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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Gallatin County’s Country Towns

Gallatin Co AmsterdamMontana history has many episodes that involve rich eastern and foreign capitalists who rolled the dice on Montana’s resources.  Typically everyone thinks of the mining and railroad corporations of the late 19th century.  But in several places across the Big Sky Country, investors looked to the land itself and dreamed of agricultural bonanzas.

IMG_6807Such is the case of Amsterdam and Church Hill (now Churchill), two rural communities in today’s rapidly suburbanizing Gallatin County.   The Manhattan Malting Company was mostly a New York City venture which in the early 1890s, before the terrible depression of 1893-1896, established an industrial base on the Northern Pacific Railroad, changing the name of the town from Moreland to Manhattan.  The company purchased 13,000 acres,and acquired the best in agricultural technology, the Jacob Price Field Locomotive steam plow, to till the soil.  They also convinced hundred of Dutch farmers to come to Gallatin County and work the land.  Even with the hard times, or perhaps because of them, people still wanted good beer, and the company prospered.  By 1905 the company decided to shed itself of the land and focus on malting barley.

Gallatin Co Amsterdam 1The new land company focused on getting farmers on its land, and to secure a railroad spur line.  The railroad came in 1911, and the community name of Amsterdam reflected the ethnic origins of the surrounding farmers and ranchers.  Even when the Malting Company failed during Prohibition, the farmers kept going, developing some of the still most productive farmland in the state.

IMG_6803When I visited Amsterdam in 1984 the railroad line still operated but the spur closed the next year, leaving today only a faint corridor to mark its route.  Look close and you can still see the outline of the T-plan town that was once “downtown Amsterdam” by the remaining historic commercial buildings, with the Danhof automobile dealership still in business today, with a newer showroom just east of the old railroad tracks.

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The Amsterdam school is also thriving today, serving both the Amsterdam and Churchill communities, as well as the expanding suburban enclaves of this part of the county. The school is not a frame building but a decidedly mid-20th century modern design in concrete.

Churchill had changed markedly since my last visit 30 years ago.  The constant was the landmark Manhattan Christian Reformed Church:  after all that is how the name Church Hill came about–the congregation located their Gothic-styled landmark on the highest point in the area.  The church is even larger today, and the adjacent Manhattan Christian Academy has built new facilities since my last visit.

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The second landmark church is the Bethel Christian Reformed Church, and between the two churches along the road early to mid-20th residences remain much as they were 30

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years ago.  But suburbs are everywhere, and the demographics and culture of the area are changing. Perhaps that helps to explain why residents placed at the park at Manhattan Christian Reformed Church a monument to the “Holland Settlement,” to those “forefathers” who first settled this area over 100 years ago.  There was no need for this monument in 1985.  But in the 21st century times and people had changed. This boulder monument will be hard to displace, no matter what happens to the land around it.

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