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First Crop ID Signs Put Up For Crop InFARMation
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digging post holesLet's just say this project has been a long time dream.

Each time a visitor would be traveling with me on roads with crops I'd get asked what was growing in the field.

If it was spring and I could see lots of green shoots I'd guess it was winter wheat. If it was blooming yellow I assumed it was either mustard or canola. Fast forward a month or two into the season and I couldn't even begin to guess!

There are miles and miles and acres and acres of agricultural land in Central Montana.

To label crops would take an army of volunteers, not just for the initial round but for the long-term. Crops change, they rotate, new grains and pulse crops are planted - this isn't a one-time project. 

Signs need to be put up in the spring when it is determined what crop will be in the field Spring wheat signand then the signs need to come down in the fall after harvest.

Enter the FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapters! In high schools and some colleges, participants in these dedicated groups become involved in agriculture in many ways. For certain, some will grow up to be producers but many will have jobs working with the ag industry. 

After meeting with the Electric City FFA advisor in Great Falls some goals were set. Her group would reach out to other areas in the United States where crop labeling had been done successfully.

The FFA kids really became an army of volunteers - eventually contacting landowners for permission and then getting signed agreements so the crop ID signs could be placed on their property. 

Simple signs were designed and made by a sign shop and the kids chose a blue FFA kidsbackground with gold lettering. Hmmm...that looks a lot like the FFA colors!  

The day we had all been waiting for finally arrived - signs were done, metal posts were loaded (along with a post hole digger) and about eight FFA members were on hand to begin installing posts and signs. 

Three different signs went up just a few miles east of Great Falls on Hwys 89, 200 and 3. In a short distance three crops were labeled including spring wheat, field peas and winter wheat.

This project will be more than signs labeling the crops though. The FFA chapters have researched the various crops and that information is being built into a downloadable free app called Crop InFARMation.

Information includes growing practices, varieties of crops and uses for the crops after they are harvested. We also hope to have some interviews with producers talking about their crops.And, it would be nice to find places where locally grown crops can be FFA kids looking at croppurchased or served in restaurants or breweries or retail establishments. 

So much potential! We have come a long way since this idea first started and the project can only grow. 

We hope the traveling public (and Montana residents too) like the Crop InFARMation project. Now,let's watch it grow and spread throughout the entire state!

And, be watching for the release of a new app for your smart phone titled Crop InFARMation!





The Square Butte Jail Still Stands
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Square Butte jailI wouldn't say the Square Butte jail is going to lock anyone up these days but you can tell it was built to last!

On a group tour of the area I was able to "stand behind the bars" of this iconic structure. 

Way back, think about 1913, the Milwaukee Land Company (yes, the same as the railroad), laid out the streets of the little town of Square Butte. The town was located on the route of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad's route between Lewistown and Great Falls.

When you think back to what railroads needed to run in 1913 - mineral-free water and coal - Square Butte was a pretty strategic location.

Fast forward a couple of years to 1915 and residents of the town felt they were getting too many tramps because of the railroad. County commissioners worked their way through that issue by building the Square Butte jail.

Square Butte scenicWhen you glance around the unique geology in the area it doesn't take long to see where the building materials for the jail came from. Those pretty granite blocks were quarried nearby.

Did the Square Butte jail serve its purpose? There isn't any evidence that the jail actually housed prisoners.

The structure was unheated so it would have been a bit chilly in the winter. It did serve as road crew housing later on, also as a bachelor's residence and a granary.

The town of Square Butte is small these days but you'd be remiss in not stopping at the Square Butte Country Club for a cold one or a meal. I've had the best burgers and salads there - believe me, it is worth a trip!

And, when you polish off that burger and ale, drive over to the old jail and capture the moment with your Kodak!





Historic Planes - Warbirds Over Great Falls
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Marylou planeThink back to 1942. The US was supplying the Soviets with aircraft as part of a strategy to defeat Germany during World War II.

