Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The North Fork ...

Speaking of the North Fork, here's a photograph I took of it last summer ... this is maybe 25 miles south of the border. In a state with many lovely rivers, this is one of the loveliest.

The land on the far side of the river is part of Glacier National Park.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Forgotten Frontier ...

Montana's northern boundary is an international frontier, 545 miles long ... and probably one of the quietest boundary lines in existence. Only one or two of the border crossings even qualifies as being slightly busy, and most of the customs stations are downright bucolic. I remember a few years ago, returning from Canada at a spot called Whitlash, where the American immigration guy kept me in his office for a good hour ... not because he was the least bit suspicious, but because he just wanted someone to talk to. (Mostly, we discussed classic sportscars ...)

Here's a shot I took last summer of what was definitely the coolest place to cross from Canada into Montana, though you can't legally do it anymore. The sign is nailed to a tree on the bank of the North Fork of the Flathead River, and until the 1990s canoeists and rafters floating down from British Columbia could just pull ashore here, and walk over to the customs station a quarter-mile away. But budget cuts and international paranoia have ended this friendly practice, and the days of international river trips here are over. Too bad ...

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Great Falls ...

Yesterday's post prompted me to reflect on what Lewis & Clark might have thought of the Great Falls of the Missouri, so I pulled out Bernard DeVoto's compilation of their journals and started to read. Apparently Lewis first saw the falls on June 13, 1805:
I had proceded on this course about two miles with Goodrich at some distance behind me whin my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further I saw the spray arrise above the plain like a collumn of smoke which would freqently dispear again in an instant caused I presume by the wind which blew pretty hard from the S.W. I did not however loose my direction to this point which soon began to make a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri.
Lewis then wrote a long and detailed description of the falls, doing his best to record both the physical details of the place and its beauty. And then he wrote this when he was done:
after wrighting this imperfect description I again viewed the falls and was so much disgusted with the imperfect idea which it conveyed of the scene that I determined to draw my pen across it and begin agin, but then reflected that I could not perhaps succeed better than pening the first impressions of the mind;
Though the portage itself was a chore, the falls were an extraordinary and lovely place for the explorers ... and they remained such for another century. It's too bad we've ruined so much of it now with dams and reservoirs.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The portage ...

It turns out that I've taken a number of pictures of Fort Benton bronze, so here's one more for today. This is a detail of a larger piece depicting Lewis & Clark's portage of the Great Falls of the Missouri ... and the handsome quadruped on the right is of course Seaman the Newfoundland.

A quick web search failed to reveal the name of either the artist or the work, but I'll keep looking.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Unexpected bronze ...

One of the best things about traveling is the opportunity to discover the unexpected ... going out exploring, and seeing something that you hadn't planned on. And the discovery doesn't have to be spectacular for it to be interesting.

Her's an example: a bronze sculpture that I came across while wandering around Fort Benton last fall. I was surprised to see that the statue is a likeness of the late actor George Montgomery, and I wondered what the heck it was doing in Fort Benton. It turns out that Montgomery was born in the little Montana town of Brady -- but that's an hour's drive away, so I'm still not sure what he's doing there.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Setting sun ...

One more sunset shot ... this one was taken just a few minutes after the photo I posted yesterday:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another Montana sunset ...

I've mentioned several times that I'm a sucker for a good sunset ... and I was looking at my assortment of sunset photos again recently, so here's another one for you. I shot this back in 2007, on I-90 through the Gallatin Valley -- somewhere between Belgrade and Manhattan, I think:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sharing your day ...

After getting an e-mail from a friend I thought I'd go back to Ingomar for one more photo.

Ingomar is definitely one of my favorite Montana towns, and there's no doubt that per capita,the place has more claims to fame than nearly anywhere. There's the Jersey Lily, of course, which I've mentioned here before; and there's the schoolhouse-turned-bunkhouse, decorated with roomfuls of African taxidermy; and there's the little store where for years you could buy the finest homemade wool sweaters in Montana.

