Road to the past
Road to the past

'Roadside History of Montana' a guide for 'heritage vacationers'

If people have half as much fun reading his new book as he did writing it, says the author of "Roadside History of Montana," he'll be happy - and so will they.

"I think the saddest thing about finishing this book is that it's done, because it was so much fun to work on," Don Spritzer said in a recent interview.

Spritzer, a reference librarian at the Missoula Public Library who earned a doctorate in history from the University of Montana, said Mountain Press editors approached him five years ago and made him an offer to write the hybrid history and guide book he couldn't refuse. He told them it would take more than four years to do.

"Because I didn't want to quit my day job and become another starving author," he said.

But Spritzer used an unconventional method to write a history book. Instead of completing all of his research and then writing the book, he researched and wrote each section individually. The book follows the pattern of other books in Mountain Press' "Roadside History" series, which divides the state into geographical/historical regions.

"The first thing I did, before I started researching or writing, was read the unabridged journals of Lewis and Clark," he said. "I took the way they entered the state and left the state, and very roughly that's the way the section chapters run."

Then Spritzer began the research. Lots of research. He used the public and Mansfield Libraries, both of which have excellent Montana history collections, he said, and borrowed a lot of books through interlibrary loan.

County and community histories were just as important. He used several hundred sources of information for the book. Spritzer said almost every town in Montana has a written history, although some are much better than others, and all contributed to the book.

After completing the research, Spritzer and his wife, Kathy, hit the road. They traveled extensively throughout the state, camping the entire time in places ranging from "the top of Pipestone Pass between Butte and Whitehall to the forests east of Ekalaka," he said.

They kept logs detailing the location of important historical sites, such as the last spike ceremony at the completion of the Northern Pacific railroad. They visited numerous local museums and historical societies to gather anecdotes and information.

And they collected hundreds of historical photos. Spritzer said that although the book is not a pictorial history, he believes it has photos from more sources than any other Montana history book.

"People were really helpful and kind in giving me access to those prints," he said.

Upon returning home from a road trip, Spritzer would write the section. Each has a map and general introduction to the history of the region.

The sections are subdivided into highway routes between towns. Many of the historical sites are towns themselves; other sites are located with detailed mile marker information. The book is written as if it were a tour guide with you in the car, which Spritzer did by design.

"I would like to think of this book as being more user-friendly than other history books," he said.

Spritzer said his target audience is anyone who travels in Montana. A trend he has noticed is the increased popularity of what he calls "heritage vacations," in which people travel highways and stop at every historical marker. He thinks his book is geared for these travelers.

"That is what this book was for me and my wife, a four-year heritage vacation," he said. "It's not an academic history, there are no breakthroughs, but some of the things I wrote may be controversial, especially the section on vigilantes and maybe the section on the Little Big Horn."

The book goes well beyond the Lewis and Clark expedition and well beyond what Spritzer calls the "three C's" of Montana - cowboys, Custer and copper kings, he said. It is full of local anecdotes that Spritzer hopes help bring the history of Montana alive for both the casual tourist and the avid historian.

"I think everybody who reads this book will learn something new about M

ontana," he said. "Even those who have read a lot about Montana history."

One of Spritzer's favorite stories included in the book is the tale of the day in 1912 that smelter workers from Anaconda and miners from Butte scheduled their annual picnics in the same place on the same day. Spritzer writes:

"Several thousand quarts of beer and a tug-of-war between the rival unions produced an eruption. After the Anaconda men lost the tug-of-war, someone threw a punch; someone else hurled a bottle; and the war was on.

After a valiant struggle the outnumbered smeltermen retreated to nearby hills. A railroad baggage car carried the wounded to hospitals in Butte and Anaconda. The next day the Butte press reported, 'The afternoon sun was hidden from sight by the clouds of flying bottles.' "

Another difference between his book and most other Montana history books, Spritzer said, is that his does not stop at the year 1920. Many authors have treated anything after that year as uninteresting, but Spritzer believes some of that history is the state's most interesting. He believes the building of Fort Peck Dam , for example, is as interesting as anything that happened in Butte.

The book also has a section devoted to the history of Glacier National Park, which Spritzer said is unique among general Montana history books. He did so, he said, because Glacier has a fascinating history and is considered neither part of the Hi-Line nor western Montana.

"It's a world of its own up there, and it turned out to be a neat little chapter," he said.

Spritzer does not have any particular favorite historical site in Montana. But he said some of the most pleasant surprises came while doing the traveling research in eastern Montana, in towns like Terry and Hysham.

"Just because of the people we met and the great museums they have out there," he said. "People were really friendly and loved to tell you about the history of their area."

And that, for Spritzer, is what makes Montana's history so great. He believes no other state has residents so in touch with their past. He also thinks visiting historical sites helps people gain that understanding.

"I think by visiting historical sites people always learn something new about a country's or a region's past," he said. "And they learn what this place is about by learning how we got here."

Thursday - 6/3/99

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