A community is only as strong as its people and their stories.
BY JESSIANNE CASTLE
It must have been a cold and dark night in the late 1800s when Martha Jane Canary stepped into the Marysville opera house, nestled in the mountains of central Montana. She was en route to her mother’s house in Blackfoot City, on the other side of the Continental Divide from Marysville, and she didn’t want to walk.
Boasting a reputation for the daredevil ways that would give her the nickname Calamity Jane, the tall, blue-eyed brunette stepped onto the opera stage. Drawing both guns, she incited such commotion that she was promptly placed in the local jail for the night, saving her from walking home to her mother’s in the dark.
“She was up there [in Marysville] quite often,” said 85-year-old Earl Fred as his blue eyes gleamed and a small smile spread across his face, warm from telling stories of the past.
I was seated next to Fred in his Helena workshop, where he spends his time crafting beautiful works of art using a technique known as intarsia, which features dozens of pieces of naturally colored, inlayed wood. A former 40-year resident of Marysville and the author of Marysville, Montana: Its History and Its People, Fred came highly recommended by the Lewis and Clark County Preservation Office and was first on my list during my quest to explore the story of Marysville, Montana.
At its peak, Marysville was a hub for all the smaller mining locales, with two railroad lines, 26 bars, at least seven hotels and a brewery.
Back at Mountain Outlaw headquarters in Big Sky weeks before, I’d hit Marysville with a dart after being blindfolded, spun around and told to take aim. It was to be the third installment of this magazine’s dart-toss series. Miraculously, I hit the map.
Marysville is an old mining town, and like so many other small villes in Big Sky Country, it embodies the boom-and- bust cycle of the Gold Rush days. Silver and gold were found embedded in the mountains northwest of Helena, along small streams that converge to form Prickly Pear and Little Prickly Pear creeks. It’s said that during the last decades of the 19th century, the Drumlummon mine became one of Montana’s richest gold mines, and the district produced an estimated $31 million, of which $15 million is credited to the Drumlummon.
At its peak, Marysville was a hub for all the smaller mining locales, with two railroad lines, 26 bars, at least seven hotels and a brewery. Fred estimates 5,500 people called the town home, with 10,000 living in the greater area, but beginning in the ’20s it was thought that the gold had run out, and those seeking a fortune moved on to greener pastures——or richer mountains.
Mining activity continued in fits and starts well beyond the 1920s, though it ceased in 2013 due to the plummeting price of gold. Today, approximately 72 people make up the small community and many houses have been torn down for their reclaimed, rustic wood.
As much as the mines and their riches attracted people to Marysville, those very individuals created the Marysville of today.
Polish, Swedish, Italian and Chinese immigrants flocked to the mountains around Marysville. Fred’s grandfather and his brothers were among those who came to get rich, working on a wage of $2.50 an hour. “It’s pretty hard to get rich on that,” Fred said. “They didn’t make any money and they were all in the same boat.”
While the outlying mining encampments attracted men, the city of Marysville, with its grandiose train trestle and rail line, three newspapers and bustling business center, attracted families. Marysville was named for its first female resident, Mary Ralston, who Fred says donated much of her time to helping others within the community.
As a young boy, Earl Fred visited the mines with his father, who worked as a muleskinner and was responsible for handling the mules that hauled ore within the mines. With carbide lamps on their helmets, they traveled through a tunnel in the mine, and Fred experienced the dirty, wet and dark environment. But after workdays in the mine, he recognized the town had its upsides, too.
“Marysville was a lot of fun growing up in. It really was,” mused Fred, who moved with his family to Marysville at the ripe age of 3 in 1936 and recalls how active the community was. He learned to ski beneath the power lines and had to hike back up before Great Divide Ski Area was developed in the 1940s just up the road. The kids loved sledding down a 5-mile run that went right through town and required hitchhiking to get back to the top.
The Marysville Miners baseball team was good; in 1899, Fred says they defeated every team they played throughout the Pacific Coast. John L. Sullivan came for a boxing expedition and the Ringling Brothers circus brought elephants and camels to town.
Fred laughed when he told the story of two of his friends who were hired to water the Ringlings’ animals while they were in town. “They decided to have some fun with the camel,” he said, regaling me with details of how they hitched the camel to their wagon and had it pull them all over Marysville.
Traditional transportation, however, was somewhat of a challenge when Fred was growing up. The 20 miles from Helena were littered with potholes and rough roads. “If you had a good socket set you’d be OK because you could tighten everything up when you got home,” he said, though he added that it also depended on the gas sold from the local candy store. “Usually you didn’t go very far because the gas was full of water.”
Known as the Pioneer Doctor, Babcock traveled the Rocky Mountain West at the turn of the 19th century, practicing in the mining towns around Marysville at a time when women doctors were unheard of.
