Montana’s Roots in the Bitterroot Valley

St Marys Mission, 1866, Stevensville (p84 61-13)

St. Mary’s Mission, photo 1984

When I arrived in Montana, fresh from Colonial Williamsburg, the state’s early history–the Native American story, the arrival of traders, first the French, then Lewis and Clark, and after that David Thompson out of Canada and the American Fur Company out of St. Louis–captured my attention.  Later came Catholic missionaries, who struck particularly deep roots in the western valleys.  All of those cultures, all of those conflicting needs, views, perceptions–it fascinated me, and those places of interaction and conflict became some of the focal points of my work. Thus, Stevensville was a place I eagerly explored.


I had my own copy of the lithograph above, a depiction of the Owen complex and “fort” from a federal survey expedition of the 1850s.  So I first went to see Fort Owen State Monument.

IMG_2388Much to my surprise I found a “pocket” park, set almost like you will find historic sites within major cities, except here the site is next to a working ranch.  Not what I expected.

IMG_2391But no complaints either.  We are lucky that the ranchers shared a bit of the ranch and preserved some of the site’s history, especially the one remaining adobe barracks since this type of building and method of construction is so rare to find today. Most western forts are nothing more than archaeological sites.

Fort Owen, Stevensville, Ravalli Co 6The barracks has much to say but public interpretation here has not improved to the degree found at several other state parks in Montana like at First Nations in Cascade County.  We get enough of the story to tantalize the average visitor and perhaps confound the scholar who wants more context.

Fort Owen, Stevensville, Ravalli Co 16The turn of the 20th century historic photo above shows how much was still here about 100 years ago but a storm ripped the roof off one of the barracks, and after all the construction Owen used here over 150 years ago was never meant to last for long.  Traders wished to make an outpost impressive–why would anyone trade with a business that lacked substance?–but it made no business sense to build anything grandiose.

To be clear–time had not turned still at Fort Owen since my last visit in 1984.  You can see good conservation work everywhere and new exhibit cases improve the public presentation.  But you still leave wanting more, and more land would be a start.  You worry

IMG_2389that the open views to the greater landscape which remain as they were in the past might not last in the rapidly suburbanizing upper Bitterroot Valley. The Fort Owen park is still an invaluable national story set within a working ranch–but what if it becomes a pocket park surrounded by a 21st century suburb? The chance for meaningful archaeology–not to

Fort Owen, Stevensville, Ravalli Co 20rebuild the fort as what has happened at its cousins in Fort Benton and Fort Union–but to understand much more about the formative period of Montana history: that could be lost forever.

IMG_2419Luckily at St. Mary’s Mission enough land has been secured that even as Stevensville expands (its population has jumped over 50% since 1984), perhaps the historic site’s future will not be that of a pocket park.

Catholic missionaries led by Father DeSmet established the church here by 1841, although the present log chapel and attached school dates a generation later.  This is still one of the state’s oldest buildings.  The historic church is the setting for a largely memorial landscape honoring the priests, key Indian leaders such as Charlo, and those who set out

to create Christian outreach to the Native Americans, then and today.  While the public interpretation here is robust, it is rarely a dialogue but more like a sermon, always on message, about the values the priests brought.  What the Salish and other tribes thought about it all–from their perspective and in their words or traditions–is rarely given much attention.  Yet the place itself, the setting, the use of logs, surviving furniture brought to the property in the 19th century:  it all can say quite a bit if you stop and look and think.

St. Mary’s is powerful–in the same way that St. Peter’s Mission in Cascade County can be powerful–in how it juxtaposes the faith of the missionaries against the realities of the surrounding culture and landscape.  Especially when you step into the historic cemetery

and look beyond the grave markers and memorial into the built environment and surrounding natural setting, St. Mary’s can imprint you in a profound way.

IMG_2435Let’s hope that future development in and around the historic mission keep these vistas as they are–for it is here that the modern story of the Bitterroot–meaning the last 175 years–begins.

Hamilton’s historic homes

In 1984, I must admit, I did not look closely at the rich domestic architecture of Hamilton, especially during its boom from c. 1890 to c. 1920.  When I thought of Hamilton and the term historic house I was like many other people:  I thought of the Daly Mansion which actually stood outside of the town boundaries.

