Andrus Center, Baseball, Boise, Montana

A New Stadium

A Vision of What Could Be

Bob Uecker – “Mr. Baseball” – best known now as a broadcaster, movie star and funny guy, wasn’t much of a major league ball player. Uecker was a lifetime .200 hitter, but he’s been living off the jokes he makes at his own expense for years. Still jokes aside, Uecker had a couple of pretty good seasons in a Boise Braves minor league uniform back in the 1950’s.

Uecker hit .332 in Boise in 1958 and smacked 21 home runs in only 92 games. One of the ex-Boise Braves funniest lines strikes me as a perfect entry point into the community conversation about whether Boise should embark on a plan to site and build a new, multi-use stadium that could be a much improved home for the city’s current professional team, the Boise Hawks.

Uecker once said, “I led the league in ‘Go get ’em next time.'” Boise is on the ragged edge of having to say, “We’ll get ’em next time,” because without a serious and doable plan to improve its baseball venue the city will be without professional baseball sooner rather than later.

Memorial Stadium, the team’s home since 1989, is aging, undersized, under concessioned and has first base seating that during a hot August night is close to unbearable. In short, the stadium isn’t the kind of venue successful minor league organizations call home any longer.

Look around the country at what’s happening in communities where a stadium has been the centerpiece of a community effort to revitalize, renew and recreate. Dayton, Ohio has a wildly successful Class A team in a great facility that recently established the all-time record for consecutive sellouts. Oklahoma City used a ballpark to jump start the rehabilitation of an old warehouse district. You can grab a drink and a steak at Mickey Mantle’s steakhouse next door to the stadium after a game. Louisville recently built a fine new arena to house University of Louisville basketball and the project has offered a major boost to the city center.

Closer to home, the Yakima Bears of the same Northwest League as the Hawks, are planning on pulling up stakes and moving to Vancouver, Washington next summer. Milwaukie, Oregon, a Portland suburb, is moving ahead with a ballpark plan in order to lure a Class A team.

Last week, Bill Connors of the Boise Chamber and I, along with a sizable group of civic and business leaders, launched the Better Boise Coalition to help push the new stadium concept through its next phase. The Coalition will underwrite a site evaluation study that should complement the feasibility study the City of Boise recently completed.

I’m sure we’ll hear from the “don’t do anything, ever” crowd of naysayers and that’s fine – everyone gets an opinion. Here’s mine: Boise needs professional baseball and needs to aspire to eventually attract a Triple A franchise. We’ll never get there without displaying a level of community engagement and commitment and without a first rate facility. A multi-purpose facility fills a multitude of needs, not just baseball. High school teams will have another venue for regular season and playoff games. The Hawks ownership, and to their credit they want to stay in Boise but just need a better home port, has said they’re interested in a minor league soccer team.

You can anticipate the usual voices saying government should have no role in any of this, but that just ignores reality. Think of any of the community assets that make Boise special and you’ll find government fingerprints on everyone – Bronco Stadium, Taco Bell Arena, the Morrison Center, the Boise Centre, the city’s new libraries. Sure private money is critical in many such investments, but government has to be a catalyst or such things just don’t happen.

I hope we don’t wake up in a couple of years realizing the opportunity has been lost and pull a Bob Uecker. It’s going to ring pretty hollow to say, “hey, we’ll get ’em next time.” Next time is now.


Boise, Montana

No Little Plans

What Next for Boise?

An election that is normally an afterthought for most residents of Idaho’s capitol city takes place Tuesday and, while the five people who run the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD) are not likely to dramatically alter the development arc of Boise anytime soon, the higher than normal visibility attending the race will be a signal of some kind about Boise’s future.

And, the signal, I dare say, is not over a fairly petty issue of how to fund the city’s convention and visitors bureau, which has become a distracting sideshow obscuring the much bigger fish that should be frying in Boise. GBAD runs the state’s premier meeting and convention space and has been struggling for years to determine how to expand.

The stakes for Boise in Tuesday election and beyond, it seems to me, boil down to two very different options: does Boise move boldly ahead with a new wave of public and private investment similar to what took place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s or does Idaho’s largest city become content to settle in as simply a nice place in the west, but without quite the guts to become a great place?

When I came to Boise a long time ago, the fall of 1975, the city was a sleepy state capitol with a decaying downtown and some modest aspirations. When I think of the changes in the intervening 35 years, beyond the obvious population growth and a general move to the suburbs, I think of what has happened to make the city a better, more attractive place not only to live and work, but a place able to attract significant new growth and investment. Hardly anyone who lives in Boise would say it’s not a nice place. A good parks system, a fantastic river (and mostly underappreciated greenbelt), a mostly attractive and engaging downtown, open space in the foothills for hiking, biking and dogs. For many, the outdoors defines the place and that’s great as far as it goes. But truly great cities are also investment magnets. Bricks and mortar, innovation and aspiration count for a lot in great cities.

I reflect on what wasn’t here when I arrived: the Morrison Center, a world-class concert and performance venue built in 1984; the Boise State Pavilion (I still have trouble with the Taco Bell label) built in 1982, a space that regularly hosts concerts and NCAA basketball; and  the Boise Centre, the state’s largest convention and meeting space built in 1990 and where, because of its popularity and utility, it is increasingly difficult to secure a date for your local, not to mention out-of-town event. Beyond these three essential public facilities, not much in the way of public investment (outside the Boise State campus) has taken place in Boise in 35 years.

