GREAT FALLS – This Missouri River city, built on the backs of hydroelectric power and a copper smelter, and buoyed by the opening of a U.S. Air Force base during World War II, used to be Montana’s Billings.
Great Falls was the largest city in this state in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and the center of Montana’s agriculture-based economy.
Then, suddenly, Great Falls seemed to get stuck in time.
Billings slipped slightly ahead in the 1970 census and today is almost twice as large. Missoula knocked Great Falls down another peg in 2000, taking over the No. 2 spot.
It wasn’t that people poured out of Great Falls in droves. The city – located more than 150 miles from the busy Interstate 90 corridor – just quit growing.
The latest population estimate for Great Falls is 59,351. That’s a change of just 740 people – 740 fewer people – in the last 45 or so years. That’s a long time not to grow or shrink.
It’s still where what is arguably the shortest river on Earth empties into the longest river in North America, and the place that produced one of Montana’s most revered athletes, one of America’s greatest Western artists, and one of the world’s finest statesmen.
But – quarterback Dave Dickenson, artist Charlie Russell and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Ambassador Mike Mansfield aside – Great Falls still started to fall into a decades-long rut half a century ago.
“It was a stick-in-the-mud place,” says Trever Ziegler, head brewer at The Front Brewing Co. “Nothing ever changed. I never wanted to live here when I came 17 years ago. I only moved because my wife was going to nursing school and I thought we’d be gone after two years. It was going to be an in-and-out deal.”
Today, Ziegler says he can’t imagine leaving Great Falls.
“You can really feel it changing,” he says. “It’s exciting. Especially in the last five years, there’s been a lot of new blood, and things are happening.”
That’s evident on the west bank of the Missouri. Great Falls natives Brad Talcott and his wife, Linda Caricaburu, are developing a long-neglected section along the river.
Since 2009, the 6 1/2-acre site has welcomed a four-story, 113-suite hotel (Staybridge Suites), a spectacular new $16.4 million federal courthouse (named after the Missouri River), a Japanese seafood and steakhouse (Kobe’s), and a brew pub Ziegler is part of called The Front and the attached Faster Basset coffee and sandwich shop.
Their motto, says owner Brandon Cartwright: “Come for the coffee. Stay for the beer.”
The hotel, restaurants, brew pub and courthouse are the first phase of development. Next door, old grain silos will eventually be moved to make room for phase two.
“I really feel Great Falls is coming out of the creative business rut it was in,” Cartwright says. “That’s nothing against the businesses that paved the way, but developments like West Bank One and Two are giving people a lot more choices.”
Another sign of a changing Great Falls is near Cartwright’s business – and every other business on either side of the Missouri. The River’s Edge Trail winds its way along both sides of the riverbank through town, and for several miles east of town on the south side, at the start of the Missouri Breaks.
It’s 58 miles of trails – 21 of them paved – connecting a dozen parks and constructed, a piece at a time, over the last 25 years.
It’s still growing.
The River’s Edge passes by Great Falls’ Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, considered by many Lewis and Clark buffs to be one of the finest of its kind, and located in the area where the explorers portaged around the five waterfalls that give the city its name.
It travels in front of Calumet Montana Refining, where an ongoing $400 million expansion will boost refining capacity from 10,000 barrels of crude oil a day to approximately 25,000 barrels a day.
The changes aren’t limited to the riverbank.
A mile or two north of the river, the Canadian firm ADF International last year opened a 100,000-square-foot, $26 million steel fabrication plant, and will soon add a $6 million paint shop. ADF manufactures steel beams for everything from football stadiums to seismic retrofits in California.
A couple miles south of the river, the former vo-tech now known as Great Falls College MSU has tripled the size of its welding program to help provide ADF with a trained workforce. The classes now run in three shifts that start at 6 a.m. and end at midnight.
“It’s brought life back to Great Falls,” says Great Falls College CEO and dean Susan Wolff, part of a team that helped convince ADF – which also has offices in Montreal and Miami and was looking for a place to establish a presence on the west side of North America – to choose Cascade County.
