SUPERIOR - The Gideons are coming.
That's not to say they ever left these hills of western Montana. The evangelical Christian group has been stocking motel and hotel rooms with Bibles here and in nearly every other corner of the world for the past 100 years.
But it all started here in downtown Superior, on a spot where a beauty, fitness and massage shop stands between a bank and an auto parts store.
On Saturday, as part of its annual statewide convention, the Gideons International will dedicate a second plaque at the spot where an otherwise anonymous railroad bookkeeper made history.
Once this was the site of the Superior Hotel, explained Kay Strombo of the Mineral County Historical Society. A railroad bookkeeper named Archie Bailey stayed here while traveling through town in the autumn of 1908.
A Gideon, Bailey must have been aware of the doings at the recent Gideon convention in Louisville, Ky.
The Gideons had been founded nine years earlier in Wisconsin by a couple of traveling salesmen - "drummers" as they were known. But it wasn't until their '08 convention that they adopted "The Bible Project" in Louisville.
Bailey, a frequent guest, approached Edna Wilkinson, the hotel's manager, and asked what she thought of stocking each room with a holy Bible. Wilkinson said go for it.
Bailey ordered 25 from Gideon headquarters in Chicago, wrote a check to cover the cost, then apparently disappeared from history.
From such humble beginnings Š
According to its Web site, the Gideons have purchased and placed some 1.3 billion Bibles in 80 languages in more than 180 countries since Bailey put in his order.
"What is it they say? Every time your heart beats, two Bibles are being placed somewhere in the world by the Gideons," Jack Hanes said this week.
Hanes, the Gideon's chairman for special events in Montana, lives in Bigfork, as does the state President Lyle Whiteman. Both will take part in the 35-minute ceremony Saturday on the main street of Superior starting at 5 p.m.
Gideons International, now based in Nashville, Tenn., was expected to send its president, Perrin Prescott, to the ceremony. Hanes said Prescott returned from a recent trip to Chile seriously ill, and is due in Africa next week. So he's sending another representative from the international branch.
A plaque to commemorate the 100th anniversary of "The Bible Project" will be placed alongside another that carries with it a couple of historic misconceptions, according to Strombo, who'll speak on the history of the Superior Hotel.
The hotel rose on the site of a log cabin built in 1890 by Henry Edgar, famous for his discovery of gold at Alder Gulch with William Fairweather. Once the social center of the mining and railroad town, it went through a series of name and ownership changes before it burned down in December 1940, whereupon it was replaced by a Chevrolet garage.
Sometime in the last decade or two, the notion hatched that the original plaque was placed in 1960. In fact, the Gideons intended to unveil it in 1958, on the 50th anniversary of Bailey's historic purchase.
But it didn't happen until September 1973. The delay was due to a confusion of place names on the plaque. Its inscription reads: "This marker commemorates the placement of the first 25 Bibles in November 1908 by the Gideons in the Superior Hotel, Superior (formerly Iron Mountain), Montana, located on this spot."
"That is so wrong," Strombo said.
Superior wasn't "formerly Iron Mountain." It and Iron Mountain were distinct towns on opposite sides of the Clark Fork River.
"Archie Bailey got off the train at Iron Mountain, which is the little town against the hill on the other side of the river where the Northern Pacific came through," said Strombo. "He stayed at the Superior Hotel in Superior."
Today, there's one motel in old Superior, the Hilltop. It's owned, conveniently enough, by the Hills - Garry and Nancy. It's less than a block from the old Superior Motel site, and each of its 13 units has a new Gideon's Bible in a bedside stand.
"Dr. Park brings them by every March or April," Nancy Hill said.
It's not always him, Yong Park clarified, but someone from the Missoula "camp" of Gideons, which stretches along the Clark Fork valley from Drummond and Hall on the east to Idaho on the west.
Park is the lone Gideon in Superior, but said he misses most of the meetings in Missoula because of time and distance. His duties as a lay minister at the Korean Baptist Church in Missoula keep him busy enough in that city.
A Korean native, Park became a born-again Christian in 1978, several years after moving to North Carolina. Soon he was asked by his Baptist church there to join the Gideons. A general surgeon, he moved to Superior in 1980 to satisfy a crying need for physicians at the Mineral County Hospital.
He soon noticed the Gideons plaque on the downtown wall of what was then Schreiber's Garage.
"I thought: 'Wow. That's fantastic.' I feel like I came home," said Park, who retired from medicine in 2006.
There are approximately 35 Gideons in the Missoula camp, said Don Bergoust of Missoula, who has been one for 35 years. Western Montana also has a Kalispell camp, a Polson-Ronan camp and a Bitterroot camp.
"It's not only traveling men now, but it has evolved into businessmen and professional men who are born again and accepted Christ as their savior," said Bergoust, an engineering consultant in Missoula.
Members have to belong to evangelical churches and must be recommended by a pastor or minister. Besides gathering for weekly breakfasts and monthly dinners and business meetings, camp members deliver a Gideons report to their own churches every so often and, with the church's permission, solicit contributions.
And they distribute Bibles - lots of them - not only to motels and hotels but to hospitals, military personnel, nursing homes, prisons and schools.
Last month the Missoula camp gave away 2,200 New Testaments - essentially half Bibles - on a sidewalk by the University of Montana campus.
"The mission, the only reason we exist, and this is drummed into us, is to win men and women, boys and girls to Christ," said Bergoust.
The Gideons keep Bible publishers flourishing. The full Bibles, the modern King James versions, cost $5.50 each. So when a new motel opens in western Montana with, say, 250 rooms, it costs nearly $1,400 to stock it.
The Gideons will leave extra Bibles with housekeepers, Bergoust said, to replace ones that have been torn, tattered or taken. The money comes from the huge international organization through tithing, donations, and special collections at church. These days money is also raised by the Gideon card program - tribute, occasion and holiday cards.
Only men can join the Gideons, but Bergoust said many wives belong to an auxiliary that provides Bibles to the likes of doctor and dentist offices and graduating nurses.
The Gideon Bible has been ingrained in popular culture through song and film and legend. Wikipedia lists a few instances.
In the movie "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Marilyn Monroe sings to her seabound beau: "I'll be in my room alone, every post-meridian. And I'll be with my diary and that book by Mr. Gideon."
The Beatles sang of Rocky Raccoon, who checked into his room, only to find Gideon's Bible.
The astronauts of Apollo 8 read from the start of Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968. Where can I get a transcript? a Japanese journalist asked NASA from his Houston motel room.
Open the desk drawer and turn to page one, he was told.
"NASA Public Affairs is very efficient," the reporter later wrote. "They had a mission transcript waiting in my motel room."
Hanes said Saturday's ceremony got a short blurb from Shepard Smith on Fox News, and it's been publicized on the Christian Post and Black Christian News.
That's a lot of attention for Superior. But the little town proudly accepts its big place in the history of the Gideons.