fan of old movie theaters ... the new multiplexes just can't compare, and watching a DVD at home is really no fun at all. But there aren't all that many left, especially ones that still show movies.

As far as the big movie palaces go ... well, you can still see a film at the Wilma in Missoula, but the Ellen in Bozeman and the Fox in Billings have been turned into performing arts venues, which in a way is a little sad. You'll have better luck in some of Montana's smaller communities -- there's the Judith up in Lewistown, and the wonderful Roxy out in Forsyth. And there are lots of old theatre buildings that are now closed, but continue to be very evocative places. One of my favorites in that category is the Yucca, in the little town of Hysham.

Without a doubt, though, the most amazing movie theatre in Montana is the Washoe, in downtown Anaconda. Opened in 1936, the Washoe is a 1,000-seat Art Deco masterpiece ... and the best part is that it still shows movies, just as its builders intended. This is a shot of the Washoe's magnificent auditorium, photographed by Jet Lowe in 1979 for the Historic American Buildings Survey:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Downtown Winifred ...

A couple of years ago, I thought it would be a fun project to take photos of small Montana towns and upload them to Wikipedia. Well, the ramshackle and biased editing I saw on Wikipedia quickly got to me, and the idea didn't last very long.

I did a few such photos, though, and here's one of them: this is the Main Street of Winifred, up in Fergus County. The town has lost a lot, but there's still some things to see ... like the handsome old Milwaukee Road depot over by the grain elevators. And the country around there is some of my favorite in the state.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Variety of spectacle ...

I've already mentioned John Gunther's famous 1947 book Inside U.S.A., which I think is one of the best single-volume studies of America that's ever been written. The book's Montana chapter is both fascinating and eminently quotable, and this blog will probably make use of it a number of times.

Here's a short excerpt from Inside U.S.A. that I particularly like, given my fondness for roadtrips. It suggests the fascination of the Easterner, wandering the new and largely-unfamiliar West:
From Helena I drove up to Great Falls. Talk about variety of spectacle! Hawks on fence posts, that only become frightened and fly away when you stop; Frenchy's Air Conditioned Cafe, with pretty girls lying about in hammocks; dead rattlesnakes; signs GAME CROSSING 1000 FEET AHEAD and an electric eye to count what crosses; girls in pigtails and bright habits riding out from the dude ranches; the house where Gary Cooper was born; "snow fences" to keep the road clear in winter, though it was 91 degrees in the shade -- we saw all this among much else.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Steamboat days ...

Getting to Montana was pretty difficult before the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s ... land travel was torturously slow, especially in the winter, and roads were pretty much nonexistent. Steamboats provided a better alternative, though of course the routes were limited and the service was very seasonal.

Steamboat traffic in Montana was always fairly minimal, and was mostly on the Missouri River; boats would travel upstream as far as Fort Benton, where the cargo would be transferred to wagons destined for Helena and beyond. A far smaller (and less successful) level of service also existed on the lower Yellowstone River beginning in the 1860s, though, as evidenced by this well-known photo of the little steamer "Fort Pierre," tied up on the shore at Glendive. River traffic on the Yellowstone pretty much ended after 1882, when the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed its line into the area.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tobacco Root Mountains ...

Just a quick photo this morning ... a shot I took in the fall of 2004. The vantage point is a little north of Norris, and we're looking west into the lovely Tobacco Root Mountains. This is mostly ranch country today, but it was the scene of much prospecting and mining activity during Montana's earliest pioneer years.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Evel days ...

One thing you've gotta say about Butte -- over the last few years the town has gotten pretty good at staging summertime events designed to separate the imprudent visitor from his hard-earned money. Easily the most egregious of these is "Evel Knieviel Days," which is still going strong despite the fact that the event's namesake died a year and a half ago.

Designed mostly to seduce unwary motorcyclists on their way to the big rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, Evel Knievel Days includes a handful of activities and a street fair heavily supported by army recruiters and chewing tobacco makers. The street food is surprisingly awful, but the town makes up for it by taking full advantage of the fact that it has no open container law. And that, really, is the underlying attraction for all of Butte's events in the first place.

Anyhow, Evel Days is going on this weekend. I'm not attending, so here's a representative shot from the 2007 shindig.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Plenty of room and air ...

