Butte is my adopted hometown. I always say if I die and am reincarnated, I want to come back as a Butte Girl. I shot most of my Senior Project there as a MSU student in 1992 & 1993. I thought about moving there after graduation, but at the time there was no speed limit and I could get there from Bozeman in less than an hour. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be 23 and single and living in Butte, so I visited her on the side and–20 years later–I’m still visiting her on the side. (She is Pat Shannon to my Charles Kuralt.) I am completely inspired by her architecture & street life (it’s the only town in MT where you could be a street photographer). So though I like to go there for a good time, I have never been able to fully commit and think of her as my long-standing mistress.
Earlier this week, I had to add caption info to a photo I’d take an the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art and was on their website when I came across a current exhibition titled A Timeless Town in Time – Butte, MT: The Photography of David J Spear – 1977-2008. The thumbnail shows a beautiful black & white image of what appear to be two twirling Tieman Irish Dancers at practice. I started Googling Mr. Spear and from what I can tell, he is a part-time photography instructor at Salish Kootenai College. According to their website he teaches courses with titles like “Documenting Your Community” and “Historical Aspects of Photography Practice”. In 1985 he also, according to his bio on the Salish Kootenai College website, developed the International Center of Photography’s Community Outreach Program for underserved communities of New York City and was its primary instructor through 1997. This KILLS me because I took my first (of many!) documentary course at ICP in the spring of 1997, so just missed him. His images have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Granta, German Geo and others. I am dying to interview him and have a call and email in to him, so hopefully I will be posting an interview with him here soon.
Meanwhile, here is what he says in his artist statement about his Butte exhibition:
“I was inspired by Butte’s photographic history and wanted to add my own contribution. Beginning in the 1990s, I started making regular trips to the region from New York to photograph for a week or two at a time. My fascination with Butte’s historic buildings and neighborhoods occupied me until the town’s inhabitants began to allow me to make their picture.
In my work I become engaged in the coming in and then the going out….. the coming in and the going out of making photographs, even with things and subjects that know me. In the process of making these pictures I journey to an unfamiliar place and, like all outsiders, after arrival feel an urge to belong. But American culture often defines us with questions like, “Where were your parents born? Where are you from?” which inwardly feels like “If you’re from there, you can’t be from here.” So I continue to travel to this place….. each trip arriving as an outsider, and with each departure leaving in a small way distantly connected to the things and people in this place I know as,Butte, Montana-A Timeless Town In Time. The coming in and the going out, I suspect, will reoccur there for a time.”
I hope I can make it to Great Falls before February 13 and see this.
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.
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.
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.”
I love every square inch of Montana. But there are a few places I consider The Best of The Best, and The Jersey Lilly Saloon in Ingomar is one of them. You drive & drive and drive east out of Roundup on HWY 12, passing through towns like Melstone, Musselshell & Sumatra on two lanes surrounded by nothing but sky and sagebrush. Then all of a sudden, you see the town of Ingomar—which has a population of maybe 10–from quite a distance. It’s almost like a mirage. And the Jersey Lilly is very much an oasis.
In 1999, I shot my friend Bill Dutton’s 50th birthday party here. I’d met Bill at a branding on the Bill Brown ranch that spring. At most brandings I’d been to, they fried the nuts up on the spot… but these guys were going to freeze them for Bill’s big party in the fall. In September, Bill called to formally invite me to the party (he’s got such a great voice I pulled the tape from my answering machine & saved it!) and my mom and I drove down. It was amazing! It was my third visit to the Jersey Lilly, and I felt like I was going back in time. I shot it in black and white with my Hasselblad, and Eric O’Keefe, the editor of Cowboys & Indians, ended up running an 8-page feature on it. SEE SPREAD HERE (I have a pdf of it, Mike.)
Last August, Bill called me up and invited me to another oyster feed he and his cousin Dave Dutton and their wives were throwing. I went, and this is it. Though the multimedia piece shows a lot, I recommend viewing the extra images on flickr. I had to make brutal editing choices, leaving some of my favorite images out, and flickr can show you what you missed. What a place!