MMabe this isn’t the year to vacation in the Holy Land. I’ve given up on the idea myself. So why not Montana? Nope, you say, and I agree with you. Park rangers in Yellowstone are wearing masks to protect themselves from snowmobile exhaust. No fooling. And the last time I was in Glacier National Park, I was overwhelmed not by nature’s charms, but by the crowds. I’ve given up on national parks myself. But Montana is big, very little of it is national park, and Dave Conklin has given us a guide book that opens a new aspect of the Big Sky, its historic places, to visitors and residents alike.
I remember Dave quite well as a young, thin forester with a flare for the dramatic, a sharp wit and a quick tongue. We were working for the Montana Fish and Game Department then, one of those ferociously conservative conservation agencies dedicated to producing elk and antelope. Discussions over coffee concerned the best bullet grain for killing our product at 500 yards. Conklin made a career of the Montana Fish and Game Department from which he is now retired, as well the Montana National Guard where he is now a senior officer with two years experience in Sophia, Bulgaria, of all places. He’s no longer as young as he used to be, but most of us aren’t. He’s still a thin, sharp witted, quick tongued forester with a deep sense of adventure and decades of experience under the Big Sky as a national guardsman, an historical preservation officer, a park planner, and a park manager at sites spread from one end of the Big Sky to the other. It is this sense of adventure and these decades of experience that Dave brings to Montana History Weekends.
Montana has a raucous, romantic history and its remnants linger on its landscape longer than in other, more populous places. Conklin presents 52 historic places, the idea being to visit one a week, and by the end of the year, you’ve a good grasp the state and its people. Of course, you don’t have to do it that way. Travelers from afar might want to jam 20 into a two-week vacation. Among the sites are mainstream federal, state and private historic sites while others are obscure and at the end of dusty gravel roads. Some require nothing of the visitor but to sit and contemplate. Others, like the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, which happens to be David’s favorite on the list, require a little more dexterity if only to keep out of the way and avoid being crumpled.
Each entry contains a brief history of the place, directions of how to get there, a minimum length for the visit, the recommended best date for a visit, and for those wanting nothing to do with Montana in January, a recommended second best date. If there is an interesting hostelry or dining establishment in the vicinity, Conklin mentions that too, but visitors from afar should remember that ‘vicinity’ doesn’t mean in Montana what it does in Rhode Island. Web pages and other contacts are listed and a bibliography is provided. Bibliographic items may not be as accessible in Helena, Alabama, as they are in Helena, Montana, but a good interlibrary loan librarian shouldn’t be perplexed. Introductory essays review Montana’s history, warn us of the safety precautions that accompany wandering Montana’s boonies, suggest ways to get more out of visiting historic places and remind us of the ethics involved in historic conservation.
Dave’s places are well distributed geographically. Well over half are in the unjustly maligned but frightfully interesting eastern part of the state. There, at least, crowds aren’t a worry. The topics are also well selected. If you favor museums, those are listed. The Museum of the Rockies or the Charlie Russell Museum, for example. If ghost towns grab your imagination, there are Granit, Bannock, Virginia City and Nevada City. Among the bandits, there are those who robbed with a gun like Kid Curry and the Wild Bunch. Or those who robbed with a fountain pen in Anaconda and Butte. Or those who robbed with their genitals in Bullhook Bottom. And the Indians, the indigenous and those who fled the pale face to make their last stand under the Big Sky, are all over the place. At the People’s Center, Ulm Pishkun, the Rosebud Battlefield, the Little Bighorn, the Big Hole, Chief Plenty Coups’ Grave, the Bear Paw Battlefield, and Pictograph Cave. Just the list brings tears to the eyes. There are even churches, the beautiful St. Ignatius Mission, for example.
Ok, so let’s face facts. Montana’s history is rich and romantic but not much of real importance happened there. The institutions that shaped Montana’s history were all developed elsewhere, in Virginia or Tennessee, New York or Illinois. This observation doesn’t demean Montana. That nothing important happened there is part of Montana’s charm, and anyway, the same thing can be said of most states. Is it possible to get excited about Texas? Texans seem to think so, but the rest of us remain puzzled. Does Rhode Island have a history? Damned if I know, but it must. And herein lies the importance of David’s book. It provides a model for how local, applied history should be done. That our academic historians spend their time posturing and being politically correct is fine, but they might take little time to produce more guidebooks like Dave’s. Then with a copy of Rhode Island History Weekends, a good roadside geology and a DeLorme atlas, Rhode Islanders could renew their love for Rhode Island. I might even get interested. Until then, it’s time to throw a tent and sleeping bag into the truck and spend a little time wandering the maze of Montana’s history. David Conklin has prepared us well for the journey
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