Curator's Corner


House Call

Many of us take for granted the ease in which we can receive medical care in modern times. We can easily schedule an appointment at the doctor’s office and receive the care we need. If we have more urgent medical needs, there is urgent care or the emergency room. If it is an emergency an ambulance can pick up can get you to a hospital within minutes. However, the idea that ill people should travel to a doctor’s office or hospital is a relatively new idea. As late as the 1970s, a doctor traveling to private homes was a popular way to receive medical care. Due to the need for specialization in the medical field, house calls quickly became a thing of the past.
During the 19th century most medical needs were met by doctors coming into private homes. While a few doctors had private offices, and hospitals did exist, most people in the 19th century lived in rural settings and it was simply easier sending for a doctor. Hospitals at the time were often very dirty and many people knew of dieses being spread there. Doctors were often called for a variety of reasons and had to have knowledge in countless areas of medicine. People would query doctors about tooth aches, stomach problems, broken bones, and many more issues. Because of the wide variety of problems doctors had to deal with they would have to carry as many medications as they could. Since they usually rode a horse or a buggy to the private home, they were usually limited to a single doctor’s bag like the one pictured below. These bags would carry anything from aspirin to chloroform in case surgery was needed.


Doctors bag

House calls for physicians remained popular into the 20th century. By 1930 nearly 30% of all doctor-patients interactions were via house calls. As medicine advanced and doctors began to specialize in certain areas, house calls became rarer. By 1980 only about 1% of doctor-patient interactions were through house calls. There has been a slight surge in house calls the past ten years, but with many doctors needing large machines and instruments to do their jobs, house calls are considered a thing of the past.


Gas Masks

With the onset of World War II many world leaders were concerned about chemical warfare becoming a factor in in the war. This fear led to massive manufacturing and distribution of various types of gas masks. The anxiety of chemical warfare came from World War I when tens of thousands of tons of deadly chemicals were used to gain an edge in the fighting. An estimated 1.4 million people were killed by these deadly attacks, many of them being civilians.

British Civilians during World War II

British Civilians during World War II

Once World War II had begun, many countries handed out gas masks to civilians. Every British civilian was issued a gas mask for fear that Germany would perpetrate a chemical attack. Many civilians in countries like France, Australia, and the United States were issued gas masks as well. The gas mask in the picture below was a standard issue civilian gas mask in the United States; many other countries used this model to protect their citizens against chemical attacks, as well.

A MIA2-1-1 Civilian Gas Mask

A MIA2-1-1 Civilian Gas Mask

There is one major problem in gas masks from this time period; many use a filtration system that has asbestos in it. Asbestos is a material that is known to cause mesothelioma and is a very dangerous substance. Ten percent of workers in gas mask facilities during World War II would eventually succumb to mesothelioma. A tragic irony of history, the gas masks designed to save lives could actually take them away.

The Homestead Act and Westward Expansion.


The wagon train is one of the iconic images of the Western part of the United States. Most great western films have the quintessential wagon train jerking through a flawless prairie heading west. There is a historical context to this perception of the West most of us hold. On the eve of the American Civil War much of the American West was unsettled. The very few people settling out West led to the federal government passing the Homestead Act of 1862.

Homesteaders Heading West.

Homesteaders heading west. Homesteaders Heading West.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was a land grant program that allowed people to claim 160 acres of land as long as they made certain improvements upon the land. Those improvements usually included building a house, planting crops, and staying on the land for five years. This essentially-free land (there was a twelve dollar application fee) created a surge of western re-settlement. Eventually, four million homestead claims were made with 1.6 million being successful. This amounted to 270 million acres of land distributed in thirty states. The 270 million acres distributed from 1863 to 1979 is approximately 10% of all U.S. lands.


Homestead certificate to George Amiraux. 1979.037 Arch Box 001

The document below is a homestead certificate to George P. Amiraux for 160 acres of land in Montana, one of 151,600 homesteaders in Montana. George Amriaux was also the son of H. A. Amiraux, a notable Missoulian from the 19th and 20th century. H. A. Amiraux was known for working as a bookkeeper for the Higgins and Worden Company and managing the Inn and Bakers Station.


Homestead States.

The 151,600 homesteaders in Montana claimed 32,050,480 acres of Montana land, which amounts to just over a third of Montana. This is an enormous amount of land considering Montana is the fourth largest state in the U.S. In fact, Montana was the most popular state for Homesteaders with 30,000 more acres claimed than the next state, which was North Dakota. The Homestead Act was the most effective distribution of land the federal government ever enacted. Nearly ninety-three million homesteader descendants are alive today, many likely in Montana.

Artists Imprisoned: Italian Internees During WWII

This morning, I spent some time digging around in the basement of the museum. It was cold. White sheets covered antique mirrors, highboys, skis, a doll stroller. Bare light bulbs hung at the end of each row, casting shallow shadows on the concrete floor. Now, I’m a huge wimp. I’m afraid of ghosts and enclosed spaces. Basements make me think of spiders and crickets and boogiemen (none of which a museum basement would have). And isn’t every piece of old furniture haunted by the hands that once touched it? Paintings?  Mirrors?

Still hooked by the story of Odette Samson’s dolls, I was in search of objects made by the Italian internees housed at Fort Missoula during WWII. It felt somehow related: this question of productivity and creativity while imprisoned; a question, too, of what it means to be an enemy and how we get past this idea of “other.”

Sloop Marconi, handmade by Umberto Benedetti in 1941, while an internee at Fort Missoula.  On display in our galleries.

Sloop Marconi, handmade by Umberto Benedetti in 1941, while an internee at Fort Missoula. On display in our galleries.

The permanent exhibition on the first floor contains an intricate model ship made by Umberto Benedetti and a tiny life jacket painted in the colors of the Italian flag. A wooden box mounted on the wall contains another model ship, smaller and more whimsical than Benedetti’s. Locally, Benedetti is probably the most famous of the Italians detained at Fort Missoula. When the U.S. joined WWII, he was working as a cabinetmaker on an Italian ocean liner in the Panama Canal. He, along with 1,200 other Italians who found themselves on American soil (or in American ports) at the outbreak of the war, was sent by train to Fort Missoula, which had previously been used to house Civilian Conservation Corps members. The Italians weren’t soldiers. They were civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: artisans and chefs stuck in New York after the 1939 World’s Fair, for instance, or ship captains. After the internees were released in 1944, many of them opted to come back to the United States as citizens. Benedetti, for example, joined the U.S. army to gain his citizenship and spent the rest of his life in Missoula. The internees called the fort Bella Vista. They played bocce and golf in the summers. They put on plays and orchestral performances for each other and for the town. They made ships and painted. They worked on farms and for the Forest Service. Which is all to say, of course, that despite their confinement, they found a way to live.

Benedetti, we know, loved Missoula. He became a local institution, before his death in 2009. But what about the other internees? What can we find out about these men from their paintings?

Back to the basement! The first three paintings I pulled from the shelves were watercolors done by Francesco Coscia, Second Officer on the Pietro Campanella, which was requisitioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in Panama (*Fun Fact: the Pietro Campanella was renamed Equipoise, after a famous race horse. Many of the ships requisitioned during the war were named after horses, particularly Kentucky Derby winners.). Coscia was held at Fort Missoula from 1941 to 1944, but I couldn’t find very much more about him in our records. My only sources of information were the paintings themselves. So what did they tell me?

