To those who built a state, and made history

Sad news came out of the state capitol last week when budget cuts gave the Montana Historical Society no choice but to announce that its uber talented staff just don’t have the funding to travel to the hundreds of important places across the state, to gather stories, preserve historic buildings, conserve invaluable documents and photographs, and to celebrate with communities both large and small the history, traditions, and people that made Montana the special place it is.

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It’s unfortunate when a state steps back from its past and thinks its future is better without it.  When I look for those who built the state, the deep past is where I start, and the leaps forward in how Montana’s tribes are documenting and interpreting their history to their terms and needs, one of the most important developments in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 plus years.

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Then there are the properties that link the peoples of Montana and their sense of themselves and their past–cemeteries large and small across the state, where veterans are commemorated and families celebrated.

IMG_7537Fort Kipp Cemetery, above, is one of those place, nestled on the river bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  On a larger scale but still intimate, personal, and compelling is the city cemetery of Red Lodge, hundreds of miles away. Here surrounded by the mountains

are graves from the early Finnish residents who came to work at the coal mines and build a community. Some are of a traditional design, immediately translated from the old country.  Others–like the cast iron family marker shown above–are as mainstream as American industry could make it at the turn of the twentieth century:  a prefabricated marker cast somewhere back east but with Finnish lettering, speaking to those who also came over in c.1900 to build a new land.

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The Finnish imprint on the landscape of Carbon County has been eclipsed by generations of growth since the early 1900s, but as the 2016 Road Show of the Montana Preservation Alliance demonstrated, buildings large and small are still part of the landscape.  With a few acres of land outside of Red Lodge, Finnish settlers and their descendants have maintained a place of community–the Kavela–which remains vibrant some 100 years later.  At this place of ethnic identity and celebration, you almost feel like an intruder–that you have stepped inside a sacred circle as an outsider.  But families go out of their way to make you feel welcome, through fellowship, good food, and stories of past and present.  The Kavela naturally features one of the most traditional Finnish community buildings–the sauna, built of concrete in the 1920s.  Speak of tradition, ethnic pride, and assimilation–a concrete sauna might say it all.

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Indeed what you can find in the Finnish landscape of Carbon County is repeated countless times across Big Sky Country, just in different languages and with different forms.  It is why you get off the interstates and travel the backroads, the dirt roads, for

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the markers of the nations that built our nation can be almost anywhere. It might be of the many ethnicities who mined the copper of Butte, or the African American railroad

workers and other average citizens who established permanent institutions such as the Bethel Union AME Church in Great Falls, pictured below.

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Stonemasons from Croatia are credited with many of the architecturally striking stone buildings in Lewistown, shown below, whereas if you stop and explore the state capital

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of Helena, you can see where  Irish Americans banded together to fund some of the state’s most iconic structures, from the majestic Catholic Cathedral that overlooks the city and the commanding statue of General Thomas Meagher in front of the State Capitol.

From the Meagher statue it is only a few steps to the east to the doors of the Montana Historical Society.  Its operating hours are fewer but you will find an institution not just of the past but of the future for like the land itself, the society, its collections, and dedicated staff are the keepers of the things and words that remain from those who built the state.  The idea that Montana can stride into the 21st century without the Montana Historical Society is folly, defined.

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Butte’s Mountain View Cemetery

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Butte’s Mountain View Cemetery, located in the Flats across the road from a Walmart store, is a fascinating urban cemetery.  Here is where, in memorial, you can encounter butte’s rich historic ethnic past, with the script of many headstones written in the deceased’s native language, so family and friends could member, without sharing with the dominant Anglo world that surrounded them on a daily basis. The people who worked in Butte from eastern Europe and the Middle East are rarely found in the standard history books but their stories are marked in this cemetery.

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Mountain View cemetery ethnic with soldier

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The small Arabic section is a reminder of the early immigration and contributions of Middle East natives who carved out their separate niche in Butte.

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Mountain View Cemetery also has a moving, modern style Veterans of Foreign Wars memorial to soldiers buried within its walls as well as other sections devoted to those who fought for their nation, no matter their ethnic origin.

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As several of these images show, Mountain View has few of the large, ornate Victorian or Classical Revival style grave markers found in St. Patrick’s Cemetery or Mt. Moriah Cemetery or B’nai Israel Cemetery.  This is a 20th century cemetery where the memorials are not so bold but smaller, more intimate in their messages and memorials.