In terms of private investment, the last major construction downtown, not counting condo development, was the Banner Bank Building, completed in 2007 just before the economy nosedived, and BoDo, the south of downtown shopping, eating and entertainment center. Of the other, newer downtown buildings, the Wells Fargo Building at 9th and Main is of 1988 vintage, the U.S, Bank Plaza dates to 1978, while the Grove Hotel and Qwest Arena came along in 200o. Currently, when thinking about big privately funded civic projects, only the Simplot family’s JUMP project is actually on the drawing board.

I have this notion, reinforced by a little travel, that great cities are defined by great public buildings and venues. If that is true, with the obvious exception of the marvelously renovated Idaho Capitol Building, Boise is still a bit of a cow town.

[I’ll offer up all my disclaimers here: I chair the city’s library board, am a 16 year season ticket holder to the Boise Hawks, just joined the board of the Downtown Boise Association and have worked in the past for the auditorium district and the city. In short, I have lots of connections to Boise, care about the place and my bias here is pretty obvious – Boise has a chance to be an even better place, if it wants. But, it has to want.]

The city’s main public library is squeezed into a re-purposed plumbing supply warehouse. While the city deserves great praise for adding neighborhood libraries in recent years, there can be little debate that Boise needs a bigger, vital, new main library; a public center of the community that makes a statement about the city, its values, its energy and its aspirations.

The Boise Centre may be among the best operated meeting facilities in the country and regularly meets or exceeds its financial targets, but its not of a size to attract major national meetings, trade shows and conventions.

Prior to 1975, Boise hadn’t had minor league baseball in a long time. For two years the Oakland A’s had a Northwest League team here, followed by the unaffliated Boise Buckskins in 1978. In those days baseball was played at a high school field where fans weren’t able to hoist a beer. Imagine.

Aging and increasingly inadequate Memorial Stadium was built when baseball returned in the late 1980’s and it has neither the amenities nor the seats to be considered anywhere close to the class of the league. Securing a long-term future for minor league baseball in Boise simply requires a better ballpark and it ought to be part of a larger effort to revitalize an entire neighborhood.

Just to be clear, minor league baseball teams are moving all the time. The Yakima Bears, another Northwest League team, said last week they want to move to as yet unbuilt ballpark in Vancouver, Washington. The deal will require money from the club owners, the corporate community and the country. As one baseball backer in Vancouver told the Columbian, “This is just a huge opportunity for this community. This is how communities get on the map. This is how communities grow.” Indeed.

Think about a Boise of 2015 or so with a new main library on par with Salt Lake City or Nashville. A world-class convention venue to attract big events and big money. Expanding the existing Boise Centre or building a new facility is about as close to a “build it and they will come” proposition as exists. And then add a near downtown ballpark – Oklahoma City has one for example, as does Reno – and configure it to host minor league soccer, high school football and – one day – AAA baseball and Boise starts to act like a bigger league city.

Sound fanciful? It wouldn’t be easy and will take some urban courage. The business community will have to think bigger than it normally does and so will local elected officials. The state legislature has decided that Idaho cities can’t be trusted with the usual tools of urban economic development like local option taxation or transit funding, so a carefully drawn strategy will be required.

The Morrison Center required a public-private partnership to become reality. When I first came to town a fight was brewing over where to locate the building, but leadership and aspiration won out and a great site was chosen along the river. Can you imagine the excellent Boise Philharmonic playing these days in the Boise High School auditorium? Boise wouldn’t be Boise without the Morrison Center.

The Boise Centre was years in the making, but imagine Boise without it today. No big charity auctions and no 700 person crowds to hear a big name speakers at an Idaho Humanities Council dinner. No Taco Bell Arena?  You’d eventually get use to driving to Salt Lake to see an NCAA tournament game or to Portland to see an Elton John in concert. The next wave of public and private investment in Boise is long overdue, but will it happen? Big projects require leadership, excitement and momentum. We shall see.

There is a strange dichotomy in Boise and Idaho, as illustrated by some recent polling my firm (Gallatin Public Affairs) undertook with pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The state is split, and in some ways Boise seems split as well, between folks who are pretty comfortable with life as it has traditionally been in Idaho and those who have greater aspirations. Maybe that first group decided there was just too much growth in the last two decades of the last century and they now feel more comfortable with the notion that nothing much needs to happen in the foreseeable future. These folks, and every town has them, will likely write the letters to the editor insisting Boise isn’t big enough, or wealthy enough or smart enough to pull off a big plan that builds for a bigger future. Many in this group are in what one columnist has called the BANANA Brigade – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

We’ve already seen this group put the kibosh on serious planning for an urban street car system, for example, which to visitors from Salt Lake or Portland simply makes no sense whatsoever. If we started the planning tomorrow for a new interurban light rail system (we had one of those once long ago) linking Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian and Boise, with extensions to the airport, Boise State and the North and East Ends, we might be able to break ground in 15 years. It takes that long, just ask Seattle. Yet, beyond a handful of forward thinking elected officials there is no consensus for such ambition and certainly no community will.  With four buck a gallon gasoline, ask folks in the Portland area if they made a good decision to build their light rail and street car system back in 1978?