Stone Pines (?) detail in Francesco Coscia's watercolor, ca. 1941-1944, painted while an internee at Fort Missoula.

Detail in Francesco Coscia’s Watercolor, ca. 1941-1944.

Francesco Coscia, Watercolor, ca. 1941-1944.

Francesco Coscia, Watercolor, ca. 1941-1944.

Two of the three depict coastal scenes in Italy: rough coastlines and smooth, rippling water; perfect blue skies. Compositionally they’re nearly mirror images. One has two trees on the left side and the ocean to the right; the other has three trees on the right and the ocean to the left. The latter has a more severe coast—bulky rocks that might amount to small cliffs in reality. I’m not a tree expert, but someone, presumably Coscia, has written “Maritime Pines” on the back of one of the paintings. Maritime pines are native to the Mediterranean—a far cry from Montana.

The third Coscia painting, on the other hand, feels like Montana. Unlike the previous two, it has a date, 1943, and a title, Rogue River. I began to wonder if Coscia painted the other during his earlier days at Fort Missoula, when Italy was fresh on his mind. I wondered if he was homesick. If painting the Italian seascape was a way to feel connected not only to Italy but to the ocean – Coscia had been a seaman, after all. And maybe after a few years here, he started to see Montana as beautiful. Or maybe he just got used to it. Or maybe it was easier to paint the world directly in front of him. Maybe he worked on a ranch down in Hamilton or at a lookout in the Bitterroot—there are plenty of small waterfalls in the gulches down there.

Francesco Coscia, Rogue River, 1943.

Francesco Coscia, Rogue River, 1943.

After the Coscia watercolors, I unearthed an oil painting by Joe Gianatti—a quiet port, with warm stucco buildings poised just above the water, reflecting in the water, and three small red boats. The texture, thick brushstrokes rising from the canvas, was refreshing after the thinner, colder quality of the watercolors. On the back of the canvas, Gianatti left us with a title of sorts: “Martiquex (France).” And then a lovely and curious inscription, “To Miss Margery Ann Walker, Reciprocating with gratitude and admiration a nice and spontaneous act of generosity. Capt. Joe G. Gianatti / Fort Missoula, April 1943.”

Joe Gianatti, April 1943, oil on canvas.  For Margery Ann Walker.

Joe Gianatti, April 1943, oil on canvas. For Margery Ann Walker.

Gianatti's Inscription to Miss Margery Ann Walker, April 1943.

Gianatti’s Inscription to Miss Margery Ann Walker, April 1943.

I love nothing better than a good inscription when I’m researching! Who was Margery Ann Walker?! What did she do?! I ran back upstairs to the files, hoping, irrationally, that there was some kind of love story to uncover. There wasn’t. According to Margery’s son, who was in touch with the museum about the provenance of the piece, “My mother, Margery Ann Walker Van Nice, was an art student at the U [University of Montana], and involved with the Missoula art scene. She helped organize a few of the area artists to donate canvases, brushes, oils, watercolors, etc. to help the painters in the Fort arts and crafts shop get started.” I love the idea of a young student putting forth so much effort to provide a creative outlet for the Italians held during the war. It goes back to that central idea that art and expression help us to cross boundaries; to see the enemy not as “other” but as human. The Italian internees and the citizens of Missoula fostered a relationship in other instances as well and many of the Italians worked for Missoulians. One of the Coscia paintings was donated by Jacqueline Moore, the widow of William Moore, who was a border patrol officer at Fort Missoula. Notes on the provenance of the piece indicate that Mrs. Moore and the internees would bake cherry pies and bowl together, along with some of the other wives based at the Fort. Maybe it’s true what Umberto Benedetti claims in one of his autobiographical books: that Fort Missoula was the best of all the detainment campuses in the United States, that the men were treated very well. He says, specifically, “What a beautiful place to live accept there were no girls.” A great line!

Watercolor by Rolando Madussi, ca. 1942-1944.

Watercolor by Rolando Madussi, ca. 1942-1944.

The last artist I’ll mention is Rolando Madussi—because this post is already too long, not because there aren’t more paintings to talk about! While Coscia and Gianatti painted the sea, Madussi painted the Italian Alps—bald, rocky mountains foregrounded by grassy slopes and houses plucked straight from fairy tales. One, a gift, was inscribed in Italian. It says (in English): “To Commander Capt. P.S. Saglietto remembering the days spent of our imprisonment. Rolando Madussi, Fort Missoula, (U.S.A.) August 21, 1943.” We don’t know much about Madussi, or at least I don’t. But there’s a thick file about Saglietto in the archives and it includes (drum roll!) a Fort Missoula love story! Saglietto, the captain of the San Guiseppe before it was requisitioned by the U.S. in 1942, became somewhat of a mayor among the internees, liaising between them and the officers at the fort. After the war, he married Wilma Jacobson, who had been the secretary for the Border Patrol Supervisors at Fort Missoula. Like Benedetti, Saglietto opted to remain in the U.S., moving to Baltimore and, in 1947, he founded the Tidewater Commercial Company, which operated steamships. In 1966, the Baltimore Sun reported that Saglietto was awarded the Caveliere Officiale Order of Merit of Republic of Italy, for fostering goodwill between the United States and Italy. It seems like he was a natural-born leader. A pretty incredible life-story (and this is just an outline!) for someone who was detained against his will at our very own Fort!

Watercolor by Rolando Madussi, inscribed to P.S. Saglietto, August 21, 1943.

Watercolor by Rolando Madussi, inscribed to P.S. Saglietto, August 21, 1943.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick survey of paintings done by Italian internees! It barely scratches the surface of what life might have been like at Fort Missoula during the early 1940s, and doesn’t even begin to contemplate the lives of the Japanese aliens held at the camp, but research is like that… no matter how much you learn, there’s always an entire world of information left to uncover. I hope this has piqued your interest and given you something new to investigate.

P.S. For more, visit


Courage, Creativity, and Imagination: A Doll Story


Examples of the Nancy Ann Dolls at the Museum.  Note the "sleep eyes" on the plastic Native American doll to the left and the original, gold "Nancy Ann" tag on Cinderella's right arm.

Examples of the Nancy Ann Dolls at the Fort Missoula Museum. Note the “sleep eyes” on the plastic Native American doll to the left and the original, gold “Nancy Ann” tag on Cinderella’s right arm.

A couple weeks ago, I watched an episode of Museum Secrets while riding an old exercise bike in front of the TV on a rainy day. This particular episode explored the Imperial War Museum in London: the technological development of illusory army fatigues, for instance, or how physicists developed a way to locate German artillery during WWI using sound alone. The stories were somewhat confusing—most revolved around complicated science that the show tried to make accessible to the layman. They lacked character, an emotional tug, someone to root for. I almost changed the channel, until the camera focused on two handmade cloth dolls in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the museum, a gallery devoted to medals and awards for bravery. Dolls, I thought. Yes, here is a story. Dolls are curiosities, rather than necessities of war or scientific tools, right? I was compelled by the very idea: dolls and war; childhood innocence and the complete despair of wartime prisoners; home life and the front.

