Posts Tagged ‘Butte’

Greetings from Butte (and multiple airports)

June 14, 2009

Like you, summer is a time for the faculty to see new places and try new things. I spent the past week in Butte, Montana, for the annual meeting of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. The first thing I learned is that it is very hard to get to Butte, as there are only two flights into the airport each day. A rain delay in Philadelphia led to an 8.5 hour layover in Salt Lake City. I turns out the Mormons know how to do tourism. They run a free shuttle from the airport to Temple Square where you can take a tour, visit the museum and two historic houses, listen to a concert, and get something to eat. Interestingly, although people were much shorter in the past, both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were quite tall, something pointed out to me on two separate occasions.

An unexpected visit to Salt Lake City


Butte itself, and southwestern Montana generally, are really fascinating places. If you take American Material Culture II next spring (or even if you don’t) you will hear lots about my trip.  Museum visits included Mai Wah (a former Chinese noodle parlor) and the Dumas brothel, not to mention the whole town of Nevada City, which was created much like our own Farmers’ Museum.  Just as importantly, the VAF plans tours of privately owned buildings and collections that aren’t normally open to the public.  This year these including all sort of buildings related to the mining of cooper and gold, as well as the residences and community buildings that supported the miners.  I even got to tour a new 3,000 sq. ft. house built inside a grain storage bin!

Butte landscape with headframe for taking people to and ore from the underground mines

Butte landscape with headframe for taking people to and ore from the underground mines

One of the really interesting things about this area is the relative blurring between present and past.  Mining was still going on in Butte through the 1980s, and the whole town suffers from environmental and human degradation as a result of it.  As people there think about preserving the material remains of their past, they are also trying to figure out how to live in the present and the role that heritage tourism may or may not play.  The keynote speaker at the VAF conference focused on the dangers of romanticizing the gritty history of Butte to make it more tolerable. In places like Virginia City, which hit its gold peak in the 1860s, on the other hand, it is hard to discern the real (authentic) from the created tourist environment.   Below is a picture of tourist cabins created by Charlie Bovey in the 1950s from military barracks he brought to Virginia City and decorated with false fronts painted with the names of real businesses that used to exist in the town.  Ironically, this village has now reached an age that it is historic in its own right!

Western town "Daylight Village" created by Charlie Bovey from army barracks for tourist housing in Virginia City