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Custer Country

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Think back to when you were a child, a school kid. Remember how you could turn each day
into an adventure, how you and your friends transformed the neighborhood into magical
worlds–the ocean, the desert, a battlefield full of cowboys and Indians? Remember making
up the rules as you went along, arguing over whether the station wagon parked next door was
quicksand or a spaceship, a covered wagon or a tepee? Go ahead, try to recall what it was
like to play, to actively believe that everything is subject to interpretation. Can you do
it? If so, put on your suit of armor or your lacy princess gown and head to southeastern
Montana. If not, step into your three-piece suit or your tasteful work ensemble and head to
southeastern Montana. Either way, your attire will soon become buckskin, your attitude
fanciful, your stories more interesting. This is not to say that the people in this part of
the country are liars. No, the residents of Custer Country, as this section of the Big Sky
state is known, simply understand that whatever is not fact–scientifically documented and
pinned to the wall–should be mulled over, speculated on and reconsidered. You see,
everyone there is a historian, amateur or otherwise. And unlike many of us, the people who
live in Billings or Colstrip or Hardin are wise enough to recognize that we are all
historical scholars, each with at least our own tale to tell. My story weaves in and out of
your story and interconnects to every story ever told. And if each fact doesn’t fly as
straight as an arrow, if every detail doesn’t correspond with the waitress’ version of
events, recounted as she refills your coffee cup, then you have the basis for a discussion,
don’t you? History Lesson Number One: This land was, and is, Indian country, as Custer
would certainly attest. Once home to many tribes who followed the great buffalo herds
around the endless plains, the area today contains two Native American reservations, the
Crow Indian Reservation and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Bisected north-south
by Interstate 90 and east-west by State Highway 212, the reservations share a common border
east of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, but their cultural influence is
boundless, shaping the area the way the wind does sand dunes. Visitors can sample fry bread
at roadside stands and pick up Indian art at various trading posts. Or view a tipi (a
Dakota word: ti–to dwell; pi–used for)–or tepee–and artifacts up close in the Western
Heritage Center in Billings and discuss the Native American ways with practically any
member of either tribe. The native peoples understand the value of the oral tradition
better than any of us, since they place far more emphasis on the spoken word than on the
written. History Lesson Number Two: Pompeys Pillar National Historic Landmark is more than
just a giant rock. Located 28 miles east of Billings on Interstate 94, Pompeys Pillar
National Historic Landmark has drawn visitors up its slopes for many hundreds of years. The
Crow called the huge sandstone outcropping that rises above the Yellowstone River “Where
the Mountain Lion Lies.” William Clark, who named the place in 1806, estimated its height
at 200 feet; today it measures about 100, bringing into question either Clark’s eyesight or
his tendency to exaggerate. The only physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
ever found are the markings that Clark carved into the sandstone wall: W. Clark July 25,
1806. He was not the first to leave his mark: Native Americans had drawn animals that
visitors can still see today. What visitors can’t see, of course, is why the name Clark
gave the place, Pompy’s Tower, was changed to Pompeys Pillar. A measure of certainty does
exist, however, about why Clark named it what he did. He was fond of little Baptiste
Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s son. Sacagawea was definitely the party’s interpreter, though her
tribal affiliation is somewhat questionable, and the spelling of her name has more possible
permutations than a Rubix Cube. Supposedly, Pompy means “little chief” in the Shoshoni
language, which may be true, but what Pompey means is anybody’s guess. History Lesson
Number Three: Billings is not named the “Magic City” because it’s home to Seigfried and
Roy. No, the second largest city in the state and the seat of Yellowstone County got its
nickname because, after Frederick Billings founded it in 1882, the town expanded at such a
phenomenal rate that the growth was deemed supernatural. Established as a railhead for the
Northern Pacific Railroad, Billings soon grew to cosmopolitan status, becoming the cultural
and economic hub of the region. To wit, Calamity Jane regularly frequented the haunts, and
Buffalo Bill Cody helped his chef establish a high-class restaurant in town called the Rex,
which is still a hot spot today. The first KOA was established there in 1962, and annually
$150 million in livestock is sold at Billings’ Public Auction Yards. Although it is “the
big city” by Montana standards, with 91,000 people calling it home, you have to keep in
mind that we’re talking about a state in which livestock outnumber people 12 to one.
