By Tim Leeds
An effort to tie the culture and heritage of north-central Montana into the tourist industry is taking another step forward.
Hands of Harvest is holding a meeting in Havre on Sunday to plan a guide book listing at least 99 businesses on craft heritage tourist trails.
Sweetgrass Music of Chester, a record label that records the music of world-renowned pianist Philip Aaberg, is one of those businesses.
"I think it's going to be an absolutely wonderful resource," said Patty Aaberg, wife of the pianist and business manager of Sweetgrass Music. "I watch so many people cruise through on Highway 2. Hands of Harvest will serve not only to let people know what is here but will spur towns to take a look in the mirror."
Hands of Harvest was formed to organize and promote businesses in north-central Montana related to craftwork and the heritage of the area, including artists' studios, farms and ranches, bed and breakfasts, and events like rodeos and powwows.
Vicki Warp, who works at the University of Montana in Missoula, is chair of the steering committee for Hands of Harvest. Warp, a Havre High School graduate, said the list of 99 businesses in a brochure recently published by Hands of Harvest is gratifying.
"We were surprised because more and more people's names kept coming in," she said. "They're exactly who we were looking for, really."
The effort began after Becky Anderson, executive director of HandMade in America, made a presentation at a conference in Missoula in March 2002. The conference was funded by a grant the national organization called Partners in Tourism Share Your Heritage made to the Missoula Cultural Council.
Anderson returned last fall to a meeting in Fort Benton organized to discuss forming craft trails similar to those promoted in HandMade in America. She said she is using the Hands of Harvest group as an example for other communities she is talking to in Utah, Colorado and other states.
She said the work on Hands of Harvest shows what needs to be done to organize craft trails: People have to do the leg work to organize the trails, and communities have to work together across political boundaries.
"They did the very courageous thing of putting a region together because collectively everybody has more," she said.
HandMade in America started in 1993, forming tourism corridors to stimulate the economy in western North Carolina. Anderson said it has been very successful, and that organization has had to publish three editions of the guidebook, adding about 200 new locations each time.
"I never dreamed I was going to be in the publishing business," Anderson said.
A study completed about five years ago showed that the craft business contributed $122 million a year to the economy of the region. A 10-year study will be completed next year.
Warp said the meeting Sunday will be held in part to assemble photos of locations to use in the Hands of Harvest guidebook and to review text to go in the book. A Web site is also being designed.
People who want to join Hands of Harvest are encouraged to come to Sunday's meeting, she added. It will begin at 1 p.m. in the conference room of the Heritage Center.
"They can still get in the guidebook, and if not the guidebook then the Web site," she said.
The sites featured in Hands of Harvest are broken into five regional trails. One covers a triangular area from Great Falls to Wolf Creek to Augusta, another from Great Falls to Conrad to Bynum.
A third trail stretches from East Glacier to Shelby, south to Conrad, over to Dupuyer and back to Browning.
The last two trails run from Great Falls to Havre, and from Shelby to Dodson.
Tom Marinkovich, who operates Marinkovich Art near Box Elder with his wife, Tammy Marinkovich, thinks the guidebook could bring extra business to his studio, especially since it is on U.S. Highway 87.
"It just seemed like a good idea to have some more exposure for the things we create here," he said.
Marinkovich's art reflects the culture and diversity the craft trails look for. His art includes work with airbrushing, art made from deer antlers, jewelry, mosaics, pottery, bronze work, blown glass, paintings and beads.
The Sweetgrass Music site is also exactly what cultural tourism is about, Anderson said, adding that she loves Philip Aaberg's recordings.
"They did exactly what they should have, added their agri-heritage, too," she said.
Aaberg, a Chester native who graduated from Harvard University on a four-year Leonard Bernstein scholarship, returned home with his wife in July of 2002.
Patty Aaberg said the couple are about to open a second business in Chester, the Great Northern Bed and Breakfast, also listed in the Hands of Harvest brochure.
Their next project is building a recording studio that will connect the Aabergs' house and the bed and breakfast. Part of the studio will be housed in a grain bin, said Patty Aaberg, a native of central California. Once it's complete, Philip Aaberg will offer master-level piano classes, she said.
"So people can come and stay at the bed and breakfast, but we want to add to that niche so they can come and do a master's class," she said.
Aaberg said the presentation Anderson gave in Fort Benton last year was inspiring.
"It just really got everybody fired up to do this," she said.
Anderson said once HandMade in America got started, it attracted national media attention, including articles in USA Today and US News & World Report, and segments on "CBS Sunday Morning" and the Discovery Channel.
That has led to her talking to communities around the country about craft heritage trails and small town revitalization, Anderson added.
"When we started HandMade we never dreamed it would spark the national interest it has," she said.
She said she thinks Hands of Harvest could attract the same kind of attention, certainly in regional papers and magazines covering the West.
"I think it would be fun to do something to attract the national media," she said, adding that it also would be fun to say, "So you think Montana is just wheatfields and cattle? Uh-uh, think again."