Forestvale: Helena’s Victorian Cemetery

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Its castellated Gothic gate standing silently a few blocks off of Montana Avenue south of downtown Helena, Forestvale Cemetery was established, at the end of a trolley line, in 1890.  Montana has just become a state and Helena would soon enough become the permanent state capitol.  The cemetery is the final resting place for town and state founders, pioneers, and the hundreds of workers, merchants, ranchers, and mechanics who shaped Helena’s history for over 100 years.

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As the interpretive marker at the entrance cemetery notes, the cemetery came into public ownership in 1991 and has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  It “was designated as a ‘Rural Park,’ a place to walk through Montana history.”

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I would agree fully with that assertion.  When I moved to Montana in 1981 my first abode was the Chessman Flats, a Victorian row house converted to apartments next to the Original Governor’s Mansion.  I soon sought out Chessman’s final resting place, a sizable family plot shown above.  I also discovered the graves of many famous late 19th century Montanans who I was just learning about.  Samuel Hauser, the banker and early territorial governor, is buried here in another family plot.

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The Fergus family was another name I recalled, especially with the proud designation of “Pioneers 1862”.  Several markers, like that for the Ecler family below,  note the final resting place of that first generation of settlers in the Big Sky Country.  Nor is Hauser the

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only governor to be buried here.  Tim Babcock, a late 20th century governor, is buried with a marker that outlines the state of Montana, a fitting tribute.

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The Nicolas family plot is one of the view, compared to the many at Benton Avenue Cemetery, to be outlined by a low metal fence.  But Forestvale also has a handful of the distinctive hollowed press metal grave markers, like the flamboyant combination of classical and Victorian motifs of the Leslie family marker.

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The pressed metal markers for the Leslies are just the beginning of the Victorian funerary art represented at Forestvale.  As shown below there is the Richardsonian Romanesque grave house memorial for the Brown family and the cut-off limbs monument for Mary Love Stoakes, who died in 1889.

Beautiful statuary is reflected in the grave marker for Lillian Stoakes Cullen, who died in 1897.

 

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But as is obvious in the background of the photographs above, the great majority of the grave markers at Forestvale are much more restrained, rectangular slabs of rock, respectful but minus the Victorian flourish.

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At the rear of the cemetery markers are missing, or are small and unadorned.  In the far corner is a later memorial to at least 22 children who died at the Montana Children’s Home and Hospital from 1917 to 1932.

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The cemetery’s interpretive marker noted that at Forestvale “There was never any prejudice as to creed or color.” That is not true, outside the north fence of the cemetery is a grave yard for Chinese residents of Helena.  This section is not well kept, and judging from the number of depressions, the number of people buried here could be sizable.

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A summer 2018 story in the Helena Independent Record told of a new local effort to identify the number of graves in this section and to begin a process to right a wrong.  Certainly the present condition is unacceptable, and hopefully steps will finally take place to place the “Chinese section” into the publicly owned and maintained cemetery.

Helena’s Benton Avenue Cemetery (1870)

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Nestled in the shadows of Mount Helena, across the street from Carroll College, with its boundaries made up of 1950s and 1960s suburban housing, and the historic main line of the Northern Pacific Railroad is Benton Avenue Cemetery, which dates to 1870.  The preservation effort here over a generation has met with several successes.  The cemetery was reclaimed, documented, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

MT Lewis and Clark County Benton Cemetery 18But my visit on Memorial Day 2018 left me with the feeling that the cemetery is an under-appreciated historic property.  There are no signs of true neglect, but it was so quiet on Memorial Day that I did think the place had become an almost forgotten historic asset–an afterthought in today’s busy world.  I hope not–because this cemetery has many jewels to explore and appreciate.  Perhaps the most striking–certainly most rare to see–are the cast iron baskets–or bassinets, see below, that surround two children’s graves.

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These are remarkable yet sad artistic creations–I have not seen anything comparable in my research in historic cemeteries in either the west, the midwest, or the south.  The Benton Avenue Cemetery has an amazing array of cast-iron fencing that define family

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MT Lewis and Clark County Benton Cemetery 12plots–certainly the ironwork was a status symbol in the late 19th century and there is no one statement.  Families adorned their graves with fences much as they surrounded their houses in the nearby neighborhoods.

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There are numerous hollowed cast-iron grave markers too.  Almost everytime I share this late 19th century style marker with a viewer, they say, well they must be rare, what an odd thing.  But these markers were wildly popular in the railroad era.  You could

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order the marker with whatever designs or inscriptions you wish and they would soon be delivered.  Finding family groups of these hollow metal markers is rare, however, so the grouping for the Toole family at Benton Avenue deserves a close look.