And indeed, there was a fascinating story:  In 1939, Odette Sansom was living with her three young daughters in Somerset, her husband already serving in the British army, when she responded to a call for photographs and old postcards exhibiting the French coastline for intelligence-gathering purposes. In her note, Odette wrote that she was French by birth and familiar with Boulogne, where she had lived for several years. Shortly thereafter, she was recruited by the War Office as an undercover agent and began intensive training to prepare for her fieldwork in Occupied France. She landed in the French Riviera in early November of 1942, immediately contacting Peter Churchill, who headed the SOE in the area (Britain’s Special Operations Executive).

Odette Marie-Celine Sansom

Odette Marie-Celine Sansom

On November 11, just days after her arrival, the Germans invaded Vichy France and the Gestapo became more aggressive in its hunt to eradicate British spies in the region. Odette and Churchill moved their operation to the Alps, where, in mid-April 1943, they were both arrested by Sergeant Hugo Bleicher. The two were sent to Fresnes prison in Paris and Odette, condemned to death, was tortured by the Gestapo for information regarding her fellow spies. She brilliantly said that she was married to Peter Churchill, and that he was a relative of the British Prime Minister—making them both very valuable prisoners (Two small, but valuable, white lies. Eventually, years later, Odette would divorce her husband and marry in Peter Churchill in reality.).

According to Museum Secrets, Odette and the other women confined to Fresnes prison were forced to sew German army uniforms. Odette joined the sewing group, but refused to contribute to the German war effort. Instead, she made these dolls—which she gave as a gift to the German chaplain at the prison, a man who was kind to her and helped her by transmitting messages to Peter Churchill.

One of the dolls made by Odette Sansom in Fresnes Prison, Paris (courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

One of the dolls made by Odette Sansom in Fresnes Prison, Paris (courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

In May 1944, Odette was moved from the prison to a series of German concentration camps, where many of her fellow female spies were executed. She was placed in solitary confinement and starved, but when the Allies began winning the war, the commander of her camp decided to use her—a very important prisoner—for leverage. In exchange for her life, he wanted his own sentence mitigated. He did indeed give her up to the Allies, but was eventually sentenced to death because of evidence presented by Odette at the Nuremberg Trials. Odette, for her part, survived the war and was the first woman awarded the George Cross. She was famously depicted in Herbert Wilcox’s film, Odette, and her dolls are displayed as a testament to her bravery.

My curiosity piqued, I came back to the Museum at Fort Missoula to do some exploring! We don’t have dolls made by WWII spies, as far as I know, but we certainly have a substantial collection of 20th century dolls, dollhouses and doll clothes, and each of them, undoubtedly, has a story of some kind. There’s a cloth doll of Teddy Roosevelt dressed up in hunting gear, paper dolls modeled after Grace Kelley, early Barbie’s and drawings done on felt of Kewpie dolls. Some of the dolls, like Odette’s, were made by hand. Take this cornhusk doll made by Irene Paeth circa 1940—just a few years older than Odette’s dolls! Irene donated the doll to the museum in 2007, shortly before her death in February of 2008. According to her obituary, Irene, a long-time resident of both the Chicago area and Sparta, Wisconsin, also donated two life-size dolls to the Monroe County Historical Society in Sparta. What a curious web! I love the link that Irene’s donations creates between two otherwise unrelated historical societies.

Cornhusk Doll, made ca. 1940 by Irene Paeth

Cornhusk Doll, made ca. 1940 by Irene Paeth

Irene’s doll is beautiful and fragile. She wears a faded purple dress cinched at the waist and has brown hair composed of corn silk. In fact, she’s inspired me, already, to google “How to make a cornhusk doll” and I intend to try it out as soon as the four ears of corn in my garden are ready to eat!

Another recent doll donation consists of a collection of Nancy Ann dolls—not entirely handmade, per se, but historically interesting nonetheless. These highly collectible dolls are small, measuring between 3¾” and 7”. Some are bisque, meaning that they are older and generally more valuable (depending on condition) while others are plastic with “sleep eyes,” meaning that they’re newer. Each doll represents a different character—maybe Cinderella, from the Fairytale line; maybe a Russian peasant, from the International line; maybe a nun. Nancy Ann Abbott began designing dolls in 1936, just before the start of WWII. The first series, the Hush-a-Bye babies, were produced in Japan, although by 1939 production moved to California, where artists painted the facial features on each doll by hand. As the Nancy Ann website describes it, as the war got underway, “the government felt the dolls were necessary for morale and demand for the dolls was high.  Many were sent by convoy to Hawaii where soldiers were able to buy the dolls and send them home to their loved ones. By the late 1940s, the company was producing the largest doll volume in the nation.” Yet another fascinating intersection of dolls and war!

A Bisque Nancy Doll

A Bisque Nancy Doll at Fort Missoula

I’ll sign off with a quote from Madame Alexander, whose historical and literary dolls I collected as a child (My favorite? Eliza Doolittle.): “Dolls should contribute to a child’s understanding of people, other times and other places.” What better time, then, to safeguard the production of dolls than during war, when the world so desperately needs to cultivate empathy in both children and adults?


P.S. If you want to hear yet another intriguing story about a brilliant doll maker (and an early female entrepreneur), check out Marjorie Ingall’s article on Madame Alexander. What a powerhouse!

P.P.S. Tune in next week to see what the WWII detainees at Fort Missoula were creating during the war years.

A bike ride to celebrate America’s birthday…

A couple weeks ago, I headed up to Glacier National Park to bike the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar Village to Logan Pass. My friend and I had planned the trip nearly two months beforehand, had taken time off from work, had tuned up our bikes, aired out our sleeping bags, stocked up on granola. Because I’m a history nerd, I started researching the history of Glacier in preparation. How in the world did they manage to build the Going-to-the-Sun Road? How do they plow it? When did Glacier become a tourist destination? Who were the individuals that turned Glacier into the park we know today? And of course, that led to more questions. As usual, I began to explore Fort Missoula’s archives. While the archives focus mainly on the history of Missoula and Fort Missoula, I stumbled upon several old postcards, a few newspaper inserts promoting Montana as “Vacationland!” and this 1987 Monte Dolack poster featuring the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Commissioned by Bikecentennial (now Adventure Cycling, located in downtown Missoula), it was the perfect image to get me started on my research. I was giddy with excitement – I thought of the image as almost a foreshadowing of my own trip, a preliminary glimpse!

But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Monte Dolack's Going-to-the-Sun Poster, commissioned by Bikecentennial in 1987

Monte Dolack’s Going-to-the-Sun Poster, commissioned by Bikecentennial in 1987

But first, a little bit about the poster itself. In the foreground, closest to the viewer, we see three small, bright birds—a flicker, a tree swallow fly, and a scarlet tanager—that form a sort of triangle around a lone rider in a red shirt. His bike wheels are a blur of opalescent white and his shadow stretches to the bottom edge of the image. The Going-to-the-Sun Road stretches out before him, climbing slowly, laboriously, up towards the continental divide. The green mountain falls away steeply beside him and in the distance we can see rocky mountain ridges still dappled in snow. The rider is almost above the clouds that hover in the valley to the right of the road. There are two other riders ahead of him, just past the waterfall. The landscape is dramatic and the colors incandescent. But probably my favorite detail is the tiny rearview mirror clipped onto his glasses. This guy is one prepared rider! But who is he? What’s the story here? Monte Dolack’s a well-known name around Missoula, but what’s Bikecentennial?

