Grit

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Endurance.

To stick with something for six weeks is said to be all that’s needed to form a habit. These days, to have a job for 10 years is something of an achievement. To spend an entire lifetime on something is remarkable, and to spend multiple lifetimes in dogged determination is downright admirable.

Montana has been a state for 125 years this November. It was named a territory just a generation earlier. People have been ranching and farming this country for about as long, but we all know that times and ideas change, evolve. New generations are born with their own ambitions.

So when a ranch or farm stays in one family over a span of 10 decades or more, it’s to be celebrated.

The Montana Historical Society thinks so and in 2009, announced the creation of the Montana Centennial Farm and Ranch Program. So far, about 28 families have gone through the process of gaining official recognition as a Centennial Farm or Ranch. Here are three:

Benjamin Armstrong had nearly completed the coursework for an engineering degree from Iowa State College when he homestead a farm east of Geraldine in 1909. When his son Henry took over in 1965, The elder Armstrong had either built or drastically altered every piece of machinery except the tractor.

Henry Armstrong began working the farm with his dad after serving in the Marines in World War II. He’s in his mid-80s now and most of the day-to-day operations have passed on to his son, Stuart. Hope is that Stuart’s son, Alex, 24, will one day take over after he does a stint with the Marines like his grandfather.

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Henry Armstrong walks past a 1929 Ford Model A he says was still in use in the 1980s. “How we got through the 30s,” Henry says, “we built it, we fixed it. We didn’t buy it.”.

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Alan Armstrong is 24 years old and helps out with chores like welding on the Armstrong farm. But he’s just signed on for a stint the Marines, like his grandfather. So his future on the farm is uncertain.

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Stuart Armstrong takes a hammer with him to fix a small problem with a combine.

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Henry Armstrong pages through a journal his father kept in the year he homesteaded.

Near Sidney, John Mercer oversees the farm his grandfather Andrew Mercer homesteaded in 1901 along the Yellowstone River. A businessman, Andrew Mercer had been a prospector and owned and managed properties including a saloon in addition to the cattle, horses and wheat he sold. Andrew Mercer’s son, Russell, spent his life on the ranch and he and his wife, Mary, were active outside the family farm. Russell Mercer served in local government and Mary Mercer was an active advocate for the preservation of local history.

John Mercer is the sixth of Mary and Russell Mercer’s seven children. “I was doing construction in Denver,” he says, “and I came back in 1972 to save the place after Dad had a heart attack. I never knew anything about farming or ranching.”

He’s now semi-retired, he says, only managing the dry land farming at the place, leaving the irrigated fields to someone else.

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John and Kathy Mercer pose in front of the house John’s grandfather Andrew Mercer built in 1906 at the age of 36, five years after homesteading the property.

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John Mercer holds a picture of his mother.

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People photograph what’s important to them, and John Mercer’s grandfather liked Belgian draft horses.

Laura Etta Smalley was a 25-year-old school teacher in Canada in 1910, prohibited from owning land because she was a single woman. That summer, she traveled into Montana, hired movers and a couple of wagons to carry a 12-by-16-foot cabin to a half-section of land just 10 miles south of the Canada border. When the movers left, she spent the night alone for the first time in her life. Her nearest neighbor was half a mile away.

More than a century later, her grandson Tom Bangs watches over that original half section, plus a few more, while his son Jeff eases into taking over the operation.

“It’s a pretty appealing life, really,” Tom says. “To be your own boss, to manage the land.”

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Tom and Carol Bangs pose with their son Jeff and his wife, Katie. Carol, a native of Havre, is glad Jeff and Katie are there. “I value heritage,” she says. “Continuing on what your family started.”

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A neighbor is a neighbor — even if half a mile or more separates the homes. The Bangs Farm is in a neighborhood known as “Minneota,” barely five miles south of the Canada border. “People are close, even though the distances are great,” says Carol Bangs.

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Jeff Bangs, right, is 29 years old and in the process of taking over from his dad. Newly married, Jeff has land and equipment of his own while he eases into taking over the operation.

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Jeff Bangs loads grain for winter wheat into a seed drill as evening comes on. As he begins his farming career he knows to expect the road to get rough. “You have to maximize the good times,” he says. “do as well as you can when you can and have some resources ready.”

Leading the Way

20140401125946Yesterday, the Presbyterian Church voted to allow same-sex marriages, continuing on a journey started when this woman, Ninia Baehr, and Genora Dancel, along with two other couples, sued the state of Hawaii for the right to marry in 1991. “We won in court,” Baehr says at her kitchen table in Amsterdam, Mont., “but then we lost in the court of public opinion.”

Baehr and Dancel have since split up, but the movement they started continues.

20140115200453Communities around Montana are currently debating laws that would prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation. These images are from a hearing in Butte last January.

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20140115201623Writer Al Kesselheim wrote a wonderful story in the current issue of Montana Quarterly about Baehr and her life. She talked about her decision to move to Amsterdam with her partner, Lori, in 2004, buying a house together that used to belong to a conservative Dutch family. Here’s an excerpt that quotes Baehr:

“This is a very conservative community, but people take your measure and make their call. Our neighbor comes over and mows our lawn. We worked in his flower garden. We both know we have political differences, but we’ve built a strong relationship. He told me that we’re the best neighbors he’s ever had. That means a lot to me.