The other group in our population, and I count myself in this number, wonder where the good jobs of the future are going to come from without this type of long-term strategic investment? With a knowledge based economy becoming ever more important and with smart young people taking their ideas and their businesses where they want to live, cities like Boise will need to compete anew for their attention or be content to see them take their energy and ambition somewhere else. Lots of other places as diverse as Oklahoma City and Asheville, North Carolina and as different as Tucson and Austin are in the hunt for a piece of the new economy and the workers of the future. Will Boise decide to really compete?

A new main library, a bigger and better convention center and a multi-purpose stadium aren’t the be-all and end-all in the race to compete, but each would signal a level of ambition and aspiration that would help brand Boise as a western city of the future and not just a very nice place with limited aspirations.

A year ago, former three-term Seattle Mayor Charley Royer was the keynoter for the Downtown Boise Association annual meeting held, of course, at the Boise Centre. Royer presided over Seattle from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s and left office hailed as one of America’s best mayors. Royer made a quip during his speech a year ago that has stuck with me. He was referring, of course, to his city – Seattle – but it is a remark that may fit Boise just as well.

“In Seattle,” Royer said, “we do process well. We can chew, but we can’t swallow.” Chewing, to invoke Charley’s metaphor, is what Boise has been doing for some time.

The great urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham offered the correct prescription a century ago, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”


Andrus, Clinton, FDR, Middle East, Montana, Water

Fort Peck

Symbol of American Power

It’s raining in northeastern Montana today. A wet spring following a long winter. The water stands in the wheat and hay fields along U.S. Highway 2 and farmers hereby must wonder when spring will come – if it will come.

The BNSF railroad parallels the highway in this out-of-the-way corner of Montana and both crisscross the Milk River as it meanders to join the big Missouri. In this area just south of the Canadian border, the highway and the railway connect small and shrinking places with distinctly European names – Glasgow, Zurich, Malta and Havre.

This is the Montana Hi-Line, once the pioneering route of James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The railroad baron, “the empire builder,” Hill was an advocate of dry land farming and he built his Great Northern west from St. Paul to Seattle, in part, to compete with the rival Northern Pacific, but also to create a transportation route for European immigrants who hoped to fine a bit of agricultural heaven in dry land Montana – hence the names of those glamorous sounding towns along the Hi-Line.

There may be almost too much water this year, but it isn’t always so. Many of the early-day “honyockers, “the immigrant homesteaders who bought into Hill’s railroad marketing, didn’t make it. You can still see the evidence in widely scattered farms that once must have seemed like heaven, that is until the water ran out, the rain didn’t come and the grass gave up. 

When Franklin Roosevelt’s special train rolled along the Hi-Line in August of 1934, it was drought the folks in northeastern Montana were talking about.  Unlike this wet year, the problems in the 1930’s were too much debt and too little water. Roosevelt knew what to do. One farmer in North Dakota yelled at the president: “You gave us beer,” a reference to the end of prohibition, “now give us water.” He did.

With the stroke of a pen, thanks to the powers granted him by creation of the Public Works Administration, FDR authorized the construction of massive Fort Peck Dam. It was the biggest earthern dam in the world when it was completed in 1940. It’s still one of the largest in the world. If you could stretch out the lake shore in a straight line it would reach from northeastern Montana to Atlanta. It’s a very big pond.

FDR came to the Hi-Line in ’34 to see the huge dam under construction. Roosevelt sung the praises of water development in the 1930’s, but was largely motivated to create Fort Peck as a tool to fight unemployment and that worked, too. By the time construction on the dam was in high gear as many as 10,500 workers crawled over the ground south of Glasgow, pushing and hauling thousands of tons of dirt and rock to raise the dam high above the river. It’s estimated more than 50,ooo people worked on the project at one time or another.

The speed with which Fort Peck took shape – work was underway less than two weeks after Roosevelt issued his OK – was also helped by the absense of any requirement for an environmental impact statement (EIS). There was no Endangered Species Act in 1934 and no environmental group stood by to sue to stop the dam. It was a very different time.

Locals recall that folks in northeastern Montana felt it was a patriotic duty to support the construction project, even those who owned the land that is now at the bottom of Fort Peck Lake. This was the era of big dam construction. FDR stopped on his way to Montana to look at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington on the upper Columbia, which was also under construction, as was Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia..

It seems almost inconceivable today that any of thse big dams, let alone three at once,  could be constructed. They likely wouldn’t pencil out in a cost-benefit analysis, the EIS would take years and cost millions, the Congressional hearings would drag on forever, the money would be difficult (or impossible) to appropriate and those most impacted could instantly put up a Facebook page to protest. It is a very different time.

The fine and talented folks at the Wheeler Center at Montana State University are hosting a conference on the cost of water in northeastern Montana today and tomorrow. They may well conclude that water is priceless, but also too cheap. We take it for granted in the United States, while much of the rest of the world struggles to get enough to get by on a daily basis.

It’s a good time to think about the cost of water. Drought isn’t gripping the throat of the Great Plains this year, instead folks are fleeing the rising river system as far south as Memphis.

