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Town At The Trail’s End

June 2024
5min read

John M. Bozeman of Georgia was twenty-five when he went to the hills of southwestern Montana in the gold rush of 1862 and failed to get rich. Convinced there must be more money in miners than in mining, he left the goldfield in 1863 to blaze a trail there and guide others along it. He laid out the Bozeman Trail starting in central Wyoming; the depredations of the Sioux along the way were so bad that it soon was known as the Bloody Bozeman, and the trail was abandoned by 1868. But before then Bozeman finally had an idea that stuck: In 1864 he founded a town in the valley just east of the gold mines to feed and otherwise serve and make money from the adventurers in the hills—and whoever later settled in the area.

I didn’t follow the route of the Bozeman Trail into town, as I would have had I driven in on I-90; I flew over Wyoming from Denver, and just looking out the window of the plane, I was startled by how the bleached midsummer emptiness of Wyoming’s central plain and Bighorn and Absaroka mountain ranges gives way to the green of Montana’s Gallatin Valley, a broad river bottom watered by high peaks on every side. The airport, eight miles from town, lies beside deep green alfalfa fields and broad cow pastures.

The road into town parallels the route of the Northern Pacific, which cut through the valley in the 1880s, sprinkling villages along its path. Enter Bozeman from any direction, and you first drive down a commercial strip of malls and motels, but when you reach downtown, you discover a prosperous Main Street lined with some of the state’s earliest permanent buildings. Bozeman is a healthy county seat and college town—home of Montana State University—with twenty-five thousand residents, but despite its business as a gateway to nearby Yellowstone National Park, it is not known as a tourist destination. And no one has taken the kind of notice of Main Street that would ruin it.

The sunny, wide street is lined on both sides with two-story brick and terra-cotta buildings, the earliest from 1872, when the town was eight years old, and quite a few from the 1880s, when most of the buildings within many hundreds of miles were made of logs. I began acquainting myself with Bozeman by shopping. Powder Horn Sporting Goods has its walls deep in guns and fishing rods and waders, and a single display holding footballs and baseballs and bats. I dipped into McCracken’s Family and Western Store and bought jeans; I admired the pastel-colored marquee of one of three movie theaters that still thrive downtown, and I poked into the compact Victorian building that held Leslie’s Hallmark Cards. Then I headed for the county jail.

The battlemented brick fortress of a jailhouse, a 1911 structure, has been converted into a home for the county’s Pioneer Museum, but it was never really made over, so in almost every corner you notice a gray, barred-in unreconstructed jail cell. I expected to see mainly artifacts of the old West. But instead the museum is chiefly given over to things like a quilt made for Mrs. Nelson Story in 1892, covered with stitched signatures and aphorisms (“Nothing is smaller than love of pleasure and love of gain”); the first Ford sold in the county, from 1911; about two dozen displays detailing specific families’ histories; an old man’s collection of two hundred tobacco tags and another’s two hundred varieties of barbed wire; a plaque commemorating Montana’s 1964 Centennial Train (“ CERTAINLY ONE OF THE MOST UNIQUE AND POWERFUL PROMOTIONAL STUNTS BY ANY STATE IN THE CENTURY ”). A photograph caption recounted one of Bozeman’s most violent episodes: a 1919 shoot-out between local peace-keepers and a “demented farm hand and rabid member of the I.W.W.” The fellow shot three men and then was cornered in a granary by townspeople and dynamited.

I began to see the picture that would fill in over the next few days: Bozeman had made itself the region’s center of orderly civilization. It had grown from a dozen log cabins in 1867 to a large square-platted town twenty-five years later with seven churches, three banks, a 136-room hotel, a thousand-seat opera house, and a college about to be built.

With a self-guided historictour map of Bozeman in hand, I left the museum. The superbly informative map was drawn up in 1983 and is out of print but still available both at the Pioneer Museum and at the Museum of the Rockies (an institution on the state university campus devoted mostly to dinosaurs). I went back along Main Street to learn about the buildings I had been admiring there and discovered that quite a few of them were the work of a local architect named Fred Willson, the son of a Union general who had come West after the Civil War. Willson gave Main Street, among other buildings, its Art Deco county courthouse, its ebullient 1920s Ellen Theatre, a Palladian-fronted Willson Middle School, the stately seven-story Baxter Hotel, the Holy Rosary convent, and that jailhouse I had just left. Main Street intersects Bozeman’s avenue of fine houses—Willson Avenue.

This, almost more than Main, seemed to be the heart of the town, a tree-lined boulevard of large yet cozy homes. Number 319, a cheerful Italianate/Classical brick building built in 1883, now serves as a fancy bed and breakfast; number 401, a snug cross-gabled house, was built the same year by the local pharmacist; 504 is the big frame house where Fred Willson himself grew up. The most impressive house was number 811, a brick, stone, and shingle mansion put up in 1910 for T. Byron Story.

T. Byron was the son of Nelson Story, a fabled figure in town who in 1866 drove the first herd of longhorn cattle from Texas to Montana, ending up in the valley near Bozeman. Story is the closest historical counterpart to Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, the ex-Texas Rangers who make the first cattle drive to Montana in Lonesome Dove , but whereas those two heroes of fiction and miniseries were cowboy loners wandering ever farther to avoid the onrush of civilization, the real Story became not only a major cattle and horse rancher but also a real estate baron, banker, merchant, foundry owner, government contractor, and ultimately philanthropist. He donated the money that bought the land for the college.

His son Byron lived in the mansion at number 811 for only a dozen years before selling it to a college fraternity in 1922. The fraternity still inhabits the house, and on the warm August day when I visited, two shirtless men were up on scaffolding in front of it, preparing to install a new roof. People were out at number 415 too, working on their lovely brick Georgian Revival house, which the brochure says was designed by Fred Willson in 1912 for the doctor who ran the Bozeman Sanitarium. Passing by a pink house at 521, I read that it was the home of Byron Story’s son Malcolm. In fact, he still lives there. The grandson of the man who made the first drive of Texas longhorns across the prairie and through the mountains to Montana still lives in the town that lay at the end of the trail. This placid place is the dream of pioneers.

Towns like this were the real goal of all our national westering, and Bozeman grew up so thoroughly so fast and so recently you can almost feel it.

Over the next few days I drove through golden hills to Virginia City, a ghost mining town sixty-five miles away that has become one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. I went up to Three Forks, at the far end of the valley, where Lewis and Clark discovered the headwaters of the Missouri River, and I saw the Madison Buffalo Jump, a butte where for millennia Indians herded bison over the cliff to slaughter. Then I headed south, irresistibly, into Yellowstone. And I kept thinking, if those places are mementos of an old West of cowboys and Indians and miners and trappers and rugged nature, then so is Bozeman, just as essentially. Bozeman is what most of the adventure was actually about. The real goal of all our national westering, after all, was tree-lined streets with handsome houses and prosperous families and community values and good public schools and libraries. Nobody ever had any doubt of that in Bozeman. They civilized the frontier there so thoroughly so fast and so recently that you can almost feel it.

John Bozeman didn’t live to feel it. In 1867, just three years after he founded his town, he went off to sell flour to a fort on the Bighorn River and was killed by Indians along the way. That’s the official history. More likely, according to one of the state’s leading historians, he was murdered by the man he was traveling with, whom he had cuckolded and who made up the massacre as an alibi. Already, it seems, the town’s gravest concerns were domestic ones.

—Frederick Allen


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