Monday, October 27, 2014

History speaks: Re-enactors bring Missoula founders to life in Stories and Stones

History speaks: Re-enactors bring Missoula founders to life in Stories and Stones
photo courtesy of Kim Kaufman

When outlaw Cyrus Skinner moved to the village of Hellgate and began to terrorize the local residents, Christopher Higgins knew one way or another, someone had to put a stop to it. By 1864, the village had become know as one of the most violent places in the west.
“There was never more than 14 permanent inhabitants, but we had nine violent deaths,” Higgins told the audience. “I offered Skinner $50 in cold hard cash to get out of town. He should have taken the money.”
Cigar in one hand, cane in the other, the late Missoula founder walked and talked again as part of the annual Stories and Stones Historical Tour at the Missoula City Cemetery. He said when after Skinner refused the money, vigilantes found him and hung him at a gallows in Higgins’ corral.
“Justice was very quick in those days,” he said.
On Sunday, Higgins was portrayed by Bob Brown, former director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. The Missoula City Cemetery staff organizers the annual event. The vast majority of the 50 speakers on Sunday were playing the role of their characters, dressing up in period appropriate outfits and delivering first person reenactments of their tales.
“It’s just a wonderful venue, a wonderful opportunity to bring the history to life,” Brown said. “It’s about the stories, it’s not like sitting in class.”
Dennis Shanahan said he listened to a handful of the different presenters on Sunday, and said he really enjoyed Brown’s portrayal of Higgins. He said he learned that when Higgins first platted the roads in the University District, he named them after his nine kids, including Arthur, Gerald, Helen, Hilda, Ronald and Maurice. He also went to one of the talks on the history of the Wilma Theater.
“I didn’t know that there was a swimming pool there, in the bottom floor. Apparently there still is, it’s just covered up now,” he said.
The cemetery was established in 1884 and sold to the city in 1901, said sexton Mary Ellen Stubb, the historical record keeper.
Stubb said as many as 3,000 people show up at Stories and Stones every year.
“We started with just five storytellers, and a few dozen people watching. Now over 12 years later, we’ve grown to a peak of 50 different storytellers for the event,” she said.
Apart from sharing the history of the town, Stories and Stones is also about raising public awareness about the cemetery itself.
“That’s what all this is about, bringing awareness that we’re here.This is how Missoula was built, on the backs of the people here,” Stubb said.
Missoula’s cemetery still active today, with plot space left for more than a century worth of burials and history still to be written, Stubb said.
Stories and Stones ended Sunday with an uncertain future. Organizers said the event will not be held next year, as they take a year off to reexamine the work, time and cost that goes into putting it on.
“We just don’t know when or if it’s coming back. It just takes a tremendous amount of resources for our office,” Stubb said.
Just past the front gates of the cemetery Alessandra Alcala played the fife, a small wooden flute, and was dressed as a Civil War-era soldier.
She said she started playing in a fife and drum corp when she was 10 years old. Earlier in the year, Alcala, 17, sent in an audition video and was invited to travel to New York City to perform with the Macy’s Great American Marching Band, comprised of high-school aged students from all 50 states, in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Alcala is homeschooled, but is also currently taking music classes at the University of Montana. She said a background in playing the fife and drum led her to learn more about the history of the instruments and the role they played in the Revolutionary War and Civil War.
“Commanders and generals used them to send messages. They would use different tunes to tell the soldiers to retreat or when it was time to fire,” Alcala said.
To help fund her trip to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Alcala wrote and is performing a radio show-style production about the history of American music at the Missoula Community Theater on Nov. 13. More information about her trip can be found online at
Next to his gravestone, Frank Woody gathered a crowd to tell their story, Woody, portrayed by Allan Mathews, was born in North Carolina in the 1880s, and after making his way west, found a man who was taking supplies by oxen to the Hellgate area and Fort Owen.
“I came to Missoula, and saw 300 Indian teepees laid out in the valley.” he said. “I kept it in the back of my mind that this could be a good place for business.”
Woody went on to become the clerk of Francis Worden in Washington, and went with him and Higgins when they came to the region to found their trading post.
Over the course of the rest of his life, Woody would be serve as the postmaster, be elected Missoula’s first mayor, wrote the first history of Missoula, and serve as a judge. When she was involved in a murder attempt, Woody sentenced the infamous Mary Gleim – the “Madame of Missoula” who ran the red light district – to 14 years of hard labor, a decision later overturned.
On his death in 1916, Woody was the longest living resident of Missoula at the time.
Mathews said he always admired the character of Woody, and the beloved role he played in Missoula.
“He was such an early player, so I just started studying his character and doing presentations as him,” he said.
Woody will also be a central character in a book Mathews is working on. Mathews currently teaches a course with the MOLLI lifelong learning program at UM that takes classes on walking tours of Missoula’s history, and has also written a book on the subject, “A Guide to Historic Missoula.”
The character and history of Woody is one that is occasionally overshadowed by the two bigger named founders of the town in Worden and Higgins.
“He made up for it by outliving them all,” Mathews said.

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