Missoula doesn’t have a precise date of birth. Local historians have pinpointed November 1864 as the month C.P. Higgins, Frank Worden and David Pattee started building a sawmill where The Trail Head stands today on East Front Street.
They did it because they could use the steady flow from Rattlesnake Creek to power the grist mill that followed, something they didn’t have from Grant Creek, where Hellgate Village was established 4 1/2 years earlier and 4 1/2 miles to the west. The site was first known as Missoula Mills.
“There wasn’t much here in 1864, but it was the start of Missoula’s success and the demise of Hellgate. The two go hand in hand,” said Bob Brown, executive director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
That’s one reason Missoula will jump on the sesquicentennial bandwagon in 2014. As 2013 drew to a close, Missoula County’s historical museum was coordinating plans for a two-year celebration. It’ll kick off April 12 with the opening of exhibits at the museum itself and, not coincidentally, the last day at work after 23 years for Brown, who’s retiring at age 62.
Brown is an iconic figure at Missoula events as his alter ego, “Captain” Higgins, Missoula’s co-founder who first passed through this country in 1853 as wagon master for the railroad survey led by Washington Territory’s first governor, Isaac Stevens.
Brown has six weeks of comp time coming from Missoula County before his official retirement date in May. He said the opening of the 150th exhibit “seemed like the perfect time for me and Higgins to kind of walk off into the sunset.”
The museum is calling its sesquicentennial exhibit “Growing the Garden City: Missoula’s First 50 Years.”
Missoula wasn’t incorporated as a city until 1883, but the mid-1860s marked the move from Hellgate Village and “the time when the community really started to become itself,” said Kristina Swanson, the fort historical museum’s new development director.
What are the elements of that early town? The two-year exhibit in the main gallery at the museum will examine Missoula’s stories leading up to World War I – early doctors and hospitals, transportation, newspapers, churches, public works and so on.
Cameras, photographs and photographers will come into focus in a separate gallery. Missoula’s diverse neighborhoods over the past 150 years will be featured in yet another, said Nicole Webb, the historical museum’s curator of collections.
Webb said there’ll also be a series of six smaller exhibits over the two years in the orientation gallery, starting on April 12 with the history of forestry and the timber industry in Missoula. It’s timed to be open for the annual Forestry Days in April.
Later the focus will shift to beverages – the dairies, breweries and bottling companies of Missoula.
“That one will be open for Brewfest,” Webb noted.
Outside on the museum grounds, plans are in the works to refurbish St. Michael’s Church, built in 1863 below Hellgate Village. There’ll be a new World War II alien detention center exhibit at the barracks, and new interpretive signs around the fort with pictures and information about the detention center.
Swanson has taken charge of coordinating community outreach activities surrounding Missoula’s 150th. Plans were still evolving in late 2013, but Swanson has lined up a host of partners, including the Missoula Art Museum, Missoula Cultural Council, Missoula’s historic preservation officer Leslie Schwab, the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History, and the city’s Moon-Randolph Homestead.
Early plans for 2014 include the annual Mullan Road conference, which comes to town in the spring, and a World War I centennial commemoration in August. Swanson has hopes that representatives from the Salish Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai culture committees will play major roles in Missoula’s sesquicentennial activities.
Local businesses will be able to get involved in various ways, as well, including posting signs that say “my business helped to grow the Garden City.”
Among other ideas thrown out, but not yet fleshed out, were school art and history projects centered around early Missoula, homestead workshops and demonstrations, storytelling events, dance troupes, commemorative posters and artwork, brewing demonstrations, and walking tours.
Suggestions also included getting involved with annual events, perhaps by introducing horses and buggies to Sunday Streets Missoula, 1860s costumes to the Missoula Riverbank Run, or historic baseball uniforms to Missoula Osprey games.
While 2014 will get the ball rolling, 2015 “is really the bigger year,” Brown said. “Part of what we’re going to do is make our Fourth of July at the fort into a big 150th party that year.”
While you can quibble over the birthdate of Missoula, 1865 “was definitely Missoula’s first Fourth of July,” Brown said.
Missoula isn’t the only place with dreams and schemes for milestone events. Montana’s own birthday is much easier to nail down. President Abraham Lincoln signed Montana Territory into existence on May 28, 1864 – several months before Worden, Higgins and Pattee started construction of their sawmill.
A couple of months after the territory was established, the so-called Four Georgians struck gold in Last Chance Gulch and Helena sprung up almost immediately.
The Helena Business Improvement District and Tourism Business Improvement District have big plans for the Capital City’s sesquicentennial in 2014, starting with a New Year’s Eve bash and continuing throughout the calendar, climaxing on the discovery date of 2014.
It will also be the 100th birthday of Mineral County, carved in 1914 from the western end of Missoula County, and the county has plans for a celebration of its own.
In 1961, as Montana’s territorial centennial approached, the state Legislature created a centennial commission for “the sole purpose of providing a dignified, significant celebration during the full year of 1964 commemorating creation of the territory as well as honoring 75 years of statehood by and for the people of Montana.”
One of the offshoots was the Montana Centennial Train that traveled through Montana in February 1964, then journeyed across the country in the spring to sit on display at the Montana Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair.
No such commission and nothing so elaborate as a Centennial Train are in the works for the sesquicentennial. World’s Fairs are known as Expos these days, and the next one is set for Milan, Italy, in 2015.
Still, a variety of organizations including the Montana Historical Society, Humanities Montana, the Museums Association of Montana and the Montana Library Association will play roles in marking Montana’s 150th.
Ken Egan wasn’t here in ’64, but he has an idea of how big a deal it was. The director of Missoula-based Humanities Montana said he was a kid living in the Chicago area when the Centennial Train rolled through.
“That was a huge event for my family,” Egan said. “We went into Chicago, saw the Centennial Train, saw the parade. It was very memorable.”
Humanties Montana has set up a Facebook account “Montana at 150.” It includes a roster of featured programs Humanities Montana sponsors with a focus on Montana Territory, and encourages people with other ideas to apply for grants.
It has also added five books to the Montana Authors Project begun in 2010 to commemorate the sesquicentennial, based on the results of a poll on Humanity Montana’s website. Those books are “Fools Crow” by James Welch; “All But the Waltz: A Memoir of Five Generations in the Life of a Montana Family” by Mary Clearman Blew; “The House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind” by Ivan Doig; “Tough Trip Through Paradise, 1878-79” by Andrew Garcia; and “The Big Sky” by A.B. Guthrie Jr.
Egan said in mid-November he had a feeling the 150th was “taking off.” Virginia City’s was well-marked in 2013. The Montana Historical Society plans to focus its annual conference next September around the sesquicentennial theme.
The second edition of Stevensville author Jane Lambert’s “Charlie Russell: The Cowboy Years” is available from Mountain Press Publishing Co. in Missoula, just in time for the cowboy artist’s own 150th birthday on March 19.
Egan himself has a book project in the works. “Montana 1864” will provide an overview of what Montana was like in its birth year, with an emphasis on native nations and “all the interesting, colorful characters that were roaming through and coming into the state.”
“It’s interesting,” Egan said. “I sense that all of these events, these interests, these memories are kind of converging in 2014. It’s a very cool sense, actually.”