Bits of Montana Wisdom (Part 5 of 5)

Flathead cherry trees dressed in their autumn finest (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

Flathead cherry trees dressed in their autumn finest (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

At a recent book signing, a gentleman who knew quite a bit about the Judith Basin country explained how Utica, a small town in the basin on the road into the Little Belt Mountains, received its name. He mentioned that one of the early arrivals onto that landscape thought folks would have to be crazy to live there. (We can’t figure out why, as it’s a beautiful piece of geography, but perhaps he showed up in the winter when strong winds were blowing and piling up drifts of snow). With that notion in mind, he picked the name of “Utica” to bestow on the community. His reasoning was that an insane asylum in New York was located in Utica.

Flathead Lake sweet cherries. Many people enjoy them, but very few understand how they can grow in such a cold climate. Simply put, it’s due to the microclimatic effect of Flathead Lake. While the ideal situation doesn’t always exist, it maintains itself enough most of the time to enable the cherries to flourish. In the spring when the area can have temperatures fluctuating between very warm and frigid, the lake, still cold from the long Montana winter, allows for the land to stay cooler so there isn’t the great rise in temperatures that might trick the cherries into growing and then a drop to freezing. By the time the trees commence blossoming, the landscape is entering its warming phase. Then throughout the summer months, the warm sun heats up Flathead Lake. In autumn, when killing frosts arrive, that heated water, slow to cool, allows the land to stay a bit warmer and protect the trees until they go dormant. These delicate cherry trees owe their existence to Flathead Lake.

On another subject, according to mostly retired Harry Fritz of the University of Montana – who was once recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as the top college history professor in the nation – the 1880s were the most significant decade ever in the state. Montana came of age in that decade, in part because of the arrival of the railroads, the discovery of copper in Butte and the gaining of statehood in 1889.

Incidentally, Fritz often discussed another important bit of history, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He tells of the first recorded encounter between a grizzly bear and white man from the east and the initial words uttered. It seems Lewis encountered the “big white bear” (the Hidatsa name for them) while near the Missouri, fired a shot and missed. In those days, reloading was a bit of a task, and as Lewis was attempting to get more shot in his rifle, the grizzly forced him into the water. The big bear for some reason didn’t come after the captain in the river and instead paced furiously back and forth on the bank. Lewis, not having ammo in his weapon, could only watch. His frustrated words to the bear were “Go Griz!” Thus the first words of support for UM’s athletic programs were now on record.

Rick and Susie Graetz | Department of Geography | University of Montana