A Detail of Monte Dolack's Going-to-the-Sun Road Print

A Detail of Monte Dolack’s Going-to-the-Sun Road Print

On their website, Glacier Cyclery says that Greg Siple, one of the co-founders of Bikecentennial, posed as the cyclist we see in the Dolack print. I couldn’t find that report corroborated elsewhere, but the owners of Glacier Cyclery are familiar with Adventure Cycling and it does make sense that Siple would be the model. It was Siple, after all, who thought that the best way to celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1976 was with a bike ride from San Francisco to the east coast. The idea came to him in 1972 while on a bike tour from Alaska to the southernmost point of South America with his wife, June, and Lys and Dan Burden. Originally supported by National Geographic, one of their goals on the “Hemistour” ride was to promote the sport of cycling. While in Mexico, they began to solidify the plans for Bikecentennial. “My original thought,” Stiple says, “was to send out ads and flyers saying, ‘Show up at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco at 9 o’clock on June 1 with your bicycle. And then we were going to bicycle across the country. I pictured thousands of people, a sea of people with their bikes and packs all ready to go, and there would be old men and people with balloon-tire bikes and Frenchmen who flew over just for this. Nobody would shoot a gun off or anything. At 9 o’clock everybody would just start moving. It would be like this crowd of locusts crossing America.” (

It wasn’t easy to gain the clout and financial support necessary to embark on such an endeavor. The Siples continued on the tour of South America, while the Burdens were forced to return to the US early because Dan had contracted hepatitis. While the Siples spent another two years on the Hemistour, Lys and Dan began laying the tracks for Bikecentennial. They sent a wave 10,000 flyers out to bike clubs around the nation and overseas, followed by another wave of 3,000; they continued to court individuals at National Geographic who expressed an interest in the adventure; they spread the word to old cycling friends; eventually, in 1973, Lys took on the job of researching the route—an enormous, time-consuming task undertaken in a VW bus. By January 1974, the Burdens found themselves in Missoula: “It was a logical place to start Bikecentennial, since I had many friends, a university from which to draw talent, and a place where we could live inexpensively, attending school on the G.I Bill during the day, working on Bikecentennial at night.” In the summer of 1974, they, along with another couple, road the route that Lys had mapped out on their bicycles. The following year, Bikecentennial gained an important sponsor in Shimano and suddenly, they had the kind of traction they needed to move forward (

A Bikecentennial Certificate on Display at Adventure Cycling in Downtown Missoula

A Bikecentennial Certificate on Display at Adventure Cycling in Downtown Missoula

I’m sure there were a lot of moments when the founders doubted their initial idea—putting together an unprecedented, enormous event that spans a continent is tough!—but in the summer of 1976, “Bikecentennial operated 300 trips servicing 4,100 men and women. All fifty states and several foreign nations were represented. Just over 2,000 bicyclists rode the entire length of the trail” as reported in BikeReport. Not only did the Burdens and Siples and their colleagues have to map out the entire route, but they needed to make sure that the cyclists had somewhere to sleep every night along the route and recruit the numbers to make the trip a huge (and safe) success!

Once I read up on the history of Bikecentennial, I started to wonder why Monte Dolack would have featured Glacier in his poster. I assumed that the poster was a commemoration of the original 1976 bike trip, but the route during that trip didn’t pass through Glacier. In fact, the route only touched the southeastern-most part of Montana. But after the 1976 ride, Bikecentennial continued to design bicycle tours around the country and, in the mid-1980’s, Michael McCoy and his wife led the company’s first mountain-biking tour….through Glacier County! Today, Adventure Cycling is the leading such company in the U.S., with 47,000 members and over 42,000 miles of bike routes mapped out across the country. If that’s not a lesson in dreaming big, I don’t know what is!

Maps and directions designed by Adventure Cycling for Bicycling the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Maps and directions designed by Adventure Cycling for Bicycling the Lewis and Clark Trail.

As much as I love bike riding, I’ve never been a bike tourist. Last summer, a friend from the east coast, a fellow cyclist, bought me maps designed by Adventure Cycling, detailing the Lewis and Clark Trail for bicyclists. I had never even heard of Adventure Cycling and I still haven’t had the chance to use the maps (yet!). I’ve never camped out on someone’s farm in Virginia or pulled into a campsite in Yellowstone with panniers full of food and clothing and a sleeping bag and a tent. While our trip to Glacier would barely skim the surface of such a venture, it was my own small foray into the world of adventure cycling and I was thrilled to follow in the footsteps of the giants who created this incredible culture in the U.S. (a culture based in Missoula, nonetheless)! I had Monte Dolack’s print in my head all week, anticipating the glorious views, the birds chirping, the contagious excitement of the other riders, all looking out over the river or up at the Weeping Wall.

On the way to Logan Pass...

On the way to Logan Pass…

But there were no other riders. Or, rather, very few. Over the course of 45 miles, we passed eleven people. And nothing I saw resembled the Monte Dolack print. Where was the Glacier I was promised?! Instead, a chilly rain fell for three days. The clouds obscured the mountain peaks and I wore layers of long sleeves covered by a thin rain jacket. I didn’t see mountain goats or big horn sheep or a grizzly bear. When we set out towards Avalanche at 10 am, after delaying our trip in hopes that the rain would let up, it was pouring. Then that downpour turned into a drizzle and the drizzle, eventually, petered out to nothing. We cheered whenever the rain stopped, despite the insistent dreariness. I can’t even remember if it was raining at the top of Logan Pass: we were submerged in the cold wet of the clouds and the only living thing we saw was an enormous crow perched on a stake in the snow. On the way down, we saw wisps of blue sky and thought, yes, this is it! But it never quite cleared up and we never quite saw what those Adventure Cyclists saw in the 1980’s, or what thousands of others cyclists see today. What we saw was, I think, infinitely more rare. It was surreal and unearthly; an unimaginable solitude.


Logan Pass, June 14 2014

Logan Pass, June 14 2014

For more on the history of Bikcentennial / Adventure Cycling, check out their website:

If you, like me, are curious about how they built the Going-to-the-Sun Road, check out this awesome video put together by the National Parks Service:

And if you, like me, have someone in your life (ehem, your dad) that loves to bike, check out Monte Dolack’s website for more on the poster!


The Flags over Iwo Jima: What’s Fort Missoula’s Connection?

This week, millions of American flags will be raised across the country to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence 238 years ago. As my own small tribute to the founding fathers, I decided to take a look at Fort Missoula’s collection of American flags and compile some kind of survey, sharing photos and a bit of history where I could find it, attempting in my own small way to show that despite the ubiquity of the American flag as symbol, individual examples have a lot to teach us about history and patriotism. Of course, once I submerged myself in the collection, my research began to take a completely different, completely fascinating route.