For all that’s happening in Great Falls, there is no denying that much of what’s truly cool about the city that hosts the Montana State Fair each summer is what hasn’t changed.
The opulent Rainbow Hotel, where guests over the years included Bob Hope, Sonny and Cher, President Ronald Reagan and the King of Prussia, may be an assisted living center now, but other places remain much as they have been for decades.
Downtown at the Sip ’n’ Dip Lounge in the O’Haire Motor Inn, mermaids swim past windows that let bar patrons on the second floor see into the hotel’s third-story swimming pool. “Piano Pat” Spoonheim, the same woman who started playing piano and singing at the Sip ’n’ Dip in 1962, still entertains today.
Now a great-grandmother, she was 28 when she was called to fill in one night on a “temporary” gig that’s now lasted 53 years.
Great Falls is a place where family-owned supper clubs born in the 1930s and ’40s still serve up prime rib and steaks – places like Eddie’s, Borrie’s and 3D International. The latter has its name on a massive sign that explains the whole idea behind supper clubs (the three Ds are dining, drinking and dancing), even though its menu is now Mongolian.
Patricia Kelly, who has tended bar at Eddie’s Supper Club – don’t pass up the campfire tenderloin – for more than 30 years, explains what the establishments were like back in the day.
A supper club, Kelly says, “meant ambiance, class – no muscle shirts and hair on the chest. It was men in suits and women in furs and diamonds and baby doll or Mary Jane high heels, with ’40s hair.”
Forties hair, she explains, is “hair parted on the side, and a few curls coming down.”
“People worked hard all week, and on Friday and Saturday nights they played hard and had great times, and Sunday was family day,” Kelly says.
Borrie’s and the 3D are located in Black Eagle, an unincorporated community next door to Great Falls on the north side of the Missouri. For more than 70 years, Black Eagle was home to one of the area’s most prominent landmarks, the Anaconda Company’s Big Stack.
From 1908 to 1919, it was the tallest smokestack in the world, until the 585-foot one in Anaconda eclipsed it by 77 feet. The Great Falls stack was demolished in 1982, two years after the smelter closed and much to the consternation of many locals who wanted to save it.
They were reportedly quite tickled when 600 pounds of explosives failed to bring the stack down on the first try.
It was a sign the stack should have remained a part of the skyline, they said – even as another 400 pounds of explosives finally brought the stubborn thing to the ground once and for all.
The stack is gone, but the former company-owned bar and bowling alley that smelter employees frequented is now the Black Eagle Community Center. Bowling leagues still crowd the alley at night, and VFW Post 4669 calls the community center home and provides the liquor license.
Huge photographs, one in color in a large hall where dances and receptions are held, and one in black-and-white in the bowling alley, show Black Eagle and the Big Stack in its polluting heyday.
Other photos in a hallway show some smelter employees; their names show the heavy influx of Croatian and Italian immigrants, among others, who came here to work in the smelter: Tee and Rico Balzarini, Bruno Lencioni, Bernie Zimpy, Anthony Blazicevich.
The immigrants, and industrial nature, earned Black Eagle its nickname: Little Chicago.
Two other institutions that have helped to define Great Falls over the last 60 to 70 years still stand.
Originally built to establish an air route to Alaska to ferry aircraft to our World War II ally, the Soviet Union, to use in fighting Germany – and to train bombardment groups over the skies of eastern Montana – Malmstrom Air Force Base today is home to the 341st Missile Wing of the Air Force Global Strike Command.
If you’ve read or heard about Malmstrom recently it’s most likely been news related to scandals involving drugs and cheating, and some of the Air Force personnel assigned to man the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads buried underneath 13,800 square miles of the central Montana prairie.
The scandals cost 10 commanders at Malmstrom their jobs last year, including the base commander, Col. Robert Stanley, who was allowed to resign.
Malmstrom – originally called Great Falls Army Air Base, but renamed for a popular deputy commander who died in the crash of a T-33 trainer in 1954 – is still a place where more than 7,000 authorized or assigned military and civilian employees worked in 2014.
