Visiting Lewistown, Montana

Lewistown activities and attractions

By Judy Byrne/for Montana Living

Lewistown calls itself the "Chokecherry Capital of the World."

This bitter berry flourishes as well in rocky soil as at river's edge and yields delicious syrup and jam. Like the chokecherry, Lewistown blends contrasting characteristics that change bitter into sweet

Surrounded by wheat fields and mountains smack dab in the middle of Montana, the city hides in a peaceful valley. Under a brilliant sky against purple peaks, its loveliness comes into view at the crest of Main Street hill.

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Glimpses of sturdy stone structures, the golden-domed courthouse, and the alabaster crowns of downtown buildings peek through treetops and captivate the eye. Summertime, brings warm days and cool nights.

However, Indians named this place Ah-ki-ne-kun-scoo, meaning Snow Hole. They hunted its abundant wildlife until frosty days in fall, but winter grips this valley as early as October and reluctantly releases its hold only when spring ruptures its blankets of white.

 Chinook winds soften even the bleakest months with a refreshing breath of spring. With a leisurely pace and down-home feeling, Lewistown's warmth is inviting. Coming into town sparks images of bygone days. The drive-in theater, ghost writing on sandstone walls, and old-time streetlamps call to mind porch swings and evening chats with neighbors. A down-home atmosphere survives. Lewistown is a friendly place with an ambience of the 1950s, with modern day amenities always being added.

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Parade in downtown Lewistown, Montana. 

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Chokecherry Festival in downtown Lewistown, Montana.

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Hutterrites sell their wares at the Chokecherry Festival in Lewistown, Montana.

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Monte Dolack paints at plein air festival in Lewistown, Montana.

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Artist Ron Ukrainetz paints at plein air festival in Lewistown, Montana.

 

"People welcome strangers with a smile." one resident said. "This is the best place to raise a family. People who teach and coach our kids are next-door neighbors that attend our church. Everyone watches out for the kids, from when they start swimming lessons until they graduate. Knowing they're safe makes parents feel secure."

Lewistown takes safety for granted, yet legend recounts a bloody gunfight one infamous Fourth of July. Bad luck at the racetrack drove Rattlesnake Jake and Long-haired Owen to the saloon for a snootful of whiskey and trouble. They started shooting up the place; townsfolk quickly gathered.

Soon blazing bullets flew. When the smoke cleared, the outlaws lay dead in the street. Unmourned, they were buried outside town. The landowner unearthed the bodies, tied a noose around each neck, and dragged them back. Their final gravesite is disputed, but Jake's skull rests in the museum, his gaping jaw a reminder that Lewistown looks after its own.

A community that also protects its past, Lewistown boasts over 200 original structures on the National Register of Historic Places. They were built by Croatian stonecutters, who arrived in 1898 eager to ply their ancient skills in a new land. By 1920, Lewistown's foundation was laid. Carved from stone and layered in brick, various architectural styles reflect the exuberance of a growing community and honor its hardy pioneers.

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Mining pioneers of Lewistown, Montana

Lewistown was founded by Metis families who followed the bison into Montana. Off-spring of French-Canadian fur traders who married Cree or Chippewa women, they were shunned by both Indians and whites. They developed a unique, nomadic culture, but thinning buffalo herds and government policies limited their choices.

They traded the caterwauling of wooden-wheeled carts for the whisper of willows beside a gurgling stream. In 1879, two dozen families staked their claim to the meadow surrounding Spring Creek, and Lewistown was born. Well-educated and devout Catholics, they carried books and determination to this permanent home.

Long before railroads spurred white migrations, over 150 Metis families had established a church, several businesses, and a schoolhouse rivaled by none. They instilled family values that endure. Although founded by families, Lewistown has grown popular with retirees and offers year-round recreational, social, and educational opportunities for seniors including everything from golf to gardening and book clubs to computer classes.

