DARBY – Cal Ruark has hidden a sign under the Darby Rodeo Grounds band stage eave that only the performers can see. It reads “Picture them naked.”
That kind of hang-it-out-there confidence brims over in this little town at the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley. It’s the mettle won by years of getting on one saddle bronc after another, getting bucked off, dusting off and getting back up again.
Starting Sept. 20, 42 horses will try to make the big leagues of rodeo cowboy-busting. Unlike some rodeos that compete to bring the best up-and-coming riders, the Darby Bronc Bustin’ Rodeo tries to attract the best new riding stock. People pay to enter teams of three horses, whose future value can get a boost by delivering riders to the dirt.
“They come from all over,” Ruark said. “This is how you get on the map for horse stock.”
This is also how you stay on the map in a part of Montana that’s faced its share of hard times. The Darby Rodeo Grounds sit on the edge of a dead sawmill. Ruark has stockpiled the mill’s timber frames and roofing to recycle into a dance pavilion and more bleachers for the arena.
“You saw the mills start to dwindle in the late 1980s,” said Ruark, who was born in Darby 67 years ago. “There were five sawmills here, lots of logging crews. It was 70 percent of the employment for the valley. Florence people commuted to jobs down here.
“In 2000, after the fires, we all thought we’d get to log this country. We got a bad lesson in Enviro 101. Of the 400,000 acres that burned, we logged about 50,000.”
The wildfires of 2000 nailed shut a coffin for Darby’s timber industry that had been closing for decades. Logging on both private acreage and U.S. Forest Service land was going at such a pace in the 1960s, University of Montana forestry professor Arnold Bolle rocked the country with a report accusing the industry of essentially “mining” the hillsides faster than they could ever grow back.
The 1970 Bolle Report helped trigger congressional action, including the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation Act (RARE) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that forced the Forest Service to consider more than the trees’ economic potential. As Darby’s mills failed, its residents found other outlets for their energy.
“I knew the chance of a viable mill industry coming back was about zero, so we started Logger Days in 2001,” Ruark said. “For a while, we lived the dream, but we knew in reality it wasn’t coming back. It was time to go in a different direction. We had to look to the tourist.”
At the Electric Beach Hair Studio, owner Samantha Conner is one of the chief pushes behind Logger Days. She’s also married to Lance Conner, known to reality TV fans as part of the R&R Conner Helicopter Logging crew on the History Channel’s “Ax Men” show.
“We’re just trying to keep the tradition alive,” Sam Conner said, noting her husband is currently working in Oregon. “There’s not a lot of logging here now. But it’s keeping the skills alive. And all the class reunions plan for the Logger Days weekend. People book their vacations around Logger Days.”
In a twist of entrepreneurial irony, the R&R Conner plant that used to maintain logging equipment now sells smoke. It makes Real Wood Smoking Medallions – star-shaped blocks of aromatic wood chips for barbecues. The Conners initially tried making pressed-wood fireplace logs, but found the barbecue flavoring had a better market.
“We do a lot of demos,” said production manager Dave Wiediger. “Lots of barbecue festivals. We usually do chicken with the aspen and use the mesquite for steaks.”
The company has bought the remains of Darby’s old apple orchards for wood chips. Some of its material comes out of central Washington orchards, where the growers aggressively cull their trees to improve production. They did get chips from 400 cherry trees removed from a Flathead Lake orchard last year.
“I did logging and then construction,” Wiediger said, looking at the man-high bales of wood chips. “Now I’m doing this.”
Where U.S. Highway 93 used to jam with loads of logs in downtown Darby, now the trucks trailer something else: fishing boats. The East Fork, West Fork and mainstem of the Bitterroot River claim world fame for trout anglers.
At the Hannon Fishing Access Site just across the Bitterroot from Darby, brothers Nathan and Aaron Masters unloaded their raft for a day on the water.
“We’ve been all over Montana,” said Nathan, who lives in Post Falls, Idaho. “We started coming down here about three years ago. There’s a lot of outfitters here and it’s crowded, but the fishing’s better, too.”
Aaron Masters comes up from San Clarita, California, to join his brother on the annual fishing trip. They try to time their trip around a new moon to hit good biting times.
“My son and his (Nathan’s) nephew just left yesterday,” Aaron said. “That’s a couple of 21-year-old kids who’d never done this before.”
On the west side of the valley, Lake Como attracts the flatwater crowd. The 913-acre lake lacks a shoreline of Italian villas like its namesake in the Dolomites, but it has the mountain drama to match. The surrounding peaks rise a vertical mile above, veined with avalanche chutes and lingering snowfields.
“This is pretty hard to beat,” Pinesdale aircraft mechanic Richard Wissenbach said, looking at his family body-surfing in the whitecaps of the Lake Como swimming area. “My folks brought us here when I was little. My daughter Rose is 24 tomorrow, and this is sort of an annual thing. We try to come in the evening, when we usually have the place to ourselves.”
