Who was the first bright Montanan to christen our state the "Last Best Place"?

The question came this summer on the heels of a controversial effort by Las Vegas businessman David E. Lipson to trademark the phrase. Lipson owns the swanky Resort at Paws Up in the Blackfoot Valley.

Lipson's trademark applications, which would cover about 100 commercial uses of the phrase, have been countered by, among others, the Montana Department of Commerce at the urging of Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Missoula writer William Kittredge has generally been credited with coining the phrase. "The Last Best Place" appeared in 1988 as the title of an anthology of Montana writing that Kittredge co-edited with Annick Smith.

But a number of other individuals claim the phrase, including one anonymous man from the Philipsburg area who told the Missoulian he has described the Pintler Mountain Range and its environs as "the last best place" for 50 years.

The one literary claim prior to Kittredge's is that of Whitefish author and wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick, who used the phrase to describe the Bob Marshall Wilderness in a 1983 book on mountain goats called "A Beast the Color of Winter."

The quote, from page 186, appeared in a section arguing against plans to open the Bob Marshall to oil and gas exploration. It reads: "I managed to envision industrializing the Bob. But I couldn't accept it. Not here. Not in the last, best place."

Librarians at the Montana State Library had no references to the "Last Best Place" that predated Chadwick's 1983 book.

And research librarian Stewart Shaw of the San Francisco Public Library found no etymological traces for the phrase in the English-speaking world.

"The origin of the phrase is unclear," Shaw said.

For his part, Kittredge says he never read Chadwick's mountain goat book. Chadwick argues that Kittredge must have. Chadwick cites the friendship and collaboration between his ex-wife, Beth Ferris, and Smith. A copy of the book was likely in Kittredge's house or office for at least five years, Chadwick said.

So it stands to reason that Kittredge must have read a copy of "A Beast the Color of Winter," especially considering his extensive reading of Montana literature for the anthology, Chadwick said.

"I'm not saying that Kittredge knowingly plagiarized my phrase. All of us writers read things that stick in our minds and later manage to convince ourselves that we invented them," Chadwick wrote in an e-mail.

"I can say at least that I coined it five years earlier," Chadwick said.

Smith and others uphold Kittredge's version of the separate origin of the phrase. It arose from a 1988 literary meeting at Chico Hot Springs, they said.

Kittredge, Smith and other contributors had been mulling a number of possibilities. The anthology was almost complete, but lacked a title. Kittredge had his mind stuck on an 1862 address by Abraham Lincoln that described the United States as "the last, best hope of earth." A lament from a Richard Hugo poem was also rattling around in his head: "The last good kiss / you had was years ago."

In an offhand moment, while pouring a drink, the phrase came to Kittredge.

"I made it up. I'm not saying he didn't make it up, too," Kittredge said.

"We didn't read (Chadwick's book). This is not something we stole from him," Smith added.

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The "Last Best Place" is not Montana's only nickname whose coinage has been in dispute.

There's the long-established "Big Sky Country," similar to the title of the 1947 A.B. Guthrie novel "The Big Sky," and the now-outdated "High, Wide and Handsome," which was the title of a 1943 history of Montana by Joseph Kinsey Howard.

Both phrases arose from the vernacular before they were popularized by books, said Montana Historical Society research historian David Walter.

Others claimed to have used "Big Sky" prior to Guthrie, who maintained he had made it up on his own. As for Howard, he never took credit for "High, Wide and Handsome," but said he simply put a good phrase to use.

"Taking credit for cute phrases is tough business," Walter said. "That stuff is out there floating around or is used locally, like the Last Best Place as a name for the Pintlers. That's not surprising at all."

The way to get around the coinage controversy is to ask who popularized the phrase, Walter said, and that answer is simple. It is undoubtedly Kittredge.

As for who first printed the phrase? Until proved otherwise, that is Chadwick.

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And the phrase itself? It's just darn good.

When the "Last Best Place" appeared on the 1988 anthology, it had a ring of timeless authenticity, said former Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden.

Schwinden had used a similar phrase in his successful 1984 gubernatorial campaign: "Montana, the Last of What is Best."

"It worked pretty well for us," Schwinden said. He likes to add that "Last Best Place" would have fit better on the banners at the inaugural ball.

But the idea of a site for the final shot at glory is an old one in Montana and may be linked to the early mining culture in the state.

Aside from the "Last Chance Gulch" in Helena, there were a slew of mines in Powell and Jefferson counties with names like "Last Hope," "Last Show" and "Last Resort." Those mine names appeared from about 1904 to 1916, according to the reference library at Montana Tech in Butte.

For Smith, the anthology's co-editor, the debate over the phrase's origin is beside the point.

The anthology itself was a public endeavor, she said.

Funded by grants from, among others, the Montana Committee for the Humanities and the Montana Historical Society, it was a labor of love, a collective piece of work done in a spirit of generosity.

Neither Smith nor Kittredge nor any of the other contributors earns royalties from the anthology, which has sold 75,000 copies. The origin of the phrase is less important than its broad popularity and wide usage, she said.

"I love the idea that the phrase gets used by everybody. It belongs to the public," Smith said.

Reporter Robert Struckman can be reached at 523-5262 or at bstruckman@missoulian.com

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