Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Babb is the farthest north of the three “resort” towns along the reservation/Park boundary and the least dependent on tourist traffic. The St. Mary’s valley opens to the north, draining into Hudson’s Bay (one crosses the Hudson’s Bay Divide, a high forested ridge, to get into the valley -- which is why the indigenous people called it “inside”). Babb is the last community before entering Canada and relates closely to Cardston, the Mormon community on the Alberta side. Three sorts of uniforms are seen around Babb: Park rangers, border patrol/customs, and highway patrol. One highway patrolman kept hitting on the local waitresses until they served him a specially baked cake loaded with chocolate Ex-Lax. Soon he transferred out.

Originally, around 1874, Babb was a whiskey post that attracted customers even from the Kootenay side of the Rockies. The broad flood plain by the town was sometimes a battlefield when enemies arrived at the same time. More recently, the town was famous for the Babb Bar where usually one could observe pickups, motorcycles and horses in equal numbers, all parked outside while their operators enjoyed the inside. If things got a little too rowdy, the (female) cook came out with a cast iron frying pan and restored order. Once some of the younger and more high-class clientele of the hippie era were enjoying a round-table and began discussing bars they had known and loved on several continents. Their two favorites were the No-Name Bar in Sausalito and this one, the legendary Babb Bar. Nevertheless, times change and Bobby Burns decided to upgrade, replacing the bar with a rather fabulous dinner club decorated with dream-catchers and an elegant fresco of Blackfeet history.

Now named for Cyrus C. Babb, who supervised the St. Mary Irrigation Project that diverted water to the Montana side and that is now disintegrating, endangering the futures of the towns and ranchers all along the High Line, the town was earlier called Main. Orrin S. Main married Isabel, the sister of George Starr and the daughter of Frank Pablo, influential men with Mexico in their background. In 1885 when the Riel Rebellion failed and the Red River Nation dispersed through Montana, several Metis and Chippewa families took refuge here.

In the early part of the 20th century, before the Thronsons, the Telleferos operated a branch of the Sherburne Mercantile. In those days horse-rustlers and other outlaws (notably Big Nose George) hid out near Chief Mountain, dodging back and forth over the international boundary. Mrs. Tellefero kept a shotgun leaning against the head of her bed. Mr. Tellefero told colorful stories of men down on their luck who occasionally slept on the store counters. They never stole anything. It was a strangely mixed time.

Babb supports a school, two churches (Methodist and Catholic), an Emergency Medical Team that has a key to the border gate so they can get to the Cardston hospital in a hurry even in the middle of the night, a year-round grocery store, and a post office. Nearby Duck Lake is surrounded by seasonal and permanent homes where many Canadians as well as locals love to ice fish all winter. Sometimes they love it so much that they fail to get off the ice soon enough in the spring. A scuba-diving club used to enjoy an annual tour of the sunken tangle of huts and pickups on the bottom of the lake. Evidently they provide excellent habitat for the fish. The economy got a boost when the Duck Lake Road from Browning was finally paved throughout. Tourist businesses had blocked the paving of a rough stretch in the middle so that people would stay on Highway 89, but it’s a winding, climbing, difficult highway and finally the much more gradual and wide Duck Lake Road was finished for the sake of the people who lived along it.

The key family in Babb was the Thronsons, who had originally come to the Montana High Line to homestead, but starved out in the early part of the 20th century. Rather than retreating back east, they hit on the idea of summer tourist accommodations and built a series of little one-room cabins in Babb. Every morning water and wood had to be carried to each porch and the sheets were boiled and scrubbed by hand over a wood fire. These exceedingly hard-working and frugally living people have persisted (and some of the cabins have as well), sending their children off to college. As it happened, I was serving the Methodist church when both Oscar and his wife died. One of Oscar’s claims to fame was that the famous Father Van Orsdel came to visit and was assigned to sleep with Oscar, who was a teenager at the time. It was considered a great honor, so be careful how you tell the story. Mrs. Thronson was buried with her fondest possession, a red patent-leather purse that she carried everywhere. Her children put inside it a rock from the top of Chief Mountain and another from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, both personally collected by them. The Thronsons were laid to rest in Great Falls, not far from Charlie Russell’s grave.

At the new Babb School two giant Bob Scriver sculptures have found a home. They were cast in fiberglass by Gordon Monroe. One is “An Honest Try,” a bucking bull with Bill Cochran on it; the other is the trademark bucking horse of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The sculptures cannot be placed in Browning because of vandals.


bigjonnyc said...

Nice post, I am a new comer to Babb and enjoyed the history lesson.

Gunither Grumbine said...

Educationally sound...