TWIN BRIDGES – As true-blood Montanans, we want to believe this story.
It was cooked up by a sportswriter covering the American Derby in Chicago in June 1889, when our own flyer named Spokane completed the de facto Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing with a two-length victory.
The win, in what was then the nation’s richest and most prestigious race for 3-year-olds, came the month after Spokane, with Tennessee jockey Tom Kiley aboard, outdueled super horse Proctor Knott in both the Kentucky Derby and the Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Spokane remains the only Montana-born horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
In an account that appeared in the St. Paul Daily Globe of Minnesota after the Chicago race, an unnamed reporter couched his race story with what he claimed was the secret to Spokane’s surprise emergence on the national scene.
It had to do with an unidentified plant that grew wild in Montana.
“The medicine man of the Flathead tribe of Indians leaves his tepee every morning as the sun throws its first ray against the side of the Rocky mountains and in the crevices about the base of the big hills seeks and gathers a small wildflower,” the front-page story began.
The medicine man and his tribe dried the leaves and concocted them in a tea.
“From its constant use, the Flatheads have become famous as examples of manly strength and health, and their ponies are the fleetest and stoutest,” the story stated.
Mining magnate Noah Armstrong used the same approach in raising horses on his ranch a couple miles north of Twin Bridges, it continued. Armstrong bought a pregnant mare named Interpose in Illinois for $250 in 1886 and brought her back to his ranch on the Jefferson River.
She dropped a colt so “puny” and “out of proportion” the former owner said the best thing to do would be to shoot him.
But, said the reporter, “the raw-boned brute sniffed the rare air of the Rockies, and was fed the wildflower of the Indians. He grew big and lusty, his sides expanded, his limbs became rock-strong, and turning into his third year the Illinois outcast was a thing of equine beauty.”
As true-blood Montanans, we’ve got to get us some of those flowers.
For the 126th consecutive year, a Montana horse didn’t win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. But it’s a good time in the life of the barn that Spokane was born in.
It was built by Armstrong's design after he bought what he called Doncaster Farm, named for a favored racehorse, in 1882 from his son, Charles.
The barn two miles north of Twin Bridges sat empty and deteriorating for years until its current owners, the James family of Swift River Investments in Massachusetts, launched a major rehabilitation project last fall that is ongoing.
By this time next year, the owners hope to open it to the public as a community event venue for weddings, reunions, conferences and the like.
In its reincarnation, it will be called “The Round Barn at Twin Bridges” – in other words, what everybody already calls it, said Lacey Wood, who with husband Jaime manages the sprawling 34,000-acre cattle ranch that encompasses the town of Twin Bridges and straddles either side of the Jefferson River for miles.
The barn was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2008, and in 2012 was offered along with 30 acres by the James family to be the permanent home of the hall. Big Timber was ultimately selected.
In January, the state historic preservation board met in Helena and unanimously approved a nomination to place Armstrong’s round barn on the National Register of Historic Places. On April 14, word came from the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., that the listing was official.
“I think it’s safe to say that the Doncaster Round Barn is one of those iconic buildings that everyone who travels Highway 41 north of Twin Bridges notices and marvels over,” said John Boughton, National Register coordinator for the state historic preservation office in Helena.
“The barn was really one of those places that everybody thought was listed in the National Register, but wasn’t,” said Jon Axline of Helena, who prepared the nomination. “There are a few round barns in Montana, but this is the only one that was designed specifically for horse breeding.”
According to his nomination, it qualifies for the National Register by two of the four criteria. One is its association with the horse ranching industry in southwestern Montana and the agricultural development of the upper Jefferson River Valley. It’s also “an excellent and singular example of a barn type rarely found in Montana,” Axline wrote.
It was the centerpiece of Armstrong’s nationally known facility that produced the likes of Spokane, whose Kentucky Derby heroics in 1889 rivaled another significant event in Montana history that year – the achievement of statehood.
To Axline, the round barn “almost sounded like a swank hotel for horses.”
That’s no doubt what Armstrong had in mind when he designed it: To pamper, prepare and produce top-flight race horses. The barn featured a three-tiered, wedding-cake configuration and a dirt indoor training track around the first level. The floors had and still have diameters of roughly 100, 75 and 30 feet.
Eighteen stalls ringed the first floor, with a circular tack room, two hospital stalls and a spiral stairway in the middle. Offices and sleeping quarters flanked the main entry to the east.
The second story held a large granary and hayloft. On the top floor a water pump and tank distributed water to the mangers in the stalls below.
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It “may truly be called a model of architectural beauty and convenience,” Charles Armstrong wrote of his father’s creation.
