A Return to Ekalaka

img_0423Recently one of my graduate students from almost 20 years ago, Carole Summers Morris, contacted me.  Carole had just discovered that her family had roots in Carter County, Montana–and she wanted to know if I had ever been in Ekalaka.  I told her yes, in 1984, as documented by the postcard below I picked up on that trip, and most recently in 2013.

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I pointed Carole to my December 2014 blog post on Ekalaka.  When I visited that post itself, to remind me what had caught my eye in Ekalaka in 2013, I found out that I promised another post on the area–and had never done it.  So, to honor that initial promise and to show Carole more of the town, here is Ekalaka revisited.

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My big omission in the December 2014 post was to say something about Medicine Rocks State Park.  As I drove south on Montana Highway 7 to Ekalaka in 1984, nothing quite had prepared me for this collection of wind-carved rocks lining both sides of the highway.

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Medicine Rocks State Park in 1984.

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The same exposed boulder in 2013.

I immediately thought that here was a landscape of both natural beauty but also of great cultural significance.  In A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986) I noted that “The Sioux called the country Inyan-oka-la-la, or “rock with hole in it.” The Medicine Rocks, which stretch for several miles, have ceremonial and religious significance for Montana Indians.  It is a place where they often gathered to pray to the Great Spirits, and to ask for spiritual guidance.  Within the park, several stone circles mark the location of Native American camps, and there is a large medicine wheel… In the hills visible on the horizon, Indians found sources of red and blue pigments for the ceremonial paints they work at the Medicine Rocks.”  The text included the black and white image above.

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In 1984 I thought that this place would surely become Carter County’s first National Register nomination–that still has not been achieved.  In 2013, I also picked up a rural church and cemetery that I somehow missed 30 years earlier, the Medicine Rocks Church, which overlooks the park. The cemetery is particularly at a beautiful site.

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Carter Co MT 7 Medicine Rocks cemeteryFor Ekalaka itself, my 2014 post focused on public buildings such as the Carter County Courthouse and the historic elementary school.  I did not include an image of the old town

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bank, which is now restored as city offices and is the first property to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Nor did I include the old hotel building below.

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Carter Co Ekalaka nursing homeI mentioned the existence of the nursing home next to the county courthouse–an arrangement of space not seen elsewhere in the state–but did not include a photo of the c. 1960 Dahl Memorial Nursing Home.

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Carter Co Ekalaka bungalow

Indeed I did little with the town’s domestic architecture, even though several buildings are noteworthy, as commercial buildings become residences and then historic houses become tourist-oriented businesses, as seen above.

img_0426I didn’t even include all of the buildings at the excellent Carter County Museum, such as this well-crafted log residence from the early settlement period, the Allenbaugh Cabin, dated c. 1882-1883, probably the earliest surviving piece of domestic architecture in the county today.  When I visited the museum in 1984, the cabin had been acquired but it was not restored and placed for exhibit until the late 1990s.

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So thanks Carole for prompting me to return to Ekalaka–a remarkably friendly place, and one where a tiny town in a wide open landscape still speaks to the roots of Montana history and culture.

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.