BOULDER — At first glance, this community could easily pass for typical small-town Montana, similar to dozens of our places with a little more, or a little less, than 1,000 residents.
It’s in a pretty locale, set as it is on the Boulder River, with grand views of the Elkhorn Mountains and a 125-year-old brick and stone courthouse, complete with gargoyles, that towers over its side of town.
The clock in the courthouse tower is right twice a day, having been stuck at 5:02 for as long as anyone can remember – or, as more than one county employee will note with a smile, “quittin’ time.”
This is a quiet place, and you might have to fight an urge to label it Mayberry-like.
The city’s ground-level water storage tanks up on Cap Hill – so named because it’s where Montana’s capitol would have been built had Boulder prevailed in its late-1800s effort to become the state capital – are notably graffiti-free.
Last month on a couple of sun-filled spring days, the closest thing to “traffic” you’d have found most of the day on Boulder’s main drag, Montana Highway 69, was when more than one vehicle was in motion at any given time, in any given block.
The central business district contains a couple of bars, one with a bowling alley, a grocery store, three restaurants (two of which close after lunch) and two more eateries that focus on pizza and chicken. There’s a liquor store, a hardware store, one motel, a Masonic Lodge and a handful of empty storefronts.
Drive through Boulder, located midway between Helena and Butte, and you might not even notice all that.
Stop and spend some time, and you’ll soon discover there is precious little that is typical about Boulder at all.
This is also a place with a hot springs resort that looks like it was plucked out of late 1800s California, a massive Spanish mission-like hotel. Now called Boulder Hot Springs, it was once the center of Boulder’s nightlife, although its latest reincarnation – for more than 20 years now – is as a health-conscious smoke-, alcohol- and drug-free inn and spa.
In 1949, local resident Loretta Waldie was crowned what we’re guessing may have been the world’s first and only Uranium Queen. There are old uranium mines in Boulder and, nine miles away, Basin, with names such as Free Enterprise, Sunshine, Earth Angel and Merry Widow.
Visit one such as Free Enterprise, located high on a hill overlooking Boulder, today and you’ll find people playing cards or reading magazines in tunnels far below the surface of the Earth, where they pay to sit and breathe a radioactive gas.
Between the hot springs and the “health mines,” on the south end of town, there is a nonprofit that treats youths with highly sexualized behaviors or youths that have committed sex crimes … a correctional facility for Montana girls ages 10 to 17 … a treatment center for adult female offenders … and the Montana Developmental Center, a state-run institution.
The latter has less than 50 residents now – “Montana’s most challenging individuals with developmental disabilities,” most of them with co-occurring mental illnesses – who have been ordered here by courts because they are believed to be a danger to themselves or others.
While it had fewer than 40 clients on an earlier Wednesday in May, MDC’s forerunners in Boulder have housed thousands of people since the state opened it in the late 1800s, as – yes, this was its original name – the Montana School for the Backward Feeble Minded Children.
These 24/7 facilities that deal with mental and physical disabilities, drug addiction or criminal behavior give Boulder something else that sets it apart from what we might think of as typical small-town Montana.
Boulder has commuters.
The Montana Developmental Center alone employs 250 people, and many of them, plus more who work at Youth Dynamics, Riverside Correctional Facility or the Elkhorn Treatment Center, live in the much larger cities of Helena (27 miles to the north) or Butte (37 miles south) and commute to their jobs via Interstate 15.
Interestingly, says Boulder city administrator and chief of police Rick Streib, Boulder has become a bit of a bedroom community as well. While many people drive to Boulder to earn their living, there are those who do the opposite.
They’ve chosen to raise their families in a smaller town, and commute to jobs in the city – primarily, Streib says, to state jobs in Helena.
He should know. The Boulder native made the drive to Helena for 24 years, where he worked as a school librarian.
“I only missed one day in all that time,” Streib says, and that was due not to weather – although it was 32 degrees below zero that day – but to a horrific 1989 train wreck in Helena that closed roads.
Streib’s father owned the town’s grocery store, Boulder Cash. These days Boulder Cash is the name of the liquor store and folks do their food-shopping a few steps away at L&P Grocery, but Streib says the “Cash” name was always something of a misnomer.