The Fort Missoula Flag from the USS Missoula

The Fort Missoula Flag from the USS Missoula

Most of Fort Missoula’s flags are stored together in one of the small textile rooms in the curatorial space on the second floor. However, there is one flag kept in its own unwieldy, somewhat enormous, albeit shallow, box in the main photography room. The naval flag, measuring 33½” x 61½” (that’s almost three feet high and just over six feet long), is mounted on a stretched canvas, sewn onto the canvas along its outer edges in an effort to preserve it. In many ways it is a standard 48-star American flag: white stars arrayed systematically over a blue canton (24¾” x 18”), seven red stripes, six white, the cotton seemingly battle-worn, or simply deteriorating with age. I found it interesting that the stars were printed onto the blue canton rather than sewn, while the stripes were comprised of individual strips of cloth sewn together. In terms of wear and tear, there are at least seven holes in the canton alone and the stripes, especially the red stripes, are littered with tears while stains are obvious on the white cloth. The colors are faded, especially as your eye moves away from the hoist. The 48-star flag was in use from 1912, with Arizona’s admission into the Union, until 1959, with the admission of Alaska, and there are countless extant examples—some of them rich with war stories, some simply flown at the neighbor’s house on the 4th of July.

Tears on the USS Missoula Flag

Tears on the USS Missoula Flag

This particular flag, flown over the USS Missoula from 1944 to 1946, is one of former. It is the sister flag to the flag first raised on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, undoubtedly one of the most significant flags of the 20th century. Naturally, my eyes widened as I read the page of information kept with the flag. Sister flag. That meant that the iconic Iwo Jima flag, immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph, was also flown over the USS Missoula, alongside ours, right?

No, not right at all.

Here is the real story behind the flag and the Rosenthal photograph: On the morning of Friday, February 23, 1945, forty Marines led by Lt. Harold G. Schrier ascended Mount Suribachi, a volcanic vent and the highest peak on Iwo Jima, an island with major strategic importance for both the Japanese and Americans during WWII. They’d been instructed by 2nd Battalion commander Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson, “If you’re able to get up the mountain I want you to take this flag… If you can’t make it all the way up, turn around and come back down. Don’t try to go overboard.” The men had arrived at Iwo Jima on the USS Missoula and they carried a small flag from the ship with them on their mission. When they reached the summit, they managed to find a 20-foot rainwater pipe constructed by the Japanese and then, using the pipe, six men hoisted the flag at 10:20 am. Luckily, Leatherneck photographer Louis Lowery had ascended the peak with the men and was there to capture the moment.

Louis Lowery's Photograph of the First Flag Raising over Iwo Jima, 2/23/45

Louis Lowery’s Photograph of the First Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi, 2/23/45

James Bradley describes the excitement that washed over Iwo Jima with the raising of the first flag in Flags of Our Fathers, “As Lowery clicked this exposure, an amazing noise rose from the island below and from the ships offshore. Thousands of Marine and Navy personally had been watching the patrol as they climbed to the volcano’s rim. When the small swatch of color fluttered, Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, into New York City’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Infantrymen cheered, whistled,and waved their helmets. Here was the evidence of Suribachi’s conquest. Here was the first invader’s flag ever planted in four thousand years on the soil of Japan.”

In a 2005 Missoulian article, WWII veteran and Missoula resident Bill Worf recalls standing on the beaches and seeing the first flag go up: “‘It went through the ranks like an electric shock,’ says Worf, who was 18 years old that day and is now 78. ‘We were getting really chewed up by artillery strikes that had been called in from the top of Mount Suribachi. So it was a big deal to see that flag go up. When it went up, a lot of us thought in another day or two we’d wrap things up and go home’” ( Of course, Worf and the others were wrong in their hope that the battle would end early: it lasted until March 26 and saw 26,000 American casualties alone, including 6,800 men killed in action.

Pvt. Bob Campbell took this photograph of the first flag coming down and the second going up, 2/23/45, courtesy of

Pvt. Bob Campbell took this photograph of the first flag coming down and the second going up, 2/23/45, courtesy of

Shortly after the flag from the USS Missoula was raised, Lt. Col. Johnson ordered the small flag taken down and replaced with a larger one. The story goes that Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal landed on the beach just as the flag went up and, recognizing its importance, said he wanted it as a souvenir. Johnson, upon receiving Forrestal’s message, supposedly declared, “To hell with that!” Johnson wanted to secure the original flag for his battalion, so he raised a larger one in its stead, a 56” x 96” flag taken from the LST 779. On the advice of Lowery, AP photographer Joe Rosenthal and Sgt. Bill Genaust made their way to the summit of Suribachi just as the men were attaching the second flag to a 100-pound pole. As they hoisted it, Rosenthal took the picture that would earn him a Pulitzer Prize, serve as the symbol for the Seventh War Bond Drive and as the model for the Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Genaust captured the event on video, although he would never have the chance to see it. Genaust was killed in battle just days later.

Joe Rosenthal's Photograph of the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima, 2/23/45, courtesy of the National Archives

Joe Rosenthal’s Photograph of the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima, 2/23/45, courtesy of the National Archives

The men in Rosenthal’s photograph—Sgt. Michael Strank, Pfc. Rene Gagnon, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, PhM2c John Bradley (Pharmacist Mate, 2nd Class) and Cpl. Harlon Block— the second group of six men to raise an American flag that day, would become celebrities. Three would be killed in action during the subsequent days of fighting, while FDR would bring the survivors home to tour the country and participate in the drive. Bradley’s son, James Bradley, further commemorated the flag-raisers with the 2000 book, Flags of Our Fathers, which spent 46 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Meanwhile, the men in Louis Lowery’s photograph would remain virtually anonymous—First Lt. Schrier, Sgt. Boots Thomas, Sgt. Hank Hansen, Pfc. Louis Charlo, Pfc. Jim Michaels, and Cpl. Charles W. Lindbergh. Charlo, the great-grandson of Chief Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, was killed in action just a week after participating in the ascent of Suribachi. A Montana-native, Louis Carlo is commemorated by an exhibition at the Rocky Mountain Military Museum on the grounds of Fort Missoula, right next to an exhibition about the history of the USS Missoula. For his part, Lowery never achieved the fame of Rosenthal. He continued to work for the Marine Corps’ publication, Leatherneck Magazine, until his retirement in 1983, and he and Rosenthal remained close friends well after the end of the war.

Both the first and second flags raised on Mount Suribachi are now, appropriately, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. The flag at Fort Missoula was, in comparison, just a bystander. But both USS Missoula flags—both the flag in Quantico and the flag at Fort Missoula—accompanied the USS Missoula—from Richmond, VA, where the ship was launched in September 1944, then to Pearl Harbor, where she trained, and then to Iwo Jima, where she ferried cargo and served as a floating medical station. However you want to look at it, this flag has seen a lot of action!

The Signal Gang of the USS Missoula, taken March 1945, donated to Fort Missoula by Arthur Loveridge (pictured bottom row, second from right)

The Signal Gang of the USS Missoula, taken March 1945, photograph donated to Fort Missoula by Arthur Loveridge (pictured bottom row, second from right)

The sister flag to the first flag raised over Iwo Jima was given to Fort Missoula in 2006 by Arthur C. Loveridge, a USS Missoula signalman who, after the war, hung the flag in his machine shop every year on the 4th of July.