Hard to believe looking at the map, but the water backing up behind Fort Peck in this rugged corner of Montana is all part of the hydrology of a river system that drains most of the United States and give life to crops, floats a barge, supports a water skier and, yes, once in a while floods a farmer’s field and drenches a town. Water, it seems, only becomes important when there’s too much or not enough.

Franklin Roosevelt came to Montana more than 70 years ago to make the water stretch and we’re still working on that idea. FDR was determined to “exploit” the resource. He talked about a project to benefit “the whole Nation” and Fort Peck on the upper Missouri is a testament to that vision. Fork Peck simply became the New Deal in Montana. The construction of the dam was envisioned as helpful to flood control and navigation far downstream – Memphis may disagree – and, of course, the president wanted to use this early day “stimulus funding” to whack at the nasty unemployment rate. Hardly anyone disagreed.

Today the Corps of Engineer’s managers at Fort Peck use several fingers to tick off their responsibilities – flood control, navigation, irrigation, recreation, power generation, water quality and fish and wildlife conservation. We still want to make the water stretch.

Long ago the age of building big dams was declared dead, never to rise again. Given the enormous cost and the often unattractive tradeoffs involved in backing up a mighty river its hard to argue that the big dam era is long past and should remain so. Still, standing in the bowels of the big Montana dam this morning and listening to the massive turbines hum – they turn at exactly 167 revolutions per minute – one cannot help but reflect on a simplier time when it was part of America’s claim to greatness that we could build such things.

The Missouri in northeastern Montana is running full tilt this May and they are shooting water down the Fort Peck spillway for the first time since 1997.  That mighty, precious water may just be the most valuable thing on this blue planet. Years ago harnessing it behind a massive earthen dam was a symbol of American power. Being smart enough to use that water wisely in the 21st Century is a test of whether we know how to use that kind of power today.


Boxing, Clinton, Foreign Policy, Montana

Shelby’s Folly

Jack Dempsey Tommy GibbonsThe Crowd Went Wild…and Banks Failed

One of the most fascinating stories in the history of boxing was hatched over a several month period in the spring and summer of 1923 in the tiny hamlet of Shelby, Montana.

Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest personalities of that era (that’s him in the white trunks), came to Montana in that long ago summer to defend his title against a tough Irishman named Tommy Gibbons. Shelby barely survived.

The story of Shelby’s brief brush with international sports celebrity is ably told in a new book – Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown by Jason Kelly. The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Kelly’s book is both rich 1920’s American history and a cautionary tale about what can happen when a gaggle of slick promoters, a few local Chamber of Commerce-types and a big-time sporting event converge in a town, well, way out in the sticks.

In 1923, Shelby was a wind swept spot on the Montana map not far south from Glacier National Park. The young town was trying to make a go of it as a center of oil and agricultural production, but Shelby was hardly on the way to anywhere. A wealthy local businessman and his big thinking son thought Shelby had the potential to be “the Tulsa of the Northwest” and they hatched the idea to stage a heavyweight title fight in Shelby in order to put the town on the map. It worked, although not the way they intended.

The Montana hotshots found willing players in Dempsey and his flamboyant manager Doc Kearns. Kearns always sported a wild wardrobe, including dark blue shirts and yellow ties, and he and his celebrity fighter were eager to go anywhere, even Shelby, for a guaranteed $300,000 pay day.

After much haggling the big fight was set for July 4, 1923. Local promoters imported, at great expense, thousands of board of feet of lumber to build a massive, 40,000 seat outdoor arena and arranged for a nationwide ticket sale effort. The idea was that special trains would carry fight fans, willing to pay a King’s Ransom of $50 for a ticket, from as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Tommy Gibbons moved his wife and family to Shelby and set up a training camp. His only compensation – a little cash to offset training expenses and a shot at the champion’s title. Dempsey, after doing a little fly fishing on the Missouri River, set up his camp in Great Falls about 50 miles away.

Meanwhile, the financial plans of Shelby’s fight promoters went seriously south and the locals were having trouble coming up with Dempsey’s upfront fee as ticket sales lagged. At one point Kearns was offered 50,000 head of sheep in lieu of the cash he’d been guaranteed. He replied, “Now just what the hell would I do with 50,000 sheep in a New York apartment?”

Eventually, with Kearns holding the bout for ransom, the fight did come off, with most of the 40,000 seats empty and many fans sneaking in without paying anything. Dempsey, on a brutally hot afternoon, went the 15 round distance with Gibbons who had become a favorite of the local press and public. There is some great film of the bout that gives a sense of the arena and the crowd in Shelby, as well as the brawling style of the two fighters.

When he returned years later to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the big fight, Gibbons was treated as though he had won the Shelby showdown. “I always get a kick out of those people,” Gibbons said. “To them, I won the heavyweight championship.”

Dempsey remembered years later that the Montana folks hadn’t liked him quite so much.

“For the first and only time, I was more worried about getting hurt by the crowd than by the guy I was fighting,” Dempsey said. “I got a pretty good blast when introduced. The crowd was hollering and raising hell. I looked around for my bodyguard, a colorful New York character named Wild Bill Lyons, who packed two pearl-handled pistols and used to talk a lot about his days in the West. Wild Bill was under the ring, hiding.”

