Country Towns in Beaverhead County, Part II

Jackson MT, MT 278Jackson, Montana, is another favorite place of mine in Beaverhead County.  Located on Montana Highway 278, far away from any neighborhoods, the town dates to the 1880s, as

Jackson Mercantile, MT 278, L&C sign on sidethis area of the Big Hole Valley opened up to ranching. Its name came from Anton Jackson, the first postmaster; the town still has a historic post office building even though its

population barely tops 50.  That is enough, once kids from surrounding ranches are added, to support the Jackson elementary school–a key to the town’s survival over the years.

Jackson School, MT 278Jackson grows significantly during the winter, as it is an increasingly popular winter get-away destination, centered on the historic Jackson Hot Springs, which had been upgraded and significantly expanded since my last visit in 1984.

Jackson MT Hot SpringsBut my real reason to tout the wonders of Jackson, Montana, lie with a simple but rather unique adaptive reuse project.  A turn of the 20th century church building has been converted into a hat manufacturer business, the Buffalo Gal Hat Shop–and I like hats!

IMG_2995Grant is another ranching town along a Montana secondary highway, this time Montana Highway 324.  Like Jackson, it too has enough year-round residents and children from nearby ranches to support a school, a tiny modernist style building while an older early 20th century school building has become a community center.

Grant only attracts the more hardy traveler, mostly hunters.  The Horse Prairie Stage Stop is combination restaurant, bar, and hotel–a throwback to isolated outposts of the late 19th century where exhausted travelers would bunk for a night.

Grant bar and lodgeBack when I visited in 1984, Monte Elliott (only the third owner of the property he claimed) showed off his recent improvements made within the context of a business location that dated to the Civil War era.  The lodge still keeps records from those early days that they share with interested visitors.  In the 21st century, new owner Jason Vose additionally upgraded the facilities,  but kept the business’s pride in its past as he further expanded its offerings to hunters and travelers.

IMG_3499Far to the north along Montana Highway 43 is the Big Horn River Canyon, a spectacular but little known landscape within the state.  Certainly anglers and hunters visited here, but the two towns along the river in this northern end of Beaverhead County are tiny places, best known perhaps for their bars as any thing else.

 

Certainly that is the case at Dewey, where the Dewey Bar attracts all sorts of patrons, even the four-legged kind.  The early 20th century false-front general store that still operated in 1984 is now closed, but the town has protected two log barns that still front Montana Highway 43.

Wise River still has four primary components that can characterize a isolated western town:  a post office, a school, a bar/cafe, and a community center.  It is also the location for one of the ranger stations of the Beaverhead National Forest.

The station has a new modernist style administrative building but it also retains its early twentieth century work buildings and ranger residence, a Bungalow design out of logs.

The forest service station has provided Wise River with a degree of stability over the decades, aided by the town’s tiny post office and its early 20th century public school.

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IMG_2967Just as important as a town anchor is the Wise River Community Center, which began in the gable-front frame building as the Wise River Woman’s Club but has expanded over the last 30 years into the larger building you find today.

Wise River Woman's Club with extension

But to my eye the most important institution, especially for a traveler like me, is one of the state’s most interesting bits of roadside architecture, the Wise River Club.  I have already written about this building, from my 1984 travels.

Wise River Beaverhead Co. MTThe liveliness of that 1984 exterior–note the mini-totem pole, the log benches, wagon wheels, and yes the many antlers defining the front wall–is muted in today’s building.

IMG_1660But the place is still there, serving locals and travelers, and a good number of the antlers now grace the main room of the bar.

IMG_0549Wise River, unlike Dewey but similar to Jackson, has been able to keep its historic general store in business.  The post office moved out in the 1990s to the new separate building but the flag pole remains outside to mark how this building also served both private and public functions.

Wise River Mercantile, Wise RiverThe country towns of Beaverhead County help to landmark the agricultural history of this place, and how such a huge county as this one could still nurture tiny urban oases.  Next I will leave the rural landscape and look at Beayerhead’s one true urban landscape–the county seat of Dillon.

Bannack: Boom Town to Ghost Town to State Park

IMG_3078My first trip to Beaverhead County in 1981 had two primary goals–and the first was to explore Bannack, the roots of Montana Territory, and one of its best connections to Civil War America. As this simple wooden sign below remarks, here in 1862 the first gold strike in what became Montana Territory occurred.

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The road into Bannack passes through sparsely populated country, and you wonder what the miners, and then the families, who passed this way thought as they approached the town by foot or by horse, if they were lucky.  The “road” then of course was not more than

Bannack Roada path because the glistening bits of metal loose in the sands of the creek had never interested the Native Americans but news of the find was enough to drive easterners, many of them southerners, away from the landscape of war and into a wholly different place, crested by beautiful mountains.IMG_3138Grasshopper Creek was not much of place then, and even now, but this stream of water became the source of a boom that eventually reshaped the boundaries of the northern Rockies and nearby its banks grew the town of Bannack, a name taken in part from the Bannock Indians who had used this landscape in far different ways for many years.