Billings is a metropolis in the sense that it offers superb dining (in addition to the Rex,
try Jake’s downtown for the best prime rib you’ll ever eat), and a thriving economy, based
primarily on energy sources and agriculture. But it has a historic, small-town feel that
makes a first-time visit to Billings seem like coming home. Unless you’re from a truly big
city, in which case, stopping in Billings is like stepping back in time, which is exactly
why attractions such as Billings Trolley Tours, the Vintage Bus Lines and the Moss Mansion
are so appealing. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening during the summer, visitors to
Billings can jump onboard the green-and-red trolley at the Chamber of Commerce/Visitor
Center to receive a novel view and overview of the city. The trolley, one of a pair that
was originally built in Springfield, Missouri, for a minor-league baseball team, lugs its
way past the historic downtown buildings, along the bumpy Black Otter Trail–a great
vantage from which to see the city–and stops at Boot Hill and at various museums. A
narrator interprets the history along the way. Vintage Bus Lines offers another unusual
mode of transportation around the area, taking riders on custom-designed tours and trips to
nearby attractions and towns in a beautiful 1936 White Yellowstone Tour Bus. The Moss
Mansion belongs in the “Magic City,” yet its splendor has caught many a visitor by
surprise, out here in the “untamed west.” The home, completed in 1903 at a cost of
$105,000, when the average family dwelling cost $3,000, is breathtaking. From the elaborate
Moorish entryway, which was influenced by the Alhambra Hotel in Granada, Spain, to the
ornate, tobacco-brown oak in the dining quarters, the details in this 35-room declaration
of success elicit small gasps of awe and large pangs of envy. Designed by architect Henry
Janeway Hardenbergh and decorated by A.C. Nelson, famous for having “done” the Plaza and
Waldorf-Astoria hotels in New York, the Moss Mansion features far too many luxuries to
describe here. Some visitors may find it all gorgeous, others garish. But suffice to say
that the Shakespearean library, the French parlor, the Aubuson carpets and the colorful
tapestries make perfect sense in a home that has heaters in the closets–because no guest
should have to go home with a cold coat. And if you prefer your coats to be of paint, be
sure to visit the Yellowstone Art Museum, a pleasant modern-day surprise in a town tickled
pink by the fact that it sports the tallest freestanding brick building in the world, a
Sheraton Hotel. The museum, built in 1884 as the Yellowstone County Jail, underwent a $6
million expansion in 1998 and today houses the world’s largest collection of Will James’
western-themed work. Changing exhibitions of drawings, paintings and photographs challenge
museum-goers to interpret what they see, but the modern sculptures by Montana artist
Deborah Butterfield, one of a grazing horse made from a discarded gas station sign, got my
tongue to wagging. I couldn’t stop mentioning how impressed I was, but this could have had
something to do with the amount of sugar I had ingested before visiting the museum. I had
attempted to eat a giant cinnamon roll at Stella’s. The confection was delicious,
inexpensive and bore, in both size and shape, an uncanny resemblance to Pompeys Pillar.
History Lesson Number Four: George Armstrong Custer was a loser. This is an indisputable
fact. Unless, as every single resident of southeastern Montana seems to do, you dispute it.
Not that anyone in these parts claims that General Custer (or Colonel or Lieutenant
Colonel, depending on who’s doing the ranking) did not come to his demise on June 25, 1876.
It’s just that one man’s goat–a military leader who led his men to slaughter–is another
man’s hero–a highly decorated Civil War veteran who was let down, if not betrayed, by his
subordinates while fighting bravely. To some, Custer made a mistake by splitting his
forces, at what is today called the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, before he
knew how many Sioux and Cheyenne Indians he faced. So uncertain are the numbers, in fact,
that Captain Benteen, who was under Custer’s command and who lived to tell part of the
tale, estimated on June 27, 1876, that the 7th Cavalry had faced between 1,500 and 1,800
warriors; by 1879, however, he had revised his estimate to 8,000 to 9,000 fighting men.
Some Custer aficionados believe, however, that the general simply faced a superior force
that day. Whatever the truth is, losing doesn’t sit well with Americans, so we try to find
reasons to explain our defeats. To that end, more books have been written on the Battle of
the Little Bighorn than on any single military action in United States’ history, despite
the fact that the battle holds little significance in the formation of the republic. The
legend is so influential that people who visit the battlefield–taking one of the tours,
walking its grounds or listening to the auto-tour tape that they purchase in the gift
shop–will find themselves weighing in on what happened there and why. Was Custer an
egomaniac whose over-confidence got him killed? Was he a noble warrior whose youth and rank
caused envy and resultant inaction by his fellow officers? Lessons abound in southeastern
Montana. For example, Custer’s Last Stand Reenactment, which takes place each June six
miles west of Hardin, brings events to life so dramatically and in such a family-friendly
manner that even attendees allergic to the past will stand up and cheer. You will learn
that September is generally considered the best month to visit, though supporters of May
and June vocally back their candidates. You will learn that the Yellowstone River RV Park
& Campground in Billings is a great home base, within easy distance of all of the
area’s attractions and only a few hours’ drive from Yellowstone National Park. But most of
all you will learn to listen–to the cadences of speech, to the attention to detail, to the
stories enthusiastically recounted. Everyone around here knows that stories do not exist if
they aren’t told. To keep your truth bottled inside is to tell a child that unicorns and
leprechauns and invisible friends are only make believe. Billings Area Convention and
Visitors Council, P.O. Box 31177, Billings, Montana; (800) 735-2635;

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