The Lend Lease Act (1941) which authorized the plane transfer was actually passed by Congress before the US entered the war, although it was after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The group that flew the planes from Great Falls to Russia was called the 7th Ferrying Group. I had heard of this group many years ago when I worked with a guy who did communications for them. He talked a lot about it and, I'll admit, sometimes I didn't pay close attention to him. He has passed away now and darn, if I could only have one more afternoon to visit with him and watch how animated he could become when he talked about the ferrying group. 

The connection between Great Falls and Russia seems odd at first but when you look at a map it all falls in to place. Moscow and Great Falls are on similar latitudes. To top it off, both had records of more than 300 clear fly days per year.

rivet warplaneWhen the 7th Ferrying Group started their route in Great Falls they would then head north to Alaska (Fairbanks). The planes were handed over to the Russians in Fairbanks. This was a tough route and the pilots used what is called the four-course range navigation. Its a Morse Code navigation using just four letters - A if they were too far on one side of the flight path, N if they were on the other side of the line. If they were on course the tone would be even.

The pilots mostly used visual navigation and when you think of the rapidly changing weather conditions it is downright scary! During winter months the pilots didn't have long daylight hours either. If they had to stop, well, the pilot and airplane would sit overnight in subzero temps. I can only imagine how cold it was and how long it took to warm that equipment (and the pilot) up. 

So, what brought these planes to Great Falls? A fellow named Jeff Geer created the Bravo 369 Flight Foundation and that foundation's goal is to bring these vintage planes to different areas and tell the story of the 7th Ferrying Group.

p61 planeThe crowd at Gore Hill this morning (where the Great Falls International Airport is located) was bustling. I was glad to see so many people eager to learn and re-live this part the the United States' history. The seven vintage planes were beautiful - rather spartan, no frills, which is to be expected.

The History Museum, located at 422 2nd Street South in Great Falls, Montana, has a nice display about the 7th Ferrying Group. Each time the group had a reunion they would gather at the History Museum. As a result, their records are housed there. 

To tally the amount of activity - here's a summary of what flew out of Great Falls during WWII. Bell P-39 Airacobra, Bell P-63 Kingcobra, Douglas A-20 Boston-Havoc, North American B-25 Mitchell, Douglas C-47 Skytrain, North American AT-6 Texan, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, and a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. All total - about 8,000 planes!

What a story - what a beautiful day with a gorgeous sky - what a nice turn-out of eager people to see this morsel of history.  




Touring Fort Benton's Reconstructed Old Fort
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trade storeI was in Fort Benton a week ago and decided to take a guided tour of the Old Fort. I've toured the Fort several times but, as our guide noted, it is a work in progress, and they expand their collections and displays as finances allow.

To see this reconstructed fort is the best way for me to learn history. My favorite room is the trading post which is stocked with trade goods that look as they would have in the fur-trade era.

A massive stone fireplace is in one corner of the trade store (temps were hovering in the 90s the day I was there so the crew did not have a fire a-roaring!). 

Furs, pelts and hides are prominent in the trade store - buffalo hides were the premium of the day during the peak of the fur trade era. I tried to lift one and believe me, they are heavy!

A glass-enclosed display shows and explains items found during an archaeological dig birdthat was done to determine exact location of the structure's perimeter. 

Blackfeet Indians hunted and traded at the Old Fort and there are beautiful displays of artifacts including Native American clothing, headdresses, beadwork and weapons.

I was wandering along, absorbing all that I could and totally engrossed in some beadwork when I looked up and saw this big bird looking like he'd like to take a bite out of my scalp. OK - he had spent some time at a taxidermist but the resulting mount was very real-looking!

Several tipis are erected inside the fort and our guide pointed out that they would not have been there during real-time operation of the fort. He noted that they added a nice dimension and could show visitors how the nomadic Blackfeet tribe lived.

Another favorite building in the fort is the Starr Gallery of Western Art. There was a new exhibit there and I could have spent all of my time just looking at the bronzes and Starr galleryartwork. Very impressive.

The Old Fort is open for tours from the later part of May through the end of September.

Fort Benton has several other museums - the State of Montana Agriculture Museum, The Museum of the Upper Missouri adjacent to the Fort, and the BLM's Upper Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center. One ticket allows admission to all museums. Plan enough time to visit them all. You won't be disappointed. 





