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.
One of the best vintage shops I’ve run across is Montana Vintage in downtown Billings. Not only are the prices great and the selection vast (they have children’s and maternity!), but the merchandise is also impeccably clean and well cared for.
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.
One of the neatest late-summer events I have ever attended is Chief Plenty Coups Day of Honor; a daylong celebration of cultural sharing designated to honor the great Apsaalooke (Crow) Chief. Now in its 17th year, the event takes place on Saturday of Labor Day Weekend at the 195-acre Chief Plenty Coups State Park (Embed link: http://fwp.mt.gov/parks/visit/chiefPlentyCoups/ one mile east of Pryor on Montana’s Crow Reservation (about 40 minutes from Billings).
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!
Kim Trangmoe, Executive Director of Glendive Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture, shares some local knowledge, taking you hiking in Makoshika State Park, paddlefishing at Intake Fishing Access and into the Beer Jug for Popcorn & Swiss Brauts. Stay tuned for upcoming, in-depth posts on dinosaur digging with Marge & Shanna Baisch, the Charley Montana Bed & Breakfast and Paddlefishing at Intake You can also come along with my husband & our three kids on a rip-roarin’ Badlands Family Vacation. Stay tuned….