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Butte’s historic cemeteries

IMG_0907Far from the bustle and grime of the Richest Hill on Earth are the historic cemeteries of Butte.  As I have said many times already in this blog, I rarely considered cemeteries during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work.  That was a huge mistake for Butte.  The three historic cemeteries I wish to consider here–Mt. Moriah, St. Patrick’s, and B’nai Israel–document the city’s ethnic diversity like few other resources, reinforcing how groups survived in a city together although they often keep to their separate communities.  But the cemeteries also have sculpture and art worthy of attention and preservation–they are outstanding examples of late 19th and early 20th cemetery art and craftsmanship in the United States.

IMG_0908The Masons established Mr. Moriah Cemetery Association in 1877.  The cemetery has many striking markers, especially the Thompson Arches (seen above and below), an elaborate statement to mark a family plot, especially when compared to the cast-iron

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fences found elsewhere in the cemetery, like for the Nicholls family. The Victorian cast

IMG_0911iron fence, when combined with the carving and detail of the gravestone itself makes quite the statement for Cornish identity in Butte at the turn of the century.  Note the dual fraternal lodge marks, one for the Masons, another (the linked chain) for the Odd Fellows.

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IMG_0904Frank Beck left this earth in 1909, and the marker for Frank and his wife Agnes is remarkable for the inclusion of the family pet, noted above as Frank and His Faithful Dog.

The early 20th century gravestones and family plots are impressive largely wherever you ramble in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, and I am limiting my comments to merely a few markers. But you cannot help but notice the family gravestone, sculpture actually, for the Noyes family, a large neoclassical setting with the motif “The Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away,” framed by two large metal angels holding wreaths.

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Not everything in Mt. Moriah is so spectacular, but the evidence of the skill and creativity of Butte’s gravestone makers can be found throughout the property.

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B’nai Israel Cemetery is small in comparison yet it is a valuable space that documents the Jewish community’s long history in Butte. It is not quite as early as Mt. Moriah, dating to

IMG_09281881 when the Hebrew Benevolent Association first acquired the land from the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Congregation B’nai Israel acquired the property in 1905, two years after finishing its landmark synagogue in uptown Butte.

B'nai Israel Cemetery, Butte

St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery is also located in this part of the city.  It dates to the 1870s and contains thousands of burials.  When I visited in 2012 the cemetery was in OK condition but needed help, not just in basic maintenance but in the repair of tombstone damaged over the decades.  Just about a year ago in a story in the Montana Standard of March 1, 2015, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Irish Catholic fraternal group, pledged new efforts for the cemetery’s preservation: “‘A walk around this holy ground will tell you more about the people of Butte than a week spent at the library,’ said Jim Sullivan, one of 60 members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Butte.”

IMG_0927The cemetery seems to stretch to the very edge of the city, but it is worth a long walk around for what you can discover about the Catholic impact on Butte in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

IMG_0926There are spectacular sculptural monuments to prominent city builders, such as the Classical Revival-style temple crypt for merchant price D. J. Hennessy.

IMG_0919Adjacent are separate plots maintained for Sisters who served and died in Butte as well as larger, more elaborate memorials for priests who served in Butte over the years.

A surprise near the rear of the cemetery is a large memorial section for military veterans of the Spanish-American War of the late 1890s.  This conflict is often ignored in today’s history books but numerous cemeteries in Montana have memorial sections for those who fought and died in that war.

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The dominant grave marker at St. Patrick’s is a small stone tablet but cemetery sculpture emphasizing the cross can be found throughout the property.

Then there are a handful of sculptural markers with an angel theme, and these are among the most spectacular in the cemetery. The Daly marker (below) is an elegant, moving

statement of loss and sorrow.  The O’Farrell monument (below) likewise conveys sorrow and loss in the combination of an angel and the cross but by including a relief carving of O’Farrell it also serves as a very public memorial for a prominent family member.

Throughout this brief exploration of three historic cemeteries, I have deliberately left the stories associated with this remarkable cemetery art to the side.  A few years ago, in 2010, local historian Zena Beth McGlashan published her book “Buried in Butte.” I wished the book had existed in 1985–maybe then I would not have ignored one of the most fascinating and significant sections of Butte: its three adjacent historic cemeteries along South Montana Street.  Next, an exploration of Mountain View Cemetery.