Photo by Micah Robin
Bozeman’s working-class neighborhood is becoming a cultural haven, balancing rich history with creative new growth.
BY MIRA BRODY
Walking through Bozeman, Montana’s northeast neighborhood, you’ll first notice its peculiarities. There’s a log cabin, a purple bungalow, a metal seagull weathervane pointed toward the Bridger Mountains to the north.
As the city’s surrounding subdivisions sprawl at breakneck speed, the historically working-class neighborhood, nestled between the Bridger Foothills and downtown proper, has become a unique cultural safe haven. The community takes a hands-on approach to growth that honors history and supports small, creative endeavors. The residents take pride in their zesty exteriors, overgrown alleyways and roaming chickens, and those quirks are why they call this railroad-side enclave home.
The air is often punctuated by a train horn and the metal screech of wheels on rails, the melodic clang of the crossing signs lowering, red lights flashing. The unsubtly of the train’s presence is fitting; it plays a vital role in the area’s history.
A WORKING-CLASS HOME
In 1882, the Northern Pacific Railroad reached a deal with Bozeman rancher Nelson Story to lay rail line through his property on the northeastern edge of town. This line was integral to Bozeman’s agricultural future—indeed, by 1885, Story Mill was known as the largest flour mill in Montana with a nearly 1-million-bale capacity, exporting to much of the state. It was also the reason many business owners settled there, including brewer Julius Lehrkind who arrived in 1895.
A German immigrant who didn’t speak English, Lehrkind came to America a stowaway. He learned the trade of brewing and made a name for himself and his family, operating the town’s largest building for decades and earning it the moniker, the Brewery District.
Between the mill and brewery, the northeast side employed and housed the highest population of blue- collar workers in the region.
Today, the spur line and adjacent station sit quiet, the towering Story Mill grain silos empty and the remaining brewery wall demolished after it was deemed unsalvageable. Around them remain relics of the past—the Lehrkind Mansion, brick and evergreen spires in a grove of pine; Misco Mill, yellow, peeling paint and aslant silhouette; the abandoned station, a scrawl of colorful graffiti on its boarded windows—now coexisting with a bounty of new features, parks and trails, businesses and art galleries in symbiotic harmony.
“It’s got kind of an edgy vibe to it that keeps it a little bit away from the mainstream Western art that is typically found in Bozeman,” said Kelley Sullivan, owner of Rapscallion Gallery on East Cottonwood Street. “That kind of grit that this neighborhood has lends itself to the contemporary style [of art].”
Sullivan has called the neighborhood her business’s home for a year and a half, but her parents met and lived there during the early years of their relationship. Back then, she says, people referred to it as the “wrong side of the tracks” when the disparities between the working-class cottages and the four-story colonials across Main Street were more apparent. Since then, the neighborhood has undergone stages of revitalization, both in the form of large-scale development projects and individual homeowner renovations, but it’s managed to maintain its individuality.
“It has changed the entire vibe of this side of town while maintaining that sort of funkiness,” Sullivan said. “I do like that even though people are coming in and are putting money into things, you can see that they’re still keeping that gritty architectural aspect of it.”
The iterations through the years, however, have kept business and homeowners in mind. On any given morning, rain or shine, passersby will notice a line snaking its way down North Wallace Avenue, leading to the doors of Wild Crumb Bakery. The neighborhood has fostered the success of many small businesses; co-owner Caroline Schweitzer, who opened the bakery eight years ago alongside her sister Lauren Heemstra, says she chose this side because of the community feel and area’s support of local ownership.
“Wild Crumb was embraced really well over here,” said Schweitzer, whose husband Jonathan Finkenauer owns neighboring, and equally popular, Fink’s Delicatessen. “I feel like that’s sort of what’s going on in this neighborhood—people really want to support small business and artists … there’s a good feeling of support for each other.”
