As you gaze out upon the vast expanses of land surrounding Bozeman, Livingston and Big Sky, Montana, it’s easy to conjure up images of what life must have been like back in the day, back as far as hundreds of years ago. You can envision Native Americans hunting buffalo that grazed upon the plains beneath the wide-open sky. You can imagine wagons rolling in with pioneers gritty and weary from the trail, yet ever so hopeful of making a new life in this land full of promise and plenty. Stop and listen to the thunder of the hooves stomping across the prairie from the first cattle drive–some 1,000 longhorn strong–making its way through what was once known as “hostile Indian territory.” The steam whistle from a Northern Pacific Railway (NPR) train chuffing through the valley could also be heard around and about those days toward the end of the 1800s.
With the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, America’s first national park, this part of Montana was quickly becoming a busy place. But it was not an easy feat to access the park, even after the arrival of the NPR. Stagecoaches played a vital role at that time, horse–drawn modes of transportation that operated up until 1917 when all park transportation was converted to motor vehicles. Check out the Yellowstone Historic Center Museum in West Yellowstone to learn about these early forms of transportation to this area.
Yes, this region is a bastion of great American West history and you’ll have an even more rewarding time of it here if you keep that in mind when you’re out and about creating memories and stories of your own.
Take Bozeman, for example, the fourth largest town in Montana–named after John M. Bozeman. In addition to being the town founder in 1867, he is also credited with having established some of the Bozeman Trail, a route connecting the Montana gold rush territory to the Oregon Trail, the main pathway to the West. Cowboys and cattlemen clearly brought a lot of prosperity to this western town as you can see from looking at the handsome old buildings, most of which were built during the latter part of the nineteenth century, brick beauties that distinguish the Bozeman of today. Some are even characterized by Art Deco and Art Moderne architectural features, sure signs that this town’s glory days flowed well into the twentieth century. Fortunately historic downtown Bozeman has been carefully restored and has become a vibrant place for shopping, dining, cafe going and brewpub fun. (This being a college town–the home of Montana State University–the craft beer and distillery scene here is as big as the skies above.)
The aforementioned pioneers settled in Bozeman largely for its fertile valley. Around the 1930s, Bozeman blossomed into the sweet pea capital of America. Go figure? This agricultural activity played a significant role in people’s lives, something you can learn about from at least one book sold at Country Bookshelf, Montana’s largest independent bookseller. Today, remnants of it remain within the Sweet Pea Festival that takes place every summer. Aside from the name, it doesn’t have much to do with peas but it does have a lot to do with the delicate sweet pea flower and during festival time, you’ll see flowers all over. It’s also about fun in the form of music, art, theater and other types of creative expression. A variety of food concessions also keep people happy. (Note that the Tater Pig wins hands down as most people’s favorite. It’s composed of a cored Gallatin Valley potato stuffed with a juicy breakfast sausage, baked and then topped with sour cream, butter, chives and bacon bits. Vegetarian versions are offered as well–maybe they’re called Pigless Taters. hahaha) The Sweet Pea Festival Parade, one of the highlights of this happening time, is not to be missed, largely for its many colorful floats decorated with flowers.
For an excellent overview of the history of Bozeman and that of southwest Montana in general, visit the Gallatin History Museum on West Main Street. In addition to a real jail and gallows (yes, life was rough back in dem der days), the museum tells the history of the many American Indian tribes that inhabited the Gallatin Valley before white people arrived. Then all changed once the first explorers and Lewis and Clark passed through. Their collection of old photographs is particularly rich, and the museum’s bookstore is brimming with hard-to-find books (and a few bestsellers) that document the rich history of this fascinating land.
For really old history, go to the Museum of the Rockies, also in Bozeman, to experience one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur fossils. Their permanent indoor and outdoor regional history exhibits are also of interest to kids and adults.
Over in Livingston, you’re sure to be enchanted by its charm and small-town feel. It’s far from a hole-in-the-wall and, in fact, some of America’s biggest celebrities have chosen to call it home. Originally founded as a small railroad outpost in 1902, the Livingston Depot is a happening place for rail enthusiasts and fun seekers alike. In addition to a museum that tells the story of how the NPR once serviced Yellowstone National Park through Livingston, the northern gateway to our beloved American treasure, all kinds of cultural events take place here. This, plus the fact that there’s still plenty of rail traffic passing through, make the Livingston Depot a vibrant place indeed.
You can find even more history at the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, a distinguished stop on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Walk along wide Main Street of Livingston and imagine what life was like back in the day of this old ranching and railroad town. It’s not hard because the buildings are so beautifully preserved. One thing is for sure:Livingston Peak still looms large over town from just about every angle. Thank God. And it’s oh-so inspiring.
Over in Big Sky, the white man’s imprint doesn’t date back nearly as far. But as you find yourself within the magnificent nature that surrounds you in and around this resort, it’s easy to envision Native Americans, hunters, trappers and colorful mountain men passing through and sometimes even camping a while on these lands. Yes, it’s that beautiful.
And thanks to the renowned newscaster Chet Huntley who founded Big Sky Resort in 1973, this pristine area has become a prized play land for us all.