After leaving Big Hole National Battlefield, my brother and I were hungry and headed into the tiny town of Wisdom, Montana, to eat lunch. Throughout the tiny towns in the western U.S., I continue to be pleased that many of them uphold strict mask wearing expectations, and this is true in Wisdom. Wearing masks is wise.
Coming through the day before, however, I had stopped in one northern Idaho town to get gas, and I stopped for ibuprofen at a drugstore in a different Idaho town. No masks. On no one! Not even employees. When I finished pumping gas (while wearing gloves) and went into the mini-mart in my mask, the entire place stopped and stared at me. These were not aggressive stares, but gobsmacked curious rubbernecking. It felt like another world.
Anyway, we found a great place to eat in Wisdom, but first I ran across the street to take a snapshot of a cute place. After a delicious lunch at The Crossing Bar & Grill, we hit the road and headed south again.
Tanner started looking around and said something like, “There should be antelope…” And sure enough, there were. Lots of them. Usually at a distance and too hard for me to get a shot. There were so many of them that I did get a good one in the end.
Finally we hopped into the truck and continued down the road and soon found the parking lot for Bannack State Park. The visitor’s center occupies one of the battered old buildings. Entrance was free for Montanans, and the informational booklet was sold for $2. We didn’t have any cash on us, and the woman explained that she would be closing soon, so she told us to just take the booklet. (When we were done, hours later, we dropped an appropriate donation into a payment slot we found at the parking lot.)
In July 1862, John White and other miners found gold on a creek and named it Grasshopper Creek, unaware that Lewis & Clark had already named it Willard’s Creek. I like the new name better. By that Fall, 300 miners had arrived, and by Spring 1863 there was a population of 3,000. The town is named for the Indian tribe who lived there, called Bannock by the miners. This name could have derived from bannock, a Scottish word for “cake cooked over open fire,” and the Indians cooked a lot of camas root cakes. When the new post office submitted its name, Washington, D.C. misspelled it, leaving us with Bannack today. Bannack was the capital city of the Montana Territory in 1864-1865, after Governor Edgerton was appointed by Abraham Lincoln.
Today the remarkably well-preserved remains of the city are open for tourists to wander around and through. Sixty buildings remain from the original city, including one impressive brick building. Tanner and I walked through them for hours, fascinated and intrigued over and over.
Some of the best of Wild West stories can be found in Bannack’s history. For a long time, the town had no place of worship and relied on traveling ministers. One of these, William Wesley Van Orsdel (called affectionately Brother Van), arrived in town to find all the saloons and gambling houses open on a Sunday. He stepped into one an announced that he was a minister. The bartender whistled for silence and said he had one hour. Brother Van had a marvelous voice and not only shared the Word of God, but also sang. The crowd was hungry for entertainment, and begged him for more. They got a solid dose of religion that day.
In general, the town was famous for its lawlessness, and some great stories were found written and posted on the walls of the Saloon we walked into. At one point in Bannack’s history, Henry Plummer showed up in town and was promptly elected Sheriff by locals hoping for law and order. It didn’t take too long before many suspected that Plummer was actually the leader of a gang of road agents who called themselves The Innocents. Subtle. The ambitious, well-connected Sheriff may have been responsible for hundreds of deaths. Finally, townspeople here and in nearby Virginia City formed their own group called the Montana Vigilantes, and began going after known outlaws. They put up posters including the numbers: 3-7-77. There is wild speculation about what the numbers meant, and the information booklet suggests some thought they were measurements for a grave. The Vigilantes included many Freemasons, and 7 is an important number to Freemasons, so that could be related. Montana State Patrolmen wear the insignia 3-7-77 today.
Also inside the saloon we found an old barber’s chair with strict instructions not to touch it. Tanner reminded me of my COVID hair (six months sans haircut), and I realized I needed to sit in that chair, rules or no rules. Apparently lawlessness in Bannack continues to this day.
During World War II, non-essential mining was banned, and that was a decisive blow to an already-struggling town of Bannack. Though it continued to survive a few more years after the war, it never came to life again. Now it is a park and survives on state funding and groups like the Bannack Association to remain open and safe for visitors.