And then there's the fact that, for most of its life, Ingomar had absolutely no domestic water supply. Instead, water for the town came in by rail ... every few days the Milwaukee Road would fill up an old steam locomotive tender with water, haul it out to Ingomar, and park it on a siding for the locals. This kept up until the railroad was finally abandoned in 1980, forcing the government to finally build the town a water system. But still, when the railroad pulled out for good it left the old locomotive tender behind as a souvenir.

And it's still there, thirty years later, right at the entrance to town. The thing is quite a conversation piece, and a few years back an Ingomar resident thoughtfully painted a message on its rusting steel flank:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Story Mill ...

People don't usually think of Bozeman as an industrial city ... but there was actually a fair amount of it back in the day, mostly related to agriculture. The old Story Mill complex north of town is the greatest monument to that era; though it's been empty for years, it's still an impressive and majestic Bozeman landmark.

A few years ago, the Story Mill property was acquired by a developer with lots of ambition but little regard for the community, and a vast redevelopment scheme was proposed. But then the project (and the developer's fortunes) collapsed in dramatic fashion, and everything was abandoned. Now time and vandalism are taking their toll, and the future of the old mill is bleaker than ever.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ghosts ...

I've said this before, I think ... but I just can't understand why Montana's ghost town fans seem to limit their explorations to the old mining camps up in the mountains. To me, the fading farm villages out in the prairies are much more intriguing and evocative places.

Here's a shot of one of my favorites ... the little town of Ingomar out in Rosebud County. It's not quite a ghost town yet, but it's almost there.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sheep ranching ...

After my last post I remembered that I needed to say one more thing about Bill Stockton: he was also an author. In 1983 Stockton published a little volume of brief essays and thin pencil sketches, called Today I Baled Some Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat. It's an inauspicious title, but easily one of the most insightful books ever written about Montana's open spaces and ranch life ... a highly recommended read.

Here's my favorite paragraph from the book, and one of the volumes sketches:
I have no answers to the cruelities of nature on one hand and all her joys on the other; why she has devised so many ways to continue life and just as many ways to destroy it. I often wonder as I watch nature work if death is nothing more than a means of filling life with anticipation, and if life is merely a brief game of hide and seek.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Village in Winter ...

Here's a Bill Stockton painting for today ... a good representation of his later work. It's called "Village in Winter," and was painted in 1993. Like many of his pieces, it's now in the permanent collection of the Yellowstone Art Museum.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bill Stockton ...

I'm not embarrassed to admit that I'm a fan of traditional "Western" art ... the Charlie Russell sort of stuff that nearly everyone associates with Montana. It's unfortunate, though, that the genre has become a cliché ... because it's cost western art some of its respect, and because it's saddled the broader Montana art community with a stereotype that doesn't always fit. Our state has a very diverse creative legacy -- even among those who live the ranch life, it's much more than just cowboy art.

One of the artists that last statement brings to mind is a man named Bill Stockton. Bill Grew up in the country around Grassrange and Winnett, and then served in the Army in World War II. He used his GI Bill money to attend art school, and then headed off to Paris ... but then after a year, he came back to Grassrange and spent the rest of his life as a sheep rancher. He kept painting, though, and by the end of his life he had a devoted Montana following. His work was abstract and often spare, evoking the central Montana landscapes in poignant and characteristic ways.

Bill died in 2002, and was later eulogized in a poem by Rick Newby which reads, in part:
Even at the end, his line unfailing,
he painted without stinting. And we are pierced:
By tenderness, by a quiet intensity
of yearning we can scarcely bear.
This is a shot someone took of Bill out on his ranch in the 1970s ... next time, I'll give you an example of his work.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A fading Uptown ...

Speaking of Butte and its bars, here's a nocturnal shot of uptown Butte I took back in 2007. The building on the left is the M&M Bar, arguably the Mining City's most famous watering hole. For decades the M&M was open 24 hours a day -- a bar along one side of the long, narrow storefront, a greasy lunch counter along the other, and a card room in the back that traditionally offered (according to one source) at least as much gambling as the law allowed.

The M&M has fallen on hard times, though, and today the business is closed, awaiting a bankruptcy sale. Like the rest of uptown Butte, the city's fabled bars are fading away ...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wearing the green ...

