Jackson & Wisdom: Montana Originals
By Bethany Tafoya – University of Montana- Davidson Honors College
Placed in the Big Hole Valley between the Beaverhead and Anaconda Ranges and the Pioneer Mountains, Jackson and Wisdom are a vestige of the past. Old West towns with saloon dramas, rival shop owners, Indian wars, and fires, they had it all.
Originally called “the Crossing” for its place at the crossroads of trails leading to Gibsonville, ID and the Bitterroot, Wisdom began as a small homesteading town in 1880. With a post office, mercantile, and in 1924 a ranger station, it was a place for ranch families to come to town and receive news, mail, and supplies.
Jackson, named after the town’s first postmaster, Anton Jackson, was in many ways a little Wisdom. Smaller, but still having its own post office and ranger station, Jackson went through booms and busts in its early days. Ultimately, it never grew as big as Wisdom and the ranger station is no longer there.
In 1806 William Clark and the Corps of Discovery were the first white men to travel through the Big Hole and what was to become Jackson, but they were by no means the first to know of it. Native Americans had long used and called this place “land of big snows.”
Aptly named, the valley in which Jackson and Wisdom sit receives copious amounts of snow in the winter. It is due to this volume of snow that Native Americans did not stay here. They came in summers for the bighorn sheep bands and elk herds but travelling through the valley in winter with so much snow and so little definition was treacherous.
Today people live in Jackson (population 36) and Wisdom (population 91) year-round. Spring and summer bring anglers fishing the Big Hole River, hikers passing through on the Continental Divide Trail, and cyclists on both the Continental Divide Trail and the Trans-American Trail.
Anglers are lured to the Big Hole by various species of trout and the Wild Fluvial Arctic Grayling—a fish now rare in the lower 48. Requiring very cold water-temperature, the Big Hole River boasts one of the last wild populations of the fluvial variant. Stream temperatures remain cold owing to snowmelt from the heavy winters.
To cyclists, Jackson has become known as the “frontier outpost.” Located on the Great Divide Trail (a bike trail covering the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico), as well as the Trans-American Route (a trail from Astoria, OR to Yorktown, VA), many cyclists stop at Jackson’s old hotel now called “the Bunkhouse” to rest and refuel before continuing their ride.
Hikers too, pause their journey on the Continental Divide Trail to stop and soak in the hot springs and spend a night out of the elements, either at the Hot Springs Hotel or the Bunkhouse.
Fall brings hunters to the valley’s elk herds and winter recreation brings travelers to Jackson. Thirty minutes from both Lost Trail and Maverick Mountain Ski Resorts, as well as Chief Joseph Pass, a popular spot for Nordic skiing, Jackson Hot Springs offers a way to relax after a day of winter activities.
Jackson and Wisdom have one of the most impressive views of any Montana town. Its intermountain valley geography sets it in the midst of the Big Hole with the forested West Pioneers as an eastern backdrop and the rapidly rising ice-sculpted Beaverhead Range on the western side. Many roads that access the Beaverhead are within easy reach of the two towns. Some lead to public campgrounds while others to hiking trailheads and lakes. The Beaverhead Range stretches for over 100 miles, carrying the Continental Divide and forming the Montana-Idaho border in the process. Whether hiking, mountaineering, fishing, snowmobiling, etc. the Beaverhead is a place of grand scenic beauty.
When William Clark passed through, he and his men experimented with the boiling water. They discovered meat could cook in twenty-five minutes and leave your hand in for less than three seconds.
Buffalo Gal Hat Company is a must-stop in Jackson. Specializing in handmade hats, it also has a selection of clothing and homewares that make attractive gifts.
Raising beef cattle comprises much of the economy in Jackson and Wisdom. Cow-calf operation ranches have been passed down from generation to generation with some being in the same family for over 100 years. Wild timothy hay is also harvested, yet its growing season is only about eighteen days. Once cut and baled, it can be seen dotting ranches the valley wide. Tall haystacks looking like loaf of bread, that gave the Big Hole its original epithet, “Land of the 10,000 Haystacks” Can still be found but today, however, there are far more hay rolls than stacks.
A US Forest Service ranger station located in Wisdom also provides employment-- about 20 to 30 people full-time and more in the summers. Ten miles west of the station, tourists come to see the Big Hole Battlefield memorializing the Nez Perce War of 1877. The visitor center overlooks the site and provides a glimpse into both the Native American and US Army sides of the battle through interactive displays and the award-winning film Weet'uciklitukt: There's No Turning Back.
In their early days, Jackson and Wisdom were kept alive in the summer by hay hands and in the winter by families who moved into town so that their children could attend school.
Now families stay on the ranches. Once students reach high school, they no longer attend the one-teacher school in town but catch a 5:30AM bus for an approximate 140-mile round trip to Dillon.
Wisdom and Jackson are community centers for the Big Hole. The Wisdom Women’s Club was created in the early 1900s as a place for visiting ranchers’ wives and daughters to rest, read, and chat while the men tended to business. Dancing on Saturdays in Owen Ellis’ dancehall and saloon, and horse-racing on Sundays (for the heathen) were also popular activities back in the day.
Today, the Big Hole Valley Association in Jackson and Wisdom hosts several events that bring the valley and surrounding areas together throughout the year. Some of these are Ski-juring in the winter (cowboys on horseback pulling skiers through courses and over jumps), Turkey Shoot in autumn, and Fireman’s Ball in March. Residents of Dillon, Darby, Hamilton, and Butte are likely to come as well as folks who grew up in the Big Hole. These events are reminiscent of old-time get-togethers and a reminder of the towns’ roots.
Fires have changed what Wisdom looks like today. Most destructive of all, the fire of 1950 burned about half of the buildings on Main Street, including Clarence Stowbridge’s “Wisdom Mercantile” before being put out.
Though some of the original buildings may be gone from Jackson and Wisdom, the atmosphere of the Old West remains alive. Hay is still cut and stacked, multi-generational ranches still belong to the same families, and rodeos and valley-wide celebrations are still held. When you visit Wisdom and Jackson today, you will find them to be what Montana was at one time. The real Montana is still alive and well here.
Bethany Tafoya is a freshman in UM’s Davidson Honors College majoring in Linguistics and minoring in Art History & Criticism and working towards a certificate in graphic design