The community also nurtures its youth with sports for every season, a Boys and Girls Club, learning circles at the library and Art Center, and an excellent education system from kindergarten through college. According to school counselor D.K. Slagel, Lewistown students consistently outrank Montana's average."Last year's graduates earned $500,000 in scholarships, phenomenal for a town this size!" Kids of all ages enjoy Lewistown's celebrations. At harvest time, they fete the chokecherry.

Artisans hawk their handicrafts while townspeople sample sweets from the berry, and pit-spitters highlight the day. Folks dust off their Stetsons and pull on their boots for the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and laugh at the foibles of rural life. Businesses close when the fair arrives, and nearly any excuse inspires a parade. Grandpa drags lawn chairs into the shade as youngsters fidget at the curb, anxious for candies to come. Now facing drought and the threat of the railroad pulling up tracks, some see little cause for cheer.

The Burlington Northern contributes significantly to Lewistown's economy, and taxpayers worry about lost revenues. Jamie Spainhower, a News-Argus reporter adds, "Limiting transportation to and from a community reduces opportunities for development and erodes its ability to expand." Lewistown confronts economic challenges with creative and novel attractions.

This octagenarian states, "This is the greatest place. People here go out of their way to help you, and they aren't afraid of hard winters or hard work." Metis molded character; Croatians added charm. People who call Lewistown home meet obstacles with optimism and embrace the bitter with the sweet.

WHAT TO DO AND SEE IN LEWISTOWN

By Lynn Donaldson

Merle Haggard once yearned for the place: “Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana.”

Still an epicenter for agriculture and virtue, Lewistown is home to fun shops, fancy restaurants and unforgettable outdoor escapes. Still, there’s something nostalgic and authentically western about the place—just what you’d expect from the heart of Big Sky Country.

Housed in the historic Fergus County Jail, the Lewistown Art Center’s (538-8278) stone and barn-wood walls feature rotating exhibits as well as an eclectic gift shop showcasing local craftsmen. Check out Harry Felton’s exquisite chokecherry wood chairs and Mark Kornick’s scrap metal and concrete meditation tables.
 
The Big Springs Trout Hatchery (538-5588), where one of the world’s largest freshwater springs churns out 93 million gallons of water per day, is a perfect picnic spot with its willow trees and paths. For a quarter, kids can get a handful of fish food, throw it in and watch the frenzy.

BEAR GULCH PICTOGRAPHS 

Twenty-seven miles southeast of Lewistown, there’s a secret.

At least, it was a secret until Ida and Macie Lundin began telling folks about it.

Though their family has owned the ranch in the foothills of the Little Snowy Mountains since 1921, it wasn’t until last spring that the mother and daughter began offering tours of the Bear Gulch Pictograph Caves, which is located on their property. The ancient site boasts an unusually high number of cave drawings, about 2,000, on limestone cliffs.

Snakes, turkey tracks and handprints are also visible, some imagery dating back to 400 B.C. Macie doesn’t rush her visitors, allowing us plenty of time to stop and ogle the drawings. Depending on the number of questions asked, the tour can last a couple hours. Plan to pack lunch to a great picnic spot near the drawings and creek. Back at the house, take Ida up on her offer to view her collection of fossils and ancient Native American artifacts she keeps in antique Hoosier cabinets.

The Maiden Loop Scenic Drive in Lewistown, Montana

By Sarah Crowley
To launch your journey into Central Montana, begin in downtown Lewistown at the intersection of Main Street and First Avenue.

Head north and turn right at the Highway 191 sign. Proceed past the Central Montana Fairgrounds and into the rolling valley between the Judith Mountains to the east, and the Moccasin Mountains on the west.

Carter’s Pond is four miles down the road. These twin pools offer good angling for rainbow trout and large-mouth bass.

Six miles farther stands the “Maiden’s Gold” historical marker and the “Warm Spring Canyon Road” sign. Turn east onto a narrow, paved road. South of the road, cottonwoods line Warm Spring Creek, which is relatively dry and not a good bet for fishing.

