The Billings Outpost

Frontier leaves legacy

By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost

Author, journalist and Red Lodge resident John Clayton shared excerpts from his “Stories from Montana’s Enduring Frontier: Exploring An Untamed Legacy” with an audience of about 20 people last week at the Western Heritage Center’s High Noon Lecture Series.

For about 40 minutes, Clayton discussed some of the tenets of the post-frontier mentality, in which people began to want to shape society instead of being shaped themselves by the often violent and threatening character of the frontier.

Some of the stories he shared focused on violent people, like outlaws, or those mired in desperation: unemployed men seeking work – or the rare fortune in gold.

He described some of the forces giving rise to the frontier and also explained – through the stories – how Montanans are caught in a dilemma: They have a love/hate relationship with the frontier. They simultaneously want to leave it behind, yet keep a little bit of the roughness of the frontier, said Mr. Clayton.

Others commented that railroaders had stratified Montana as a state because the railroad entered Montana, distributed goods and then quickly departed the state, driving populations toward either the northern or the southern half of the state.

Mr. Clayton described the economic opportunity, for some, of the frontier and how the railroad influenced Billings’ growth pattern.

As tycoons, railroad builders and miners pushed through the region, he said, they pursued the bounty of Montana’s natural resources. Montana, said one of his audience members later on, was still an extraction state because of its coal and other resources. It was also, according to the audience member, more like a colony than a state because of its sheer newness to the union.

Pressed upon the people of Billings, he said, was the need to make choices about their society. What would it look like? The chapter entitled “Community Enriched by Formula” seeks to answer that question. It was not only the physical form of the town that challenged people to take control of their society, but also the sociocultural community.

The community within the town – in particular, the schools – became the paramount focus, especially as famous researchers Earnest O. Melby and Robert Kinsey Howard completed “The Montana Study.” Their study required them to research small towns in Montana from about the 1890s to the 1940s, according to the website “Following Earnest Melby,” by Michael Umphrey of The Montana Heritage Project.

The dilemma Mr. Clayton describes in his book showed up clearly in this chapter: Montanans remain conflicted, he said, as reflected in the frontier population’s craving to mature into a more permanent and predictable town but also mourn the raw, coarse and rough-hewn frontier.

Many of the audience members knew Clayton’s essays and books well and peppered him with questions from the several rows of chairs filled with Montana history buffs. He answered good-naturedly, indicating that the loudest audience member, full of praise, was his father, Jim. Some of the questioners delved into his plans for future writing.

One questioner asked, “Have you ever considered writing about the Steamboat Era?” Another asked for an urban comparison to a person in Clayton’s book named John Smith (John “Redeye” Smith and his wife, whom he called, “Squaw Smith”).

“Have you ever written about the aviation history of firefighting, the early aviation pioneers?” asked one audience member. Finally, an attendee interested in linguistics asked Clayton if he thought that most readers of his literature would know the term, “Hi-Line,” or would it have to be defined for them?

Clayton said that most of his readers would indeed know what the Hi-Line is, a northern Montana rail line often used to characterize the northern portion of the state. He also said that parts of Montana remain wild and characteristic of the frontier.

“There are untamed pockets in Montana ... it means what we want it to mean … Wilderness … is there a way to play out youthful fantasies of what we want to be on the land?” asked Mr. Clayton.

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