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Veterans of the U.S. Army, several dating to service in the Civil War, are buried at Benton Avenue.  Other graves are just marked by slowly fading wood tablets.

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Ornamental planting abounds, and added beautiful color on Memorial Day.  My favorite grave marker is both early and unique.  Cast-iron is a material once crucial for all sorts of items in a household: pots, pans, tools, fire backs.  But a cast-iron grave marker–made of a single rectangular tablet with name and designs? That’s something special.

MT Lewis and Clark County Benton Cemetery 28Benton Avenue Cemetery is worth a new consideration for its many different forms, materials, and designs.  When I lived in Helena some thirty-five years ago, I gave it scant attention–it deserves so much more.

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Big Timber’s Historic Sweet Grass County High School: 2018 Update

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As part of my May 2018 trip to Montana, I stopped in Big Timber to see if anything was left of the historic Sweet Grass County High School of 1905.  When I first viewed the large two-story building that rests on a full basement story in the early 1980s, I thought here was a classic statement of public architecture–a building that in its size, style, and purpose matched the ambitions of Big Timber on the eve of the homesteading boom to come.  But in 2014, when I took the photograph above, I thought that the school’s days were numbered–how do you find a new purpose for a building this large in a town this small?  What were the adaptive reuse possibilities?  It was clear that without a new purpose, the historic high school would not survive for much longer.

 

MT Big Timber School 2018 2Then in October 2017, someone set a fire that almost totally destroyed the school building.  When I pulled into Big Timber the following May, I expected to see a parking lot or at least an empty lot (the local Episcopal Church had purchased the property).  The damaged building was still there, however, giving me one final chance to take an image, one that now represents dreams dashed, and yet another historic building gone from the Montana landscape.

Helena’s Historic Cemeteries: Home of Peace Cemetery (1867)

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As discussed at several places in this blog, I have given careful consideration to the historic cemeteries of Montana in the fieldwork of 2012-2016.  When the initial survey for the state historic preservation plan took place in 1984 to 1985, cemeteries rarely registered with anyone–the professionals were not looking that way nor were communities.  That is no longer the case in historic preservation–cemeteries are an increasing area of interest.

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Home of Peace was established in 1867 and the cast iron fence around its boundaries dates to that time.  The earliest identified grave marker is 1873 but the Hebrew Benevolent Society (or Association), which established the cemetery originally, believes that Home of Peace includes burials from the 1860s.  The beautiful arched gateway to the cemetery dates c. 1910, the same time that the cottonwoods were planted and most of the existing ornamental plants in the cemetery were added.  Most of the burials are arranged in family groups, outlined by low stone or concrete walls.  Some are individuals, or couples.  A few are non-Jewish since at one time the association, which still owns the cemetery, allowed for their burials.

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IMG_4309The date of most markers are from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.  Mostly made of granite and sandstone, with some marble as well, the grave markers reflect Victorian styles and Classical influences.  Herman Gans’ marker from 1901, seen below, is a mixture of both.

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The cemetery contains several veterans markers in the standardized tablet design provided by the War Department and later the Veterans Administration. The grouping in the forefront, below, identifies two veterans from the Spanish-American War of 1898.

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In the mid-1970s the association transferred some of its land for the construction of Capitol High School, which now almost surrounds the cemetery, which had once stood faraway from the center of Helena’s population.

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IMG_4312The looming presence of the school grounds is a worry for future preservation of the cemetery–could it be possibly overlooked, ignored, and abandoned?   One online resource about the cemetery remarks that there are more Jews buried in the cemetery than live in Helena today.  But this sacred place is a powerful reminder of the contributions of the Jewish community to Helena’s growth and permanence.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery should be valued as one of the city’s oldest and most significant historic properties.

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Stevensville’s Fort Owen: 2018 Update

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Fort Owen is one of Montana’s most significant historic places—where interaction between American traders and Native Americans date before the Civil War—and it is one of my favorite places, for both its layered history and the beauty of its location. I rarely pass on an opportunity to see how this little place is hanging on in a rapidly suburbanizing part of the state.

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From my visit in May 2018, the news is still good.  All of Ravalli County is growing like gangbusters (we knew that the recent four-lane US Highway 93 would have that type of impact), but the fort retains a strong sense of place.