It Was A Weekend of Lewis & Clark History
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Lewis ClarkGreat Falls hosts the annual Lewis & Clark Festival the third weekend in June each year. Gibson Park (named after the founder of Great Falls) was a perfect location for the festival - lots of shade trees, grass, a bandshell for performers and plenty of room to spread out a variety of activities.

The weather this year was perfect - plenty of sunshine but not too hot.

I took in the opening ceremonies where the Lewis & Clark Honor Guard always fires their black powder rifles to signal the festival opening.

The honor guard dresses in period clothing, most of it handmade by the members. They are sticklers for detail and enjoy bantering about the correct fabric, buttons and head coverings. 

Several tipis were erected on the festival grounds providing an awesome backdrop, visible to those driving by the park.Three tipis were also put up next to each other to form tipisa council lodge. Speakers presented at the council lodge and covered topics such as Medicine of the Corps, Uses of Hemp, Firestarting, Fishing Methods of the Corps and Weapons of the Expedition. 

Native American dancers also performed with drummers. This always draws a crowd and it gives attendees some information about the different dances and the clothing worn for each. 

A children's area at the festival teaches kids (and adults) how to trade for goods instead of using money. This year also featured several Newfoundland dogs (they are huge!). Capt. Meriwether Lewis had a Newfoundland dog named Seaman on the expedition. 

New this year was a swivel gun, a small cannon similar to what the expedition would have had mounted on their boats. Members of the Lewis & Clark Honor Guard fired the cannon throughout the day and each boom drew a crowd!

putting up tipiAnother interesting demonstration was a blacksmith who always had a crowd listening, watching and learning. 

On Sunday of the festival weekend there are float trips (a fee is charged) that take attendees on the Missouri River through Wolf Creek Canyon and also from Morony Dam to the Carter Ferry. 

Guided hikes also take place on Sunday and this year's hikes explored Tower Rock (about 35 miles southwest of Great Falls), Sulphur Springs (downstream from Great Falls) and Ryan Dam (site of The Great Falls). 

This annual festival is sponsored by the Lewis and Clark Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls. The Interpretive Center is owned and operated by the US Forest Service and is open year round. A visit to the Center is a fun way to brush up on your history! 




I Never Tire of the View At Sluice Boxes
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Sluice panelsSluice Boxes State Park is just off US Hwy 89 north of Monarch, Montana. If you are driving north it is tempting to zip right by, and I suppose the same is true if you are heading south when you are picking up speed to climb the hill.

Don't be tempted to pass this gem by! 

Even a stop at the scenic overlook is worth your time. There are interpretive panels in an easy in-and-out parking pullout and the views are awesome. 

Why call it Sluice Boxes State Park

The area is a canyon with Belt Creek running through it at a pretty good pace. This was once a mining area and early-day miners  thought it reminded them of the sluice boxes used to separate gold from gravel.

The state park covers 1,450 acres and there is a seven mile trail following the grade of the old Sluice Boxes scenicGreat Northern Railway's Monarch branch. The railroad track was built in 1890 - that's a long time ago! It was abandoned in 1945. This old rail bed crosses Belt Creek several times so spring hiking means high water. I've hiked the area over Labor Day weekend and still crossed the creek twice. 

Your history lesson for today - the limestone cliffs rising up the the canyon floor are comprised of seashells deposited 330 million years ago when the area was covered by a vast sea. A slow uplift over time caused the area to rise. 

Well, that's enough history - head out and hike or go bird watching there (I saw a hummingbird the last time I was there, plus a lot of other birds).

Bring your binoculars, some shoes that can get wet and a walking stick. I'd recommend a camera too. Those cliff walls seem to change color as the sun hits them from different directions and you'll have lots of photo ops. 




More than Fiddles at Annual Camp
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fiddlerThis is one of those - I wish I had realized how fun this event would be!

A couple of weeks ago I drove to the St. Thomas Camp near Monarch, Montana for the evening concert at the annual Montana Fiddle Camp. I had never been there and had no idea what to expect. 

Well - it's a lot more than fiddles! 