(Today's quote was suggested by my friend Dale ... I appreciated the idea, and want to encourage anyone else with suggestions or requests to let me know!)

Those of you who were big Elvis Presley fans back in the day might know one of the stories of a Montana author named Dan Cushman -- he wrote a book called Stay Away, Joe in 1953 that was later made into a Presley film. Cushman was a busy author who enjoyed some popularity in the middle years of the twentieth century, though his work is now fading into obscurity.

Cushman lived in north-central Montana for most of his life, moving with his family from Minnesota to the tiny town of Box Elder when he was a child. This quote, from Cushman's 1975 autobiography Plenty of Room and Air, describes his father's arrival in Montana as he searched for a new family home:
I don't know why he bought a ticket to such an unlikely place as Box Elder, but as soon as he stepped off the train he knew it was what he was looking for. He had the sense of being set free. Of not being hemmed in. He could see and breathe. And nobody was standing at his elbow, telling him to do this and that.
"I'd finally got out of the woods," he said.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Beautiful and ugly ...

When you start spending a lot of time with photography, one of the first things you realize is that there are a lot of things in the world that are pretty ugly ... but that also tend to make interesting photographs.

High-voltage power lines are near the top of that list for me: I think they're a blight on the landscape, but they're always fun to photograph. I shot this picture a couple of years ago, on a dirt road a few miles northeast of Toston, heading up into the Big Belt Mountains.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Details ...

It's interesting, what you remember when traveling ... how sometimes the "big" things get forgotten in favor of a series of minor little moments, the details that end up sticking with you and becoming surprisingly evocative many years later.

Like this little sign, which I saw at an abandoned gas station in Ryegate a while back. Duplicates of this notice used to be part of every traveler's rest-stop ritual a few decades ago, but we hardly see them anymore. Finding this one brought back memories of hundreds of family trips from my childhood.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Night ...

There's something very evocative about driving at night ... especially out here, where the roads are nearly empty and the distances are long and the skies go on forever.

I took this shot a couple of years ago, about halfway between Bozeman and Butte, just a little after sunset. Even though I was on an interstate, I had to wait and wait for some cars to pass by so I could take my photo.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Every trip has to end ...

When I was a kid, the person I most wanted to be like was Charles Kuralt, the CBS newsman. Back then, he and his camera crew were wandering around the country in a motor home, doing human-interest stories for Walter Cronkite's evening newscast. It sounded like the most wonderful life imaginable to me, and my fondness for Kuralt never wavered ... even after his death, when it was discovered that he'd lived a double life for decades, keeping a mistress squirreled away in a rural Montana valley. If anything, that revelation made him seem cooler to me than ever.

Kuralt published an autobiography in 1990 called A Life on the Road, which of course completely failed to mention the paramour -- but that did include a final chapter called "A Place to Come Home To." The ending fondly described the Montana acreage he had purchased for her, and where the two spent their shared time. (The spot is a few miles from Twin Bridges, not far from the Beaverhead River.) It's an evocative and elegiac piece, and here are its last couple of paragraphs:
The sun will be going down soon, and the big brown trout will soon be swimming out from beneath the logjam on the river to sip their supper. A male pheasant in full plumage just strutted past the window without his harem. A white-tailed doe and her two fawns have been passing every evening, and I expect them shortly.

I hear an owl hooting from the top of a not-yet-fallen beaver-girdled cottonwood. A coyote is moaning somewhere in the dry hills that look down on this small, green, river-bottom Eden. The moon is rising.

I love this place. When I am here, I think I would be happy never to leave it. Every trip has to end.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Petrified Tree Bridge ...

Here's another old postcard, this one providing further proof that -- despite popular belief -- there's actually fascinating topography in eastern Montana. The "Petrified Tree Bridge" was a few miles from Terry, out in Prairie County. This is a pretty well-known old postcard, and the location was also a setting used by the noted frontier photographer Evelyn Cameron.

That's about all I know about the Petrified Tree Bridge, though ... and in fact I'm not even sure if the thing is still there. This old postcard is pretty much the only thing that shows up in a Google search. I guess I'll have to go looking someday.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The State Theatre ...

I love exploring old buildings, and don't get to do it anywhere often enough. If I could pick one building in Montana to see the inside of, this might be it: the old State Theatre in Harlowton. Considering the size of the town, it's a huge, huge building, looming over the rest of Main Street, and it's been abandoned for decades.

