They didn’t always call it Veterans Day, and it was rarely if ever observed on Nov. 11.
But years before America celebrated the first Armistice Day in 1919, which became Veterans Day in 1947, the nation — and Missoula — set aside days and ways to pay tribute to those who served.
The Missoulian of Sept. 17, 1898, noted that President William McKinley would be in Omaha, Nebraska, in October at the World’s Fair during “Peace Jubilee Week.” The event, from Oct. 10-15, celebrated the end of the Spanish-American War but honored survivors of the Civil War.
“Oct. 13 has been designated as Army and Navy and Veteran Soldiers’ Day, and includes the veterans of both sides of the rebellion,” the short report said. “An invitation is extended to Montana veterans.”
Nine years later, Missoula staged a “veterans’ day” to remember. It happened on May 30, 1907, and “never before in Missoula was Memorial day so well observed,” the Missoulian proclaimed the next day.
Most businesses in town were closed in the morning, and all of them in the afternoon.
A parade began on Main Street at 10 a.m. and proceeded up Higgins Avenue. The fire department was in the lead, followed by the Fort Missoula “firing squad” escorting the veterans “whose day yesterday was,” the paper said.
Next came the Eagles and other service organizations, all marching up to the Northern Pacific station, where they took a train to the city cemetery west of town.
“The train was crowded and hundreds of people drove out to the cemetery or walked or rode on bicycles or in automobiles. It was a magnificent crowd and its presence added to the impressiveness of the ceremony of the day,” said the report.
There were no speeches as a small group of Civil War veterans gathered around the grave where the Grand Army of the Republic conducted a ritualistic service. They were men, according to the reporter, “who 40 years ago were in the full strength of youth, but whose heads are now gray and whose forms are bent, but the fire of whose patriotism burns now as brightly as it did then.”
No formal oration was needed.
“There could have been nothing added to the solemn impressiveness and the deep significance of the ceremony as it was performed. Its very simplicity and the presence of so many people made the service just what it should be.”
It was an interesting time in Missoula’s life. Elsewhere that week, voters were called to the polls to vote on bonds of $175,000 for a new county courthouse and $75,000 for a new high school. Both passed and both buildings, modernized and expanded, still stand.
Even as the large crowd at the cemetery dissipated and the veterans and Fort Missoula soldiers returned to town for a noon banquet at the Odd Fellows’ hall, an even more colorful and historic scene was taking place to the north.
Some 500 head of buffalo from the Pablo-Allard herd on the Flathead Indian Reservation were being driven from the Mission Valley, over Ravalli Hill to corrals at Ravalli Station. There they were loaded on heavy stock cars and readied for transport. Their destination: Canada, where the majestic animals had been sold to the government for “a smaller sum than $150,000.”
There was no byline on that Missoulian story but the style smacked of that of editor Arthur L. Stone. He mourned the occasion and said the scenes transpiring at Ravalli “have never been duplicated in the world; in all probability they will never be repeated.”
“Down that coulee yesterday, out of that peaceful valley, rumbled the largest herd of bison in the world,” he wrote. “Down the narrow draw in the outward side of the cliffs they came at their awkward pace, their hoofs treading for the last time upon American soil, for when they leave the cars into which they are being loaded they will be under the union jack. They are lost forever to America, in whose possession they should have remained at any price.”
Stone described in detail the loading process and then summarized:
“To get a good idea of the difficulties that attend this work, take the most ‘ornery’ range steer that ever stood on hoof, multiply his meanness by 10, his stubbornness by 15, his strength by 40, his endurance by 50 and then add the products. You will then have some conception of the patience and skill that are required to load a buffalo into a stock car.”
The train with its “strange load” was expected to pass through Missoula the next day. It would go to Helena over the Northern Pacific, then north on the Great Northern and Canada Northern to Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton, Alberta.
As it turned out, less than half the herd went out on the first load; subsequent Missoulian reports documented the difficulty of rounding up and penning the rest. When a second shipment was finally ready in October, an estimated 150 head of bison were still left in the Mission Valley.
In his 2016 book "The Last of the Buffalo: Return to the Wild," Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke wrote, "The most important event in the life history of the American bison was the 1907 purchase by the Canadian Government of the Pablo-Allard herd of 628 bison and transporting 398 of them to Elk Island National Park. This purchase was considered one of the world's most significant wildlife events of the 20th century."
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