You would have a hard time missing this camp - huge banners were staked at both entrances to the area located on US Hwy 89. And there were cars, pickups, tents and campers galore. 

I wasn't sure where to go so I carefully walked through a group of campers and saw three older guys outside strumming guitars. OK, wasn't this supposed to be fiddles?

I decided I had better ask them where the "open to the public" evening concert was being held because I couldn't see anything. I soon was pointed in the direction of a MAndolinsmall wooden building...one of those "you can't miss it set of directions". And, once I got there it was pretty obvious!

The building where the concert was being held was almost full!

Folding chairs were lined up and I could see a few empty seats but I didn't want to crawl over anyone with my camera gear. And, I wasn't sure where I should sit to get the best photos in the least intrusive way.

I stood at the back for awhile, then carefully made my way to an empty seat on the far side. 

The musicians playing were some of the instructors and I absolutely could have listened to them all night. Guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, a bass and several vocalists all performed. 

This was the 20th Annual Montana Fiddle Camp and there were a lot of students and fiddle and banjotheir families in the audience. I noticed a quote on their schedule - Keeping fiddle spirit alive, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. 

It was refreshing to see so many young kids learning to play instruments that aren't as common as some. 

There are several week-long camps where kids work in small groups with instructors. Each evening the instructors and students perform in concerts and dances. 

A good time - I will be back next year!





Charlie Russell Chew Choo Gets New Trestle
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trestle damageIn 2011, when spring runoff came downstream on the Judith River (the river I think should be called a creek because it is usually so small) it was devastating to many landowners. The Lewistown Chamber of Commerce, operator of the Charlie Russell Chew Choo dinner train, also had a loss when the Judith River trestle was basically destroyed.

This photo shows what a former straight track looked like after rushing water twisted the steel girders. It could have doubled for a roller coaster ride!

Water came so forcefully that it moved the piers, displaced the trestle deck and damaged two trestle towers. In a nutshell, the 100-year old trestle certainly wasn't safe. 

It took two and a half years of grant writing and lots of studying to get repair work started. Then it took from December 2013 to August 2014 to complete it.

Here's a bit of history on this short line railroad in the heart of Fergus County. It was originally constructed by the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway. Six 2-horse teams carried 20,000 pounds of building materials on a 25 mile trip. Foundation work was started in the winter of 1912 and they steam heated the gravel and packed straw around the concrete forms.  

Chew ChooThe new trestle construction saw some changes - over 100 years some things have changed! Although, the original steel girders were salvaged and reused. 

Today the Charlie Russell Chew Choo is running over the Judith River trestle, and a couple more, plus traveling through a tunnel. A prime rib dinner is served on board and strolling musicians entertain the crowd. Of course, train robbers love to lurk around trains so you just might see some of those too!

The Chew Choo runs every other weekend throughout the summer. Watch a video of the dinner train ride and find details at Charlie Russell Chew Choo.

Book your adventure through Central Montana soon.




Black Powder Shoot Near Havre
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Black powder signI travel to Chinook, Montana most Memorial Day weekends to connect with long-time friends and spend time with family. Each time I am on US Hwy 87 driving past the site of Fort Assinniboine near Havre, I see a sign about a black powder shoot.

How many times have I planned to stop and check it out and then decided I didn't have the time? Well, way too many so this Memorial Day I was determined to set aside some time to see the event.

I was on my way back to Great Falls when I turned at the sign for the black powder shoot. I wasn't sure how far I needed to drive but each time I came to an intersection there was a big red arrow directing me to the event.

As I drove through a gate off the gravel road I saw a lot of campers nestled in the cottonwood trees. I didn't see anything that looked like an event and I wondered if I had just unexpectedly joined a family reunion!

Before I went too far I saw a young man walking and asked him if I was in the right place. He assured me that I would see more people and some black powder shooters just around the corner. 

Black powder distance ahorI parked my car and grabbed my camera and a notebook. Several guys were sitting in chairs with spotting scopes and binoculars. Everyone seemed to be watching three guys with black powder rifles. I didn't want to barge in on anything but I wanted to get permission to get a bit closer and also to take photos.