Cottonwoods give way to pines three miles later as the road wends past cattle grazing in the foothill pastures. Contrary to local tradition, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark didn’t name the Judith Mountains. One of six ranges rising from the neighboring prairies, the Judiths derive their title from the Judith River which Capt. Clark christened in 1805 to honor his future wife, Julia Hancock.

Keep an eye out for wildlife. These hills are home to wild turkeys, white-tail and mule deer, and elk. In roughly three miles, you encounter Maiden School and several buildings constructed by the Air Force in the 1950s.

The pavement ends at the tiny village of Maiden, Montana, built on the site of the original gold mining camp. Maiden burst into rowdy life in 1880 when gold was discovered in nearby Alpine Gulch by “Skookum Joe” Anderson and David Jones. More than $3 million in gold was taken from the local claims. Maiden supported several saloons and gambling houses, and was the scene of grisly murders. With a peak population of 1,500, Maiden, Montana, almost became the seat of newly-formed Fergus County in 1885. Located just east of its modern counterpart, old Maiden burned down in 1905.

A crumbling stone mercantile can still be seen. This edifice is on private property so please stay on the public street when viewing. A small tumbledown shack, on the right side of the highway, is another survivor of Maiden’s glory days.

The road narrows and pavement ends just beyond Maiden. A mile farther is the road to Judith Peak and Camp Maiden. Turn left at the sign and travel four miles to the top. The 40-acre Camp Maiden was dedicated to Fergus County residents in 1942. To reserve camping sites, call (406) 538-3817. Judith Peak (elevation 5,808 feet) offers far-flung views of five surrounding mountain ranges.

The Charlie Russell Chew-Choo dinner train, with outlaws and hurdy-gurdy girls, has rapidly gained recognition. Likewise, the city plans to capitalize on Spring Creek's appeal and its Metis beginnings. Lewistown people, like the chokecherry, come from hardy stock. Roberta Donovan, a lifelong resident and respected author/historian, looks forward with faith.

 

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Members of the Salt Creek Gang, above, frequently rob the tourist train "Charlie Russell Chew Chew" in Lewistown, Montana.

Ghost town of Gilt Edge, Montana

When you’re ready to visit the ghost town of Gilt Edge, Montana, go back down to the main road and turn left. A half-mile along are ruins of the 1910 Cumberland Mine to the left; another half mile, on the right, is the rich Spotted Horse Mine, in operation from 1884 to the 1990s. 

Venture four miles through Maiden Canyon, past sheer rock cliffs. Quaking aspens mix with the pines and receding hills reveal prairie views to the east and south. Pass over a cattle crossing and up a steep hill. Just beyond the hill’s crest, look left to Black Butte – the inner core of an ancient volcano.

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Scenic drives abound near Lewistown, Montana. Photo courtesy of Montana Department of Tourism. 

The road is graveled from here on. Descend the hill. About a quarter mile north of Gilt Edge, look west at mounds marking the tailings of the 1893 cyanide mill, the first operation in the United States employing the cyanide leaching process in gold mining.

Gilt Edge was equally wild as Maiden; the one and only Calamity Jane spent a winter here in the late 1890s. The town reached its zenith in 1905 with some 1,200 residents, but not much remains today. As you approach the town site, the stone ruins of Washburn’s Mercantile rise straight ahead. Farther, on the right, slouches The Palace, a former bordello in such decayed condition it’s dangerous to enter. The dinky Gilt Edge jail is directly across the road.

From The Palace head east on Gilt Edge Road and stay on it past the intersection of Black Butte Road. Your way curves south, through prairie hills dotted with antelope and cattle. In 10 miles you join Highway 200; turn right and it’s 12 miles west back to Lewistown.

Be aware: Roads on the Maiden loop tour are subject to extreme weather conditions. Don’t attempt it in snow-clogged winter and spring, or after a muddy rain.

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Map of ghost towns in Central Montana

— This article appeared in a previous issue of Montana Living

 
 


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