Dempsey retained the world heavyweight title until 1926. He was a sports celebrity to rival Babe Ruth or Red Grange in the sports mad 1920’s and 1930’s and he lived out a long and profitable life as a former champ until his death at 88 in 1983.

Gibbons, like Dempsey a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, never won the big title, but did go on after his impressive ring career to serve four terms as the Sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota where, by all accounts, he was enormously popular and effective.

Shelby didn’t fare so well. As Kelly writes, “For years afterward, people would say to Kearns, ‘You and Dempsey broke three banks with one fight.’ He considered that a misinformed slur. ‘We broke four,’ Kearns would respond, correcting the record.”

The chief local promoter lost thousands of dollars and the merchants who were hoping to make a killing on the big crowd didn’t.

The colorful villain in Kelly’s fine little book is Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns who the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray eulogized in 1963 as the last of his kind of boxing shysters.

“There must be a no-limit crap game going on in the Great Beyond today,” Murray wrote upon Kearns’ death, “Or a high-stake poker game with a marked deck. Or some kind of graft. Otherwise, Doc Kearns would never have left here.”

Then, obviously with Shelby, Montana in 1923 in mind, Murray added, “Maybe there’s a nice little town that should be bilked. Or a nice little guy whose pockets are leaking money and he trusts people.”

Air Travel, Books, Clinton, Montana

The Red Corner

LeninCommunists in Montana? You Must Be Joking…

See if you can transport yourself to 1920 in extreme northeastern Montana. It must have been a heck of a place; booming settlement, bootlegging, truly radical politics and real support for a guy named Lenin.

Sheridan County, Montana borders on North Dakota to the east and the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan to the north. It is about as far removed from Soviet Russia as you can imagine, yet Sheridan County from about 1920 to 1930 was at the very center of the tiny American Communist movement. Led mostly by radical farmers and a bombastic newspaper editor, Sheridan County voters sent an openly Communist state senator and a state representative to the state legislature in Helena. The sheriff and most other county elected officials operated, as they say, under the Red Flag.

The local newspaper – The Producers News – published in the county seat of Plentywood, eventually became an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party USA. The editor, Charles “Red Flag” Taylor, was a brilliant propagandist who, after serving in the Montana State Senate also ran for the U.S. Senate and actively participated in Communist Party activities nationally. Taylor was on friendly terms with William Z. Foster, the perennial Communist Party candidate for president, and brought Foster to Sheridan County in 1932.

This fascinating, and mostly forgotten story, has been well chronicled in a fine new book by Verlaine Stoner McDonald. The book – The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana – was published earlier this year by the Montana Historical Society Press in Helena. Professor McDonald grew up in Sheridan County and her great-great uncle, Clair Stoner, was elected to the state legislature in the 1920’s. He was a Communist.

One of the most interesting aspects of McDonald’s book is that for decades, as she writes, “during the McCarthy years in the 1950’s and the Cold War, the people of northeastern Montana tried to forget their brush with notoriety.”

McDonald, who graduated from Plentywood High School, “without having heard of the Sheridan County Communists” and knowing that her relative had been a leader of the radicals.

In his review of The Red Corner, Montana historian Donald Spritzer notes that once the New Deal relief efforts of Franklin Roosevelt brought benefits to Sheridan County – the WPA built a courthouse in Plentywood, for example – the county’s Communists faded from significance and the locals seemed more than happy to have the history disappear, as well.

“Today residents are not particularly proud of what occurred in that bygone era,” Spritzer said. “But they are no longer so ashamed that they seek to hide it from their schoolchildren.”

Montana native Ivan Doig, whose splendid book Bucking the Sun, is set in northeastern Montana in the 1930’s gets the last word on the radicals of Sheridan County.

“When there was enough rain,” Doig wrote in his story about the Montanans who built Fort Peck Dam, “the soil of the northeastern corner of Montana grew hard red wheat. When drought came, politics of that same colorization sprouted instead.”

Harry Truman said,“The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know” How true.

McDonald’s book tells a great story that has been long forgetten; a rich history of the rural American west and one area’s flirtation with – truth stranger than fiction -Communism.


Clinton, Montana

This House of Sky

white sulphurOn the Road to No Where and Everywhere

In his classic memoir – This House of SkyIvan Doig writes of the country in the very middle of Montana, the country where he grew up, and he celebrates the beauty and the challenges of the landscape.

“The country’s arithmetic tells it,” Doig wrote. “The very floor of the Smith River Valley rests one full mile above sea level. Many of the homesteads were set into the foothills hundreds of feet above that. The cold, storm-making mountains climb thousands of feet more into the clouds bellying over the Continental Divide to the west. Whatever the prospects might seem in a dreamy look around, the settlers were trying a slab of lofty country which often would be too cold and dry for their crops, too open to a killing winter for their cattle and sheep.”

Even after a generation of trying to carve a life and a living out of this rough and beautiful country, Doig remembered, “a settling family might take account and find that the most plentiful things around them still were sagebrush and wind.”

Welcome to Meagher County, Montana.