Just a couple blocks from where the candy store still stands, the two-room schoolhouse opened its doors in 1883. A second story was built in 1891, making room for a three-year high school while allowing for growth in the other eight grades and bringing attendance up to 200 students.
I climbed several steps leading to the schoolhouse and, once inside, was met by an incredible array of exhibits. Tucked into nooks along the walls were photographs and relics that included the school’s original desk and teaching material, a whiskey barrel used to haul ore, and assay equipment for measuring the presence of gold. The Marysville Museum and Gallery opened in 2014 after renovations were made to the schoolhouse, and is maintained by members of the Marysville Pioneers Association.
Tammy Bridges, a volunteer at the museum and a 12-year, part-time resident who spends the rest of her time in the town of Birdseye 15 minutes away, walked me from exhibit to exhibit explaining how the Pioneers historical society has collected items for display over the years.
Grasping a photo taken in 1917, Bridges oriented me to existing buildings, new and old. “I’ve taken this out a zillion times,” she said, pointing out the old candy store, Cotton Club Bar, and Methodist and Catholic churches. She traced the path of the old railroad with her finger, stopping at the center of town where there once sat a massive turntable that spun the train engines around.
Bridges’ eyes lit up as she delved into stories of the past. To start, she told me of the extreme hardship, noise, filth and disease in the early days of Marysville.
“The suicide rates up here and the deaths; it was astronomical for the population size,” she said. “The smell in the town was horrific, I can’t even imagine it, because you’d throw all your waste out there [on the road]. There was no sewer.”
Dr. Mollie Babcock was one advocate who saw to the improvement of the filthy streets. Known as the Pioneer Doctor, Babcock traveled the Rocky Mountain West at the turn of the 19th century, practicing in the mining towns around Marysville at a time when women doctors were unheard of.
“Men and women weren’t even sure of going to a female doctor because, ‘How could they be smart enough to be a doctor?’” Bridges said. “That was their thought process back in the day. They found out though, when you’re hurting, you’ll see anybody. [Babcock] was groundbreaking for sure.”
Bridges has fallen in love with the area and while originally from Missoula, she hinted at finding her true roots in Marysville. That passion drives her to continue preservation work there.
“It’s so interesting to see how much we’ve grown. When I look at the medicine that they had, the care that they had, how they lived — the dirt floors, just the basic stuff — the things that they ate, the hardship that they had, I guess I have a better appreciation for what we do have,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to me to show people how hard it was. People can see where we come from.”
While the museum is open seasonally, the only local eatery, Marysville House, is open year-round. Executive Chef and General Manager Brian Hammerschmidt was opening the bar when I unlatched the door.
The interior of the Marysville House is one-part lodge, two-parts Western steakhouse, with skis displayed on the walls and the unmistakable smell of wood smoke lingering from generations of woodstove fires. The walls are carved over with names of past visitors, and Willie Nelson is just one who is said to have left his mark here.
Hammerschmidt welcomed me inside and offered a grand tour of the building, which, he told me, was actually built as a railroad station more than 100 years ago in a small town several miles down the road. “It was down in Silver City, but 40 years ago they moved it up here and turned it into a bar and restaurant,” he said. “There’s a lot of history up here.”
When the Marysville House first opened in 1975, and back when drunk driving laws were lax, Hammerschmidt says they averaged 250 dinners a night, with 40 seats inside and 40 outside. Now, and since Hammerschmidt began managing five years ago, their busiest night saw 178 meals.
“This place used to be really wild,” he said, directing my attention to a divot in the floor. At some point, someone had decided to burn out their Harley inside the restaurant next to the bar. “It’s not as crazy as it used to be,” he laughed. “We focus more on the food.”
The Marysville House is known for its steak and lobster and Hammerschmidt says they used to be the number one lobster seller in the state. A steaming bowl of sautéed cremini mushrooms he served me attested to his 25 years of culinary experience.
Hammerschmidt moved to Marysville 12 years ago, joining other friends from Missouri eager to enjoy the abundance of mountain activities. “It’s a great community,” he said. “Everyone’s friendly with each other.”
As I thought about his words, Bridges walked through the door accompanied by her friend Kathy Orsello. Earlier, Orsello had told me her dad worked as a Helena cop in the ’40s, and he was frequently called to come “clean out the bars” in Marysville. “It was pretty rough up here still,” she said, casting a glance across the quiet landscape now a mix of dilapidated homes, renovated buildings and a scattering of newly built structures.
Looking around the room in the Marysville House and seeing all the names carved into the walls, my mind was alive with the stories I’d heard. As Orsello and Bridges chattered in the background, I could picture the camel pulling the wagon down the street, and Calamity Jane drawing her guns, stage left. I could hear the din of the stamp mill crushing rocks across the way, and was reminded just how much individual stories — people’s lives — create the history of a town. As much as a place may attract people, it’s people that truly make the place.
Jessianne Castle is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Outlaw Partners and is based in Montana’s Shields Valley.