Discovering what it means to be a lookout! And more about Sliderock Lookout

This weekend, from June 27th through the 29th, Darby, Montana will be hosting the annual Forest Fire Lookout Association’s Western Regional Conference—perfect timing as we dive deeper into Fort Missoula’s own historic lookout with a real lookout as our guide! This afternoon, my friend Allison Linville swung by Fort Missoula on her way home from Hamilton, where she currently works dispatch for wild land fire after four years of working as a lookout. We walked out onto the grounds and headed for the Forestry exhibition, which includes a small shack dedicated to the history of the timber industry (My favorite part of that one? A picture of workers posing outside the Tom Cruise Mine), the Miller Creek Guard Cabin (ca. 1910) and the Sliderock Lookout (1933)—both of which I mentioned briefly in my last post about smokejumping. We climbed the lookout tower, constructed of four beams and a set of wooden stairs, to the square cabin perched on top. The cabin is surrounded on all sides by big windows meant to show the entire horizon, each one guarded from the sun by wood shutters functioning as awnings. I asked Allison about pulling the shutters down to protect the lookout windows, but she said that only very rarely would you close the shutters. As a lookout, your top priority is watching the weather and the changing landscape, so naturally you want your windows up.

Sliderock Lookout at Fort Missoula

Sliderock Lookout at Fort Missoula

“In order to be a lookout, you really have to love maps and weather,” Allison says. We’re standing on the catwalk watching the clouds move eastward towards Mt. Sentinel. To the north, we can just make out the snow-covered Mission Mountains, to the south, Lolo Peak is dappled in shadow. Over the course of ten minutes, the landscape changes: the wind changes, the patches of light and dark shift, the clouds open up and the sky emerges. As I mentioned in my previous post, Allison worked at a remote lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where she did not have any access to internet, electricity or cell phone reception. I say that I imagine that watching the weather change would be like a lookout’s version of reality TV. Allison laughs and says, “Sure, but remember that most lookouts have internet and electricity and cell phone reception now. Not mine, but a lot of the others aren’t as remote.”

Even the radio isn’t a great source of personal connection. When a lookout talks on their radio, anyone tuned into that radio frequency can hear them: the dispatchers, the firefighters, other lookouts, even friends in town who happen to be listening, which means that talk must be kept professional and to the point. “To be a lookout, you need to have a really deep understanding of fire behavior, but probably the other most important qualifications is being able to communicate effectively and succinctly. To know what is important to communicate and to know what isn’t important—when you should stay silent.” If you’re on top of a mountain, like Allison was, your radio waves will reach pretty much everyone.

Inside the Sliderock Lookout!

Inside the Sliderock Lookout!

Inside, the Sliderock Lookout is fairly sparse. There’s a small, wood-burning stove for cooking, a few cabinets—one of them containing a First Aid kit and a snakebite kit—the Osborn in the center of the room, with an old fashioned telephone that would presumably connect the lookout to dispatch, and a bed in the corner flanked by a water container. “Water is a huge issue when you’re a lookout. Sometimes you’ll have a spring nearby you can hike down to, but other times they just have to pack water up to you on mules, at least if you’re in the wilderness. I didn’t have a spring, but I had access to a huge snow bank until about mid-July. A good chunk of time was dedicated to hiking down to the snow, packing up my USFS canvas bags with as much snow as I could carry, allowing it to melt in gallon jugs, and then filtering it the next day. Then, of course, I’d go back for more, always carrying my radio.” (In land designated as wilderness, wheels are prohibited, so pack animals are the only way to get supplies in.)

The First Aid Kit in Sliderock Lookout.

The First Aid Kit in Sliderock Lookout.

A typical day for Allison consisted of a 7:00 am wake up followed by a quick run. She would make breakfast and listen to NPR on an old school radio before taking the weather at 9:00. “Does taking the weather just mean looking around and saying, it’s cloudy?” I ask, reminding myself that the only dumb question is the one that isn’t asked. She looks at me like I’m crazy. “No,” she says. Apparently there’s a lot more to it! Every lookout is supplied with a belt weather kit, which includes a wind gauge and a sling psychrometer, with which you can take temperature and relative humidity. “The digital ones just aren’t as reliable,” she explains, further convincing me that living at a lookout is like stepping back into history. “At 10 am, every lookout calls in their weather to dispatch. Winds, temperature, relative humidity, visibility, cloud cover. Precipitation and lightning over the past twenty four hours.” After calling in the weather, Allison would hang out and watch for fires, carefully scanning the horizon in every direction every 15 to 20 minutes. She would write, read, listen to NPR, do creative projects, go for walks (again, always with her radio), and my favorites—do lunges around the lookout and hold solo dance parties.

That sounds like a pretty simple day, but Allison went on to describe the responsibility that lookouts have when crews are actually fighting fires—something that I hadn’t even thought of! “Later in the summer, you have crews on the ground and that is a huge responsibility for lookouts. As a lookout, you’re responsible for crew safety and monitoring the weather. They are down in the thick of things, so you’re their eyes from up above, watching for changes in wind direction and erratic fire movement. You need to have a really thorough understanding of fire behavior and the different types of clouds. Then you can radio down to the incident commander on the ground as well as your supervisor.” Sometimes, smoke obscures the landscape so much that even the lookout has trouble monitoring the fire behavior. Allison told me one story in which she knew a friend was in a cabin monitoring a fire in the valley, but the valley was so smoke-y that neither of them could really see; Allison couldn’t get eyes on the base of the fire, so she couldn’t describe the movement of the flames. She saw a huge plume of smoke rise above the low-lying smoke, so she knew the fire was active but she couldn’t quite see the direction or speed of the spread. Talk about a high-pressure job!

Allison at her lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

Allison at her lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

After our tour, I went back to the archives to uncover more about Sliderock Lookout. How did the Fort Missoula acquire it, for instance? And how the heck did they get it to Fort Missoula? I pulled out a file about an inch and a half thick, full of correspondence about the Sliderock Lookout. Boy, was this file an eye opener! Like so many other Fort Missoula visitors, I always took the lookout for granted—I thought it was cool, but I didn’t give much thought to the effort it took to erect it.

Sliderock Lookout was designed by Clyde Fickes, a Montana-based Forest Ranger whose career with the USFS spanned 37 years and covered the most formative years of the service, beginning in 1907 under Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. In 1972, Fickes wrote a book about his experiences, which range from fighting fire during heavy fire seasons; hunting elk poachers in the frigid winter of 1916-1917; repeatedly getting mistaken for a German spy while counting agricultural livestock for a census done in 1917 (“another boondoggle generated by war hysteria,” he calls it); surviving the year of the yellow jackets (“There were millions of them. Men were stung on the lips and face while trying to eat—bite into a slice of bread and there would be a dozen yellow jackets trying to beat you to it.”); and many, many more. In 1927, he was moved from the Nezperce Forest to Sandpoint, Idaho, where he came up with the design of the 12’ x 12’ pop-up lookout, lookouts that were constructed of various parts and then packed up to the lookout sites as kits, where they could be easily reconstructed. Here’s how he describes the process:

“Each individual piece was shown and numbered on the plans. Detailed instructions accompanied the plans as to the procedure to be followed in erecting the building. Millwork, such as window sash and door, were all standard millwork which could be purchased in any lumberyard along with the hardware. No item needed special fabrication. Then it was decided to build a sample to prove out the plans. At a lumberyard in Missoula, I made arrangements to purchase the materials, and for a place to cut the material. I hired two carpenters to do the cutting, and I did some of the work myself. The bundled material was hauled down to the Lolo Forest and packed up to the top of Mt. Baldy, a lookout point on the Superior Ranger Distrcit. Then Joe Halm and I went up to the Lookout and put the building together, using only a hammer, screwdriver, and carpenter’s level. The total cost of less than $400.”

