Last Saturday, I attended “A Splendid Feast” at the Elling House in Virginia City. Held in the sprawling Gothic Revival home originally occupied by John & Mary Elling and their ten children, the event is an annual fundraiser for the nonprofit Elling House Arts & Humanities Center. The home and its expansive yard, now owned by Toni James (who also owns Rank’s Mercantile), sit on 26 city lots.
“It’s a multiuse house at this point,” laughs James, who bought the house in 1995 and now lives upstairs in the former maids quarters. In addition to A Splendid Feast, the Center hosts a Chautauqua the third Saturday of each month January through April, monthly Literary Events & Art Shows May through September, and one of Montana’s best Haunted Houses in October. It’s also an Inn too (one room so far, and I’m proud to say I was the first registered guest last August; more on this in a forthcoming post).
A Splendid Table was first held five years ago, before Toni had an adequate kitchen stove. Chef Amy Kelley—a VC resident who with her husband Scott owns The Gravel Bar and Banditos in Ennis—volunteers her time for this event and had to cook food off-premises until last year. “I feel spoiled now!” laughs Kelley, who somehow churns out gourmet cuisine in the house’s still-dated kitchen. “I just love this house, the history, the charm, and this event embodies the whole spirit of Christmas. It’s 100% put on by small-town volunteers, and it just amazes me how so few people can pull together such a spectacular evening.”
Held the third Friday and Saturday each December, the event kicks off around 5:30 when guests park in the back lot and are lead to the house by dozens of glowing ice luminaries. Bundled in heavy coats and snow boots and carrying bottles of wine, attendees walk up the steps of the twinkling porch and through the door where coats are taken. Bottles of wine are whisked away and tagged as guests are escorted into the glowing parlor and offered a glass of their wine or a cup of wassail. A fire crackles in the fireplace, the rooms—decorated by Debbie Rogers and Chris Stadler—positively glow with golden light, sparkling evergreen swags, shiny glass ornaments and holiday cheer.
After a good long while, it’s time to sit down for dinner. Board President Judy King—dressed festively as Mary Elling, who entertained guests in the very ballroom where we sat—welcomed us with a Charles Dickens quote and a toast before Stacy Gatewood gave us a rundown on the menu. Our $50 tickets entitled us to Wassail and a 4-course meal of Wild Mushroom Bisque; salad with Butter Lettuce, Pears, Pomegranate Seeds, Red Onion, Blue Cheese and a Citrus Vinaigrette; Cornish Game Hen with Huckleberry Port Glaze, and dessert of either Rum Cake or Lemon Pear Gingerbread.
The food was exceptional! Conversation hummed, glasses clinked, wait staff buzzed back and forth filling wine glasses and baskets of freshly baked bread. Coffee was served and guests lingered before once again piling on winter layers and heading out into the brisk night air. As each of us approached the door, we were given a handmade ornament made of decoupage sheet music tied with a red ribbon: the perfect memento from a perfect evening.
Though she doesn’t have a liquor license, Lisa Snow opened Livingston’s greenest drinking establishment 12 days ago in the former Drawing Room—a jewel box-sized gift shop on Callendar Street. But instead of alcohol, Snow serves up $2.50 shots of wheatgrass with a chaser of green apple slices on the side. Yup, Livingston up & got itself a juice bar!
Can’t say I’ve ever been crazy for juice, but I now find myself regularly parked in the corner booth working on my iPad asking the bartender to spike my drink with Maca, or Spirulina. Next to me might be a guy fresh off a spinning bike at Firehall Fitness across the street or a student with oil pastels strewn across her table.
“We kind of went with a Music & Cocktail Theme with drink names,” says Snow, a petite mother of four with a passion for raw food, local ingredients and local art. Juices come in 8, 12 or 16 oz. glasses and include Ginger n’ Juice(carrot, apple, pear, ginger), We Got the Beet (beet, apple, cranberry & ginger) and the popular Greentini (pineapple, kale, cucumber, celery, & green apple). She also offers Juice Fasts for $30/day which incorporate these three cocktails + a Double Elixir (two shots of wheatgrass in fresh apple juice.)
