Curator's Corner Blog

Tag Archives: 20th century

On the way to Logan Pass...

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!



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.

The Modern Miracle of the Electric Toaster

Downton Abbey fans might remember a humorous moment early in this season, when Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, brings home an electric toaster. She plugs the contraption into a socket in her room and proceeds to happily burn her first piece of bread in the pursuit of toast.

Mrs. Hughes Toaster gif


Carson, the head butler, distrusts this electric toaster as much as he distrusted the telephone when it first came to Downton, but the electric toaster provided a convenience that was part of the modern era. A pamphlet in the collection of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula describes how one could make toast right at the breakfast table instead of standing over the stove — “Crisp hot toast made before your eyes. On the dining room table — or where there is an electric light outlet — just as you like it.”

This advertisement for the GE Radiant Toaster was printed sometime between 1908 and 1917, just as the first successful electric toasters were coming onto the market. Missoulians may have been as excited as Mrs. Hughes about trying these new contraptions, and after 1908, they had ready access to the electricity necessary to power the devices, too.

While electricity had been in Missoula since the late 19th century, it took the construction of the Milltown (formerly Clark) Dam in 1905-08 to provide the city with reliable power for its street cars, street lights and, of course, toasters.

The toasters in the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula’s collection date from the 1920s and 30s, when most urban homes had reliable power and many different companies were manufacturing toasters for home use.

Though the design has changed, the mechanism for toasting bread has remained remarkably consistent over the years. Electric current heats coils of metal wire, which turn your bread a toasty brown (while “not drying it hard as a bone,” as the Radiant Toaster ad boasted).

For most of the ‘teens and ’20s, electric toasters looked like this:

Place the bread in the little door, close, then toast until done. This is the Marion Giant Flipflop, called such because you “flipflopped” the bread once one side was toasted to get the other side done. These models don’t appear to have an on/off switch – you had to unplug the machine to turn it off – which must have made life more interesting!