BOULDER – There are lots of places you can go to learn a little something about Boulder, and one place you can go to learn practically everything.
Like, present-day Boulder is the third location of the town, following earlier startups at areas now referred to as Little Boulder and Old Boulder, begun as stagecoach stops.
In 1874, Hiram Cook became Boulder’s postmaster, and he by golly moved the post office to the hotel and saloon he was building a distance outside what was then the second coming of Boulder, and the townspeople eventually followed him – and their mail – to the site of the Windsor.
Across the street from today’s Windsor Bar is the building that housed Boulder’s first bank. Boulder’s first bank didn’t make it past the Great Depression, but the building did.
When they discussed tearing the place down a few years ago, Nancy Alley stepped in and bought it and the safe that came with it.
“I couldn’t see that,” says Alley, a one-time Missoula resident (she left Missoula in 1965, in case you’re trying to place her).
What to do with the old building?
Alley and a small band of volunteers have turned it into the Heritage Center, and themselves into the nonprofit Jefferson County Genealogy and Heritage Corp. The center is filled with records that can help people with ties to the area trace their family histories.
It’s got plenty of photographs and items from days gone by, too, and the people at the center can fill you in on the rest of the town’s story.
Photographer Tom Bauer and I have swung into Boulder for two days and two nights on the second stop of the Missoulian’s “Montana A to Z” project (see related story, Page A1).
By the second night one of us will be staying at the magnificent old Boulder Hot Springs, where guests swim in a 100-degree moonlit pool and make appointments with the chef to discuss their breakfast options.
Meantime, the other of us will spend a second straight night at the O-Z Motel back in town in order to search for people who dig up frontier-era outhouse sites.
They call themselves the Outhouse Patrol. Reggie Shoeman and James Campiglia look for and carefully excavate long-ago abandoned outdoor toilets in Montana, Nevada and Iowa. The women at the Heritage Center told us about them.
Turns out homesteaders and miners of yesteryear often tossed ancient booze and medicine bottles in the same hole where they did their business. The Outhouse Patrolmen collect and sometimes sell the bottles, and donated some of their local discoveries to the Heritage Center.
You can learn a lot of things from Alley, Ellen Rae Thiel and Shirley Rogers at the Heritage Center.
Like, did you know that boxer James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, the heavyweight champion of the world after knocking out the great John L. Sullivan in 1892, once trained at Boulder Hot Springs, then known as the Hotel May?
Or that in 1935 the hot springs’ then-owner, future U.S. Sen. James E. Murray, used the resort to house orphans after a 1935 earthquake badly damaged St. Joseph’s Orphans Home in nearby Helena?
Over near the Montana Developmental Center you’ll see a tall wrought-iron sign identifying the entrance to the “Arthur E. Westwell Park,” and behind it, absolutely nothing resembling a park of any sort.
At the Heritage Center, they can fill you in. Back in the 1950s, they say, a miniature version of Butte’s old Columbia Gardens sprang up on the institution’s grounds, the idea being that children assigned to Boulder’s institutions ought to have a similar ride-filled park to enjoy as the kids in Butte did.
“It sat in disrepair for a long time” in more recent years, Thiel says, and the carousel that was there – made of pots and pans and other metal donated by locals that was melted down and reformed as horses with local ranch brands – is now being reincarnated in a round building being constructed at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.
Those radon health mines in the area?
Also in the 1950s, the idea was floated for an airline that would make direct flights into Boulder to bring people seeking relief from various ailments in the old mine tunnels.
“Uranium Valley Airlines, they called it,” Thiel says. “It was supposed to have direct flights from Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Green Bay, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. One flight from Salt Lake City did come in, but I don’t know what happened after that.”
Bauer and I arrive in Boulder on a Tuesday evening, and we aren’t there an hour before we’re wondering if we’ll be arrested.
Out by the town’s cemetery we’ve found a back way to the top of Cap Hill on the northeast edge of town where Bauer can shoot pictures of the entire community, and the valley and mountains beyond.
In 1892, three years after Montana achieved statehood, Boulder was one of seven cities that vied to become Montana’s capital. This hill overlooking the Boulder Valley is where the state capitol would have been built had Boulder won out, but alas, it – and Butte, Bozeman, Great Falls and Deer Lodge – all finished behind Anaconda and Helena in a vote of the people.
In the 1894 election, Helena then edged Anaconda.
Now that we’ve caught you up on that late-breaking news, we can tell you that we had an uneasy feeling we perhaps weren’t supposed to be up on Cap Hill, which in lieu of a state capitol is home instead to the town’s water storage tanks.
But we escape unscathed, and the next morning hit Boulder running.
Next door to the O-Z Motel sits the Mountain Good Restaurant, and out front of it a gravestone-like monument. On one side of the monument are carved the Ten Commandments, and on the other side Bible verses, including Romans 9:33: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense; and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.”