This is what Sliderock Lookout looked like before Clyde Fickes came on the scene (ca. 1921).

This is what Sliderock Lookout looked like before Clyde Fickes came on the scene (ca. 1921).

The following year, Fickes and his family moved to Missoula. That year, the 12’ x 12’ standard readicut lookout became a 14’ x 14’ readicut lookout: “…there was a lot of discussion of the ways and means to improve fire discovery, which involved keeping the lookouts comfortable and, by all means, on top of the lookout point… Why not build a 14’ x 14’ house where the lookout would be seeing all the time?” And thus we arrived at the design for the Sliderock Lookout, which was likely packed in using mules and then put together by the lookout himself or Civilian Conservation Corps members. If you want to check out Fickes’ autobiographical account of the USFS, do it here:

So now we know how the lookout was originally constructed, but how was it moved from its location in Clinton, Montana, at an elevation of 7,820, with limited four-wheel drive vehicle access, to Fort Missoula? Judging by the correspondence at Fort Missoula alone, it was quite a process. Members of the Society of American Foresters headed up a task force in association with the Friends of Fort Missoula to acquire the abandoned lookout—which meant dealing not only with the physical challenges of transporting such a structure, but also convincing the National Register of Historic Places that it was a good move to do so. In a letter to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, sent in August of 1983, Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels explains why transporting Sliderock Lookout to Fort Missoula was the best viable option: “Its use as a permanent exhibit and interpretative structure will ensure long term maintenance. Also, it will be readily accessible to a much greater number of the general public.” Another document points out that the deteriorating lookout at Sliderock Mountain was a potential hazard and even a liability for the Forest Service if left on the mountain, since it was accessible by vehicle and sat atop a 45’ wooden tower.

Transporting the Sliderock Lookout floor in September 1983

Transporting the Sliderock Lookout floor in September 1983

Ideally, the SAF task force wanted to move the entire structure intact using a heavy-lift helicopter, but that proved impossible when there was no available helicopter. Even if there had been, “The records indicated the total weight of the items packed in was slightly more than the helicopter could lift” anyway (The Montana Champion, Dec. 1983). The next option was to remove the lookout from Sliderock Mountain using a heavy-duty crane and 2-ton trucks for transport, taking one piece at a time. Windows, shutters, and furniture came out first. Then the roof came off on September 17, 1983, followed by the walls, the cabin floor, the catwalk, and the support beams. Of course, following all of that effort on the mountain, the entire lookout had to be reconstructed back at the Fort. It took until July 4, 1985 until the finishing touches were added and it was finally ready for the public!

If you want to learn more about the fascinating world of lookouts and forest fires, check out the FFLA’s Conference in Darby at Anyone curious about lookouts is invited to attend!

And of course, come on by Fort Missoula to check out Sliderock Lookout and the Miller Guard Cabin next door!

Sliderock Lookout before it was removed from its previous post on Sliderock Mountain.

Sliderock Lookout before it was removed from its previous post on Sliderock Mountain.

Touring the Smokejumper Base Today!

It’s mid June and the Smokejumper Base is bustling with preparatory activity.  I popped over there for a tour this morning and saw men at sewing machines stitching together equipment for the jumps, others airing out used parachutes—checking them for damage—and one smokejumper saying goodbye to his wife and baby daughter before heading down to Arizona, where fire season is already underway.  Over the course of this week alone, there have been tourists from Germany, France, Australia, and Bhutan, and then of course some of our fellow states—Wyoming, New Jersey, California, for instance.  There’s really never a dull moment at the base.  It’s like watching history in action, and every time I passed a smokejumper it felt a little bit like seeing Mickey Mouse when I went to Disneyworld as a kid, except that these guys (and girls—10% of the approximately 400 smokejumpers working in the US are women!) are national heroes and tremendous athletes.  They understand the way that fire moves in a way that I never could—sounds kind of like magic.  So, let’s dive into the smokejumper base tour and take another look at Fort Missoula’s own historic fire lookout!

Before the tour began, I spent a few minutes poking around the mock lookout in the Visitors’ Center.  It was intimate—a simple bed, a small wood stove, narrow tables to store food and books, glass windows circling the entire room—and it felt familiar, probably because it reminds me of my friend Allison’s lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  I’ve never seen the lookout where she spent the last four summers (it’s a 30 mile hike just to get there, and then of course a 30 mile hike to get out again), but the pictures are spectacular and I’ve heard stories about it.  Talk about beautiful isolation!  I know that she used to mark the windows with dry erase markers during thunderstorms, so that she could track the lightning.  That way, she would know where to watch for smoke and then she’d track the smoke on the Osborn, a circular map in the center of every lookout with a device that enables the lookout to locate the fire and call it in using exact location markers.  Here’s a picture of her lookout – pretty spectacular!

Bob Marshall Lookout (Allison's)

Once Fire Management decides to fight a wild land fire and the Jump Base gets the phone call, the smokejumpers have a total of ten minutes to stop whatever it is they’re doing, get to the Ready Room, throw on all of their gear and board the plane before it takes off.  If you think that seems like plenty of time, you might want to check out Manny, the Smokejumper manikin at the Visitors’ Center.  He’s dressed in full jump gear—including a Kevlar suit, which is fire-proof and puncture-proof (in case Manny lands in a thicket of branches), a helmet with a cage over his face, a parachute, a back-up parachute, climbing spurs for climbing trees, 250 yards of rope, an emergency fire resistant shelter and a pack of other supplies.  The Kevlar suits are just used for the jump; once on the ground, the smokejumpers wear nomex shirts and pants—fire resistant, but not fireproof.  Even the fire shelters, developed by scientists, are not perfectly fireproof and they can’t save every life.  The tents—made of aluminum foil and fiberglass—can withstand 500° of radial heat, but they can’t withstand direct flames.  Caylin, our tour guide, pointed out that the Granite Mountain Hot Shots who died in Arizona last year had deployed the shelters as a last ditch safety measure, but that the fire was burning at 2000°.

After our preliminary introduction, we moved on into the Manufacturing Room, where the Smokejumpers make their own Kevlar suits (one suit might take about a week to finish) and other gear.  Smokejumping is an amalgamation of skills and some of them are more humble than you’d imagine!  Garrett, for instance, was sewing radio holsters together, but he’s also jumped in over 70 fires since he started at the base in 2001.  I guess it’s not all guts and glory!

Parachute Loft (Smokejumper Base)

The Parachute Loft

In the next room, the Parachute Tower, two smokejumpers were laying out a used parachute to carefully check for any damages.  Generally, they will hang the parachutes from the ceiling to allow them to dry and to let any debris fall out.  If there are damages to a parachute, it will be sent to the next room—the Parachute Loft—for repairs.  The parachute loft was the busiest room today, filled with long tables for packing the ‘chutes.  Smokejumpers generally pack their own parachutes, but in order to do so, they have to first successfully pack 20 parachutes and 20 back-up parachutes, which are inspected by a master rigger.  To achieve master rigger status, they have to back another 100 parachutes.  That’s a lot of hours!  Here’s a fun holdover from history: each parachute is re-packed every 180 days as a safety measure.  The parachutes, now nylon, were once made of silk, so the smokejumpers had to periodically check them for moth holes as well as any tears that developed along the folds.  Probably my favorite part of the Parachute Loft, though, was the taxidermy.  Caylin told us that the wives of the smokejumpers didn’t want the taxidermy at home, so the guys stored it in the loft.  She admitted that the story might be apocryphal, so be warned before you spread that rumor!