I missed a big story by being so limited in what I thought as historic in Hamilton.  Just a quick stroll down South 3rd and 4th Streets will unveil an impressive chronological range of domestic architecture types and styles from the rather unadorned frame cottages above to the much more architecturally finished Charles Hoffman House, an important Montana example of Prairie Style in a frame two-story building.

Charles Hoffman, 807 S. 3rd, Hamilton

IMG_2628South 3rd Street also has a strong set of bungalows, Montana style, which means that they take all sorts of forms and use all sorts of building materials.

Then the street also has bungalows that in their symmetry almost become Colonial Revival dwellings, a dash of Tudor Revival, and Colonial Revival proper, along with Art Deco influenced buildings and a Ranch style house thrown in as well, representing the middle decades of the 20th century.

South 4th Street has the same excellent range of home designs, but with a bit more of a touch of the modern and with the second half of the 20th century interpretation of Log Rustic style.

In fact Hamilton has two other worthwhile but unexpected Art Moderne styled houses scattered through the historic downtown.


Art Moderne, 215 Marcus St, Hamilton

Hamilton has several impressive historic church buildings such as St. Paul Episcopal and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic below, both in splendid takes on Gothic style.

Rocky Mountain Labs is not the only medical building in the historic downtown.  Joining it is the Colonial Revival-styled Marcus Daly Hospital, a historic building constructed in 1930-31 with funds provided by Daly’s wife Margaret.  A new hospital building opened in 1975 and the historic hospital has been converted into county offices.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Marcus Daly Hospital (now gvt building), Hamilton NRMy favorite set of public buildings in Hamilton got back to the theme of town and ranch and how community institutions can link both.  The Ravalli County Fairgrounds began on

Ravalli County Fairgrounds, Hamilton 440 acres located south of downtown on the original road to Corvallis in 1913.  Its remarkable set of buildings date from those early years into the present, and the Labor Day Rodeo is still one of the region’s best.

Despite growth all around them, residents in Hamilton still respect tradition and history and the many National Register properties shown above show how private property owners have been excellent stewards in a rapidly changing landscape. This overview hasn’t shown all of the historic homes but should be enough of an introduction to tempt you to take on your own exploration.

Hamilton:Town Building in the Bitterroot Valley

These two photographs of the turn of the century historic Hamilton City Hall and mid-20th century Masonic Hall date to 2014 (left) and 1984 (right).  They suggest that the town of Hamilton, seat of Ravalli County, has not changed much in those 30 years–and that would be misleading.

Downtown commercial landmarks such as Ford’s Department Store (a jewel in its own right as a full-service local store in the age of big box retail), Bitterroot Drug Store, and the Bower Building remain open for business, and tourist-oriented businesses are few.

Bower Bldg (1936) 2 Hamilton Commercial HD art deco

Ford dealership, main St, Hamilton

A downtown car dealership, set within a quite wonderful early 20th century garage, is still there as there are a myriad of cafes, bars, lodges, and other community institutions.

The New Deal era post office has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places; indeed several different individual properties in addition to historic districts have been National Register-listed in the last 30 years.

Hamilton Post office (1940) NR

The historic county courthouse is still one of the best preserved turn of the century Montana courthouses, and still houses an excellent local collection.  I was particularly impressed in 2012 with its sesquicentennial exhibit on the Civil War, a topic largely ignored elsewhere in the state.

But just as clearly, change had come to Hamilton, as it had so much of the northern half of Ravalli County.  The town’s population when Hank Williams, Jr., put it on the national map with his album Montana Cafe hovered around 2700.  Thirty years later it was over 4300 and climbing.  What did I see differently?  Well for one thing, a consistent trend across the state, I appreciated the touches of 1960s modernism in the town, be it the

Ravalli Co Bank, Hamilton 1960scontemporary styling of the Ravalli County Bank or the “new” county courthouse of 1976, a building that I totally dismissed in 1984 but now that it has reached the 40 year mark the design seems so much of its time, and a very interesting local reaction by the firm of Howland and Associates to the ne0-Colonial Revival that gripped so much of the nation during the American bicentennial.