“People who ran ranches paid their grocery bill once a year when they sold their cattle,” Streib says. “It’s how things work here. It’s a small town, good for families. Everybody knows everybody, although that can be a detriment sometimes.”
Boulder does make headlines occasionally, and not always in a good way.
The state has long struggled with problems at the Montana Developmental Center and its predecessors. MDC Superintendent Gene Haire came on in 2011, a year after a female resident was raped by a male staffer.
Investigations of the incident suggested it was probably not an isolated case.
Haire spent the previous 14 years as head of the Montana Mental Disabilities Board of Visitors, which oversees MDC, and was responsible for reports that outlined many of the problems at the facility that he first worked at from 1974 to 1977 as an aide.
Set up to accommodate no more than 56 people now, there was a time in the 1960s – when it was called Boulder River School and Hospital – that the population at this institution topped out at 1,500.
That was an era, Haire says, when parents who had children born with Down syndrome were told by doctors to “take ’em to Boulder.”
“Dozens of babies with hydrocephalus (also known as water on the brain) were sent here,” Haire says. “There were several clients I worked with (in the 1970s) whose only disability was deafness. Deafness affects speech, and so they might appear to be what used to be called ‘retarded.’ ”
“There was a growing consciousness throughout the ’70s that these people ought to have an opportunity to live in the community,” he goes on. “There were Supreme Court cases, and Montana Code in 1975 incorporated guidelines for people’s rights. When people are in treatment facilities, they don’t lose their constitutional rights.”
That’s the principle Haire has sought to return MDC to, as a place that is a safe, therapeutic environment that helps clients attain the skills necessary to return to a community environment – not a place that warehouses folks with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses.
While “the institution,” as locals sometimes call MDC and its predecessors, occasionally put the town in the news, Boulder’s biggest splash, international headline-wise, came in 1986.
That’s when two 19-year-olds from Helena walked into The Lounge with the intention of robbing the Boulder bar, and wound up shooting owners Terrance and Marie Duffy to death with a shotgun.
In 1986, “Dallas” was one of America’s top-rated TV shows, and one of its stars, who played J.R. Ewing’s brother Bobby, was Patrick Duffy.
Kenneth Miller and Sean Wentz had no idea the people they gunned down in November 1986 were the parents of the actor, who spent part of his childhood in Boulder.
The murders of the Duffys – people here knew them as “Terry” or “Duff,” and “Babe” – was shocking enough to Boulder, but the community was unprepared for the media firestorm that followed.
“This type of thing never happened in Boulder before,” Denise Sutherlin, who worked at the weekly newspaper, the Boulder Monitor, told reporters who descended on the town. “Everybody’s stunned.”
“We don’t have enough money in the whole town of Boulder to make it worth getting shot over,” Phil Yanzick, the co-owner of Phil & Tim’s Bar & Bowl just a block away from The Lounge, told the Los Angeles Times.
The site of the murders became, later, the Raghorn Saloon. It’s closed now. A large mural on the side of the building shows five men on horseback with the notation, “Have a swig at Sig’s.” Out front, at the bottom of the Raghorn Saloon sign, is the former bar’s motto: “Any rack’ll do.”
The two teenagers accused each other of being the one who pulled the trigger that killed the Duffys. Both were sentenced to 75 years in prison.
About 14 years ago, Wentz confessed that he was the one who shot the actor’s parents. In 2007, Miller was released on parole.
But there may be no such thing as bad publicity. Seventy-year-old Sandy Goehring of Boulder says in 1966 Reader’s Digest carried an article on the health mines in Boulder and Basin.
“Labeled it quackery,” says Goehring, 70, who worked at the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine back then and still rides an elevator down into the earth regularly to breathe the air. “Business shot up after that. It just went wild.”
Yes, Boulder is a place where people come from around the world – not necessarily in droves, mind you – and pay good money to descend into tunnels in old uranium mines here and breathe in air that most of the rest of the world goes out of its way to avoid.
Air in the mines contains radon, a colorless, odorless, tasteless – and radioactive – gas that the Environmental Protection Agency says is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind cigarette smoking.
But a host of people – many who say they suffered in pain for years and tried this as a last resort – swear it relieves the symptoms of everything from arthritis to ankylosing spondylitis.