Even though my entries here are behind schedule, it's almost mandatory that a post with a March 17th date include a photo from Butte. Here's a St. Patrick's Day shot from four years ago, taken inside Maloney's Bar in uptown Butte. (I was there purely as a journalist, of course!)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Gratuitous cuteness ...

Just a little bit of gratuitous cuteness for today ... this is a baby mountain goat I photographed in Glacier back in the summer of 2006:

Monday, March 15, 2010

We have commercialized Montana to death ...

The best moments of doing historic research are always the unexpected ones ... when you discover something that has absolutely no relevance to the project at hand, but is just plain interesting. Those moments alone are enough to keep me reading.

I had one such moment when I was reading up on the town of Simms for yesterday's post. I came across a volume of proceedings for the 1907 gathering of something called the Montana Horticultural Society ... who would have even guessed there had been such a thing? And among the speeches were a couple that lamented the over-development of Montana -- a topic that's definitely relevant for the Bitterroot or the Flathead today. But they were already worried about it a century ago.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from one of the essays -- this by Robert Sutherlin, the long time editor of the famous Rocky Mountain Husbandman newspaper:
In this new order of things, we lay off the land like a checker-board, every quarter section of land. i might say every forty acres, perhaps every eighty acres will have a family on it; there will be no place to play, there will be no place to build a Grange hall, no place to build a farmer's hall, no place for a school house. . . .

Now, we want roads, graveled roads, rock roads, and we want them lined with trees, and we want our country homes to be made the counterpart of our city homes. As it has been demonstrated here today by the papers that have been read, it is just as easy to have the hot and cold water comforts in the country as it is in the city, and we must have them, we must make these people contented. We have commercialized Montana to death, everything has been sacrificed, to get a bank account.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A model rural village ...

Here's one more interesting town plat, before we move on.

Back in the first decade of the twentieth century, the United States Reclamation Service was was hard at work building the Sun River Project, a large irrigation scheme designed to turn much of the Sun River valley into an agricultural paradise. As envisioned, the completed project would provide irrigated tracts to hundreds of small farmers, greatly increasing the valley's population and requiring the development of new communities.

To meet this future need, the Reclamation Service reserved land for the development of a series of small, "model" villages with a unique layout. The town plats were square, with a school tract at the exact center and eight streets radiating outward from there like spokes. There was a small business district and enough residential lots that farmers could live in town rather than out on the valuable farmland.

Ultimately, the Sun River Project served far fewer settlers than originally envisioned, and only two of the villages were actually established -- the present-day towns of Fort Shaw and Simms. The unusual town plats are still in evidence at both places ... particularly Simms, where most of the streets remain and the school is still at the center of the hub. Fewer streets remain at Fort Shaw, and Highway 200 runs right through the middle of the school tract.

Here's what Simms looks like from the air today:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Courthouse square ...

The mention of town plats in my last post made me think about the fact that very few Montana communities actually have a formal, platted Town Square. One of the reasons for this is probably the fact that so many Montana townsites were originally laid out by the railroads, and they usually favored simple, standardized (and cheap) designs.

There are a few exceptions, though. There was once a town square in downtown Columbia Falls, until the city shamefully sold it off to a bank a few decades ago. And there are a few cities where the street grid is broken for a central lot containing the county courthouse. The courthouses in both Kalispell and Choteau are like that, sitting in little landscaped parks right in the middle of Main Street. It's a nice bit of urban design, though it gives the highway department fits. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.)

Here's a fairly surprising shot to illustrate -- this is the Teton County Courthouse in Choteau, moments after it was firebombed by angry protesters! And if you don't remember that bit of history, there's good reason ... it's all a Hollywood special effect, created during the filming of the 1988 movie War Party.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Downtown triangle ...

I spent part of my childhood living in the little coal-mining town of Kemmerer, Wyoming. One of Kemmerer's claims to fame was the fact that instead of having a Town Square, Kemmerer's business district featured a triangle at the center. As a kid, I thought that was pretty neat.