The last stop on our tour was the Ready Room, which basically looks like a locker room but instead of football helmets and shoulder pads, you’ve got intense fire resistant boots, Kevlar suits, parachutes, enough dry food for two to three days, and other equipment (including a helmet that may or may not function like a football helmet).  Instead of stickers that say “Go Griz!” you’ve got bumper stickers that say “I LOVE SPAM,” an enormous thank you card from an elementary school, and a flyer for specially priced massages for smokejumpers.  Instead of a tunnel to the turf, the EXIT leads to the tarmac, where one of three planes would be waiting to take the smokejumpers into the fire.  Sometimes, the planes are there for visitors to see, but today they were in the hangar….bummer!

The Ready Room

The Ready Room

After taking off from the Smokejumping Base (in my car, sadly, not the Sherpa, or the Twin Otter, or even the slower DC-3 plane used to carry smokejumpers from the base) I headed back to Fort Missoula to check out the lookout on the grounds here.  The Sliderock Lookout was built in 1933—which seems to be kind of the heyday of lookout construction—and was subsequently moved from Lolo National Forest in 1983.  Visitors are welcome to walk up the rickety stairs and take a look inside, where you can see the Osborn situated prominently in the middle of the room.  On a high shelf, there are cans of food, including SPAM.  It seems like SPAM is a pretty long tradition in the Forest Service.  In fact, every year there is a competition among the rookies at the base to see who can develop the best SPAM-based recipe.  I don’t know about you, but I would definitely lose that one.  Apparently a woman won with SPAM sushi last year!

Miller Creek Guard Cabin (built circa 1910) is just next to the lookout and it contains a brief history of the Forest Service Lookouts and early photographs owned by the USDA.  The lookout system developed as a reaction to the devastating fire of 1910 and by the 1920s, the familiar one-room lookouts were popping up across the western United States.  A highlight, for me, was recognizing the St. Mary lookout cabin from an old black and white photo!  Here’s a picture I took of that cabin last summer (with the windows boarded up), and here’s the one from the 1960′s:

St. Mary's Peak Lookout (2013)St. Mary's Peak Lookout (1960's)

I hope you enjoyed this little synopsis of the Smokejumper Base tour!  Even more importantly, I hope you can make it out to Fort Missoula and to the base to check out the history and the living history of smokejumping for yourself.  Stay tuned to find out what it’s like to man a lookout today and to explore some of our archival material on the Great Fire of 1910!

Sliderock Lookout at Fort Missoula (1931)

Sliderock Lookout at Fort Missoula


Inaugurating the Smokejumper Base, 1954

Summer is here and that means the start of fire season.  Missoula saw epic snowfall this year, which I hope means that the forest fires will be pretty moderate (is nonexistent asking too much?).  Friends who work for the forest service, however, like the adrenaline rush of fire season and of course, there are other perks, aside from employment—wiping out beetle kill, for instance, and clearing the way for new forest growth.  All in all, though, I’ll admit I don’t know that much about fighting forest fires and thus I decided to kick off this summer by visiting the Smoke Jumper Center, where my friend Caylin works as a tour guide.

A Smokejumper and his Plane, Fort Missoula Photo

Smokejumper and Plane, Ft Missoula Photo

Before heading out there, I got my hands dirty in the Fort Missoula archives.  Not literally—dirty hands are antithetical to archival material—but I like going into new experiences with some kind of grounding.  I always find that the more I know about something, the more curious I am to uncover all of its deepest, darkest secrets.

So…to the archives!

Fort Missoula houses one of the original programs distributed to guests on the day the Smokejumper Base was dedicated, September 22, 1954.  Do the math—that makes this year the diamond anniversary of the base, or the “Aerial Fire Depot”!  Construction began in the fall of 1952, but Missoula was a center for smokejumping even before Congress authorized the $700,000 for a new base.  In fact, the previous year saw the release of “Red Skies of Montana,” a 20th Century Fox movie about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, a fire that killed 12 smokejumpers.  Filmed in Missoula, the movie featured real smokejumpers as extras.


The dedication program itself is pretty basic: a single sheet of paper folded in half, printed on both sides.  On the front of the leaflet, we’re presented with a sketch of an aerial view of the base—very simple geometric buildings with flat roofs, one crowned by what looks like a wide smokestack but what is in fact the parachute tower, all surrounded by fifteen or so scattered trees.  The lower half of the page gives the basic information, everything you might expect on a title page:






SEPTEMBER 22, 1954

Cool!  Already, I’ve learned that the USFS is part of the Department of Agriculture.  The bifolium opens up to a map of the grounds drawn horizontally across the entire leaf.  To the west, there are three major buildings—the warehouse, the dormitory, and the parachute loft—and the “fire truck ambulance wrecker.”  There’s an announcer platform, a refreshment stand, restrooms and even a first aid tent put up for the enormous crowd of 30,000 spectators.  To the east, at the end of the drive into the base, there is the President’s Stand.

Which leads me to perhaps the most exciting part of the program.  President Eisenhower actually flew in to the Smokejumper Base to give the dedication address!   September 22, 1954, in fact, was so carefully scripted that the program specifies the arrival of the Presidential plane at 5:45 pm and the departure of the plane at 6:40 pm.  During his hour on the ground, Eisenhower became the first and only President to be inducted as an honorary smokejumper, which seems appropriate as the USFS expanded significantly under his leadership.

Of course, there were other many things going on that day.  Tours were conducted in the afternoon, followed by an air show and a 4:00 presentation of “smokejumpers in action” (both of which were probably much cooler than the speech, no offense Ike).  Here’s a photo of the schedule:

Smokejumper Base Dedication, 1954

This all left me with one question: what else was Eisenhower doing on September 22, 1954?  I get it—the President is pretty important—but Missoula seems like a far destination for a visit lasting less than an hour.  So, naturally, I looked up Eisenhower’s schedule on September 22 (which can be found at his Presidential Library or at UVA’s  What did I learn?  That it would be exhausting to be the President of the United States!  Here’s what he was up to:

Eisenhower September 22, 1954 Schedule 1Eisenhower September 22, 1954 Schedule 2

The following day, Eisenhower had an official breakfast at 7:50 am, after which he dedicated the McNary Dam in Oregon.

A couple more fun facts:

  • During its first summer in operation, the summer of 1955, the Missoula base supported a total of 126 jumps.
  • Smokejumping was invented in 1939.  That year might ring a bell for any movie buffs out there—it’s considered Hollywood’s greatest.  Gone with the Wind, the Wizard of Oz, Of Mice and Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—those were just a few of the titles up for Best Picture.
  • Today, there are nine USFS bases scattered across the west.  Missoula is host to the largest, with about 70 smokejumpers working here now.

The Fort contains a huge amount of information on fighting fire in and around Missoula, including a corner of the current exhibition, Growing the Garden City, which details the earliest structural fire department (come check it out!).  And so I think I’ll dive into fire fighting for a while, soak up the history of Montana fires and allow you to do the same.  Stay tuned for a brief synopsis of my visit to the Smokejumper Center and a post about what it’s like to be a lookout!

It is fire season, after all.