Finally I caught someone's attention - OK, I probably was in someone's way - and I asked if it was all right if I was there. They assured me I could take photos, even get a little closer but then asked where my ear protection was. Darn, I didn't think about that but someone casually produced some ear muff-like protectors. 

I put the ear muff protectors on and wandered a bit closer. Jeez, for powder, that stuff made an amazingly loud boom! I was very thankful to have the ear muffs and won't even complain about how hot they were. 

Some of the shooters were dressed in period clothing from the mid 1800s, some wore regular clothes. While each match was going on nobody conversed much. I kept Tom Brown black powderwondering how I was going to figure out what they were shooting or how they scored. Everyone seemed to know except me!

Finally, there was a small break in the action and I was able to visit with some of the attendees.

Targets had been placed in different locations at specific distances. What I was watching was the longest distance shoot and that was 580 yards. Other targets varied from 270 yards to 368 yards.

There was a large whiteboard nearby with scores posted and the event was about to wrap up as soon as the last rounds were tallied. 

Different categories included shooting in specific distances but also with black powder round balls and then black powder cartridges. 

I visited with a shooter in period clothing and found out he made just about rifle resteverything he was wearing.

Several competitors had skills from blade smithing to woodworking. Many had made and donated items to be given as prizes for the competition. 

One interesting story about the prizes - a nearby area had a fair amount of beetle-kill pine trees. A shooter had harvested the trees and made chairs and shooting tables out of the wood. 

The Bullhook Bottoms Black Powder Club was formed in the 1970s. This was their 36th Annual Spring Shoot and it is an open invitation to other shooters. The Havre-based club also holds monthly shoots. 

The more I learned I realized this seemed like one big family.

Several people told me it was an open shoot and anyone was welcome to attend and participate. The event is always held Memorial Day weekend and it is family friendly. Black powder medallion

It is also open to spectators and I complimented the organizers on their signs - the sign near the highway was huge and at each possible turn in the few miles I drove there was a bright red arrow pointing the way for me.

It's about time I finally took time to attend this event. As I left I wish I had also seen the shooting action on the other two days.

Next year I just may have to stop earlier! 





Dinner With Wine Pairings at Elmo's Highwood Bar
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Highwood signWhen you mention the town of Highwood not everyone knows the location. They may have heard of the nearby Highwood Mountains which are easily viewed from the town or, some folks may have heard of their high school football team.

Well, Highwood is about 32 paved miles east of Great Falls.

There is a little creek that runs through the community (Highwood Creek) and the highway pretty much cuts through the middle of town. The main business in Highwood is probably Elmo's Highwood Bar.

Elmo's recently changed hands and the new owners changed the name of the place from just the Highwood Bar to Elmo's Highwood Bar.

I heard that the original bar was either named that or it was the name of the owner. No matter, the place is almost iconic in this small community.

Elmos tableAnother friend and I signed up for their Saturday night wine pairings with an Italian dinner.

Mark Tronson from Wines By Wednesday in Great Falls talked about each of the wines that were served and told us the region of Italy where the grapes for each wine were grown.

We tasted six wines in all, beginning with two varieties of white wine and moving on to some robust reds. Each table had maps showing the regions of Italy where the grapes were grown and some order forms if we wanted to purchase some of the wine served. 

We met some new friends who asked if they could join us at our table and we enjoyed a menu of spicy shrimp, bruschetta (this was superb!), penne pasta, beef steak and dessert. And, we enjoyed a nice variety of wine!

BruschettaI believe seating capacity at Elmo's Highwood Bar is 34. Word to the wise, when they schedule their next event be sure to get your reservation early because they ended up with a waiting list last weekend. 

It's about a 35 - 45 minute drive from Great Falls to Highwood - an easy scenic drive with rolling grain fields, lots of deer munching in the fields and views of an evening sunset that made me want to stop and take photos. 

Just getting out for a country drive was great. Better yet, I enjoyed some fine wines and yummy Italian food!

Give Elmo's a try when you are hungry for a steak. They schedule one kind of steak each Friday night so choose your favorite and make your reservation.



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