Inside the restaurant, you’ll find owner Albert Wareham, who started peeling potatoes here more than half a century ago, when he was 7 years old, for his grandmother.
“If you’re going to be a Christian you’ve got to live it,” says Wareham, who erected the monument 10 years ago to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his purchase of the restaurant. “You can’t just go to church and call God the father on Sunday, and be an orphan the rest of the week.”
The monument – and an LED message sign that promotes food from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the restaurant is open, and Christian values when it is not – get a mixed reception, Wareham says.
“I get positive and negative,” he says. “Sometimes I have to pick up beer bottles that have been broken on the Ten Commandments. I guess you have to be neutral, but that’s not what the Constitution calls for. It calls for us to be free, not silent.”
The next block includes the closed-up Raghorn Saloon, the building where actor Patrick Duffy’s parents were murdered almost 30 years ago (see story, Page A1), and next door to it, the Heritage Center.
The next block has the log building that is City Hall, where we visit with secretary Casey Gifford and city administrator and chief of police Rick Streib.
Both can tell you what it’s like to commute to Helena for work – they both did for years, there are many folks here who still do, and even more who live in Helena (or Butte) and drive to Boulder to work at one of its treatment centers or correctional facilities.
Gifford can sum up the commute pretty quickly. “It’s beautiful in the summertime,” she says. “And it sucks in the winter.”
On our way back down the street we swing into the Heritage Center, where the open sign is now on, and get enough information about Boulder to fill five newspapers.
Among other things, Thiel provides us with copies of an 1885 Jefferson County Sentinel newspaper and a riveting if completely odd account of a killing that took place at the first courthouse in Boulder, which is now the Masonic Lodge.
Just to give you a flavor, the story starts thusly: “At about 11 o’clock on last Saturday morning the even tenor of our little village was disturbed by the report that a murder had been committed, and our vigilant reporter soon found that John W. Pitts had been shot down in a cowardly and brutal manner, and that John Hart was the shootist.”
Where it turns quite odd is when the vigilant reporter, who was evidently on the scene before a doctor, recounts his interview with the dying victim as Pitts lay “weltering in his own blood.”
“Reporter – Mr. Pitts, do you feel like saying anything in regard to this matter? I suppose your trouble is of a domestic nature, is it not?
“Mr. Pitts – Yes sir. I have not been living on very pleasant terms with my wife lately, and I attributed the cause chiefly to this man Hart who has been an unwelcome visitor at my house for some time …”
This – plus an interview with the accused killer (“Reporter – How do you do sir? Hart – Oh, I feel pretty well. Do you think that man will die?”) – takes up more than five columns of the Nov. 13, 1885, Jefferson County Sentinel. To make a long story short, Hart had been seeing Pitts’ stepdaughter much to Pitts’ chagrin but not, evidently, her mother’s; Pitts had caught the stagecoach from Elkhorn into Boulder to file for divorce; Hart followed him and shot him twice in a deputy clerk of court’s office.
It took three trials to convict Hart, who was hanged in 1888.
We move on to the Montana Developmental Center which, along with the Riverside Correctional Facility (for juvenile female offenders), the Elkhorn Treatment Center (for adult female offenders) and Youth Dynamics (for young people with severely emotionally disturbed diagnoses), gives the south side of Boulder a bit of an institutional feel.
That despite a complete change at MDC in 1995, when the grounds were turned into a small neighborhood made up of group homes, a town square, a general store, post office, beauty shop, laundromat and bank.
Here the goal is to help residents learn the skills necessary to return to community living. It costs the state about $300,000 per resident per year to care for “Montana’s most challenging individuals with developmental disabilities,” many of whom suffer from co-occurring mental illnesses.
“There’s been a gradual trend toward younger males who are more aggressive, and display more self-harm behaviors,” Superintendent Gene Haire says of the residents.
It takes 250 employees to work with, watch and care for the 40 to 50 residents 365 days a year, including 104 who are direct-care staff and start at a little over $12 per hour. There are also vocational and occupational therapists, behavioral health professionals, maintenance personnel and groundskeepers, and 19 shift managers who work here.
While many of the employees live in Boulder, Haire says a “high percentage” of the direct-care staff commute to work from Butte, and many of the professionals commute from Helena.
As long as you’re not shopping for a loaf of bread or a jug of milk, Ace Hardware, with its wooden floors and full shelves, is the place to be in Boulder.
Owner Cory Kirsch, who has lived in Boulder pretty much his whole life and took the store over from his parents, may only have one of what you need, but judging by how much stuff is crammed into the front section, he’ll have it.
“Any oddball hardware item,” he says, and in addition to furniture, floor coverings and appliances, there’s also a little toy section, a little housewares section, a little plants section, a little automotive section and a few more sections of most anything else.
“We try not to step on the feet of our friends down the street,” Kirsch says of the automotive offerings. “And I can order guns, but we’ve been broken into so many times for our guns that I don’t keep them around anymore. Besides, when we had 20 guns on display people would look at them all, and then order something different anyway.”