Kemmerer's triangle park isn't quite one-of-a-kind, though ... there's a triangular park in the middle of downtown Wolf Point, too. It's called Sherman Park, and it's not quite the perfect equilateral that an urban planner might draw -- instead, it's an artifact caused by two sets of platted street grids that don't align quite right. But still, it gives the place a bit of cachet.

Here's a very early aerial photograph of Wolf Point's uniquely-arranged business district. The large building facing the park was the Sherman Hotel, the largest hostelry for miles around. Unfortunately the hotel was destroyed a while back -- in a fire, I think -- and today the Sherman is just a boxy, ordinary motel.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Three poems on the same theme ...

A little over forty years ago, three young men from the Creative Writing Department at the University of Montana decided to take the day off and go fishing. On the way home, they ended up stopping for a few drinks at the only bar in the little town of Dixon. The place was evocative enough that, on a whim, they decided that each of them would write a poem about it. They gave themselves two weeks to do it, and then they vowed to send the poems off to a publisher together -- all or nothing.

When the three poems were finished -- each one titled "The Only Bar in Dixon" -- the trio packaged them up, and rather brashly sent them off to the New Yorker. And to their amazement, the magazine bought all three of them! They appeared together on a single page, arranged alphabetically by author, under the heading "Three Poems on the Same Theme." A minor achievement, but a cool one, and a story that I quite like.

Here's the first of the poems, written by the great Montana poet Richard Hugo ... the best-known of the three creative-writing fishermen:
Home. Home. I knew it entering.
Green cheap plaster and the stores
across the street toward the river
failed. One Indian depressed
on Thunderbird. Another buying
Thunderbird to go. This air
is fat with gangsters I imagine
on the run. If they ran here
they would be running from
imaginary cars. No one cares
about the wanted posters
in the brand new concrete block P.O.

This is home because some people
go to Perma and come back
from Perma saying Perma
is no fun. To revive, you take 382
to Hot Springs, your life savings
ready for a choice of bars, your hotel
glamorous with neon up the hill.
Is home because the Jocko
dies into the Flathead. Home because
the Flathead goes home north northwest.

I want home full of grim permission
You can go out of business here
as rivers or the railroad station.
I knew it entering.
                         Five bourbons
and I'm in some other home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chief Motel ...

Speaking of old motel signs, here's one more ... this one is over in Whitehall. Definitely one of the more politically-oncorrect signs in the state, but I still quite like it. It's a reminder of an era.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Old motels ...

There's little doubt that the age of the postcard is pretty much over ... thanks to the Internet, I suppose. And it's too bad, because they're great pieces of Americana.

Half a century ago, motels were among the most popular postcard subjects -- the cards were a great form of advertising, and were left in guest rooms and handed out at the registration desk. You still see a few of them, but they're a lot less interesting since motels are mostly corporate endeavors these days, and look pretty much the same.

Here's a Montana postcard view from the 1950s. This is the Ranch House Motel along US 10 at the eastern edge of Bozeman ... and the cool thing about this card is that the motel (and the sign) still exist today.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wibaux ...

The little town of Wibaux is one of those places that tends to fall off the radar ... even by Montana standards. Location is undoubtedly one of the reasons for that -- Wibaux is about as close to North Dakota as you can get, at least without actually being in North Dakota. Nowadays, the town's main claim to fame is that it's home to one of the tiniest microbreweries that you'll ever find.

Here's a great old postcard photo of the Wibaux train station, probably taken early in the 20th century. Even then, it looks like Wibaux wasn't the liveliest of places.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tom McGuane ...

It's a tough call, but Thomas McGuane might be my favorite living Montana author. McGuane arrived in the Paradise Valley back in the 1970s, part of a small wave of creative talents who settled near Livingston back then, and he's been in Montana ever since. Our state has been the setting for most of McGuane's novels and short stories, and it's easy to recognize Montana in much of his work ... but his style and characterizations are usually very different from the "Big Sky" sorts of images that many Montana authors try to evoke. Much of his writing is laced with a sardonic humor and a harshness that some people love, and other people just can't stand.

