Hands of Harvest: The Craft Heritage Trails of Montana



By Kim Thielman-Ibes

High, wide and handsome is how Joseph Kinsey Howard once described Montana. He even wrote a book with that name. For most visitors to Montana, they see the high — and the handsome — of places like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

But often we miss the wide part of Montana — that part of the state that lies on the east side of the Rocky Mountain Front. North central Montana is an area known for its wide, sweeping views, unobstructed sunsets and lush fields of wheat. But it is also a hot bed of undiscovered artistic talent, crafters, natural history and man-made wonders. After all, this is where Lewis and Clark set the stage for the Upper Missouri River development, where Charlie Russell made western art history and where dinosaurs still populate the countryside (although dead and underground). These small towns and rurally populated plains are truly one of the best places in Montana for adventure and real, off-the-beaten-path discoveries.

This is what the Hands of Harvest Heritage Trail is all about. Inspired by a Blue Ridge Mountain community strategy to support and develop its crafts heritage, Montana’s Hands of Harvest invites visitors to follow six trails built upon the cultural, crafts and historical treasures of Montana’s North Central plains.

Here is a Hands of Harvest Sampler.


Gateway Crossing: Great Falls, Montana

Great Falls, the Hands of Harvest Gateway Crossing, is your portal into this wonderful western world. Once an inland sea bed, Great Falls’ geological history is evident from the surrounding buttes and mountain ranges that enclose the city to the east, south and west. Broad, grassy Montana plains open to the north, while the grand Missouri River runs through the core of the city and is responsible for its existence. It was in 1805 that the Lewis and Clark expedition took over a month to portage around the five waterfalls that make up the Great Falls of the Missouri River.

Today, you can re-live President Thomas Jefferson’s vision, and the Corps of Discovery’s trek, through this uncharted western territory by visiting the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. The Lewis and Clark Expedition may have been one of the first western visitors, but it was Paris Gibson in the late 1800s who actually built the city. The Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art is a Nationally Historic Registered Landmark and Montana’s second-largest contemporary art museum. There is more: the C.M. Russell Museum, the Children’s High Plains Heritage and Montana Cowboy Museum are just a few more sites that capture the spirit, culture and heritage of Gateway Crossing in Great Falls.



Three Rivers Roundabout:

Missouri, Dearborn and Sun River Loop

 The 180-mile Three Rivers Roundabout heritage loop swoops south and west before returning you to Great Falls, or for the real adventurers sending you on your way to the Peaks and Prairies loop that follows.

Here, family ranches date back to the 1870s, archaeological sites to 500 A.D., and the landscape bears the scars from the ancient glacial Lake Great Falls. Jim Kittredge forges original copper and silver jewelry at the Bird Creek Ranch, one of the first working ranches in the area and home to a herd of Highland cattle and Icelandic sheep. Nearby, Ulm Pishkun State Park is potentially the largest bison cliff jump in North America. Its newly built visitors and education center offers storytelling circles, powwow demonstrations and buffalo culture exhibits. At Big Sky Fiber Farm, the land continues to spur a craftsman heritage. Angora rabbits, alpacas and Cotwold/Wensleydale sheep are raised for their fiber. Here you can buy natural dyed yarn, fiber, hand-woven creations — or even the livestock. Anglers, hikers, horseback riders and lovers of gourmet food will enjoy an overnight stay at the Bull Run Guest Ranch.

Now, put your feet up, pull out your Hands of Harvest guide and prepare yourself for the Peaks and Prairies loop.


Peaks and Prairies Country: Footsteps in History

At one time, volcanic ash spewed from the ragged peaks of the deeply glaciated Sawtooth Mountains, just outside Choteau. This area has become one of the most prolific Cretaceous period dinosaur discoveries in the world.

It is also a land of contrasts. The peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front drop precipitously and spill into the wide open plains of eastern Montana. Egg Mountain, offering paleontology field programs and tours, has added more to dinosaur biology than any other paleontology dig in the world. With the death of the dinosaur came the birth of the Old North Trail — and both have left their indelible mark in Peaks and Prairies Country. Teton County volunteers have commemorated the trail as it meanders along the Rocky Mountain Front with 23 boulders that bear the name “The Old North Trail” and at the Old Trail Museum you can explore Native American history and culture. Truly, this area is one worth lingering in.


The Ulm Pishkun

Foothills Loop: The Backbone of the World

The Blackfeet Indians know this area as the Mistakis, or the Backbone of the World. The Blackfeet’s 1.5 million-acre reservation makes up the majority of this loop, extending west towards Glacier National Park and east into the foothills and just beyond into the eastern Montana plains. Curly Bear Wagner provides historical tours that leave from the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning. Here you’ll also find exhibits featuring the creative achievements and artifacts of the Northern Plains Indians. Just down the road, at the Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village in Browning, you can enjoy contemporary designs of these beautiful traditional art forms of the native American. In Valier, the Stone School Inn Bed and Breakfast, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was once this tiny community’s elementary school. This finely restored bed and breakfast gets high marks for its gourmet meals and historic décor. Truly an unexpected delight, one night at the Stone School Inn just might not be enough.

Great Northern Trail: Eastward Ho

The Big Sky of Montana is given new meaning on this Great Northern Trail. The cultural and geographical differences within this region contrast greatly with that of western Montana. Here on the Hi-Line, the plains stretch in unending golden fields and there’s an undeniable beauty driven by the area’s simplicity. Fine crafters like Janet Christenot weave wheat into creative sculptures and arrangements. Her works, along with that of skilled landscape artists, stained glass workers and photographers are exhibited at the Liberty Village Arts Center in Chester, Montana.

Just across the street, world-renowned pianist and composer Philip Aaberg has built the Great Northern Bed and Breakfast. Further down the Hi-Line on U.S. 2, is Havre.

Havre Beneath the Streets is an underground world that provides us with views of a real life 100-year-old city complete with bordello and saloon. Havre’s Carnegie Library houses native and contemporary art. Beaver Creek Park —one mile wide and 18 miles long — is one of the sites not to be missed along your Great Northern adventure.


Cottonwood Country Byway: Birthplace of Montana

This is your last loop in the trail. No visit is complete without experiencing the hospitality of Montana’s oldest operating hotel, the elegantly restored Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton.

Fort Benton, founded as a military and trading post on the Missouri River, was the furthest inland port in the mid-1800s. Steamboats ferried seekers of riches upstream, making Fort Benton the head of navigation to the west and what is generally accepted as the birthplace of Montana. Fine artists like Karl Bodmer and William Cary traversed through these parts, putting down on canvas the wonders that they saw. Today, you can see these same wonders by touring with Missouri River Breaks Tours or Missouri River Outfitters through the White Cliffs and Missouri River Breaks wild and scenic areas.

At the Tumbleweed Gallery in Big Sandy, artists interpret history and landscape using music, sculpture, metal and beaver fur and some unique methods such as its resident railroad-spike artist. These are just a few of the highlights on this byway.

For more information on the Hands of Harvest cultural trails, long on to www.handsofharvest.org.