“I’ve seen people come in here in wheelchairs and walk out a month later,” Goehring says. “What it does is help the glands that secrete cortisone in the body. It’s not like nuclear waste. This gas dissipates in half an hour.”
Goehring and friend Winona Kroll, 79, are spending an hour 85 feet below the surface of the Earth in a tunnel at the Free Enterprise Mine, located high on a hill overlooking Boulder.
Both first entered the mine as employees more than half a century ago.
For Kroll, the year was 1952, and although she was a teenager, she says she had a bad shoulder that hurt so much she couldn’t even type.
“All I did was walk people into the mine, but within two months, the pain was gone,” Kroll says. “It was unbelievable.”
Goehring worked at the mine starting in 1963. “I had terrible sinuses,” she says, “but just in taking people up and down, my sinuses cleared.”
Today she makes regular hourlong visits to the mine to combat the effects of ankylosing spondylitis, and says an immature cataract found during one eye examination had vanished by her next ocular exam.
Some people see ghosts at Boulder Hot Springs, and while co-manager Barb Reiter hasn’t seen the ghost of Simone, a prostitute they say worked here a century or more ago, she’s felt Simone’s presence.
“The story is she was murdered right in front of the safe, that maybe she caught somebody robbing it,” Reiter says. “I’ve passed by the safe door and felt a noticeable difference in the temperature in the room – a cool spot.”
Today you can spend a night in the Simone Suite – for the record, the hot springs refers to her a bit more delicately, as “a lady of the night” – a bright, cheery room among the 33 available at the inn that author and spiritual teacher Anne Wilson Schaef purchased in 1990.
At the time, the old resort had been condemned and faced a highly uncertain future.
“Everyone else who looked at it just saw a run-down place,” Reiter says. “She was looking for a place to do her trainings and workshops, and she saw the potential.”
This is where Boulder partied for decades, including the big band era of the 1930s, when gambling was legal, and the 1960s, when it was called the Diamond S Ranchotel and baron-of-beef dinners on weekend nights lined up locals by the hundreds to eat and then dance the night away. U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt reportedly stayed here.
Arkansas resident Schaef, who had lived for a year in Clancy, about 20 miles north, as a teenager and attended Jefferson County High School in Boulder during that time, is still remodeling and restoring the place she bought almost a quarter of a century ago.
Although the days of booze, big bands and baron-of-beef feasts are gone, locals still visit the hot springs to swim in its outdoor pool, soak in its indoor plunges or sit in its steam rooms, and overnight guests can enjoy nutritious breakfasts prepared specially for them.
The switch to a health-conscious resort isn’t entirely out of line with the hot springs’ history, either: At the turn of the 20th century, the resort offered the Keeley Cure for alcoholism. While its inventor, Leslie Enraught Keeley, injected patients with a gold chloride and the treatment eventually became known as a successful example of quackery, he is also noted for being among the first to recognize alcoholism as a disease.
On the back side of Cap Hill, just before you get to the Boulder Cemetery, a rutted road with no identifying signs veers off and meanders up toward the water storage tanks.
From the top of the hill you can start to see that there’s a lot more to Boulder than a couple of bars and a hardware store.
A few miles down the valley a large structure is visible that, on closer inspection, you’ll discover is the Spanish mission-like hot springs resort. In town are several more buildings far too large for a town Boulder’s size, including a three-story brick affair that opened in 1898 that was part of the Montana Deaf and Dumb Asylum – yet another forerunner to the Montana Developmental Center.
It, along with Boulder Hot Springs and the Jefferson County Courthouse, are all on the National Register of Historic Places. The deaf and dumb asylum is one of the few historic places with two historical markers, one written in Braille.
Not far away from town are the long-ago abandoned mining towns of Elkhorn and Comet.
You can drive through Boulder in less than five minutes, and forget it in five more.
Stop and poke around, and you’ll discover a fascinating place of ghosts and ghost towns, of radon health mines and institutions with long and no doubt sad stories, and hot springs visited by Native Americans, a world heavyweight champion boxer and U.S. presidents.
What Boulder can remind us is that, for every community we think could be typical of small-town Montana, not one probably is. There is no place quite like Boulder – or Bigfork, or Belt, or Babb or Bainville – anywhere else in the world.