The county seat of Meagher County – White Sulphur Springs – is close to little that “modern civilization” would value and in the middle of all that is important. The county, current population estimate is 1,868, is named after a complicated (notorious) Civil War general, was birthplace of Doig and once attracted the investment dollars of John Ringling, the circus entrepreneur and railroad builder. There isn’t much in Ringling, Montana (south of White Sulphur) these days, but John – one of the five circus brothers – once dreamed of a railroad linking Yellowstone and Glacier Parks with his luxury hotel at the half way mark. As Ivan Doig says, many came to this rough and lovely land with big dreams and not all made it work. Ringling’s railroad made it 22 miles and the hotel never got built.

Two remarkable people who did make it work in central Montana – Jamie and Jock Doggett – have made a major difference in Meagher County, Montana and beyond. The Doggetts live on the old place that Ivan Doig once called home and they are the kinds of people who make the West – and the world – work.

Jamie has been a country commissioner, organizes the annual – 6th annual this weekend – Meagher County Book Festival and seems to serve as the unofficial hostess of the county. Jock seems at one with this place – hard working, serious, very smart and, even better, wise. He is quick with a quip and quicker with his courteous, yet candid take on all things from the price of lambs to what’s happening at the Senior Center in town. He’s the kind of guy you trust with the keys to the new pick-up or your safe deposit box.

I met Jamie more than a decade ago when we served together on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. She had chaired the Montana council. I’d done the same in Idaho. As two “non-academics,” given a chance to see what the power of “the public humanities” can do to change lives, we found some of the greatest change in our own lives. Both Jamie and I are nuts for history and love to examine the interplay and interdependence of cultures. Continuing her work in the humanities, Jamie is now a presidential appointee to the National Council for the Humanities.

Last Friday night, Jamie helped organize a talk in White Sulphur Springs by a Crow Indian woman and former National Park Service ranger, Mardell Plainfeather, that had a crowd enraptured. Her presentation focused on the tradition of Crow clothing as art, but her real message, as she said gently, is that we are all just people who can learn from one another.

The real power of the humanities is the liberation and power contained in critical thinking, leavened by a dose of history, literature and the other humanities disciplines. If you want to understand the world – and each other – a little better, check out the website for your state humanities council. It just might change your life.

I had never been this far into central Montana until last Thursday when we rolled into the Doggett’s Camas Creek Ranch and spent two unforgettable days beginning to understand how in touch with the land and their neighbors the Doggetts truly are. Living in a city – even a modest sized city like Boise – often precludes a chance to listen to the silence, watch a thunderstorm develop, or simply sit and swap old stories with an old friend. The pace in the Smith River Valley may not be slower, just better.

At the same time, life is demanding on the high plains of central Montana. Lots of folks – This House of Sky is my proof – just couldn’t make it here. It is not country for the uncertain. Maybe that’s why sensible talk about the latest book read, a Friday night conversation about what the Crow culture has to offer to a bunch of late arrivers, or how the high school football team will do this fall seems a little more important and a little more human.

It’s easy to romanticize the American West. It can be, and always has been, a place of conflict and controversy. Nothing comes easy. Not everyone is a saint. Hard work and a few scoundrels built the West. There is no Marlboro Man, never was, only complex people and sagebrush and wind. Still every place – in the West and beyond and Meagher County is lucky – needs a pair like the Doggetts; people who give and care and value history and not just their own.

Like a beautiful book that stays with you forever, good people and good intentions can change a lot for the better.

Ivan Doig’s beautiful book about growing up in Montana is really about the landscapes we all carry around in our minds, forever. I’ve now been to the floor of the Smith River Valley, up the road to Camas Creek, on the road to no where and everywhere. I’ll have those memories of landscape – and wonderful people – with me until the last day and, who knows, beyond.

Tomorrow…some more thoughts from Montana on Doig’s latest book – Work Song.

Clinton, Montana

The Western Industrial Age

smelterAnaconda…Then and Now

It has been said that Butte, Montana is where the frontier intersected with the Industrial Age. If that’s true, then just down the road in Anaconda is where the Industrial Age built its monumental smoke stack.

No black/grey smoke pours from the old Anaconda Washoe smelter these days and the smelter jobs left along with the smoke. The smelter has been closed since 1980, but the history – and environmental legacy – remains, as does the stack. Taller than the Washington Monument and the largest free standing masonry structure in the world, the Anaconda stack still looms over the old smelter town as a constant reminder of what once ruled here – copper and the “Company,” as the Anaconda Mining Company was known.

Today, Anaconda is continuing to reinvent itself as an outdoor recreation center and a tourism destination. The stack is a state park and on the National Historic Register. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works golf course is one of the best public courses in the country. Still, the history of the Industrial Age bumping up against the frontier oozes from the streets here. The Hibernians still have a hall, you can still buy fresh pasties and the high school team is called the Copperheads. Among a few spectacular historic homes, the houses once occupied by the smelter workers stand so close together the eaves overlap.

This past weekend was reunion weekend for some grads of what were once the two high schools in Anaconda. We had breakfast with a couple of the graduates of the Class of 1969. I asked one of them, now a resident of Southern California and wearing a USC tee shirt, when he had left Anaconda. “When I was 18 years old,” came his quick reply. In other words, as soon as he could get out of town.

Another charming fellow – with Anaconda in his blood and memory – quickly added that he had worked his last summer job before college at the smelter. “If you were going off to college,” he said, “they made sure you had a job at the smelter. They were good about that…they just didn’t tell you it might kill you.”