“This structure is so novel in its conception, so convenient in its economy, and withal so admirably adapted to the purposes of its creation, that a description of it cannot but be of interest to the readers of this sketch.”
And it worked, especially in the case of Spokane, who set a track record of 2:34 1/2 at in the 1889 Kentucky Derby. It remains etched in the books after the Run for the Roses went from a distance of 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/4 miles seven years later.
Spokane's performances were celebrated by the Montana press, and at least noted by national sportswriters.
"The success of Spokane only further verifies the prediction of Montana horse breeders, who have invested their fortunes in this business, that Montana has the climate and grass to make the speediest horse flesh in the world," noted the Helena Daily Independence.
A native Canadian, Armstrong had arrived in the gold camps of Montana from Minnesota in 1863. By 1882, he’d made his fortune. Much of it came from the silver, copper and lead mines in the Pioneer Mountains west of Melrose, where Armstrong formed and invited wealthy investors to join the Hecla Consolidated Mining Co.
Replaced as general manager of Hecla in 1879, Armstrong turned his attention to racehorses. He traveled extensively throughout the East, scouting thoroughbred stock, before settling on the rich farmland on the outskirts of Twin Bridges, according to Jacoby Lowney of Austin, Texas, a great-grand-nephew of Armstrong.
Lowney has researched and written extensively on Armstrong, Spokane and the round barn on the website glendalemontana.com. He also owns many of Armstrong’s personal effects, passed down in the family from Armstrong’s daughter Emma.
They include photos, books, ledgers and a painting of Spokane his great-great-uncle had hanging in his mansion in Seattle, where Armstrong died in 1907 after selling his Doncaster Farm and moving west around 1900.
Peals of Joe Walsh's “Rocky Mountain Way” rolled Thursday morning from a boom box on a ledge above the foaling stall where Interpose dropped Spokane in 1886.
Armstrong had business dealings in Spokane Falls, Washington, and according to one story, that’s where he was when the baby came. Hence the name, which gave eastern Washington considerable claim to the chestnut colt when he became famous.
Craig Taylor, owner of Taylor Construction and Design of Dillon, has had his four-man crew tearing into the sagging innards of the round barn since last autumn. Taylor counted no fewer than eight subcontractors or consultants tied to the project – from Dillon, Twin Bridges, Alder, Bozeman and Livingston.
Lacey Wood pointed to the area in the interior of the first floor where Spokane first saw the light of day.
The stall itself doesn’t exist any more. Not much on the bottom floor does, other than the wood posts that show the arrangement and size of the stalls and interior hub area; the dirt exercise track that will eventually become a wooden dance floor; and the walls of an office and sleeping quarters that flanked the main entry on the east side.
Wood said when the renovation project is finished sometime next year, there’ll be a large nameplate above the spot where Spokane was born.
Newspaper articles and pictures will be displayed on the walls, and a replica of the “Horse Fair” wood carving that once adorned the façade at the huge barn’s main entrance will hang there again.
“My husband kept getting calls from brides to use it as a backdrop for their wedding,” Wood said. “So the idea is to fix it up and turn it into a public venue that people can come and enjoy and learn about the history.”
"Everybody has seen the round barn, but I just feel like not enough people know what it is, what was raised there and the history of it," said wood.
While the upper floors won’t be accessible and the ground floor will have a whole new look, the James family was intent on preserving the barn’s original footprint, red color and exterior appearance. Best of all, Wood said, they want to “preserve it for the next 200 years.”
“They knew that something had to be done to keep it standing or to simply let it deteriorate, and that is certainly not the legacy that they want to leave here,” she said.
Under the banner head “Spokane, Again” our feckless reporter described the scene in the aftermath of the 1889 American Derby in Chicago.
Spokane “was rubbed down and lightly fed, and as the sun went down the stable boys gathered under his shed and told of the great horse’s prowess,” he wrote.
One of them placed a large pot on the fire and filled it with small, white leaves taken from a bag.
“It was the medicine man’s life giver, and it was being prepared for Spokane’s next meal,” the reporter said.
Sam Bryant, owner of Spokane’s highly touted rival Proctor Knott, passed by the Montana stables and was attracted by the laughter and loud talk. He looked in the direction of the stable hand, who was "stirring a steaming mass in a pot, his mouth stretched into a broad grin." As he stirred, he added the white leaves and sang.
The only intelligible words of the song were “Spoke, my Spoke,” said the writer.
“Sam Bryant sighed, a tear glistened in his eye and he continued on his way to join Proctor Knott.”