It’s no wonder the healthy concoctions are so scrumptious; Snow’s 12-year-old son Grant was “head tester”. “He’s really picky and won’t eat fruit or vegetables. Smoothies are one of the few ways I’ve always gotten them into him,” she says. “I was surprised; he even drank a Hurricane the other day, and that has spinach!” (The fact that it also has mango, coconut water, coconut & banana might also have something to do with it.)
In addition to Wheatgrass Shots & the Elixir, Saloon Specials also include a $3.00 Young Thai Coconut. (Snow whacks the top off a coconut and sticks a straw in it; more electrolyte-dense than Gatorade + loaded with lactic acid; nature’s hangover tonic!)
The menu lists five 16 oz. Smoothies for $6.50 each. My favorite is the Man in Black (espresso, cashew milk, banana & raw chocolate)—but the Lavender Blue, made with Montana huckleberries and blueberries, cashew milk, banana & lavender, and Little Red Corvette (Montana cherries, cashew milk & raw chocolate) are tempting.
“I’m still in awe of our state and how much fresh produce we can get,” says Snow hoisting a tray of wheatgrass grown by a local woman who uses nutrient-dense soil from Planet Natural in Bozeman. “I get my bee pollen from a local beekeeper at our farmers market. I can get carrots, beets, apples, blueberries [and kale in summertime] from Field Day Farms in Bozeman, and my lavender comes from Hill Botanical.”
Snow points out a glass cake stand on the counter holding raw chocolates laced with herbs, local honey, ginseng, & cordyceps mushrooms “These come from Hill’s, too,” she says, noting the best-seller: an aphrodisiacal variety named “Broad Balls” for Broad Comedy, a Bozeman all-female sketch comedy troupe.
Snow wanted to create a space where her friends and neighbors would want to hang out, as well as incorporate as many local elements as possible. The narrow space is still a gift shop up front, but it now boasts the coolest carpet in all of Montana: a peacock-feather print chosen by Gigi Aelbers Kellett of Synergigi Interior Design. “Gigi took my vision and flew with it,” Snow says.
The juice bar counter, crafted from recycled 3Form resin, was designed by Aelbers, built by Diamond W Countertops and is supported by carved columns by sculptor Mark Strand. Frank Horiel of Crown Creations Cabinetry in Livingston made the wainscoting and cabinetry—which utilize Montana pine beetle-kill wood. (Horiel’s Danish Modern candlestick holders are also for sale up front.) The booths were upholstered in a Maharam Greenguard certified fabric by Salzburg Designs of Bozeman, and the pillows are of a fabric designed by Teresa Kessler of Livingston.
Hanging on the saloon’s walls til February 8 are eight ink and pastel drawings by Livingston artist Jim Barrett. The gift shop offers small paintings by Edd Enders, necklaces by Sarah Homans, earrings by April Marie Hale, t-shirts byIntrigue Ink as well as house wares, 40 varieties of loose leaf tea + brewing supplies and quality bath & body products like Hurraw Lip balm made in Whitefish. (The tinted cinnamon looks and tastes good enough to eat.)
Snow has gone above and beyond to make her business look and feel like it belongs in Livingston. When I compliment Snow on her achievement, she demurely shies away from taking. Aelbers, standing nearby, cuts to the chase: “ Oh come on…this place IS you, Lisa. Everything in here is beautiful & healthy and so delicious!”
NUTS & BOLTS
WHEATGRASS SALOON - 117 East Callender Street. (406) 224-3895. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
I’m always surprised when friends wrinkle their noses when I say I have to shoot in Billings. What is it about The Magic City that elicits this response? I can cut people some slack if they’ve never been downtown and have only seen, say, King Avenue or 24th. Both of these streets have heavy traffic & box stores and are NOT pedestrian-friendly. But downtown Billings? Montana Avenue? It’s full of great galleries, antique shops and phenomenal dining. (See previous posts on Harper & Madison and Montana Vintage The Downtown Billings Alliance even has a Loan-A-Bike program where you can park and borrow a bike.