For those who choose to visit under their own power, Darby is a locus for the Continental Divide Trail and several cross-country bicycle routes. Travellers Rest Cabins and RV Park owner Mary Morris has a special shelf in her office for bulky packages of backpacking food sent ahead by trekkers finishing the grueling stretch between Monida and Lost Trail passes.
“Last year, we had 40 CDT hikers stop here,” Morris said. Shortly before that, Travellers Rest made “Yogi’s List” of recommended places for Continental Divide Trail hikers to rest or reload.
A much gentler path skirts the edge of Morris’ business. The Trail of Discovery was nine years in the making, gathering more than $100,000 in grants, $10,000 in donations and at least $50,000 in volunteer labor. It loops six miles around the town, giving visitors and residents a quiet path to jog, bike or meander.
Darby residents teamed up to build that after they finished a remarkable rebuild on their town library. Originally housed in an 18-by-20-foot cabin on Main Street, the current 5,000-square-foot Darby Community Library has been described as “the Sistine Chapel of small-diameter round wood.” It was also built debt-free 10 years ago, thanks to Forest Service grants, community donations and numerous fundraisers.
When it opened, the library had four computers. Now it has 14, plus three more for children. There’s a fly-tying desk outfitted with drawers of feathers and threads. Its largely volunteer staff puts about 100 new books on the shelves each month, and sends hundreds more donated volumes to its Main Street bookstore. The store clears between $4,000 and $5,000 a year in profits for library expenses.
But ask library director Wendy Campbell what the best part of the building is, and she points out the lobby. While it has no books, it has Wi-Fi, bulletin boards, bathrooms, and connects the library to the park right outside. It makes it easier for the library to be part of community activities.
“It looks so unassuming, but it’s a beautiful building and a nice place to work,” Campbell said. “It’s really motivated people to work together. We figured if we make this town a place where we want to live, other people will want to live here too.”
Darby’s population grew from 418 in 1950 to 721 in 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. The “Darby area” including homes outside the town limits was usually double and sometimes triple those numbers. In 1980, the town had 569 people while the area had 1,692. Today, the 59829 zip code area has 2,679 residents.
Like the rest of Ravalli County, Darby rode a wave of newcomers in the ’80s and ’90s. But many were buying vacation homes in the hills or along the river, outside of the industrial core. Down the West Fork Road, students learning carpentry and masonry at the Trapper Creek Job Corps wave at luxury vans taking visitors to the Triple Creek Ranch, where a cabin costs $1,400 a night.
This summer, Triple Creek Ranch landed the coveted No. 1 spot on Travel and Leisure Magazine’s Top 100 resorts. Everything is included, from meals cooked to order to cattle drives, fly-fishing trips and painting instruction. Wranglers can provide horseback trips into the Bitterroot Mountains or arrange a flight into the Bob Marshall Wilderness for an afternoon of fly-fishing.
“A lot of our students have never been backpacking or camping before,” Trapper Creek vocational manager Dan Gager said. “It’s an experiential program. It’s not just tech training, but social development. They learn to cope with adversity, social situations, develop relationships.”
The Job Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary last week. The 173 students at Trapper Creek are regular visitors to Darby, both for recreation and cooperation. They helped pour the asphalt on the Trail of Discovery and provide food service at many of the summer festivals. They also put on the yellow and green of wildland firefighters when the need arises.
Fire has done more than denude the mountainsides around Darby. In the opinion of Lightfoot Cycles owner Rod Miner, the flames have reforged the community.
“The fires of 2000 sort of clinched it,” Miner said of Darby’s identity shift. “It was sort of transitional. Things were a lot different in the 1980s. Long-hairs didn’t need to slow down here then. It’s a lot more diverse now.”
Lightfoot started making hand-powered cycles 16 years ago for land-mine victims who’d lost their legs. It’s produced about 60,000 of those around the world, franchising its production to local makers through a program called “Gift of Mobility.”
Now it’s making more commercial rides with a crew of 10 on Darby’s northern edge. The company has 50 designs, including a four-wheeled version with an articulating frame designed to help a paraplegic rider make it to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010. Unlike many bicycle makers, Lightfoot exports its wares to Asia instead of importing inventory from there.
“It’s just where we found ourselves,” Miner said of his Darby headquarters. “Plus, we’ve found lots of hidden talent here in Darby.”
Take Jason Williamson, who came from Darby High School, where he learned computer-assisted design well enough to be Lightfoot’s CAD expert. Seven years in the Air Force and some associated traveling around made him miss home.
“This town has almost morphed,” Williamson said. “There used to be lots of logging. That slowly went away. Our school slipped from Class B to Class C. Everybody took a hit. But it seems as though the spirit is still here.”
Being at the end of the Bitterroot Valley, the last stop before miles of isolation and wilderness, gives Darby a frontier vibe.
“This is the end of civilization,” Williamson said. “Everything else – that’s where you go play. We’re surrounded by a giant horseshoe playground.”