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The buildings and structures are well maintained, aided immeasurably by the neighboring ranch family who constantly keeps an eye on the place.

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The interior of the fort building is solid enough and conveys in its material and design a mid-19th century feel.  What needs help, though, are the exhibit panels. They are what I encountered in the mid 1980s, meaning that new research is not reflected in the content nor are they as graphically compelling as, for example, the exhibits at First Nation outside of Great Falls.

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Montana State Parks are jewels, but even the most sparkling jewel needs polishing every now and then.  It is time to give that new look and due justice to Fort Owen.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln’s TeePee Burner and new vistas in a national forest

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As I carried out my new exploration and documentation of the Montana historic landscape from 2012 to 2016, there were new developments underway that I missed as I moved from one region to another during those years.  The creation of Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild within a section of the national forest at Lincoln happened after I had revisited Lincoln–so I did not visit this exciting new sculpture park until May 2018.  The park’s mission is to celebrate “the rich environmental and cultural heritage of the Blackfoot Valley through contemporary art practice.”  Moving the TeePee Burner, which had stood for decades outside of the town between the Blackfoot River and Montana Highway 200, was the appropriate first step.  This large metal structure once burned wood refuse from the Delaney and Sons sawmill–now it is the centerpiece of creative space set within the national forest just off of the highway.

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The Gateway of Change (2014) by Jorn Ronnau of Denmark serves as an effective transition from the TeePee Burner to the other installations in the sculpture park.  Casey Schachner’s Stringer (2017), below, is a great pine fan, recalling in its strength and lift the industrial works of the past.

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My favorite installation in 2018 was the Picture Frame by Jaakko Frame of Finland, a massive interpretation of how we take nature and frame it constantly in our mind’s eye, or in our camera lens!

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Another favorite was what seemed to be a trench, but is named the East West Passage (2015) by its creators, Mark Jacobs and Sam Clayton of the UK.  The “walkable” structure creates a below-grade passage, giving a sense of direction in what can otherwise be a directionless landscape.

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Tyler Nansen’s Bat Beacons (2016) at first glance seems redundant–why have pine poles installed in a pine forest?  But Nansen wants to “encourage the preservation of bat habitats in Montana,” by creating possible roosts for bats with the black bat boxes at the top of each pole.

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Frankly everything you encounter as you walk through this special landscape is interesting, if not thought provoking.  And the artists are international, just as in the past the people who carved out the forests, dug the mines, and created towns came from across the globe.  What an appropriate representation of the people who made the Blackfoot River Valley a distinctive place. In my earlier posts I have discussed how the

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U. S. Forest Service really upped its game in public interpretation at historic sites from my fieldwork in the mid-1980s to the new survey of the mid-2010s.  Blackfoot Pathways takes the interpretive experience in new and worthwhile directions, acknowledging the industrial past of the forests but also identifying new paths for the future.

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Butte’s Dumas Hotel needs help!

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The Dumas Hotel was the location of the last operating brothel in Montana.  The brothel closed in 1981, the same year I arrived in the Big Sky Country.  During the historic preservation survey of 1984-1985 the state preservation office knew the history of the Dumas, and it was part of the Butte National Historic Landmark district.  But its future was largely unknown–could it be a museum?

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When I revisited the Dumas in 2006 it seemed well on its way to being a tourist attraction, not a historic site where the issue of prostitution in Butte could be interpreted fully and fairly.  Then in 2012 the future seemed different; new owners were taking the needed restoration seriously.  Then in the middle of this decade one of my MTSU M.A. students, Veronica Sales, took on the topic of the Dumas as her thesis, creating a solid context for future renovation and a more robust and accurate interpretation.

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But the unexpected death of the hotel’s owner, Michael Piche, in early 2018 has put that promise to the test.  Piche was only 34.  Who could replace his energy? Renovation stopped in its tracks.

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The place was disheveled when I visited in May. The family had just reopened the place and openly wondered what would and could happen next.  Let’s hope the future involves

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a comprehensive restoration and a “whole story” interpretive program.  The sex trade in the American West is an uncomfortable but necessary story and the Dumas has plenty of evocative spaces, like the bare room above, that address the reality of the business.

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Progress has been made from 2012 to 2018.  But this historic place needs our help–and a similar effort needs to take place for the brick Blue Range of “cribs” that is located across the street.  The preservation of the Dumas Hotel is important as the best intact

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example of a northern Rockies brothel.  The preservation of this building and what is left of Butte’s historic red light district need to be a concern for many who want to tell the whole story of the copper mining era in Butte.