Thursday, Aug. 15, Havre, Montana
Still in the land of the Blue Ponies.
They pronounce this place “Haver,” though it was named for Le Havre, the famed French port on the English Channel.
Like I mentioned yesterday, Havre began life as Bullhook Bottoms, an infinitely superior name by any estimation. When the Great Northern Railway proposed to make this a hub on its so-called “Hi Line” in the 1890s, railroad panjandrum James J. Hill wanted nothing to do with Bullhook Bottoms. That’s what Havre historian, writer and raconteur Robby Lucke told me today.
Samuel Pepin, a Quebec native, led a Francophone contingent which got behind the name Havre. Hill didn’t much like that, either, but acceded to it on the condition it was pronounced Haver.
So you have Haver, Montana.
This morning I left my slumbering family at the Walmart on the western approaches to town and walked 2.2 miles along U.S. 2 to the McDonald’s on the western edge of Havre proper. As topography goes, it’s like a mini rollercoaster, 1.1 miles uphill and then 1.1 miles downhill.
I left around 7:30, and it seemed like the sun was a safe distance away up in that big sky. By the time I got to the the place where the hill flattens out before beginning its descent into Havre, along the local outpost of the Montana Department of Transportation, it seemed I might reach up and touch it.
The sun was the least of my worries. I was too busy swatting at mosquitoes. Halfway up the hill, I imagined writing “by the time I got to the top, I had at least one mosquito bite on every exposed limb.”
That was a gross underestimation. By the time I hit the Herberger’s/Big R/Sears strip mall near the crest, I was flailing away spastically in a vain attempt to fend off the bloodsucking devils. I killed a dozen or so, but another 20 or 30 penetrated my feeble defenses. Never been so savaged by mosquitoes so early in the morning.
Most of yesterday was squandered in the preternatural chill of the McDonald’s on First Street.
At least I got a little work done. In the evening I left Max and Becky in the Behemoth and took a walk about town. I stopped at a place called Creative Leisure at the intersection of 1st Street and Fourth Avenue. Had a hell of a time finding the door. Two doors along First Street were barricaded by tomato vines and flowering plants. Finally I found my way in through the west-facing door adjacent to the parking lot.
Creative Leisure, by the way, is an awful name for a cool store. It’s an independent store of the kind that used to be called record stores.
They even got records. Paul Butterfield, John Mayall, Gary Clark Jr.
The scorching, in-your-face rhythm and blues emanating from the speakers perked me up. Owner Rick Linie came over and asked if he could help me.
I told him he could tell me whom I was listening to now. Barence Whitfield, Rick said with a smile. One of the best new albums he’s heard all year, he added.
Damn, it was low down and infectious.
I’d heard of Barence Whitfield, but guess I’d never heard Barence Whitfield. The album is “Dig Thy Savage Soul,” released this year on Bloodshot Records, and it jumped into my soul with a truculent abandon. I felt like it was 1983 and I had walked into the Arboria Records at the corner of East Beaver Avenue and Humes Alley in State College.
I asked Linie how long the store’s been here, and he said 20 years, I could hardly believe him. He said they’ve diversified their business over the years adding videos and then books and even getting into satellite-TV installation.
“We knew no one thing would be enough to keep us here,” he said.
Havre’s got its share of empty storefronts and shares many of the ailments you see all over small-town America. But Linie said merchants here are in a relatively advantageous position.
“For being a small town, we’re extremely fortunate,” he said. “We’ve got agriculture on the edges of town. We’ve got the (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) railroad,which provides a lot of high-paying jobs. We’ve got the university (Montana State-Northern), the hospital and we’ve got Indian reservations.”
The main reservation here is Rocky Boy’s, named for the Chippewa chief who fought to establish a reservation for the Chippewa-Cree people in the early 20th century.
The native peoples, Linie said, are a godsend for local merchants generally and Creative Leisure specifically.
“They provide a massive amount of business, 50-60 percent of our business,” he said. “And it’s cash business. They don’t do downloads and don’t watch Netflix and stuff like that.”
Rick had to leave, and we shook hands and said goodbye. I chatted a bit with Jacob Holden, a recent graduate of Havre High School. The store’s been open longer than he’s been alive.
He’s 18 and headed to MSU Northern this fall, but said he plans to get out of town and experience someplace bigger, i.e. Missoula or Bozeman, after his freshman year.
His family owns Holdens Hot Wheels across First and just to the east. They sell car stereos and other automobile accessories.
“I’ve worked here for two and a half years,” Jacob said. “It’s a cool place. I can do my homework while listening to my music or watching a movie. I’m surprised how much business we have. Even in the age of Netflix and illegal downloads and all it’s not enough to keep us out of business.”
I told Jacob I just might return tomorrow, because I really like the vibe here. Then I left and walked a couple blocks east to Gary and Leo’s grocery store, wandered the aisles and bought a head of broccoli, a pint of milk and a jar of Tostitos spinach dip, a recently discovered guilty favorite that even Max likes.
As I embarked on the return trip westward, the sun, obscured by a bank of pillowy clouds, hung stubbornly in the western sky. It wasn’t as hot as it had been a few hours ago, but it was hot enough. Bells clanged as a BNSF freight train wobbled through the heart of town, disappearing temporarily behind the grain elevator as it passed under the bridge to North Havre.
I returned to McDonald’s, where Becky and Max were hanging in the Behemoth. We then took a driving tour of town, heading generally uphill and southward until we reached the American Legion baseball park
Then we drove back into town and over the bridge into North Havre, which sits across the Milk River and 43 miles south of the Canadian border. The town got its start here, Lucke said, but the bluffs looming just a few blocks to the north presented a barrier to growth.
So in 1893, when Jim Hill and the Great Northern Railway agreed to place their hub here, Havre was born on the south side of the river.
This morning I left McDonald’s around 9:30 and headed east on foot. I walked along Third Street for about 1.5 miles. I was looking for a fellow named Charles Gallus, whom my buddy Ryan said I should talk to. He used to live in a decaying house at 112 Third Street, but a neighbor I talked to said he sold it and moved into a low-income housing complex up on the hill south of town.
I walked on, availing myself of the shade provided by ample trees. I ran across a historical writer named Gary Wilson during my Internet rambles, and found out he lives on the 14 hundred block of Third Street. I walked all the way there, knocked on the door of a simple, one-story home and received no answer.
Then I walked back to First Street and the gas station/convenience store/casino/RV park. I found a pay phone and dialed the number for Mr. Gallus. I got a message saying the Clarks weren’t home. I dialed a backup number Ryan had provided. A couple rings later, Brenda Skornogoski answered. She was very nice. We’d talked for a few minutes when the line went dead. I put in another 50 cents and dialed her number. She said Robby Lucke is a great storyteller and suggested I see if he might talk to me.
I did, and Robby graciously agreed to meet me at the Van Orsdel Methodist Church on Fifth Avenue. I thanked him, hung up and trudged a mile back to the church, where we talked for more than an hour and he filled my head with lots of colorful history.
His grandfather, Lou Lucke, opened a dry goods store here in 1903. It operated for more than 60 years until Robby’s dad died in a freak car accident at the family camp in the Bear Paw Mountains in 1964.
I’ll have lots more about the Luckes (pronounced “luckies”) and Havre later.
Now it’s time to get out of this sterile environment and into the blistering heat of the northern plains.