The closing of the Washoe Smelter didn’t kill Anaconda, as some had predicted. The environmental clean up continues, as do the memories of one of the most spectacular and most consequential chapters in the industrial development of the American West. Anaconda is worth a visit to see a survival story and an important piece of American and Western history.

Clinton, Montana

The Creative Economy

General-George-CusterWhat is it About Montana?

A few years ago North Dakota erected some clever signs at its border with Montana. One sign advised anyone headed west to remember what happened to a certain long haired cavalry commander who left North Dakota in 1876 and ended up in a sorry state on the banks of the Little Big Horn in Montana.

With all due respect to North Dakota, given a choice, does Montana sound like a lot more interesting place – to visit, to live, to work?

George Custer didn’t live to contemplate what I think of, and many others think of, as the allure of Montana. It has always fascinated me that the land of the Big Sky has a certain “brand” that states like Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado – not to mention North Dakota – never seem able to match. Maybe its because Montana has been building the brand since that fateful day in June of 1876 when the tourist from North Dakota misjudged his welcoming committee.

I got to thinking about what the Montana “brand” means to the economics and, perhaps more importantly, the image of the state while reflecting on two recent pieces of information.

The first was a program at Boise’s City Club a while back that focused on the “creative economy,” often identified as the critical mass in an area of artists, cultural non-profits and cutting edge businesses. Amoung the laments before the City Club was that 30-to 45-year olds are in danger of – or actually are – picking up and leaving Idaho, while an emphasis on developing home-grown entrepreneurs is waning.

When I first came to Idaho nearly 35 years ago, the Boise economy was largely defined by three amazing, home grown success stories. Harry Morrison had started his construction company – Morrison-Knudsen – in Idaho and shaped t into a world-wide powerhouse that pushed the dirt and poured the concrete to construct Hoover Dam and built a good deal of the American military infrastructure in South Vietnam, among many other big projects. In much the same time frame, Boise Cascade went from a small regional timber products concern to a major national player in the wood and paper industry. Joe Albertson pioneered the modern super market from the ground up with his first store in Boise’s North End and went on to build a national brand.

All three of those home-grown companies are still around, but in much different form than just a few years ago and none has the power or influence in the local economy that the old M-K, the old Boise Cascade and the old Albertsons had. The transformation of those three companies makes one wonder where the next great home-grown business will come from? I wonder particularly were the next great business will come from if we’re failing short, as many smart folks think we are, in encouraging a “creative economy.”

I know a handful of smart and aggressive young Idaho entrepreneur’s in the high tech world Idaho, but many of them will tell you they fear Idaho may not be the place where a new Micron, the last really big home-grown business, gets its start. The outlook is cloudy for a number of reasons.

Idaho has whacked its support for education at every level over the last two years. College is costing more and more and we don’t seem to be producing the workforce we need for a 21st Century economy. Idaho high school dropout rates and the number of young kids headed to post-secondary education is abysmal. As the Idaho Statesman reported yesterday the dropout numbers may be even more dismal – by double – than previously thought.

Bob Lokken, who built a successful high tech business in Boise and sold it to Microsoft, asked at that recent City Club event, “What if we took all the money we spend on K through 12 and create an information-age school system, not one that continues to make a labor pool for an industrial-age economy?” Good idea, but Idaho hasn’t even had a serious debate about what kind of education system we want – or need – for more than a decade. Building a 21st Century creative economy without a genuine strategy – a strategy that really engages the education establishment, business and those young entrepreneurs – is a bound to be about as successful as Custer’s trip into Montana. So, Idaho’s creative economy seems, at best, stuck in neutral.

Which brings me back to the Big Sky state and the second data point. The data came to me in the form of a special four page advertising section on – you got it – Montana that appeared recently in The New Yorker magazine. Before you dismiss an advertisement about Montana in the elitist New Yorker as self-serving fluff, consider the Montana message.

The Montana advertisement – really more an essay than an ad – was all about the creative economy. The piece quotes 20-year Montana resident Walter Kirn – he wrote the novel that became the hit movie Up in the Air – and Alex Smith, a film director, who will be making a film this summer based on a novel by Jim Welch – another Montanan – about life on an Indian reservation.

Montana officials say the piece was aimed primarily at encouraging tourism, but I think it works on a deeper level. It says, in effect: Montana values creativity, smart people like it here and we welcome such things.

The ad, or whatever it is, continues: “Montana captivates the imagination of remarkably imaginative people – writers, yes, but actors, directors, musicians, painters, sculptors – not because of what’s so obviously here or not here. Rather, creative people keep finding themselves amid unplanned moments of clarity that resound through their lives.”

That, my friends, is the language of brand building; not to mention the language of a creative economy of the 21st Century.

The Montana New Yorker piece ends with “few states have their own literature; Montana’s runs broad and deep, reaching far beyond familiar titles like the Big Sky, The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It and into the lives of its people.”

Any ad guy, particularly one with a well-considered point of view, sort of like Don Draper in Mad Men, will tell you that a brand can’t last if its built on spin. It must be authentic and it must be true. Montana, I think, has an authentic brand.