Harlo is a great little town. I shot this photo about three years ago while passing through one morning ... I really need to go back there and spend a little more time with my camera.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Most photographed ...

When one photoblogs about Montana, it's of course extremely difficult to not overwhelm the journal with shots of Glacier National Park. I'm trying very hard to keep a balance, here ... but Glacier's my favorite place on earth and so occasionally I need to indulge.

This is perhaps the single most photographed view in the entire state, and justifiably so ... I've taken roughly a million shots there, myself. The view is of St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island, and I shot this on a cloudy September day about two years ago.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Everyone else's business ...

Today's quote is from Dayton Duncan's 1993 book, Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier, a volume I can definitely recommend. The volume is a narrative describing visits to the most thinly-populated regions of the lower 48 United States ... and of course the area around Jordan, Montana fits the bill. These paragraphs give a quick snapshot of the feel of the region and its communities.
Strangers to Garfield County and other parts of the contemporary frontier often experience what can best be described as a double case of the bends. The first, a response to a landscape comparatively devoid of inhabitants, is an almost physical decompression: no people, no buildings, no traffic, so much sky. You find yourself taking deep gulps of air, unsure whether you're unwinding from the press of humanity or becoming uneasy from the palpable remoteness. Paradoxically, the second is a sense of social claustrophobia. The communities you encounter may be the most geographically dispersed in the nation, but they're often the most closely knit.

"Everyone knows everyone else's business, but they'll always help you when you're in trouble" -- it was a constant refrain I heard, repeated virtually word for word so many times I came to consider it the opening stanza of the region's national anthem. As the phrase itself implies, there are two sides to this neighborliness. Anonymity is not an option. If the sparsely settled frontier was ever a refuge for Americans seeking permanent escape from society's embrace, it no longer offers such sanctuary. Hermit personalities would do better by taking an apartment in New York City and barring their doors.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Beans and sheepherders' hors d'oeuvres ...

Here's a shot I took of the interior of the Jersey Lilly Saloon in Ingomar, which tragically closed last winter ... a classic Montana bar in every sense of the word. Pressed-metal ceiling, lots of animal heads, ancient backbar, cowboy hats.

It was a great place to stop for a meal, too. For years, the Jersey was famous for its beans, which were brought to your table (or barstool) in ancient enamelware pans. And you could also get something called "sheepherders' hors d'oeuvres" -- do-it-yourself appetizers that consisted of slices of processed cheese, onion, and orange, all resting atop a Saltine cracker. Both menu items were the creations of Bill Seward, the ex-boxer who owned the bar for decades and was one of the great characters of eastern Montana.

I'm really going to miss this place ... and Rosebud County just won't be the same without it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bad news ...

They say that bad news travels fast, but in this case it took a few months. Not long ago, I heard a rumor that the Jersey Lilly Saloon out in Ingomar finally closed down last winter, and yesterday a friend in Forsyth confirmed the story for me. The Jersey was my favorite bar in Montana by far, and the news broke my heart.

Here's a photo of the Jersey I took back in 2005. It was almost all that was left of Ingomar, and it was the only gathering spot for a good 30 miles in any direction. The place had been an eastern Montana landmark for decades.

We'll take a look inside the Jersey Lilly tomorrow.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Prairie storm ...

Other than Travels with Charley, which remains my favorite, the first book-length travel narrative I probably read was Blue Highways: A Journey into America, by William Least Heat Moon. I was working as a bellman in Glacier Park in the summer of 1983, and made a trip to a little Kalispell bookshop specifically to buy the thing.

Though it's a fine book, I guess I ended up being a little disappointed in it ... the tone didn't resonate with me, somehow, and the author chose to cross Montana on US Highway 2, which isn't my favorite route across the state (east of about Cut Bank, anyway). It's got some very evocative passages in it, though, like this one describing a night beneath a prairie storm in Wolf Point:
I had to go back to the highway for dinner at a truck stop. Something moved in there -- I couldn't say what. Six people sat in the cafe, in the light and warmth, almost assured by the jukebox, and filled their stomachs; yet there was an edge to the voices, to the faces. From a thousand feet up, the prairie storm, pouring cold water on the little cafe glowing in the blackness, held us all. Even as we ate our soup and steak and eggs, we felt the sky.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer appreciation ...

