Welcome to Montana!

I know you are expecting me to say something about “Big Sky Country”, but that is just sort of what they settled on. It could have just as easily been “Big Bird Country”. For example, did you know that just north of Missoula there exists the largest nesting community of the common loon in the United States (outside of the U.S. House of Representatives at least)? And Montana is not just big loon territory, it also hosts over 300,000 snow geese and 100,000 tundra swans during their annual migrations. And we can’t forget that if your taste runs to bird voyeurism, you can check out the largest demonstration of sage grouses’ spring mating rituals near Pines Recreation Area. Also to see in the spring, there are over 10,000 white pelicans (who have an average wingspan of over nine feet) that migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to Medicine Lake in Montana. To me the idea that pelicans go with Montana seems counterintuitive, but I suppose everyone has a favourite vacation spot. If that were not already more than enough birds, Montana also has the largest population of golden eagles in the country. More golden eagles were spotted in a single day at the Rocky Mountain West Eagle Migration area near Great Falls than in anyplace else in the country.

Put them all together and that’s a lot of bird poop to act as fertilizer, which explains why most of the State is considered rural. In fact, there are more moose, antelope and elk in Montana than there are people. The largest herd of migratory elk in the country calls Montana home. Montana also has very large buffalo and grizzly bear populations, although probably not together. In fact, Montana has more different species of mammals than any State in the Union!

I am sure this will not be a surprise to those of us in Tanglewood, but Going to the Sun Road is considered one of the most scenic drives around. Around the Glacier National Park that is. Better have good collision insurance if you want to take a drive as Montana boasts the most vehicles hitting animals in the United States, after West Virginia. The number vehicle/animal collisions probably accounts for why there are 1.4 elk, 1.4 pronghorn antelope and 3.3 deer per square mile in Montana.Montana has so few people (a density of between 6 and 7 per square mile) that the entire state only has one telephone area code. Compare that with New York City, that has three. There are so few people in Montana, that 46 of her 56 counties are categorized as “frontier”, meaning there are fewer than 6 people per square mile. (This does not include the Helena, Montana area, if you add in the entire state the population is 7.45 people per square mile, still not exactly crowded).

In 1888 Helena boasted the most millionaires in one city in the world! Pretty sure that distinction has moved on since then. Why so many rich people out there? It probably has something to do with the State’s motto, “oro y plata” (gold and silver in Spanish). Gold was first discovered in the territory in 1852. But precious metals aren’t the only valuable resource in Montana. It is also home to the best sapphires to be found in the United States. The ONLY stone in the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom that originated in the USA is the Montana Yogo sapphire, estimated at 25 carats. Sapphires are still being mined from the Yogo find, but most are under a tenth of a carat. Any cut Montana sapphire that ends up over 2 carats is considered exceptionally large and rare.
Also adding to Montana’s wealth was the sudden increase in demand for copper that accompanied the increased use of indoor plumbing and electricity starting in the 1870s. Butte had a lot of copper back then. In fact, 30% of the copper mined in the USA in the 1880s came from the Butte area. Butte accounted for 15% of the WORLD’s copper production back then too. In the process of extracting all this copper, what was once “the richest hill on earth” was transformed into the deepest lake in the state, called the Berkeley Pit. This toxic lake is about 1,800 feet deep.
Maybe the sparse population has something to do with one mystery of Montana. It became the 41st state in November 1889, but took their own sweet time adopting the State flag, which was not done until 1981. They weren’t always slow to get things done though. The Territorial seal was adopted in 1865, and is the same seal still in use as the State seal today.

The State capitol, Helena, was not originally the territory’s capitol. Helena is the third city to have that distinction. Of course, Helena was not even the city’s original name. The area was settled by a group known as the “Four Georgians” (consisting of John Cowan, Daniel Jackson Miller, John Crab, and Reginald – or Robert – Stanley), in 1864 after they found gold and staked their claim. They originally named the town “Crabtown”. Luckily for everyone that memorized State capitols, it did not stick. Folks, it seemed, weren’t too fond of living in Crabtown so they started calling the place Saint Helena, after a town in nearby Minnesota. Not sure if the neighbors complained, but eventually it was all shortened to just Helena. 75% of the entire population of Montana resides within a 250 mile radius of the city. By the way, Helena is NOT the largest city in the State, that honor goes to Billings. Helena is relatively small as a State capitol goes having a rough population of only 32,000 people.

Speaking of population, again, cows outnumber people by more than two to one. Miles City bills itself as the “cow capital of the world” while Drummond boasts that they are “world-famous bull-shippers.” Saco, MT (population 159) had to get in on the cow action and set the record for cooking the world’s largest hamburger in 1999 when 17 cows went into the making of the 6,000 pound whopper. I was not able to find out how long the leftovers lasted, that would be a huge number of sloppy joes.
Montana was the first State to ever elect a woman to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1916 Jeanette Rankin was elected and she was still there in 1940. Representative Rankin was the sole vote against the United States entering World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she did not get re-elected after that. Maybe because Montana actually suffered a direct attack from Japan during the war when 30 Japanese balloons landed in the State. Maybe they were looking for pelicans?

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