Like Idaho and most other states, Montana also has big troubles with budgets, schools are hurting. What might be different, and it might explain why Montana is perceived differently – why the brand works – is that deep down in the land of the Big Sky they get the fact that captivating the imagination of deeply creative people is the economic road map into the 21st Century.

Baucus, Clinton, Dallek, Haiti, Mansfield, Montana, U.S. Senate

What is it about Montana

MurrayGiants in the Senate

Fewer than a million souls live in Montana, the state that sprawls out under the Big Sky. Yet, during the 20th Century, Montana produced well more than its share of powerful, influential United States Senators.

The handsome and very liberal Jim Murray, a wealthy son of Butte, Montana, is one of a group of Democratic senators who wielded real power and have had lasting influence, while representing geographically massive, but population small Montana.

Murray’s pioneering role in pushing for universal health care coverage was recalled recently in a fine piece by Montana journalist Charles Johnson. Johnson notes that Murray occupied, from 1934 to 1961, the seat now held by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a champion of the health care legislation recently passed.

“Jim Murray was a trailblazer as part of a trio of lawmakers who worked hard but ultimately failed to pass national health insurance bills under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,” Johnson wrote.

As proof that little really ever changes in American politics, Murray’s work more than 50 years ago with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the father of the current Dingell in the House, was attacked as “socialized medicine” that was certain to usher in the ruination the country.

Johnson recalls that Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican now regarded as one of the all-time giants of the Senate, once interrupted Murray at a hearing to denounce the health legislation as “the most socialist measure that this Congress has ever had before it.”

Murray, never a great orator, shouted back at Taft: “You have so much gall and so much nerve. … If you don’t shut up, I’ll have … you thrown out.”

The charge of aiding and abetting socialism was perhaps an even more powerful accusation in the 1950’s than it is when hurled at President Obama today. Murray’s brand of progressive liberalism always brought with it a charge that he was a dangerous lefty. In his long Senate career he never had an easy election.

Charles Johnson notes the irony in the fact that while Murray’s most passionate opponents in the 1940’s and 1950’s came from the ranks of the American Medical Association, the AMA’s current president endorsed the recent legislation, noting that it “represents an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

Now, it is Baucus’ turn to have his role in the passage of the health care legislation fiercely debated in Montana. Perhaps as as indication of the intensity of the furor, Baucus, who was re-elected just last year, has gone up on television in Montana today seeking to explain why the legislation that he had a major hand in creating and, that dates back to his Senate predecessor, is good for Montana.

Each of Montana’s most influential U.S. Senators were controversial in their day. In my read of the state political history, Murray and Baucus properly join Sen. Tom Walsh, the investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal; Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the man who lead the fight to turn back Franklin Roosevelt’s assault on the Supreme Court in 1937, and Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, as Montanans who have made a lasting mark on the Senate and on the nation’s business.

Few states can claim a larger collection of truly influential – or controversial – U.S. Senators. Big names, indeed, from the Big Sky State.

Clinton, Film, Montana, Schweitzer

The Big Man In The Big Sky

schweitzerSchweitzer Does It His Way

While most of the nation’s governors have been serving up heaping helpings of bad news in the form of reductions in education spending, layoffs, furloughs and such, Montana’s Brian Schweitzer continues to blaze his own popular, political trail. While it may be too much to call the Big Man in the Big Sky a political original, the Treasure State Democrat continues to be one of the most talented political actors anywhere.

Schweitzer understands intuitively that effective politics often involves effective theater, particularly when the show involves the ability to pick the right fight. At the presidential level, Ronald Reagan and his advisers understood this basic reality. Remember Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary?

The Great Communicator understood that politics is performance, even as Democrats derided the one-time B-movie actor as nothing more than, well, an actor.

Elsewhere in the Northwest, Cecil Andrus in Idaho and Tom McCall in Oregon were masters of the art of picking an issue that kept them defined as “outsiders” while appealing broadly to their voters. Andrus took on the federal government over nuclear waste storage and McCall opposed storing deadly nerve gas at the Umatilla depot. Wildly popular stands that defined each governor as a crusader and populist. Andrus has joked during his long political career about being able to “throw an instant fit” to make a bigger political point, grab public attention and earn support.

Schweitzer’s most recent “political fit” generated headlines when the governor showed up at a Bozeman City Commission meeting – when is the last time a governor did that – and gave the city’s leading lights a drubbing before the public and the press. The issue was a decision by Bozeman city fathers to spend 50 grand in stimulus money on reconditioning tennis courts. Schweitzer told them spending the money on water treatment facilities made more sense. Wonder where the voters are on that one?

For students of political theater, the Associated Press account of the meeting is all the proof one needs that the bolo tie, cowboy boot wearing governor is in his element when he’s at center stage orchestrating a good ol’ political fight. Part of Schweitzer’s public appeal is that he appears to enjoy the battle so much.

In a perfect world, all our politicians would be brilliant policy wonks and the best ideas would always win out, but that is most definitely not the real world. Democrats, in particular, often seem to ignore or undervalued the fact that politics is fundamentally about the ability to communicate in a compelling, real way. It also helps to be able to see a good fight that is worth the picking.

Like him or not, you have to agree Montana’s Brian Schweitzer is a Democratic exception. He gets it.