“It is a jaunt that is ripe for July. Take it and you will be glad you spared the time.” - Arthur L. Stone
The road to Frenchtown is paved now. You can even follow it from home, in virtual fashion, on something called a computer, via something called the Internet.
Imagine how far-fetched such notions were when Arthur L. Stone set out from Missoula in a horse-drawn buggy with an unidentified travel mate in early July 1911.
Many farms along the road suggested “interesting incidents,” Stone wrote. “If you want to get them don’t ride in an automobile – travel behind a jogging horse and the suggestions will not come so fast that their impressions will be lost.”
Stone was editor of the Missoulian and later became “Dean” Stone after he was named in 1914 to head the University of Montana’s new journalism school.
He had set out in mid-June of 1911 with the intention of taking a local trail each week and writing about it for the Sunday Missoulian. Most of Stone’s “Following Old Trails” columns were compiled and published under the same name by Morton Elrod at the University of Montana in 1913, despite Stone’s own reservations.
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“When it came to arranging these journeys over old Montana trails for book form, I realized more than ever that they bear evidence of the haste with which most of them were prepared,” Stone noted in the Foreword. “All were written under the high pressure of a daily newspaper office and with no thought that they would ever be called back out of the old files.”
A century later, they remain treasure troves of insight into a community’s history and social fabric at a narrow juncture in time. “The Frenchtown Road” appeared in the July 8, 1911, Missoulian.
Stone’s ride that week must have taken him on a path that traced, roughly, Mullan Road to the west of Missoula. He underlined the road’s importance in the growth of Missoula County, which at the time stretched all the way to the Idaho border.
“The great steam roller and grader has been working its way up from Huson on the lower edge of the valley, toward Missoula,” Stone wrote. “Before the season’s work is done, the old trail will be a boulevard.”
His party would have trotted through what’s now the intersection of Mullan Road and Reserve Street, one of the busiest in Montana, and on past Super Wal-Mart and a succession of ranchettes and subdivisions. Stone devoted later columns to the vigilantes and their work in the town of Hell Gate in the 1860s, and to Council Grove and the Hellgate Treaty of 1855.
He pointed out prominent farms and ranches along the way, beginning with those belonging to Winters and Hogan and England.
“There is the Austin ranch, too, and on the other side of the road there are the tall, green trees that shade the hospitable homestead of the Flynn farm,” Stone wrote. “There is the White farm – everybody in western Montana has heard of that.”
Those Flynn and White homes still stand. The latter, built in the early 1860s, is perhaps the oldest occupied building in the valley – in open fields at the end of a private lane behind the Hellgate Trading Post convenience store.
Stone passed what are now El-Mar Estates, platted in 1974 by Elmer and Marge Frame to expand on El-Mar Trailer Village, which the Frames opened in 1956. He dropped down into Grass Valley, and seemed to express a dim view of the new Milwaukee Road that spliced through the middle.
Grass Valley “remained for so many years a contented, prosperous community of farmers, near enough to a railway (the Northern Pacific) to be comfortable, but far enough away not to be annoyed, until the Milwaukee, pushing westward, threw up a high embankment which separates the valley into halves, its rude, gray walls rising like a bulwark,” he said.
Family names such as Cyr, Deschamps, Dussault, Palin, Hamil “at once suggest themselves,” Stone wrote. A century later, many of them still do.
Take, for example, Deschamps (say “day-shaw.”)
French-Canadian brothers Antoine, Gaspard and Joseph Deschamps settled here in the 1870s. They had at least 20 children between them, and at least five more generations of Deschamps have followed. The oldest direct descendant of the three brothers is Bob Deschamps, a former Missoula County commissioner who’s in his 90s and lives in Ronan. His son, Dusty Deschamps, is a Missoula County district judge and former longtime county attorney. Both retained their ranch roots throughout their public lives.
Stone mentioned the Cyr hotel, “a celebrated road inn” that stood in the shade of tall poplars and, across the road, the substantial Grass Valley schoolhouse. Hay and oats from Grass Valley won gold medals at two world’s fairs “in competition with the farmers of the whole earth,” the editor reported.
“It is a famous piece of farm land but its people bear their honors modestly,” he said. “They do not see any reason for making a fuss about it just because the world at large has discovered what they knew for so long.”
Soon the Frenchtown Valley replaced Grass Valley beneath the hooves of the horse and wheels of the buggy.
“In every direction, even up on the hillsides, stretch the waving seas of grass and grain,” Stone wrote. “There are substantial farm homes scattered all about. Thrift is everywhere visible and manifest. And in the midst of it is Frenchtown, a place that is worth knowing.”
Here the French tongue still held sway. Early settlers, Jacques (Jack) Demers and Louis Brown, are buried on the hillside. The great statewide French celebration, St. John’s Day, was marked here at St. John the Baptist Church every June 24 except 1911 (when it was held in Missoula and at the new Riverside Park in Bonner) and had been for nearly half a century.
“Frenchtown has changed,” Stone said, “but not so much that there are not reminders of the old town; on all sides there are suggestions of the jovial Jack Demers, whose hospitable home was always open to the wayfarer and at whose table there was ever a plate for the stranger or the friend who came unannounced; … of Peter Scheffer, pioneer farmer and successful business man; of scores of oldtimers who have been making hay, history and happiness in this beautiful valley for two generations.”
Another Missoulian writer, Jane Rider, interviewed Peter Scheffer’s grandson Tom in 2003. He lived in a house that was part of the original log structure built by Peter, who came to Frenchtown in 1872. Tom, 84 at the time, passed away in 2010.
Scheffer told Rider that to his way of thinking, four developments were the major contributors to Frenchtown’s change over the years. The railroad came in 1890, years before Stone’s buggy ride there; electricity and the Frenchtown Irrigation District arrived in the 1930s, the latter transforming dry land to irrigated soil; and the pulp mill went into operation in the late 1950s.
Only the latter has disappeared, shuttered when Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. closed its pulp mill a couple of years ago. Its hopeful skeleton dominates the valley and still symbolizes the mushrooming development that has gobbled up much of the cropland that Stone rhapsodized about.
But on the right July day, in the right places along the road to Frenchtown, you catch a glimpse and a whiff of what Stone must have experienced that day 101 years ago.
“The air is heavy with the perfume of the blossoming clover,” he wrote. “High in the air the lark sings his song of joy, in the grass the baby grouse rush to cover, in the hedges broods of young ducks scurry to shelter.
“The drone of insects hums on every side and induces slumber. As your horse jogs on, your head nods and you are almost asleep. The click of the mower arouses you, for the season of growth is reaching its climax and the heavy crop is ready for the harvest.”
Stone closed that week with a nod to the valley’s rich history and, perhaps, a premonition of the four-lane interstate and busy airport that keep the valley buzzing year ’round today.
“Always this jaunt will be delightful; always it will be remindful of the past and ever it will be suggestive of the possibilities of the future,” he wrote. “The past of the Frenchtown trail is rich but there is greater importance in its future. One will have to travel often to keep pace with the development there.”