Montana's in the midst of a few days of absolutely glorious mid-summer life: temperatures in the 80s, everything green and lovely, shorts and flip-flops abound. And we should appreciate it all the more, since summers in Montana are so maddeningly brief.

I thought I'd remind us all of that fact by posting the photo below this morning -- a late-afternoon shot of Bozeman taken on a ridiculously-frigid day last December. Things will look like this again soon enough ...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hazy mountains ...

I took this photo a couple of years ago, near the spot where Rock Creek enters the Clark Fork River, over in Missoula County:

Friday, July 10, 2009

A last holdout ...

Just a quick quote for today, one that's something of a follow-up to Tuesday's entry. This is from the journalist David Lamb and his 1993 book, A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans.
In every true Montanan there is something that says, "I am a last holdout."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Traffic jam ...

I really love driving, though the only way to do it is out in rural America ... big-city traffic doesn't do a thing for me. But that doesn't mean we don't have traffic jams out here. Here's one that I encountered a couple months ago, just a little south of Eden Bridge in the lower Smith River country.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Symbols ...

For years now, Montana has used the bison skull as one of its unofficial state symbols. This is probably due to Charlie Russell, who used an outline of a bison skull as part of the signature on his paintings. Among other places, the skull has been incorporated into our license plate designs for decades ... and rather oddly, it was also the main design element in the Montana state quarter.

And of course, animal skulls have been used as decorative elements at western ranches for generations. I don't think this is a bison, but I found this skull adorning the wall of a beautiful old stone building at the old Three Circle Ranch near the little town of Birney, down in the Tongue River country.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rabidly Possessive Montanans ...

Though I wasn't born in Montana, I've lived here pretty much my whole adult life ... watching lots of other newcomers arrive in the state, and seeing many of them leave. This place has a lot of appeal to folks, though most of those who move here don't stay; long winters and small-town life aren't for everyone. But some of us do find a home here, and we become very proud of the state ... in part for the very qualities that drive others away.

Those thoughts bring to mind a quote from the outdoor writer Glenn Law, in an essay called "More than Skin Deep." The piece was published in a 1991 anthology called Montana Spaces.
Just as converts make the best Catholics, so newcomers make the most rabidly possessive Montanans. Everyone who moves to Montana wants to be the last one allowed in.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Rainbow Bar ...

Today's photo is another stop on our tour of small-town Montana bars and their great old signs. The Rainbow Bar is located in the tiny Fergus County town of Hilger, in a building that long ago housed the local bank. The neon tubes on this sign have probably been broken for decades, but it's still a very handsome addition to the central Montana landscape.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Marching ...

The Fourth of July is a time for patriotic reflections, of course, but in Bozeman this year it was also a venue for political expression. There were two marches down the town's Main Street yesterday morning ... one was sponsored by an angry, far-right group, but the other was far more good-natured, designed to poke a bit of fun at the right-wingers.

My dog and I marched with the latter group, a very genial bunch united under the satirical name, "The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus." It was a fine time, and the perfect way to celebrate the Fourth. I took this photo a few minutes after the march ended, and it seemed like a good reflection of the holiday.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The North Coast and the Olympian ...

Yesterday a friend of mine who's interested in railroads jokingly complained to me that this blog has been ignoring the Northern Pacific, one of the three east-west transcontinental railroads that once traversed the state. That same day, the current issue of South Dakota History arrived in my mailbox, and it featured a reproduction of a typescript journal that included a journey on the Northern Pacific in Montana. So even though the quote is a bit longer than usual, I thought I'd reproduce it here.

This is part of a December 1932 journal entry by a young man named Philip Cummings, who was traveling from Cody, Wyoming to South Dakota for the holidays. Nothing profound, I suppose, but full of great details on railroad travel of the era ... and on how to spend a cold winter night in Billings.
We reached frigid Billings, Montana about twenty minutes of seven, but before that I had finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the long stream of consciousness of James Joyce. There seem at times unnecessary crudities of language and thought. As a writer of vivid and concentrated descriptions there could be no one better. In Billings we went to the Hotel Northern Grill for a late dinner. There was seafood on the menu and I was not long in getting oysters and scallops. I hope they came from the Pacific, otherwise they would be eligible for the old age pension. Some of the boys who finished early went to the billiard room in the basement, then we all gathered and went to the Fox theatre to see Clive Brook do a fine bit of acting in Sherlock Holmes. The Fox theatre there is so different from the one I know best, that of Saint Louis, which is in the oriental temple motif. The Billings "Fox" is in the modern clear-cut severe style with nickel-plating and medallions with severe symbolic figures.

