Big Hole National Battlefield: A Second Look

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On this wintery day I return to Big Hole National Battlefield, one of the most solemn and sacred places in Big Sky Country, out of a request from a MTSU graduate student who is trying to come to grips with western battlefields and their interpretation.  In 2013 I posted about the new visitor center museum exhibits at Big Hole, lauding them for taking the “whole story” approach that we have always attempted to take with our work in Tennessee through the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

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The Big Hole Battlefield exhibits, how at least 5 years old, do the whole story approach well, as you can see from the panel above where voices from the past and present give you the “straight talk” of the Nez Perce perspective.

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One of the most telling quotes on how the military viewed the original residents of the northern Rockies is not that of Sherman–damning enough–but the one above by General O.O. Howard, best known in the American South for his determination and leadership of the Freedman’s Bureau and its attempt to secure civil rights for the newly emancipated enslaved of the nation.

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The exhibit panels, together with a new set of exterior interpretive panels scattered across the battlefield, do an excellent job of allowing visitors to explore, reflect, and decide for themselves.  The more comprehensive approach to telling the story is nothing really new.  NPS historian Robert Utley called for it decades ago, and Marc Blackburn recently reviewed efforts across the country in his excellent book, Interpreting American Military History (2016).  For the Big Hole itself, all scholars can benefit from Helen A. Keremedjiev’s ethnographic study of this park and other military sites in Montana in his now decade old master’s thesis at the University of Montana.

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Of course Big Hole Battlefield is now part of a larger thematic effort, the Nez Perce Historical Park, to mark and tell the story of Chief Joseph and his attempt to find a safe haven in land that once the tribe had dominated.  These few images, which, as many of you regular readers know, can be enlarged and viewed intently, only start the exploration–you really have to go to the Big Hole to understand what the events of 1877 meant to the new residents flooding the country and those who had lived and thrived there for centuries.

 

Lewistown’s Heritage Development

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Photo by Montana Preservation Alliance.

During the state historic preservation planning process in 1984-1985, the new historic preservation efforts in Lewistown, especially the focus on the sandstone masonry of the Croatians, were noted and celebrated as well as the town’s only “marked” historic site, Reed’s Fort Post Office, associated with the very early history of settlement in Fergus County and the history of the Metis who lived here in the 1870s and 1880s.  Certainly much more was known about the community’s history and architecture. But there was little public interpretation, except for this log building and, on the other side, of the town, a public park with military artifacts including an ICBM missile–a rarity then and now for a public park anywhere in the west.

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IMG_0010Even the local museum was at the beginning stage, sharing quarters with the chamber of commerce in a Ranch-style building, like the park, on the outskirts of town.

IMG_0016How times changed over 30 years.  The museum is still at its location but adjacent is now a new facility, replicating a huge barn, expanded exhibits and artifacts about the region’s history.

IMG_0017Markers about National Register-listed properties and districts exist throughout town, courtesy of the exemplary interpretive marker program of the Montana Historical Society.

IMG_9390What happens within town is supported by recent interpretive marker installations at the highway rest stop as you enter Lewistown.  From this spot there is an excellent view of the historic Lewistown airfield, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, for its significance in World War II aerial supply lines and defense.

IMG_9416Not only can you see the historic district, you also can learn about its significance through an interpretive marker developed by Montana Department of Transportation.

IMG_9415Steps away is another interpretive kiosk, related to an earlier, sadder military story, that of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians and their attempted flight to freedom in Canada in the 1870s.  Both markers also emphasized the overall theme of transportation and how Lewistown has been crisscrossed by important historical events for centuries.

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Walking tour brochures help visitors and residents understand more of the history and architectural beauty of the town, from landmarks such as St. Leo’s Catholic Church, an amazing interpretation of Italian

IMG_9965Renaissance revival style from the prominent Montana firm of Link and Haire, and the historic early 20th century domestic architecture in the downtown neighborhoods.

IMG_9923The town’s historic districts serve as anchors within the commendable trail system developed in Lewistown over the last 20 years.  Local officials and representatives, working with the state government and abandoned railroad property and corridors, have established a series of trail loops that not only provide excellent recreational opportunities, as signified in this trail head near the Yogo Inn, but also paths for heritage tourists and

IMG_9403residents alike to explore the landscape, and how history in the 19th and 20th centuries created the place where they live and play today.

