Sunday, July 18, 2021

A tale of two stories

I visited Bozeman twenty years ago. I had hired a fly fishing guide in West Yellowstone, 85 miles away. And since I landed in Bozeman I stayed over, had a delightful meal at the bar in a restaurant whose name I don’t remember. But the barkeep was from Boston like me.

Strolling Main Street I was taken by the bones of Bozeman’s downtown. Notably there was a first-class local camera store, a dying breed even then. It had an array of vintage cameras in the window. Sadly, it’s gone.

It was obvious that Bozeman was going to explode. In fact, I was so smitten by the place that when we were contemplating our move back west it was a leading candidate. It checked all the boxes on my handy-dandy spreadsheet except two, weather and art scene. It was as cold as northern New Hampshire and its art offerings even today tilt toward “d├ęcor.” But it had a real university, Montana State, which has 16,0 00 students today. Their presence gives the town a buzz that only a bona-fide college town has. It boasted an honest to God Main Street replete turn of the 20th century architecture with dollop of Art Deco. It was an outdoor adventure mecca. Now it suffers too much Hollywood and new money.

The train has left the station. Bozeman has joined the pantheon of Little Hollywoods of the Rockies. The three aces are Aspen, Jackson Hole and Telluride. In contrast to the Big Three, however, Bozeman is still a real working town. It gets my nod.

As the 90s were saying adios and we were looking west I prepared a chart of attributes that I felt were essential for a place to live. First on the list was university town. Yeah, I know Taos doesn’t have one. How the hell did we make that decision? On the other hand, you can’t swing a cat in Taos without hitting a PhD. Maybe that compensates a little.

As much as I foresaw Bozeman’s ascent, I couldn’t have predicted the magnitude of its growth and the income disparity that plagues the city and Gallatin County. Long term residents of the everyday variety, merchants, teachers, fireman and plumbers are being priced out. The median home price is 75% higher than the national median and median household income is 25% lower. Not sure that’s a sustainable spread. The onslaught of ricos has affected farming and ranching, too, as big operators like Ted Turner have scooped up vast swathes of prairie and mountainside leaving the little guy on the outside looking in.

While photographing in the postcard village of Spring Hill a woman in a gray pick-up stopped. Phyliss Huang rolled down the window and asked, “You okay? Do you have water?” I must have looked more desperate than normal. I answered that my wife painting at Wright’s Farm and that it was an easy walk back.

Wright's Farm, Springhill Community. The house on the right was the family home in A River Ran Through It.

The barn at Wright's Farm.

Almost immediately the conversation turned to the rising income disparity in the Gallatin Valley. In fact, every local I met got to that subject in the first two minutes. Phyliss said, “We’re essentially tenant farmers. We’ve been doing it since 1985.” She told me that she and her husband had just herded 5,000 head of cattle on the mountain. She said it had been almost impossible since they were at the mercy of the landowner who dictates how long the cattle can graze a particular pasture. The cows are “stressed out” because they have to move too soon.

Springhill School, the one room school where Ann Webster attended first through eighth grades. She said there were eight students.

A graveyard of old barns between Wright's Farm and the mountains.

Later at an art opening Peggy introduced me to Ann Webster who coincidentally owns the land that Phyliss and her husband use for their cattle. When I repeated what Phyliss had told me, Ann responded that as the landowner she had the right to require her “tenants” to move their cows if they're overgrazing a particular pasture. That was the case with Ms. Huang, and they were at odds about it. Further, the situation had been worsened by the severe drought. Less rain. Less grass and less time to graze a given pasture.

What are the odds that would have met a total of two people from the Springhill Community and they’re the lead players in this drama? Each, it seems, has a legitimate position. Imagine how many of these tales are untold in this time of generational drought.

At the foot of the Bridger Mountains is a wide spot in the road, Springhill Community. Settled in the late 1800s, it began as a timbering village. Now it’s home to sprawling ranches that reach high into the Bridger Wilderness. Ann Webster represents the fifth generation of Websters who cherish this land and continue to honor its rich history, shepherd it through uncertain times and protect it for her children and theirs.

Phyliss Huang chose to marry and raise her children in Springhill. Doubtlessly she and her husband love and cherish the prairie and mountains as much as Ann. She and Ron chose the life of ranching 5,000 head of Corriente cattle on land that isn’t theirs.


Blacks Crossing said...

The writing in today's blog is wonderful, despite the subject being the quasi-gentrification of Bozeman, and it suffering "too much Hollywood and new money." Love the fact that "you can't swing a cat in Taos without hitting a PhD" makes up for the fact that it is not a college town. There is something about learning and youth and all that accompanies the combination. Have you returned lately to Bozeman, or does what you saw as the inevitable twenty years ago keep you from returning? It will not be the same. Change is one of the givens in life, but you do have the photographs of the place during that specific time in its evolution. Thanks for sharing the story and images.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks, Daryl. This post was written in Bozeman Saturday and posted from Denver very late Sunday night. So, yes, we have been in Bozeman very recently. I'm still drawn to it on some levels and repelled on others. Suffice it to say, we are delighted to be back in 'the last best place.'