Tinworks Art, a nonprofit named for the vibrant blue-tin building on North Ida Avenue, provides artist grants and commissions immersive art experiences in nontraditional spaces, and sees the neighborhood as the perfect canvas on which to host many of their installations and events.
Eli Ridgway owns Ridgway Gallery on North Wallace Avenue and sits on the Tinworks steering committee. He says that in one installation’s request for proposal, Tinworks included a photo of the abandoned Tinworks building. Artists from as far as France applied.
“I do like that even though people are coming in and are putting money into things, you can see that they’re still keeping the gritty architectural aspect of it.” – Kelley Sullivan, owner of Rapscallion Gallery
“People had all of these great ideas about how to use this space and it was really inspiring,” Ridgway said. And that inspiration translates to the exhibit’s patrons as well.
“One of the most inspiring parts of doing Tinworks [projects] in the northeast neighborhood is the huge amount of enthusiasm,” Ridgway said of one street art exhibition. “Often they were just stumbling upon it, and they’d come and were blown away. And a couple hours later you’d see that person come back with their friends.”
There’s something about the area, and the art, that feeds people’s craving for culture.
“It feels like it has a soul,” Ridgway said.
A RULEBOOK FOR GROWTH
The coalescence of the neighborhood’s past and present isn’t without effort. NENA, or the Northeast Neighborhood Association, provides the community with a voice that helps guide the neighborhood’s preservation and growth through town hall meetings and community events. The group works alongside the city, developers, architecture students, business owners and artists to ensure the area grows mindfully.
In August of 2019, Tinworks hosted an exhibit called PhotoVoicesNE, a series of photo and text submissions of residents’ values. “Add your voice…” the art display headline read. As part of a project, Montana State University’s School of Architecture in November 2020 collected data with similar sentiments through an online survey and on-site observation that involved notating everything from alleyways, front porches, tree inventories, greenhouses and outbuildings. In 2005, the City of Bozeman designated the northeast neighborhood an Urban Renewal District as part of a plan for capturing city taxes to fund neighborhood improvements. At the time, former mayor and then-City Commissioner Jeff Krauss called the efforts toward this designation a “dedication to community.”
Through these efforts and others, NENA is carefully documenting its journey through growth and hopes to set an example for other neighborhoods, old and new. Some echoing values were the sense of community, business and residential balance, diversity, bike- and walkability, affordability, mountain views and historic preservation.
ThinkTank Design Group, the architecture and land planning firm behind the revitalization of the Lark Hotel and the Rialto Theater, is working on a variety of projects that ensure affordability and historic preservation, including one in partnership with Tinworks Art that will provide residence and commercial space where the old Lehrkind Brewery building once stood.
“Historic preservation kind of has a start point that says … ‘to respect those who came before us,’” said ThinkTank owner Erik Nelson. “There’s a gravity to the place and it’s relative to each moment in time.”
Nelson was born at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital and grew up in Bridger Canyon before graduating in 1999 from Montana State University with a degree in architecture. Although he left a few times over the years, he ended up back in Bozeman and opened an office in 2009 on North Black Avenue.
“Right now, you look at downtown Bozeman and you’re glad they didn’t tear any of these buildings down,” Nelson said, referencing the 1860s when old, wooden and sod structures occupied Main Street. “Had those people been just as passionate about preserving what came before, there would be nothing but sod buildings downtown. It’s not as easy as saying, ‘It’s old, let’s save it.’”
One such building is the city’s former cold storage facility, a nondescript one-story brick building on East Peach Street. Fourth-generation rancher Jason Wickens knew when he left the family trade and came to Bozeman in 2009 that he wanted to work in the place that today houses Live from the Divide. Wickens says the intimate, 50-seat music venue, which has hosted nearly 700 various folk and American roots artists including Tyler Childers, John Fullbright and Nikki Lane, provides artists and audiences with the unique opportunity to not only enjoy great tunes, but also to experience a taste of the neighborhood’s history and the culture that makes it so special.