IMG_9405As we will see later in western Montana, like in Butte and Kalispell, trail systems can be the best of heritage development because they take advantage of the state’s greatest asset–its landscape and sense of the Big Sky Country–and combine it with explanations of the layers of history you encounter wherever you go, creating an asset that visitors will like but that residents will cherish, because they can use it on a daily basis.

IMG_0014Of course recreation, to my mind, is never complete unless there are nearby watering holes where one can relax and replenish, and Lewistown is rich in those too, being they the various classic roadside establishments along the highways entering and leaving town or the can’t miss taverns downtown, such as The Mint and the Montana Tavern, where the signs speak to the good times to come. Those properties are crucial for heritage development because they are important in themselves but they also are the places that get people to stop, and hopefully explore.

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Fergus Co Lewistown Montana tavern sign downtown commerical HD 24 - Version 2Using multiple pasts to create new opportunities for communities:  Lewistown has it going, and it’s far different world today than in 1984.

 

 

 

 

 

Bridger: Northern Pacific Railroad Hub in the Clark’s Fork Valley

IMG_5650As you head north into Montana from Wyoming on U. S. 310, the first substantial place you encounter is Bridger, named for famed fur trader and early Yellowstone traveler Jim Bridger.  Like its neighbor to the north in Fromberg, Bridger is another turn of the 20th century Northern Pacific Railroad town in the Clark’s Fork River Valley that was much the same from my initial visit 31 years ago.  Its population had remained steady–a tad over 700, about the same as in 1984, and only 150 or so less than its height in 1950.

IMG_5659The town’s grain elevators speak to the formative impact of the railroad.  Here back in the late 1890s engineers followed a well worn and recognized Indian trail–a similar route to what Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians chose a generation earlier as he tried to find safety for his people, traveling from Wyoming into the Clark’s Fork Valley.

IMG_5631The town’s commercial district retains much of its early 20th century look.  Old bank buildings dominate the town center, while substantial 2-story commercial buildings (including properties listed in the National Register) remain, showing how quickly merchants came to Bridger and launched businesses to attract the growing number of homesteaders in the Clark’s Fork River valley in the 1910s.

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IMG_5655That first generation of settlers did their part to build lasting community institutions.  The Bridger United Methodist Church is an impressive example of vernacular Gothic design. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The town library is almost a picture perfect example of what this institution should look like in a small town setting.

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IMG_5636The irrigation ditch drifting through the town park is a reminder of how the engineered landscape of irrigated fields provided much of Bridger’s early wealth and development.  The park itself was a creation of the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s.

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Within the park is a ceramic and brick arch, one of the town’s many examples of public art.  The mural on a side of a store seen earlier in this post is another example while creative metal statues of wild horses grazing or the imposing figure of Jim Bridger himself welcoming visitors at the southern end of the town underscores a local tradition of public art not often seen in Montana’s small towns.

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IMG_5661                     Carbon Co Bridger jim bridger mt 2 - Version 2

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Other historic statements of the town’s sense of community include the 1930s Civic Center, a bit worn today but a center for community gatherings and social events for decades.

IMG_5651Bridger’s schools from the 1960s introduce Montana modernism to the townscape, almost like spaceships landing within the middle of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  Modernism 1960s style also characterize Sacred Heart Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and the Bridger Seventh Day Adventist Church, constructed in 1965.

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St. Paul Lutheran ChurchIMG_5639                                            Sacred Heart Catholic Church

IMG_5649These community anchors date from 50 years ago, so obviously growth has been stagnant, or stable, pick your terms, since the boom introduced in the valley through expanded irrigation projects in the post-World War II era.  But all of the buildings are well maintained, and are part of the sense of overall sense of pride you get from a visit to Bridger.

IMG_5654Bridger has reminders, both in monuments and in businesses, of the deep past of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  It is an interesting place of strong institutions, several National Register-listed historic homes, and local business, and a significant part of the often ignored history of the Clark’s Fork Valley.