Ravalli County Courthouse (1976)

Ravalli County Courthouse (1976) 1

IMG_2663Adaptive reuse had put some buildings back into use, such as the historic Creamery, once such an important link between town and ranch in the county.  Other landmarks didn’t

fare as well as the old stack once built for a sugar beet factory that never went into business is now surrounded by sprawl and typical chain businesses of the 21st century. One wonders how much long it will be another link between the history of the town and the surrounding countryside.

New buildings, with compatible looks and names, lined the railroad corridor through Hamilton while tight security and tall metal fences separated the Rocky Mountain Laboratories from the surrounding neighborhood and its historic place as a federal investment in the 1920s that has paid long-term benefits to the town.  The separation here from town and lab, regretfully, made sense:  since 9/11 security over what is studied in the labs must take precedence over the relative openness of the restrained Collegiate Gothic-styled campus in the past.

Rocky Mountain Labs, 900 block, S. 4th, Hamilton


The Copper King’s Bitterroot Stock Farm

IMG_0632Marcus Daly, the copper magnate of Butte and Anaconda, certainly put his stamp on the landscape of Silver Bow and Deer Lodge counties.  But not until the early 1980s did most Montanans understand that Daly too had shaped the landscape of the Bitterroot Valley with the creation and expansion of his Bitterroot Stock Farm, starting in 1886 and continuing even beyond his death in 1900.

It is a stunning landscape, framed by the mountains and railroad tracks, crisscrossed by irrigation ditches.  Daly created the ranch to specialize in livestock breeding and the development of thoroughbred race horses.  The only Montana horse to win the Belmont Stakes came from Daly’s “farm.”  Like other titans of industry and capital of the late 19th century, Daly wished to not only demonstrate his entry into the gentry of America but also

IMG_2586to have a place, on the other side of the divide from his dark, dank, smelly mining towns, where he and his family could escape and enjoy Montana’s open lands and skies. The ranch began with the purchase of the Chaffin family homestead in 1886.  Daly immediately set forth to remodel and expand the older ranchhouse yet those changes only lasted three years when Daly replaced the first house with a rather grand and flamboyant Queen Anne-styled mansion and named it Riverside.  Daly died in 1900 and Riverside’s last grand remodeling was guided by his wife, who looked to architect A. J. Gibson of Missoula to design a Colonial Revival-on-steroids mansion, which referenced the recent Roosevelt family mansion on the Hudson River in New York State.


The classical styled ceremonial entrance to Riverside


IMG_2581There is really nothing in the world of domestic architecture in Montana to compare to the Daly family’s Riverside estate.  As we made our plans for the state historic preservation survey in 1984, I never imagined gaining access to this mysterious place.  Then, suddenly, the owners decided to offer the property to someone–the state preferably but locals if necessary–who could transform it into a historic house museum and still working farm.


Here then came a great opportunity but also a daunting task–could be the property be saved, and how would such a huge property be maintained, considering the comparatively low attendance rates received by historic houses.


In time, a partnership was established between the local Daly Mansion Preservation Trust and the University of Montana to open the house in the summer as a museum but to conserve the farm as an invaluable agricultural asset throughout all seasons.

The result has been one of the most important “gains” in historic preservation in Montana in the last 30 years.  The property has been saved but historic preservation needs continue, with projects both large and small taking place on a regular basis.

A Northern Rockies “great house” is the result–a sign of the great disparity of wealth between miners and owners, and between absentee large estate ranchers and surrounding ranch families pulling a living from the land.  Daly never saw the mansion as you do today–it was Margaret who decided to take the grand estate in the direction of the fashionable Colonial Revival.  Yet it remains a monument to his domination of the western Montana landscape, as powerful in its own way as his head frames in Butte.

One key component of the estate has moved on to a new life.  The ornate 1895 stable for Tammany–his prize horse–has been converted in residential units, for people. Tammany Castle also speaks to who Daly was and what he was about in late 19th century Montana.