It's hard to find a McGuane quote that both evokes Montana and showcases that writing style ... but here's a paragraph that I like. It's from a short story called "Flight," featured in his 1986 anthology To Skin A Cat:
Every time the dirt road climbed to a new vantage point, the country changed. For a long time, a green creek in a tunnel of willows was alongside us; then it went off under a bridge, and we climbed away to the north. When we came out of the low ground, there seemed no end to the country before us: a great wide prairie with contours as unquestionable as the sea. There were buttes pried up from its surface and yawning coulees with streaks of brush where the springs were. We had to abandon logic to stop and leave the truck behind. Dan beamed and said, "Here's the spot for a big nap." The remark frightened me.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Favorite road ...

After a couple of posts about license plates, it seems appropriate to follow up with one of my road photos ... and it made me ponder which Montana road might actually be my favorite. I can't answer that question for certain -- there are way too many Montana drives that I love -- but this little road is as close to being my favorite as any.

This is a shot of the Inside North Fork Road, up in Glacier Park. Running north from Apgar almost to the Canadian border, the road predates the park's establishment, connecting a series of remote lakes, tiny campgrounds, and log ranger stations ... and many days you can drive it for hours without seeing another soul. It's the antithesis of the overcrowded Going-to-the-Sun Road, where interactions with people and cars sometime overshadow the wonderful setting, and it's why the North Fork country is my favorite part of Glacier.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Metal tags ...

Here's another oddity in Montana's license-plate history ... instead of creating a specific plate for the year 1964, vehicle owners that year received a small metal tag with an embossed "64," which fit into slots on the plate itself.

Interestingly, the overall design of that 1964 plate is surprisingly similar to the plate being issued by Montana in 2010. The colors are different now, and the manufacturing process has changed ... and of course the little metal tabs are gone.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Vintage licenses ...

I've been around long enough to remember the days when cars and trucks got brand new license plates every year. That was pretty cool, and I kind of miss it ... not only did the colors change every year, but after a decade or so you were able to fill a garage wall with your very own vintage license plate display. Nowadays, Montana issues new plates only every five years, which just isn't the same.

The tradition of annual license plates in Montana lasted until 1976, but there were exceptions even before that. In an attempt to conserve metal near the end of both World War II and the Korean War, updated license plates were put on hold for a time, and window stickers were used instead. Here's a replica of the sticker used in 1947, which is pretty cool in itself:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The first travel guide ...

There have been innumerable guidebooks written for potential Montana travelers over the years, and these days people are churning them out at an ever-increasing pace. By some accounts, the very first such volume was written way back in 1865, for the handful of intrepid souls who might have been brave enough to plan a journey on the old Mullan Road. The thing was titled Miners and Travelers' Guide to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado ... quite a mouthful, indeed.

Here are a couple of representative excerpts from that 1865 volume, as reproduced in what is still my favorite local travel companion, the 1939 WPA publication Montana: A State Guide Book:
42nd day -- Move to Bird Tail Rock, 15 miles; road excellent; water and grass at camp; willows for fuel but scant; it would be wise to pack wood from the Dearborn or Sun Rivers, according to which way you are traveling . . .

47th day -- move to Fort Benton, 27 miles if you camp at the springs, or 11 miles if you camp at Big Coulee. The latter never was a portion of my road, but was worked out by major Delancey Floyd Jones, and I am not responsible either for its location or the character of work performed.

Things have changed, haven't they?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

News photo ...

I suppose the good thing about always carrying a camera around is the fact that once in a great while you might get the chance to witness something truly dramatic. That happened to me in Butte back in October 2003, when I looked out a window one morning and saw this.

Butte's had more than its share of fires over the last few decades, of course ... caused both by accident and by intent. And almost always when it happens, something historic and irreplaceable is lost.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Center Avenue ...

Here's a fascinating old photo of downtown Hardin ... maybe from the 1940s or so, back when Center Avenue was actually a hub of activity.

I love the innumerable little period details you can examine in a shot like this. There's the row of great old cars, and the truck that was ancient even then; all the cool neon signs; even the clothes of the people crossing the street. A different world, but in a very familiar setting ...