Two of Montana’s most scenic blue highways—239 between Hobson & Utica and 541 between Utica and Windham—are also two of its least traveled. That changes the second Sunday of September, when forty to fifty larger-than-life hay sculptures line the asphalt between Hobson and Windham, making the road less of a thoroughfare and more of an “Ag Art” installation.
My husband Dan and I got a wild hair while visiting my parents in Denton last August to return to Livingston over the Belt Mountains. This would involve traveling roughly three hours on gravel roads past the headwaters of the Judith River, up a narrow, winding pass and down onto Highway 12 just east of Checkerboard. We’d then head home on asphalt through White Sulpher Springs. I had last done this trip in about 1985 with my parents and the Snooks Family. I remember when we went I had an asymmetrical haircut AND had just bought Prince’s latest album Around the World in a Day on cassette. Much to our parents’ dismay, we kids cranked His Royal Badness the whole way—and it’s a long way. To this day, whenever I hear the song Raspberry Beret, I think of this trip.
A place that should top every Montanan’s bucket list is the Virgelle Mercantile, a remote and exceptional antique store and bed & breakfast near Coal Banks Landing on the Missouri river. You can get there by floating 42 river miles downstream from Fort Benton or by driving 19 miles down a gravel road from Loma and crossing the river on the Virgelle Ferry—one of only three Missouri River ferries left in Montana. My favorite route is an eight-mile drive down a gravel road hemmed by wheat fields and blue sky that shoots off of Highway 87 North between Loma and Big Sandy. One thing’s for sure: No matter how you arrive, it’s going to be wild & scenic.
I was shooting a travel story in eastern Montana a few years ago for the New York Times, and I had always been bothered by that fact that I’d never been to Circle. It’s only 46 miles from Glendive on Highway 200 and 59 from Terry on Hwy 253, so when I finished my assignment, I hightailed it to this speck of a town.
Country Clubs don’t get more “Country” than the Square Butte Bar & Country Club in Square Butte, MT. Anchored at the northeastern end of the Highwood Mountains at the base of the butte for which it’s named, the unincorporated town has a historic stone jail, two dormant grain elevators, a former schoolhouse, a 13-year-old mayor, “And about twenty residents, give or take a few,” says Amy Wentz, owner of the Square Butte Bar & Country Club. “I’m the only business left in town.”
…because I grew up near there, and I LOVE it! This video shows just a fraction of what this picturesque small town offers. From Wagon Wheels at The Dash Inn to the incredible pool at the shady City Park…to downtown, gelato and crepes at Lola’s. I also take you to the Symmes-Wicks House Bed & Breakfast, to The Mint for dinner and to events like the Central Montana Fair & Horse Show and Chokecherry Festival. Top it off with bread pudding from Main Street Bistro (view their menu HERE), and you’ve got a taste of Lewistown. But remember…it’s just a taste. I’ll be going back to do in-depth pieces of Main Street and its businesses, as well as taking you on some great hikes in the many mountain ranges that surround town. And remember….it’s LewisTOWN, not Lewiston—that’s in Idaho!
Here’s a link to an exceptional piece on Main Street Lewistown.
Welcome to Terry! When you drive by….TAKE THE EXIT! Visit the Evelyn Cameron Gallery. Stop by the Prairie County Museum and have Walt Stepper show you some “high points” (like a mammoth jawbone or a Christmas Tree made out of human hair). View agate art at Prairie Unique or watch owner Dale Galland fly remote controlled helicopters in the back. (Everyone who enters is given a piece of Huckleberry taffy “just to sweeten your day”.) Check out the surprisingly cute selection of women’s clothing at Sassy One–not what you’d expect to find in small town Montana! I dare you to finish a giant Pennyjack sundae at the Badlands Cafe–a 1950′s diner. Hike Calypso Trail with Eddie Gaub, or–if you don’t have time–have him take you on a virtual tour in his accounting office-slash-Calypso Trail Gallery. Finish up at the Kempton Hotel, Montana’s oldest, continually operated hotel built in 1902. You’ll be glad you took the exit!