Fashion and fads shaped Montana’s past as much as any of the traditional tides of history, from the beaver hat to the hilarious historical marker. And as befits a state that perhaps defines individualism, the idiosyncratic and eccentric left their stamp on the Treasure State’s tapestry. A few facts about Montana’s history reveal just how special the state’s history is.
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1. The first industry in Montana was trapping
, close on the heels of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06, according to the state’s official website. However, the decline in both the beaver population and the popularity of the beaver hat meant that industry – which brought alcohol, disease and a new economy to the native population – was pretty much finished by the 1840s.
2. Another boom industry followed closely by a bust was gold, in the 1860s. The Montana’s official website says “boomtowns” sprung up as miners flocked in
, then faded fast as the gold ran out.
3. Montana’s Berkeley Pit was once a thriving copper mine, but it’s now a mountain lake thought too toxic for life – but it has recently yielded a new bonanza: single-celled organisms capable of thriving in its noxious waters and maybe even cleaning them up a bit. The website Damn Interesting says the organism increases the oxygen content of the water
through photosynthesis, oxidizing the toxic materials and settling them out.
4. “Church Lady” comedian Dana Carvey called Montana home. Isn’t that special? Here are some more famous folk who got their mail in Montana, according to the history site Big Sky Words
: Stephen Ambrose, historian and author; Brad Bird, Disney and Pixar animator; Gary Cooper and Myrna Loy, movie stars; Jack Horner, dinosaur discoverer; Chet Huntley, TV commentator; Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls coach; Evel Knievel, motorcycle maniac; David Lynch, movie director; Mike Mansfield, long-serving Senate Majority Leader; and Jeanette Rankin, the first elected congresswoman.
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5. A suggestion from three Kansas City radio disk jockeys led the Montana town of Ismay to rename itself “Joe” for a while in 1993 in honor of the Kansas City Chiefs’ then-star quarterback, Joe Montana. Get it?
According to the Seattle Times, the DJs wanted to “honor” the smallest town in Montana
(population 22; briefly 28, now 21, according to the newspaper and the U.S. Census Bureau) It’s back to being Ismay, named after the two daughters of an official of the first railroad to send a train through the town.
6. Montana’s highway historical markers used to be history themselves. Bob Fletcher, who started Montana’s marker program in the 1930s, would write the text in “authentic cowboy lingo,” according to the Montana Department of Transportation’s newsletter
. The markers drew praise from roving writer Ernie Pyle, who said: “Montana makes its history a thing of joy, instead of a stodgy sermon.”
7. Think cowboy or homesteader in the old West and most people picture a white man. But the Great Falls Tribune notes that about 18 percent of Montana homesteaders were unmarried women
, and it was not at all unusual to see a black man – often a freed slave – as a cowboy or, in the early days, a fur trader.
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