“I was drawn to this side of town, as I think many artists were, because it’s kind of the eclectic, weird part of town,” said Ole Nelson, who has owned the building since 2000. “Back then, there really wasn’t any development in this area yet.”
Nelson says much of the original building, which he has spent the better portion of two decades renovating, is still intact. The craft was in paying homage to those existing features through the structure’s evolutions, which continue to this day.
“Ole really believed in this,” Wickens said. “He believed in this space and how the public was interacting with it, and artists too … You could do this somewhere else but I don’t think it could work in the same way. There’s energy in here and history that I think people have a lot of appreciation for, before they even walk into this room. He was a huge reason … that Live from the Divide was able to take shape. That and the community’s support.”
Among the brick warehouses and working-class bungalows, the Lehrkind Mansion stands out, its Queen Anne-style turret watching over the maturing neighborhood. It’s believed that the family, with their German roots, preferred to live close to where they worked, choosing the northeast side against the trendy south side. The brewery itself was a success for generations, churning out 40,000 barrels annually.
Lehrkind’s brew was considered the “Montana bud” of the region, according to a Bozeman Daily Chronicle news article from March 30, 1983, and was famously delivered locally by Clydesdale-drawn carriage until Prohibition shut down the operation in 1920. Even after reopening, sugar rationing during World War II shuttered the doors permanently and the building cycled through a plethora of uses, including an ice plant, warehouse, Kessler Creamery and a recording studio.
After multiple failed development projects, the brewery building lost some limbs and for years its remaining four-story wall loomed over the neighborhood until it was demolished in 2014.
“Preserving the character of what’s here is of the utmost importance, and it’s not that the character can’t evolve, but it’s important that there’s an inherent respect for those that came before us—to value the very things of why someone wants to be here,” said ThinkTank’s Nelson. “Those things are contributing to what people love about this neighborhood; it’s what identifies it.”
While history, buildings and art studios provide much of the area’s character, NENA President Reno Walsh says the heart of the northeast side is in its occupants. Free from homeowners associations and set on a foundation of eclectic history, he says the neighborhood provides residents a sense of identity, independence and pride.
“These developments come in and the rumors start to spread and everyone’s an expert and everyone has an opinion,” Walsh said. “That’s fine and natural but I think what’s healthier is if we can actually have an opportunity to speak with the developer, so we can all be working with the same set of data and not data based on opinions. That’s what we’re trying to do and I think we’re doing OK at it.”
Walsh is perhaps best positioned to straddle the line between growth and preservation—he’s spent his life on different career paths that he categorizes as “evils.” He moved to the area from northcentral Wisconsin in the fall of 1995, working in both the regional and international tourism industry, managed local vacation rentals, and is currently looking to become a real estate agent. He’s perfectly at peace with the juxtaposition—growth and change, he says, are inevitable. Acting as a guide and providing people with the power to influence that growth is the important distinction.
“I don’t think you can preserve everything,” Walsh said, though he maintains that you can preserve a sense of community. “That’s what creates pride in the neighborhood.”
From his home on North Bozeman Avenue, Walsh takes comfort in the familiar faces of his locale—the ones he sees at NENA’s neighborhood gatherings, who pick up trash on their walks, who shovel one another’s sidewalk when they’re recovering from surgery, who trade baked goods and six packs of beer and stop to check in on each other when the winters get long.
“It’s the community,” Walsh said. “It’s my 85-year-old neighbor Gonnie and her dog Sita who walk by every day. These people are all characters.”
A westbound cargo train rumbles by, gaining momentum from its journey down Bozeman Pass. The ground shakes and the horn bellows but the residents and businesses, some within feet of the tracks, are unalarmed. The musical velocity is all part of living here in the northeast side, and the reason so many before settled in this valley, worked and earned a living. And it’s why they continue to do so today.
Mira Brody is the New Media Lead for Mountain Outlaw magazine and its publisher Outlaw Partners.