“Recently, after a wind storm, neighbors from down the street came over to clean up downed branches. It’s the kind of community that does that. It might not always be comfortable socially, but these are good people.”

 “It’s one of the chances you take,” Baehr says. “I don’t know what people say privately. I don’t know if any votes change when it comes to that, but they treat us well. It’s been a learning experience, this business of separating politics from personal relationships.

 “I wake up every morning thinking how lucky I am, what a good life I have.”

20140401132328Al and I visited Ninia at her Amsterdam home again in April, when her mother, Cj, was visiting from Hawaii. “I’m enormously proud,” Cj said of her daughter.

I would be too.

Receiving Pictures

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Great advice about photography can hit you when you least expect it. And I don’t often expect it when I’m in a church.

Nevertheless, there I was on Sunday morning when Glover Wagner of Pilgrim UCC here in Bozeman brought up photography and my ears suddenly pricked up.

Glover said photographs should not be taken, they should be received.

I’m going to say that again, because it’s important and this is a pretty short post: Photographs should be received, not taken or made.

I have a friend who is a great sculptor and painter and he’s trying to help me become a better artist. He talks about his work as eulogies, as expressions of gratitude. I think he would agree with Glover.

I think great pictures and great art works are the receiving of gifts. They are an expression of gratitude for having known the object or person photographed, and also an attempt to share the subject — and the wonder associated with it — with others.

Go figure.

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Forward Thinking

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I can’t count the times I’ve driven I-15 north out of Helena toward Great Falls and crossed the Missouri River at this bridge. Most of the time, I’m thinking that I’m finally out of the worst of the twists and turns and headed toward a relatively straight and flat stretch into Great Falls.

In the 1960s, when this bridge and the highway it carries were built, preserving the integrity of the Missouri and other watercourses on the way nearly got thrown under the proverbial bus.

But a handful of  biologists like Jim Posewitz stood up and advocated for stream preservation. They said that studies had shown highway construction that converted meandering streams into straight channels was destroying Montana’s fisheries. Eve Byron wrote a great story about it in the current issue of Montana Quarterly.

The result of Jim’s and others’ advocacy was the passage of the Montana Stream Preservation Act in 1963.

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Now, as Jim looks out over Helena from his office window, he can know that he made a difference in preserving what today is one of Montana’s proudest attributes — its world-class fishing. And as we all drive the Interstates through Montana, we can thank Jim as we cross the rivers and creeks.

Geothermal Heater

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One thing — well, there are many things — nice about living so close to Yellowstone National Park, is the geothermal heat that is so common in Montana. There are more hot springs on the map than I can count, many of which have been developed into resorts like Norris Hot Springs, north of Ennis. Ground water is heated by volcanic activity beneath the earth’s surface and can make a real nice place to soak in a Friday night. Story has it that Norris got its start when miners installed a gate valve at one end of the pool in the 1880s.

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Norris is a quaint little place, with lots of history and charm, including Felix the cat. Felix, a female, keeps the rodent population under control, employees say, and even successfully confronted a rattlesnake in the summer of 2012.

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At Norris, the water comes to the surface at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a little too warm for comfort, so they pipe it through some spray nozzles, which allow the water to cool.

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There’s a valve at one end of the pool, and a well-preserved fir box lining the pool. Steve Devereaux says the pool is emptied every night and given a weekly power wash. Devereaux is usually the guy with the power washer going on Tuesday mornings. He says it can get a little unpleasant on the colder days of February.

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Norris uses their geothermal resource for more than just the pool. They heat the women’s changing room (the men’s is too far from the water pump), the cafe and bar, and this geodesic dome, where Chad Okrusch kept warm while entertaining on a January Friday night.

In the summer issue of Montana Quarterlywhere these images first appeared, writer Amy Styx says that as Okrusch was tuning his guitar, he leaned into the microphone, thanked the crowd for being there, and said, “This is kind of a vortex for good energy.”

 

Fish Revolution

20130927182506The latest issue of Montana Quarterly is entirely dedicated to water issues. One of my contributions was this portrait of Dick Vincent, who had the temerity to tell established river stewards that stocking fish actually made a fishery worse, not better.

And he was right.

Now 40 years have gone by, and largely thanks to this one man, the Madison River in southwest Montana is one of the best places in the world to catch a wild trout.

Nice going, Dick.

Old Favorite

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I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this picture of the brink of Upper Falls in Yellowstone National Park. And I found out this morning that National Geographic senior editor Kurt Mutchler selected this picture as one of 40 photographs for display at PhotoPlace Gallery’s The Art of Travel Photography exhibit June 2 through July 3.

Mutchler writes, “As a photo editor at National Geographic magazine I gravitate to photographs that capture a ‘decisive moment’ and are free of contrivance. I also look for landscapes that talk to me like good portraits—capturing the personality of the scene with beautiful light, perfect composition and a mood that beckons me there.”

Thanks. I’m honored.

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