RED LODGE – Montana has made enormous progress in preserving and interpreting its history in the last 30 years, historian Carroll Van West said here Thursday.
He wasn’t just being nice. He illustrated his point with dozens of slides of Montana buildings and sights that have been preserved or restored over the last three decades. The message was driven home afterward with tours of the Red Lodge cemetery, nearby homesteads, barns and Weatherman Draw, where efforts are going on to preserve Indian art far older than Montana.
It was all part of the Montana Preservation Road Show, four days of talks and tours sponsored by the Montana Preservation Alliance, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other groups.
One interested attendee was Michael Kaczor of the Forest Service, who was there from Washington, D.C., to see how the Red Lodge conference could be used as a national model for similar efforts. Interest in historic preservation has been spreading from big cities to rural areas, he said, as more Americans seek authentic and more peaceful recreational experiences.
West literally wrote the book about preserving Montana history, his 1986 work “A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History.” He teaches now at Middle Tennessee State University.
Nearly all the news about historic preservation has been good since he wrote that 30-year-old book, he said. His extensive slide show is complemented by an even more extensive website with hundreds of Montana photos, www.montanahistoriclandscape.com.
“You can bemoan the buildings that have been lost,” he said, “but I’m impressed by how many still remain.”
Every Montana county now has a building that has been listed for historic preservation, with Ekalaka in Carter County the last to get one, he said.
Among the many examples of Montana sites that remain intact or have been restored were the fairgrounds in Roundup; the Stockmen’s Bank building in Martinsdale; the New Atlas Bar in Columbus; Pub Station in Billings, which was converted from a bus depot; biking trails in Butte; the entire town of Philipsburg, which he said was dying 30 years ago; and even the D.A. Davidson building in Butte.
“It’s like a spaceship landed in the middle of Butte,” he said. “Maybe that’s why Butte is so different. Maybe aliens have taken over.”
But he gave Butte credit for improvements in the way it has preserved and presents its history.
“Butte today is so different from what it was 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s an amazing story.”
Livingston’s transformation has been equally surprising.
“Livingston’s become an almost different creature than it was 30 years ago,” he said.
He took a playful dig at the Babcock Theater in Billings, showing a slide of when it had “Elvis Is Alive” on the marquee.
“They have always held the faith that that Elvis is alive, and he’s going to come back there and rock that stage,” he said.
One setback: The Missoula Mercantile building, which was once considered the largest department store between Minneapolis and Seattle. As this story was being written, the Historic Preservation Commission in Missoula was considering a proposal to grant a demolition permit to take down the building because of its state of disrepair.
“They get it in Red Lodge,” he said. “They get it in Ekalaka.” So why not in Missoula?
While many of the buildings West showed were unimpressive individually—Martindale’s Stockmen’s Bank is a square block of a building—solid old structures like that show Montana’s aspirations in its early days.
“They promised security and long-term success,” he said. Another example is the Jersey Lilly in Ingomar, a bar converted from an old bank building.
“From a bank to a bar,” West said. “That’s why I love Montana.”
West said that he has sometimes been characterized as an economic determinist, but his wife calls him a “railroad determinist.” Increasingly, however, he said he is becoming an “irrigation determinist.”
“Irrigation is what made this part of the country work,” he said.
In another book, “Capitalism on the Frontier: Billings and the Yellowstone Valley in the 19th Century,” West describes how international banking and entrepreneurial interests met on a yacht in England and picked Yellowstone County as the site where railroads would meet to satisfy the needs of international trade and the fur industry.
While Montanans often think of themselves as remote and isolated, they actually have been tied to international trade since the beginning, West said.
“It is the last great place, but it’s always been connected into the nation’s growth and prosperity,” he said.
Improvements in preserving Montana history are not limited to buildings, West said. In the early ’80s, he said, practically the only interpretative signs in the state were along interstate highways. Now, interpretative exhibits help explain such sites as Travelers’ Rest near Lolo, Beaverhead Rock near Dillon, the Nez Perce retreat through Montana, First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Cascade County and Pompeys Pillar, which was still privately owned 30 years ago.
“[Montana] State Parks has really upped its game,” he said. Federal agencies also are doing a great job, he said.
One example of the federal government at work was shown on a bus tour to Weatherman Draw in the Pryor Mountains. The draw, designated in 1999 as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, is home to at least 39 rock art sites, 29 prehistoric occupation sites, 14 historic rock inscriptions and four historic camps, mines and homesteads. The area, the driest in Montana, has religious significance for more than a dozen Indian tribes.
The draw has been under pressure for oil and gas development and for vandalism by would-be modern artists, including the 1964 graduating class of Bridger High School, who carved their names on rocks among ancient rock art.
Damage also was done by misguided attempts to preserve the art, some of which was repainted in the 1950s by O.J. Salo, said Larry Loendorf, a noted rock art expert who conducted the tour. Salo, who made numerous archaeological finds around Red Lodge, was also an artist whose work is on display in the Red Lodge Café.
Attempts to drill for oil in Weatherman Draw were abandoned in 2002 by Anschutz Exploration after a concerted effort by Indian tribes, environmental groups and federal agencies to stop development.
A 2008 attempt to sell private land at the west entrance of Weatherman Draw for recreational purposes was thwarted when the 615 acres was purchased by a Billings resident who then donated the land to BLM.
Last year, the ACEC was expanded to 12,277 acres, and numerous other steps have been taken to protect it. In one recent incident, three sisters from Belfry were fined $250 each for writing their names near rock art.
The area known as Valley of the Shields contains examples of what are called “shield-bearing warriors,” large shields with spears or parts of warriors sticking out around the edges. Most of the shields probably were made between 1200 and 1400 A.D., Loendorf said, and petroglyphs in nearby Pictograph Canyon date back as far as 600 A.D.
Archaeologists can date the shields because they have found stones nearby that were used to smooth rock surfaces before painting. Some of those stones still have traces of paint on them, he said.
Rock art shields were made by at least 15 tribes over the course of 2,000 years, Loendorf said. The paint is believed to have been made with ochre using fat, eggs or some other substance as binding. Indians say the art was put there by spiritual forces that cause the paintings to appear and disappear.
The rock art really does sometimes disappear, Loendorf said, presumably because of the way the light hits it, or the season of the year or the moisture in the air.
Hubert Two Leggins, a Crow tribal historian, said Indians have used the area as a site for vision quests or to seek medicine. He described his own experiences at a sun dance as a way of trying to explain the purpose.
“I was young and I was angry at one time,” he said, a substance abuser looking to the sun dance as a way to overcome his addiction. The man in front of him at the dance came in late and left after the first day, apparently intoxicated or hung over.
“On the third day, I thought I was going to die,” Two Leggins said, adding, “My tongue was like a rock.” But he left the sun dance feeling that he had not gotten anything out of it and moved to Seattle to get away from his drinking buddies.
There he began drinking again until one day someone put a glass of whiskey in front of him, and he decided he didn’t need it.
“I left that shot of whiskey on the bar and never touched it again,” he said. When he returned to the reservation, he learned that the man who had been sitting in front of him and the two men who sat on either side at the sun dance had all died of alcohol abuse.
It was then he decided that the Creator had not used a dream or a vision but the people near him to show him how he should live, he said.
In the same way, he said, the purpose of those who made the rock art will always remain obscure to us.
“The only ones that know is that person and the Creator,” he said.