A few weeks ago I was invited to tour a nearby area with some historic preservation folks.
They said the name of the little community was Korpivaara. I wanted them to think that I knew the Central Montana tourism region inside and out but this is one I had never heard of.
The day came, I was ready, and off we went. We drove first to Belt, Montana.
Belt is a small town about 20 miles east of Great Falls, basically a bedroom community of Great Falls.
We met at the Belt Mercantile, an absolutely charming art and gift store located in a historic building on Belt’s Main Street. I had seen their sign before but had never stopped in – my loss! I loved everything about this place from the artwork, the way it was displayed, the “inside outhouse” (you have to see it to believe it) and the great giftware for sale. The building has been restored beautifully too.
After coffee and some chat, we loaded into three vehicles and pointed our wheels towards Korpivaara.
When you aren’t driving it’s diffiicult to remember how many turns you took, what direction you were going and how many miles you went. We stopped frequently to see different architecture and also a community cemetary named Willow Bend. I had heard of the cemetary and actually knew two people who were buried there.
In the Finnish language Korpivaara translates to “potentially dangerous forest wilderness”. This area didn’t seem dangerous to me and it didn’t feel like a forest or a wilderness BUT the name would have been given to the community in the late 1800s.
Finnish people settled in the area beginning in the late 1800s, first coming to work in the coal mines and timber industry. After that more Finns came to the area to farm.
The Homestead Act was passed in the 1890s where people who improved the land could acquire 160 acres for a $16 filing fee. The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 added another 160 acres to that making a farm of 320 acres. That sounds good but when you realize that most farms in Finland were less than 22 acres it must have seemed like a gold mine. Then, you factor in the soil and moisture conditions and it doesn’t take long to wonder if many had a very hard life in Korpivaara.
This group I was traveling with wanted to see the Finnish architecture and we were not disappointed! In the area known as Korpivaara there really is a cohesive group of hand hewn log buildings, and most are quite well maintained. Lodgepole pine was the primary building material. I studied the corners of the buildings and wondered how they were done with no mechanized equipment. The entire area has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and I can see why.
Population of the area dwindled over the years due to sickness (influenza) among early settlers, drought, and bank foreclosure during the Great Depression.
Several places we visited are still lived in full time, others are cabins used in good weather and when winter weather conditions allow them to get in. One place even had a working sauna.
The geography of the area is varied, from high plains to mountains and that made for a beautiful drive. I may not have known the history of this area but I learned a lot and came away with a better appreciation for the people who settled here.
All in all, it was a fabulous day!