After the movies we went back to the hotel for a while and then straggled down to the station. Our car was on a siding but very warm, being hitched to the steam line. We went between the car and the station, then ran every now and then into the Northern Pacific restaurant for coffee and fresh doughnuts.

The North Coast Limited was half an hour and then three quarters of an hour late on the arrival-board. Finally at 1:17 a.m. the headlight flashed in the dim distance down the track. We were all expectancy but when the light was nearly to the end of the platform, it stopped. We waited and wondered what had happened and when the train finally pulled in we found that the air-line had become disconnected just there. We all got into the car, although some had been in bed some time. I said good-bye to those awake and went to bed. Due to arise at 3:45 to get out at Miles City, I knew we were late so didn't get up until 4:15. We arrived at 5:20 a.m. I was very much afraid that the Milwaukee train, the Olympian, might have been on time due to the long stretch they have electrified; however they were half an hour late and I had ten minutes' grace. I bought my ticket and walked up the platform to a little roofed-over space where an old stage coach stood in mute testimony of the past.

Since riding on the Olympian, I could never wish to ride on a better train. The cars are vivid rust-orange and red and the inside appointments are the last word. The food service was great and the luxury of an elegant haircut was appreciable as were the comforts of the observation car. Here I met a charming Japanese gentleman and we discussed everything from the Nippon Yusen Kaisha and the Osaka Kusen Kaisha to philology. On the Olympian I saw the first of the tourist sleeping cars that I have heard of. It seemed like an old style Pullman more than anything else.

(The full article, by the way, is well worth reading ... and pages 159-160 of the essay include a description of a second Montana rail journey. For those who are interested, it's titled, "Capital City Sojourn: The Pierre Journal of Philip H. Cummings, December 1932 to January 1933," edited by Patricia A. Billingsley and published in the Summer, 2009 issue of South Dakota History. Many thanks to Pat Billingsley for her willingness to see such a substantial quote from the journal reproduced here.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Packers ...

I thought I'd follow up on yesterday's post about small-town gathering places by posting a photo of another one ... proving that not all are as picturesque as the café in Willow Creek. This is Packer's Roost, a little ways outside of Coram in Bad Rock Canyon, up in Flathead County. Certain evenings, it can be quite an adventuresome place.

I have to confess that I spent a bit of time at Packers back in the day. It was one of a long series of watering holes known colloquially as "The Trapline," extending from Glacier Park all the way to Kalispell. "Running the Trapline" was a favorite nocturnal activity for the young and foolish back then, and maybe it still is.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Small-town cafés ...

In Montana's small towns, there are nearly always one or two informal gathering places ... settings where people go to hang out, see their neighbors, and chat. Such places are terribly important to a town, hosting a social hub that keeps a community connected and feeling like, well ... like a community.

Out here, the most important of those places is nearly always a bar, but if a town's lucky it will also have a little café ... the sort of place where the old men will gather for coffee around a big table every morning, just to sit and talk for hours. This is one such place, the café in the little Gallatin County town of Willow Creek. It's a little snazzier-looking than most such places, partly because the café tries to attract the yuppies from Bozeman, but it still does the job. And there's a great bar in the next room, to boot!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

To die in Milltown ...

In any list of great Montana poets, Richard Hugo would be at or near the very top. Hugo was a long time faculty member at the University of Montana, a school known for its fine creative writing program, and his poems are often wonderfully-somber elegies for western Montana and its people.

Today's quote is the last stanza from a poem by Hugo called "To Die in Milltown," published in a 1973 collection called, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir:
To die in Milltown, die at 6 P.M.
The fast train west rattles your bourbon warm.
The latest joke is on the early drunk:
sing one more chorus and the nun you love
will dance here out of habit. To live
stay put. The Blackfoot, any river
has a million years to lend, and weather's
always wild to look at down the Hellgate --
solid grey forever trailing off white rain.
Our drinks are full of sun. These aging eagles
climb the river on their own.