The base’s annual payroll was nearly $216 million last year, and almost 9 million miles were put on military vehicles that shuttle various crews to 150 missile silos.
If you get to Great Falls, consider a visit to the Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum. If you get there before the end of February, consider asking museum director Curt Shannon to show you around.
Shannon retired from active duty in 1998 after 32 years, and a year later came back to run the museum. Both affable and knowledgeable, you’ll not only learn a lot about Malmstrom from Shannon, but also the Cold War and the nuclear missiles the base is in charge of.
Did you know, for instance, that the original concept for Minuteman missiles was to place them on railroad cars, not underground, and have them constantly on the move, making them a more difficult target for America’s Cold War enemies?
Shannon will also keep you entertained. Nodding toward a cheesecake photo of actress Betty Grable in a corner of the museum that shows what the interior of the original barracks on the base looked like, he’ll explain that some brass once told him the photograph was inappropriate in this day and age.
“I told them it may not be politically correct, but it is historically accurate,” Shannon says.
The museum also has some noticeable references to Lewis and Clark, including a buckskin outfit in a display that otherwise shows Air Force uniforms that have been worn on the base over the years.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a state law that says all museums in Montana have to start with Lewis and Clark,” Shannon says. “But when the boys found the falls and portaged around them, they did come right through what is now the base.”
Shannon-led museum tours will cease at the end of the month, although the museum will remain open. He’s re-retiring.
Next month, billionaires from around the globe will descend on Great Falls in their private jets, drawn by another Great Falls institution.
Folks here are preparing for The Russell: An Exhibition and Sale to Benefit the C.M. Russell Museum. Sales at the three-day Western art show, set this year for March 19-21, could reach $9 million this year.
About 13 works by Charlie Russell himself – none from the museum’s collection – will be part of the sale.
“Two will sell for over $1 million,” says the museum’s executive director, Michael Duchemin. “This gives us the chance to build a philanthropic relationship with the buyers. We take a very long view,” in the hopes that some day they will consider donating their Russell art back to the museum.
The museum has 700 of the estimated 4,000-plus works produced by the famed cowboy artist, who would have been fine trading paintings and sketches to pay his bar tabs but whose wife, Nancy, pushed him to far greater heights.
Included in the museum’s collection are Russell masterpieces such as “Return of the Horse Thieves” (1900), “The Jerk Line” and “The Exalted Ruler” (1912), “The Fireboat” (1918) and “Meat for the Wagons” (1925).
Don’t be fooled by some of the titles. “Paying the Fiddler” (1916) shows a cattle rustler who’s just been shot. “The Exalted Ruler” shows a dominant bull elk surveying his herd.
“It hung in the local Elks Lodge for years,” Duchemin says. “Charlie gave it to them after they made him an honorary Elks member. Around 1990-ish, they decided they needed to sell it to keep the club afloat.”
The large painting was valued at $1.1 million back then, and the museum didn’t have that kind of money to spend.
“So the $1.1 million was raised, one inch at a time,” Duchemin says.
For $253, you could own one square inch of “The Exalted Ruler,” with the understanding that you would donate your one square inch to the museum.
“The chairman of the board at the museum took it around the state in a motor home and displayed it at places like the local bank,” Duchemin says. “Up in Malta, the school kids brought in their lunch money and piggy banks and raised enough money to buy one inch. The whole $1.1 million was raised that way.”
The Russell Museum is located in one of Great Falls’ oldest residential neighborhoods, where both Russell’s home and log-cabin studio are also preserved.
Russell detested progress – “He absolutely despised automobiles,” Duchemin says – and devoted himself to documenting the West that was passing before his eyes.
“He arrived in Montana in the 1880s, and saw the pressures Native Americans and wildlife were already under,” Duchemin says. “Charlie was always looking backward. Nancy was the forward-looking one.”
In a way, that’s where Great Falls finds itself today. It’s a city that doesn’t have to look far to see time standing still, yet need not look much farther to see the clock restarting.