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Taking another look at Havre


All across the country this week, tourist sites will be getting the word out to make sure people keep grabbing their guidebooks and cameras, donning goofy clothes, and heading out to exotic places.

It's National Tourism Week, an opportunity for reflection in a community that's often humorously self-deprecating. There's the climate. The bugs. The snakes. And honest-to-goodness tumbleweeds blowing down the road.

That good-natured grumbling is expected by people who live in a place long enough to love it. They're not tourists, after all. Or are they? Maybe even the locals are tourists, too, in a more cosmic way, here for one flickering instant, on a whirlwind tour, expected to really see something while the kids are screaming in the back.

But surely the locals see the place more clearly than the tourist who's just driving through. Don't they? Or maybe when you're in a place long enough you forget how to see it - really see it. Maybe the purple doesn't crawl into the coulees at sunset anymore, or the landscape ceases to reflect your inner qualities - by turns bleak or vast.

Even a change of light can bring, well, illumination. Just ask John Brumley, the veteran archaeologist who discovered the Wahkpa Chu'gn buffalo jump one fall morning when he was 15. He was hunting rabbits on the Milk River 40 years ago when light came over the hill and brought his eye to a white object, a stone knife, as it turned out.

Or ask his wife, Anna, who points out a petroglyph of a buffalo hoof pecked into the stone. "If the sun hits it just right, you can really see the carving," she says.

Anna Brumley guides tours of the 2,000-year-old site, tucked inconspicuously behind the Holiday Village Shopping Center. She'll even go out in January if someone's interested.

"This is Havre's hidden little treasure down here," Anna Brumley says, looking out over the water of the bird reserve beneath the hill and the Milk River winding beside it. It's also the most studied buffalo jump in the state of Montana.

"This is real history," she says.

Inside one of the digging houses around the site, Brumley points into a pit at layers of exposed scapulas and femurs and jaw bones. The dirt in some places is permanently stained from the blood. Over 2,000 years, three different tribes drove the animals down the hill into a corral and killed them. The stench rose into the air and was carried away by the wind, and the blood leached into the ground. Dirt washed down the hillside and covered the bones, and then the animals came again: another layer. New blood watered the old bones. The cycle continued until about 600 years ago, when it fell into disuse. No one knows why. One last time the dirt washed down and sealed the bones in their dark, exhausted tangle.

For about two weeks every spring - just a blink of time in all that heavy history - the ground stirs and young color peeks up out of the hillside: purple, yellow, pink. The wildflowers open so timidly over the bones; up close, the miniature anatomy of their petals is strangely reminiscent of scapulas, femurs, jaw bones, rendered softly.

"Now's a really good time to be coming. All the wildflowers are blooming," Brumley says.

Of course, not everyone who comes to Havre is impressed by the same thing.

"I'm gonna tell you, this is the best tasting water I've ever had. My hair is so soft," said Houston resident Lisa Bullock between visiting the H. Earl Clack Museum and taking a tour of Havre Beneath the Streets. Bullock was in Havre for a few days to visit her son Joshua, 13, who attends Anchor Academy for Boys. She raved about the meat in Havre, and was perhaps the first person in Havre's history to complement the weather. "We hadn't seen snow in 30 years," she said.

Joshua's father, Eddie Davidson, was also on the tour, visiting from Alice, Texas. "How come there are so many casinos in town?" he queried a local newspaper reporter, who could shed no light on this curiosity.

"I have to tell ya, boys and girls, this was Sin City of the West," says Havre Beneath the Streets tour guide Joy Hall, who peppers her tours with local lore gathered from nearly 50 years of living in Havre.

On your tour you see the old opium den and the brothel and Boone's Pharmacy, among others. "Back there Mr. Boone also made suppositories," Hall says. You revisit lost Havre traditions like Hot Tamale Jim's tamales, once famous from Seattle to St. Paul.

"We lost the recipe. Don't ask," Hall said, turning toward Boone's Pharmacy next-door. "Now for that suppository maker," she quips, and is already out the door.

Despite the fact that local people would probably appreciate some of these stories most, the percentage of visitors from Havre is small - about 20 percent of the approximately 9,000 who visit every year.

Kim Mangels, a Havre resident of 41 years, has visited the buffalo jump, but admits he hasn't been to Havre Beneath the Streets. "It's pretty bad when you've lived here most of your life," he admits.