Bannack streetscapeThe story of the preservation of Bannock begins with local land owners, who protected the site, and kept most of the buildings from being scattered across the region.  There was little official interest in the place at first.  The state Daughters of American Revolution

IMG_3023marked it in 1925, otherwise the buildings remained, some in use as residences or for public purposes, others melting away in the demanding climate. The Boveys moved the Goodrich Hotel to their preservation project at Virginia City and transformed it into the Fairweather Inn, which is still in use as lodging.

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Fairweather Inn in Virginia City.

The old Goodrich Hotel is not the only thing that Virginia City got from Bannack.  Bannack was the first territorial capital of Montana, but then in early 1865 the territorial offices moved to Virginia City.  Bannack’s boom had already started to decline, and the boom seemed never ending to the east in Madison County.

IMG_3071In 1954, the Beaverhead County Historical Society transferred about 1/3 of the present property to the state for protection and development as a state park.  Not until 1961 did the National Park Service recognize the town as a National Historic Landmark.

Ever since the state has repaired buildings and structures as necessary but decided long ago to preserve the town as a ghost town–last residents outside of park rangers left in the 1970s–and not to “restore” it like a Colonial Williamsburg treatment.  Thus, it is very

much a rough, open experience for visitors at the town.  Doors are open, nooks and crannies can be explored.  Public interpretation, outside of the small visitor center, is scant, although more than what I found in 1984, as this back room of old interpretive markers reminded me.

IMG_3110Gritty, dusty, forlorn:  yes, Bannack is the real deal for anyone wanting to explore ground zero of the gold rush era in Montana, and to think about how in the midst of the great Civil War, federal officials found time to support adventurous citizens to launch a new territory in forgotten expanses of the northern Rockies.

Bannack NHL school, masons 10I thought that 30 years ago I “got” Bannack–there wasn’t much that I missed here.  I was wrong.  Probably like thousands of other visitors who fly into the town, and leave just as quickly, I missed what is still called the “new” town cemetery.  Almost hidden in the sagebrush along Bannack Road, the “new” cemetery is not Boot Hill–where is Plummer

IMG_3082buried people still want to know–but it is a remarkable place of hand-carved tombstones, others rich with Victorian imagery, and a few that are poignant reminders of the Civil War veterans who came here and stayed.

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Bannack is one of the great rural cemeteries in Montana.  Don’t make my mistake from 1984–stop here and explore.

 

 

Ranching Landscapes in Beaverhead County

 

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OK Ranch outside of Wisdom

The Big Hole Valley of Beaverhead County is wide, expansive, challenging, and cattle country without par in Montana, and has been so for over 100 years. Livestock means hay and just outside of Wisdom is a beaverslide haystacker. These wooden pole and plank devises originated in the Big Hole Valley in the early 1900s and can be found in other

Beaverslide just NE of wisdom

prosperous valleys of western Montana.  Their purpose was simple–to stack huge piles of hay, sometimes reaching 30 feet in height, that would be left in place, in the open.  In the western Montana climate, there naturally would be some waste, but enough hay would remain usable to keep a ranch well supplied for 4-5 years.

Beaverslide, just N of Wisdom

big Hole Valley 1984The Big Hole Valley was a place of interest to me in 1984, noted by the image above, for how ranches used logs to build the physical infrastructure–the log snake fences, the gates, the log barns and other ranch structures–of their properties.

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IMG_2989What I didn’t give as much attention to, already commented on in this blog at numerous places, are the irrigation ditches, a more consistent supply of water that allowed ranchers to expand production.

Big Hole Valley local sign MT 278

Public interpretation of the ranching landscape was, not unexpectedly, meager back in the day.  This sign made by the local VFW post 3040 called the valley the “land of 10,000 haystacks.”  Wonderful ranching techniques had lessened the number of haystacks and haystackers found through the valley, but still some remain of the old tradition.

Beaverslides, MT 278 E of Jackson

State officials have worked with local ranchers to give travelers places to stop and consider the depth and wealth of the landscape before them.  Below are views of the Carroll Ranch, an early Big Hole Pass ranch that is now part of the larger Hamilton Ranch.

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There are several interpretive signs to tell the story of the Hamilton Ranch, which encompasses several historic buildings, and wonderful views of the valley.

hamilton ranch, Big Hole Pass

Then a separate marker explains the beaverslide haystacker, placed at the pull-off on Montana Highway 278, giving travelers one of their best opportunities to look at one up close (there is also one in the Deer Lodge Valley at the Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site.)

The Big Hole Valley may no longer be the land of 10,000 hay stacks but it still is a working landscape of ranch families, building new traditions as they also conserve past ways and landscapes in Montana.

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