IMG_2595Indeed not far away is a 21st century sign of the super-rich and their imprint on the Montana landscape: the Stock Farm Club, a private, gated community for those who can afford it–and probably 99% cannot.



Bitterroot Valley: Agricultural Wonderland

Ravalli Co Museum 1As the historic promotional image above conveys, the Bitterroot Valley is an agricultural wonderland, but one dependent on irrigation and agricultural science. This image is on display at the Ravalli County Museum, which is located in the historic county courthouse from the turn of the 20th century.

Irrigation in Hamilton coLocal ranchers and boosters understood the economic potential of the valley if the land was properly nurtured.  Some of the best evidence today is along the Eastside Highway,

both north and south of Corvallis stretching onto Darby.  Lake Como, located between Corvallis and Darby, supplied much of this water:  it began as a private irrigation effort in 1909, and the dam has since been rebuilt to keep the water flowing, in addition to creating one of the favorite summer recreation spots in western Montana. In recent years, an interpretive marker by the U.S. Forest Service underscores the dam’s significance.

The water was just part of the story.  There were key farmer organizations such as the Grange, which still has a lodge in Corvallis.  This grange dates to 1884, which Elijah Chaffin led a local effort to join what was then a new national effort to help farmers and ranchers fight back against the railroads and other corporate interests.

An important partnership between the Bitterroot Valley Irrigation Company and the State of Montana came in 1907 when the state, through its agricultural extension program at Montana State University, established what was first called the Horticultural Sub-station and later the Western Montana Experiment Station on 20 acres of land donated by the irrigation company outside of Corvallis. Now known as the Western Agricultural Research Center (see below), the station allowed agricultural

Western MT experiment station 3 Hamilton co

scientists to “determine, by testing, the most profitable varieties of apples, pears, cherries, plums, walnuts, peaches, apricots, strawberries, bushfruits, and vegetables.” Initial success came with apples but after that waned, “the center’s emphasis shifted to the development of small fruits and the sweet cherry industry in the Flathead [Lake] area.”

The nearby Swanson’s Orchards are just part of the industry spawned by the combination of land, water, and science.  Charles J. Swanson began the ranch in 1909, turning to an apple crop by 1910.  Although the apple industry in the Bitterroot is greatly diminished since the boom of the 1910s, Swanson’s still operates as a family-run orchard. Throughout the valley are ranches that trace their roots to the 1880s to early 1900s and the first

307 Hanker Lane at RR tracks, Corvallis vic

Bailey Ranch, Hamilton Co

IMG_2810railroad spur through the valley.  With its Four-Square style dwelling, the Bailey Ranch, immediately above, is a good example of the places of the 1910s-1920s.  The Popham Ranch, seen below, is one of the oldest, dating to 1882.


Popham Ranch,  460 Popham Lane, Corvallis vicinity NROne major change in the Bitterroot over 30 years is the fruit industry has diminished and how many more small ranches and suburban-like developments crowd the once expansive agricultural wonderlands of the Bitterroot. The dwindling number that remain deserve careful attention for their future conservation before the working landscape disappears.

Lazy Drive Ranch at Eastside Hwy, Ravalli Co





On to Ravalli County via US 93

IMG_2882When most people think of Ravalli County they think of the ever suburbanizing northern half, as you take U.S. Highway 93 south–a four lane highway–from Missoula and encounter the new suburbs of Florence.  But if you use U.S. Highway 93 from the southern end, you find a very different place, one that starts with Ross’ Hole.

IMG_2887There are few more beautiful places in the state, even on this cloudy day in 2012, the hole beckoned, as it has for centuries.  In western American history, its importance has multiple layers, from ancient Native American uses to the peaceful encounter between Flathead Indians and the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.  Without the horses the expedition acquired from the Flathead, its journey would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

ross holeMontana “cowboy” artist Charles M. Russell painted the scene as a prominent historical mural in the House of Representatives chamber at the Montana State Capitol in 1912. His composition, as I used to like to point out when I gave state capitol tours in 1982, emphasized the centrality of the Native Americans in the region–the expedition were minor characters, in the background of the painting’s right side.  The place name Ross’s Hole refers to Hudson Bay Company trader Alexander Ross who traded there in 1824.  Hole was a trader and trapper term for mountain valley.