Mangels isn't alone, though.

"A lot of people get company and they send them here," said Brumley, who said that only about 15 percent of the visitors to the jump last year were Havreites. "I don't quite understand why most people aren't interested in visiting it, because to me it is so unique and so fascinating."

"I've had a lot of them tell me they don't know it's there."

Or maybe it's just procrastination, surmises Christy Owens, the office manager at the Havre Railroad Museum. "They're always gonna get here (but don't) because it's here."

Maybe people just get used to all of it, suggests Lorraine Beck, a part-time employee at the railroad museum.

"We just take the whole town for granted," she says. "There's all kinds of things going on. You just have to know where to look."

Or maybe a lot of people go once and never go again.

Clack Museum manager Emily Mayer says she meets people who still think the museum is up at the fairgrounds. It moved from the Hill County Fairgrounds in 1998, and is visited now by an average of 2,500 people a year. That might sound like a lot, but Mayer said an assessment program six years ago found that nearly 200,000 vehicles drive down First Street on their way to and from Glacier National Park. What's needed, she says, are "some innovative things to pull them off the road."

The museum's register reveals that in the last three weeks it has drawn visitors from as far away as Chugiuk, Alaska, and Herfordshire, England.

There are still the petrified dinosaur eggs, the walk-in re-creation of a barracks from nearby Fort Assinniboine, and relics from Havre's days as a rough-and-tumble cow town, among others.

But what appears to many to be a permanent set of attractions is in reality always changing, says Mayer, who also leads walking tours of the 36-block Havre historic district every Saturday in the summer.

"That's one of my objectives here is to keep the exhibits fresh so people come in just to see if there's anything new."

Later this month work from local artists will be displayed in the art gallery in the museum, and there are also plans for a new exhibit about wartime Havre through history. In the fall and winter Mayer hopes to begin rotating museum objects on display now with items still in storage.

At the buffalo jump there are plans to build a new replica of the corral structure used by Native Americans to gather the bison, and a state altlatl competition will be held there July 18-20.

A piece of lore dating back to Havre Beneath the Streets will even come to life this year when local legend Long George Francis - or at least his creation - takes to the streets again. His Great Northern Montana Stampede is the theme of this year's Festival Days celebration.

All these reasons may have an element of truth, but perhaps there is another reason: that when people live somewhere long enough or come back to it enough times, they find their own places there.

For a lot of people around here, that place is in the Bear Paws. Mayer heads the other direction, to Simpson, the site of an old family homestead, far beyond the point where the land swallows up all traces of Havre in the rear-view mirror.

"I like to call Simpson my favorite place on Earth," Mayer says. The map of county roads and old schoolhouses across the Hi-Line that hangs on her museum wall reveals a maze of little roads connecting isolated places - half tantalizing, half unsettling - that no matter how empty now, someone, somewhere remembers.

Helena resident John Deadmond, here on his annual visit, heads to Alkali Springs, in the Bear Paws just past Taylor Road. "It's just a real neat little place in the mountains," he says. "She's from here and hasn't had her umbilical cord cut yet," Deadmond says with a laugh, motioning to his wife, Havre native Janet Lucke Hinkle.

Most people, when asked, say they would show their out-of-town visitors the Bear Paws. Not Hinkle, though. "I would keep them from the Bear Paws," she says with a wry smile. "They might like it."

One friendly old-timer tells you he's been to Havre Beneath the Streets and even guided tours there, but he's got his own favorite places here, like Beaver Creek Park. "I just like sitting by the lakes - any of the lakes down there - just hanging out," he says, and pauses thoughtfully. "But I do like that buffalo jump too."

"How many places can you leave your house unlocked, your car unlocked, your garage unlocked? If you sit back and reflect, this is a great little town."

Maybe you're surprised when he introduces himself. Bob Rice, mayor of Havre. It might be surprising in most places, but not here.

Ericka Keeler, 24, may cook at The Lunch Box, but if she had out-of-town guests come, more sophisticated dining would be in order. "I'd probably take them to the mountains and have a picnic," she says. "There's just a special feeling I get when I'm out there.

A lot of people "take for granted the small town atmosphere and how friendly it can be. You won't find it in a city," Keeler says, and she should know, having lived in San Jose, Calif., Charleston, S.C., and Minneapolis.

"I've been to a lot of places, but I keep coming back here."


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