From there, Bauer and I are off to the Jefferson County Courthouse. As cool as it is on the outside, with its Richardsonian Romanesque architecture featuring gargoyles, a tall clock tower on one side and two turrets on the other, it’s even cooler inside.
There, elaborate woodwork is everywhere – in the staircases, the window trim, the 20-foot-high courtroom ceiling – and it’s an interesting place to explore.
Using a specially made pole, County Clerk of Court Marilyn Craft shows us how she can reach and remove files in drawers that extend toward the top of those 20-foot ceilings in her office.
“We have records going back to 1850,” she says. “It’s really fun when someone comes in looking for something that old, maybe a marriage license, and we actually find it.”
It’s been nearly 40 years since I have been to Boulder Hot Springs, so long ago that a bar was still part of the experience, so long ago that it was known as the Diamond S Ranchotel.
Bauer says he stayed here back in those days, too. Some things haven’t changed.
The remains of an Olympic-sized pool outside the hotel kitchen’s window are still visible. Originally under a roof, heavy snowfall caved that in in the early 1900s, and in the 1930s the then-owner left a son in charge over the winter.
“He let the water freeze in the pool so he and his friends could ice skate on it,” co-manager Barb Reiter tells us. “When the earthquake hit in 1935 the concrete had been compromised just enough that the earthquake destroyed the pool.”
Otherwise, the restoration and remodeling work that current owner Anne Wilson Schaef has been doing for nearly a quarter of a century now, and continues to this day, is impressive.
“It was destined to be torn down and turned into a subdivision,” Reiter says. “I think they were going to use the hot water to heat the homes.”
Schaef is now part of a limited partnership that owns Boulder Hot Springs, and Reiter says she’s sure millions of dollars have been spent returning the old place to its glory.
“It’s a labor of love,” Reiter says of the hot springs, now a National Registered Historic Place.
Either the reporter or the photographer on this trip will spend the night here. Let’s just say your reporter was not vigilant, and Bauer volunteers first.
I return to town, where I discover Reggie Shoeman in the Windsor Bar, where the Outhouse Patrolman shows me how he combines aerial photos, old maps and archival research to hunt down old town and outhouse sites and search for antique bottles using high-tech electromagnetic imaging equipment.
Unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately, now that I think about it – Shoeman and Campiglia aren’t digging up old toilets anywhere, and so Bauer and I cross an archaeological outhouse excavation off our Boulder bucket list.
Our last stop in Boulder, the next morning, is the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine. At the front desk of the old uranium mine, Carellen Nix leads us to an elevator and takes us 85 feet into the earth.
The story is that the miners who worked these sites long ago discovered many aches and pains associated with their occupation disappeared once they began laboring in these tunnels. Curious, those with wives who had various ailments brought the women into the tunnels, and many of their problems went away as well.
This mine has three levels, Nix tells us. The tunnel at 150 feet is filled with water. The one at 105 feet is used to pump air up into a bright, ground-level room with recliners where an Amish family is taking a treatment.
But the tunnel at 85 feet is where you go if you want to hang out in the mine itself.
It’s a constant 50 to 52 degrees down here. The tunnel is longer than a football field, with chairs and sometimes tables tucked into nooks and crannies along its distance.
Hundreds upon hundreds of people have written their names and hometowns on the beams – I can stand in one place and see Tokyo, Las Cruces, N.M., Stratton, Colo., Kirksville, Mo., Merritt, British Columbia, Bellingham, Wash., Calgary, Alberta, Phoenix and Savannah, Ga., to name the ones I write in a notebook before I wonder why I am doing this.
Only two women from Boulder, Sandy Goehring and Winona Kroll, are in the tunnel while Bauer and I are, but they say during the busy season of summer, you can find a lot of people down here, playing cards and games, reading books, laughing and talking.
“This is the slowest I’ve ever seen it,” Goehring says. Breathing the air is not a quick relief, she says, and too many people these days want to pop a pill and have their pains vanish instantly.
At Free Enterprise, you can buy 60 minutes in the mine – or the room where air is pumped into – for $8, or a full therapy session (30 to 60 hours over seven to 10 days) for $275. More visits for shorter durations are best, according to Nix.
Back in the day, when Uranium Valley Airlines was a possibility, there were a lot more than five health mines in the area, according to Goehring.
But many, none of which operate any longer, were fakes.
Oh, they were real mines, Goehring says, but they weren’t former uranium mines and they didn’t contain radon.
She names a couple where owners would allegedly load uranium ore into shotgun shells and fire them into their tunnels, “so the Geiger counters would go off and people would believe there was radon.”
I’m not sure which I find more interesting: this conversation, or where it’s taking place.
With that, we return to the surface of the planet. The view from Free Enterprise is even bigger than the one from Cap Hill, which now sits across the way and down below us. There’s a lot for the eye to take in, and we depart knowing there is much more to Boulder than meets the eye.