Ravalli Co Ross Hole interpretation, US 93, SulaAt the time of the 1984 survey, Ross’ Hole was interpreted by this single wooden sign, now much worse for the wear of the decades.  But like many important landscapes in the state, today you find a rather full public interpretation in a series of markers sponsored by the Montana Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Sula is the primary “town” of Ross’ Hole, and its 20th century settlement history is chartered by two community institutions.  A local grass-roots preservation group has done a great job of restoration of the historic school building–a one-room frame building that fits into its rural surroundings brilliantly.

The Sula Community Club dates to 1915, although its clubhouse is a more recent building of rustic log style–while the nearby Sula Post Office is a more contemporary, bland take on “rustic”style.

Nearby all three of the buildings is a historic beaver slide hay stacker, another reminder of the early 20th century ranches that represented a new era in the hole’s history.

IMG_2881Any trip to Ross’ Hole would not be complete with a stop, however brief, at the roadside architecture-a log bungalow–home to the Sula Community Store, which can basically provide you with about anything you might need while traveling on U.S. Highway 93.




Ravalli County Sula country store, US 93And the coffee is always hot, and strong.

Beaverhead’s Mountain Passes

IMG_3417Beaverhead County’s history has deep roots, perhaps never deeper than at the high mountain passes that divide it from neighboring Idaho.  We have already taken a look at Monida Pass, but now let’s shift to the western border and consider Lemhi Pass (Lemhi Road is the image above) and Bannock Pass, both at well over 7000 feet in elevation.


IMG_3427Lemhi Pass is a magnificent place, reached by a wide dirt road that climbs up to 7300 feet.  The roadbed is modern, and lies over a path worn by centuries of Native Americans who traveled this path between mountain valleys in present-day Montana and Idaho.  That deep past is why the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition took this route over the Bitterroot–and the Corps of Discovery connection is why the pass has been protected in the 20th century.  The pass is also connected with Sacajawea, since her tribe, the Shoshone, often used it to cross the mountains.

The pass is one of the infrequently visited jewels of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a place that the expedition used and probably would have never “discovered” if not for the prior Native American use.

IMG_3433This kiosk by the U.S. Forest Service is part of the new public interpretation of the property, both at the start of the pass to the top of the mountain itself at the Sacajawea Memorial Area.

IMG_3429Bannock Pass, comparatively has received little in public interpretation.  Unlike Lemhi, it is not a National Historic Landmark associated with Lewis and Clark.  For today’s travelers, however, it is a much more frequently used way to cross the Rockies despite its 300 foot higher elevation.  A historic site directional sign leads to one interpretive


marker explains that railroad engineers used the pass to connect Dillon and Idaho in the early 20th century, changing the ancient appearance of the pass, used by Native Americans for centuries to connect the high plains of Montana to the rich valleys of Idaho.  The marker also describes the use of Bannock Pass by Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph in 1877, as they escaped back into Idaho after the Battle of Big Hole. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is more closely associated with Chief Joseph Pass, located to the north.

IMG_2893It was a snowy Memorial Day when I crossed Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes on my way to Big Hole Battlefield.  Once again I was impressed by the recent efforts of the U.S. Forest Service to interpret the epic yet tragic journey of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in 1877, especially the Trail Creek Road that parallels Montana Highway 43.

Kudos to the National Park Service for its new visitor center, exhibits, and interpretive markers at the battlefield–the finally the whole story of the Nez Perce campaign is explored through thoughtful public interpretation, centered on the Nez Perce perspective,

those who lived here until the military force led by Col. John Gibbon thought it could surprise and rout the Indians.  Rather the Nez Perce counter-attacked forcing the soldiers into surrounding woods.  The trek of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce effort to find safety in

IMG_2919Canada was underway. Today the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and Park mark that journey into history. The park today is frankly an amazing transformation, from a preserved battlefield in the early 1980s that only hinted at the true facts of history to a modern of battlefield interpretation, one that does justice to history and to the Nez Perce story.  One only wishes that more western battlefields received similar treatment.