After spending most of his life in distant corners of the world, Don Waite has been drawn back to his home town of Utica on the Montana prairie.
“I’m trying to save the little bugger,” he said.
He’s doing that by re-creating a scaled-down replica of a portion of the town depicted in a 1907 painting by famed western artist Charles M. Russell titled “A Quiet Day in Utica” along with what was his grandfather’s Utica hotel and saloon. He calls it a “composite replica” that combines the two Utica scenes that were in reality on opposing sides of the main street.
“I have a big interest in trying to restore and keep Utica,” Don said.
The tug is ancestral, historical and personal.
At age 75, Don is a retired Bureau of Land Management official who splits his time between a home southeast of Lewistown, along Big Spring Creek, and a winter place in Mesa, Ariz. He likes Montana, he explained, but not the cold.
He grew up in tiny Utica, a Judith Basin town located between Great Falls and Lewistown. The burg is now so small that it doesn’t even merit mention in the U.S. census — 20-some buildings hugging Route 541. But at one time, it bustled with 700 to 800 residents.
One of seven children, Don has family ties that date back to the town’s founding in 1880. His grandfather, Walter Waite, was a partner in the building of the town’s Silver Dollar Saloon in 1888. A few years later the Hotel Judith was built alongside.
“It was really impressive for its time,” Don said.
The bar was two stories tall with a dance hall in the upstairs, called the Silver Slipper. The hotel had 16 rooms and was connected to the dance floor with an arched entryway. Downstairs in the hotel was a café. So visitors could find everything they needed under two roofs.
“Everyone danced in those days, so that was a really popular place,” said Walt Waite, Don’s 89-year-old brother who has written two books about the history of the area. He now lives in Conrad.
By the 1870s, the Utica area was a hot spot for the newly burgeoning cattle industry as longhorns from Bozeman were steered to the grasslands that bison had once roamed. Charlie Russell arrived in 1882, at the age of 18, from St. Louis to work as a cowhand and eventually built his first small studio just outside Utica.
In 1883 at the age of 28, the Waite brothers’ grandfather trekked the more than 2,000 miles west from his home in Saratoga, N.Y., to the remote area. He was a stocky, good-natured man well-suited for the rigors of bartending, including throwing drunks out, Walt said of his namesake.
“He bought a relinquished homestead that he later sold to get the money” to build the saloon, he added.
Back then, Utica was a hopping little town.
“It was kind of the queen of the prairie, with five incoming roads,” Walt said.
The road from Fort Benton and its steamboat port traveled to Utica, although the arrival of the railroad in Montana signaled the end of steamboat traffic to Fort Benton in 1883. The town was also on the stage line between Great Falls and Billings. To the south was a route on to Martinsdale that continued toward Dillon. To the southwest, a road led to the gold and sapphire mining town of Yogo in the Little Belt Mountains.
John Murphy was one of the original settlers of the Utica area. He donated the land for the townsite and reportedly named it in honor of his former New York home — the upstate town of Utica.
“Utica, New York, is where the state insane asylum was,” Don said, recounting an old story he’d heard of how the town got its name. “Someone said, ‘You’d have to be crazy to build a town here.’ So that’s how it got its name.”
During its short heyday, Utica thrived on business from cowboys, miners and the stagecoach thanks to its central location. Grandad Waite expanded his business to include a large barn to accommodate the stage’s horses, complete with a hay loft.
Calamity Jane once worked as a cook in the hotel’s cafe, Don said, where his grandmother waited tables. His grandmother would cook when Calamity Jane was drunk, which Don said was most of the time.
Walt joked that Utica’s main street is so wide because the town’s two bars were across the street from each other. When patrons were thrown out of the bars simultaneously there was no worry that they would bump heads.
Utica’s slow death began with the arrival of the Great Northern Railroad in nearby Stanford. Utica was no longer as important as a trade and commerce route. Business dropped off. Don has a 1910 letter from the owner of Utica’s other saloon asking his liquor distributor to extend him credit so he could restock.
“Mysteriously, the whole (saloon) burnt down in 1913,” Don said.
Walter Waite was no different. He lost his 1,200-acre ranch as well as his bar and hotel business.
“Things got tough and a lot of people … he lost that business,” said Bob Waite, the youngest of the Waite brothers at 71 and a resident of Moore. “A lot less people came to the bar.”
Distraught, Walter’s health and cheery personality faltered. He died by his own hand, leaving his wife to raise the four children. The Waite brothers’ father was only 14 at the time. Grandmother Waite went to work at the hotel in Stanford, but their father eventually returned to Utica running a gas station and working at odd jobs to raise his family of seven children.
In 1941, the old hotel and bar were torn down. So first Walt and now Don have worked to revive the town’s history.
“I think that’s a wonderful thing because Utica is famous four times over,” Walt said.
The four times include the town’s annual “What the hay” hay bale design competition that has received national media coverage, the Silver Dollar Saloon and Hotel Judith’s acceptance into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame for the role they played in the area’s history, the world-famous yogo sapphires discovered nearby and, of course, Charlie Russell’s role in the area’s history, as well as his painting of downtown Utica.
“I call it the Cinderella town,” Walt said. “It could have faded out like so many others,” but it’s still hanging on.
Two years ago, Don and Bob restored an old log building on the property Don now owns in Utica. It drew a lot of visitors and sparked Don’s interest in re-creating the composite replica of old Utica — the Judith Hotel, Silver Dollar Bar that his grandfather co-owned and the B. Gray Saloon and Hotel from Russell’s painting. When finished, he’d like to temporarily hang some of the old photos of the area that he’s gathered for display and interpretation, including shots from the Judith Roundup when cowboys gathered before pushing huge herds of cattle southeast to the railroad.
Don’s not sure how long the construction may take. He recently broke his wrist tearing down one old building to salvage the wood for his construction project. Next summer, he hopes to add signs for his granddad’s old businesses and maybe a boardwalk out front.
“It’s a memory,” Bob explained. “It’s a family thing. A lot of the people around here think he’s crazy for doing it. But a lot of people stop in. It’s bringing back a lot of things that happened 100 years ago.”
“When he gets it done, it’s going to be neat.”
Although Don’s sentimental about the work, he can see the humorous side, as well.
“The thought occurred to me that I must be carrying on the crazy tradition of Utica,” he wrote in an email. “… Ranchers around here think I’m crazy doing this, and some people thought it was crazy to build a town there in the first place.”