The First World War impacted Montana in both large and small ways. The demand for metals drove production at Butte’s mines to record levels–thousands of men joined the Armed Services; too many of them never returned. It was to their memory, and to commemorate victory in the world war, that Montana communities and families turned to monuments and memorials in the months and years after the United States joined the allies in 1917, one hundred years ago.
Paul E. Davis’ gravemarker at Valley Cemetery, along the historic Mullan Road, in Powell County is an early example of the WWI doughboy bronzed and rooted in Montana soil. The plaque says “America Over the Top,” a reference to the courage it took to jump out of the trenches and charge the enemy but also a reference to how the world war literally put America in a new position of world leadership.
The memorial at the front and to the side of the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula is probably the best known First World War memorial. The American Legion chapter sponsored this monument to the dozens from the county who died in the war in 1927.
An earlier monument was built south of Missoula in Hamilton, the seat of Ravalli County, in 1921. It remains in front of the historic courthouse, which is now a museum. Here the doughboy stands in salute to his fellow soldiers as he stands on a rocky base. The Service Star Legion sponsored the monument.
My favorite doughboy monument is in Fort Benton, as the bronze soldiers raises a fist in defiance. Unlike the other two, it is not located in front of the county courthouse, but is in a city park facing the Missouri River. Fort Benton is a place where the stories of the early 19th century are told everywhere. I like the monument because it reminds us that Montana communities, even its oldest, do have a 20th century history–one that was significant and is worth remembering.
As I write this post, one of Montana’s earliest and most significant commercial buildings faces demolition. Considering the many positive gains Missoula has achieved from the wise adaptive reuse of its historic built environment–for example, unlike so many Montana cities, it has both of its historic railroad depots (the Northern Pacific and the
Milwaukee Road) still extant and serving as architectural and cultural anchors for the city. Missoula has kept the corporate landmarks of its founding generation, but now, some 125 plus years after the fact it wishes to dump its entrepreneurial landmark in the Mercantile Building? Incredible.
I have been following the story for years now through the pages of the Missoulian and read the accounts of the terrible condition of the building, and how nothing can be done with this–and 21st century Missoula needs this block to be vibrant again. As regular readers of this blog are well aware, the Mercantile is not in poor condition–we have looked at buildings that fall into that category–and I can add in other examples across the country where a building might need a hand-up but it can still serve us today. No doubt, the Mercantile needs to be re-energized, not as a purist historic preservation,
museum-quality restoration but an approach that accepts that this block and the four brick walls that define the block also define something fundamental to the Missoula psyche and identity. Corporate giants like the railroads of old still stride across Montana, and often still get their away. But what made communities and built cities were not just those rails of steel but the commitment by private business men and women to establish opportunities for themselves and their employees. Such commercial emporiums as the Mercantile not only helped to build Missoula but all of the surrounding towns and ranches where Montanans came her to trade.
Are we truly at a point in our culture that we can’t take the past and build a stronger community–this blog has pointed out countless examples of how that has happened across Montana–and we rather tear down and waste as we bow to the inevitability of Big box retail? The entrepreneurial spirit of Montana needs its landmarks–and the adaptive reuse of the Mercantile would be a great place to say here we make our stand, and build a better Missoula.