It is difficult to believe that it has been 39 years since I first arrived in the Big Sky Country. I came with my newlywed wife’s job. She had been born in Billings; her dad was an oil geologist. She had lived everywhere but was eager to start her new position with the Montana Historical Society.
You could say I was being taken for a ride: exactly the sentiments of my family and friends in Tennessee. But what a ride it turned out to be. I was eager to see this land that I had read about—not studied; I was not then a “western” historian. That tag only came as I learned from the people, communities and landscape of Montana.
The Big Sky floored me as did the sense of true ruralness. My family never cared one whit my comment, hey Tennessee doesn’t have rural spaces compared to Montana. (They got it once they visited.)
Wildlife dominated here, back in 1981, adding to the sense of the wild, the untamed. And I knew that history was here. Like every other white schoolboy I had heard of and read about George Armstrong Custer. The first place I stopped in Montana was then known as the Custer Battlefield National Monument. Like hundreds of thousands before, I took my first image of a Montana historic site—the last stand hill.
Soon thereafter we arrived in Helena, moving into a second floor apartment in a historic brownstone, the Chessman Flats from the late nineteenth century. The vernacular Victorian style of the building was my second Montana historic site. Little did I know that the vernacular, the commonplace of western history, rather than the well worn stories of old, would capture my eye, and chart a course I never had imagined possible.