At the northernmost edge of the town of Red Lodge, Montana, a cabin hewn of logs and caulking sits amid a ring of river stones in front of the Red Lodge Visitor Center. If the old cabin were sitting deep in the woods at the end of a dusty road it wouldn’t draw a glance, just another hunter’s shack. But this cabin, right smack on the edge of town, located, incongruously, across the street from a Comfort Inn Motel is an out of place oddity. The little shack, built in 1888, is a time warp.
It wasn’t always there, just a stone’s throw from a traffic roundabout. In 1986 the cabin was moved from its original location some eight miles away, near the little town of Bearcreek.
The cabin’s builder and original owner, a man christened at birth, either John Jeremiah Garrison Johnston, or John Garrison, depending on the source, was born in New York State in 1824.
Vague history places Johnston/ Garrison, in the Mexican War as a sailor on a naval fighting ship. At some point during his service he struck an officer, deserted, changed his name to John Johnson and headed west to become a mountain man and wilderness guide. He later earned the sobriquet, “Liver Eating Johnson.” During the 1880’s, Johnson became constable of Red Lodge and over a century later, remains a local folk figure.
After a drive that saw 100 degree heat in Greybull, Wyoming; after the lightning in the Big Horn Basin; after the wild wind on the way north to Lovell; after the dust and sand storm in Deaver; after the rain that turned the windshield into the big muddy; and after the skies had cleared and the wind turned to a whisper outside of Bridger, Montana, we arrived at Red Lodge.
Red Lodge, population 2300, rests at the panoramic convergence of the High Plains and the Beartooth Plateau. Between Red Lodge and Billings, the nearest city, are sixty miles of rolling ranchland.
At any given time you can look towards one or more points on the compass and see a backdrop of snow topped mountains.
Route 308 crosses Rock Creek and enters the old coal mining town of Red Lodge at its southern end.
From 308, I turned right onto Route 212, Broadway in Red Lodge, and parked creek-side to figure out where we were and where our home for the next three days was located.
A squat, black wrought iron fence fronted the small, older house. The two story, green home had the steep sloped roof prescribed by the town’s annual 129 inches of snow.
The inside had a brilliant wood floor the color of chestnuts. The furnishings were simple, snug, and plush. The dining room featured a heavy, chunky wooden table.
A narrow twisting stairway groaned in that pleasant homey way of old country houses. Our bedroom, warmed by the afternoon sun, looked out over a wooden deck and a fair sized backyard.
Lexi hadn’t had a backyard to roam in over three weeks and she made the most of the opportunity, sniffing the grounds and lingering at the most interesting traces. The doggy joy was short-lived.
I sat in one of the Adirondack chairs on the deck enjoying a beer and the late afternoon sun while Lexi nosed around the yard. When I called she dashed to the deck, tried to take the steps in one leap and slammed into the top step.
She quivered, and she screamed a scream that I’d never heard from her before, a bottomless wail. No words, no petting, no hugging would calm her. She held up a front paw as if to show me where it hurt.
Fear and hope. The fear of a broken leg and the hope that there was an emergency veterinary hospital nearby. I picked her up as one would a little lamb, brought her into the house and placed her on her dog bed. The shivering stopped, the screams turned to whines, the whines to whimpers and then she hopped up, took some tentative steps and Cora and I breathed again.
From then on she wasn’t so fond of the backyard except to crap on it and lie down next to me when I sat on the deck.
The most welcome sight when we arrived, other than two beers left in the fridge, was the washer and dryer.
Cora gave in to a nosey impulse and poked around, “Looks like the basement in Home Alone.”
“Yeah, no scary furnace though. Stop snooping and mind your own business.”
For the past week we’d been doing bits and pieces of laundry in motel room sinks; socks and underwear to last for a couple days and then do it all over again. If the laundry wasn’t dry by morning it went into the back of the van to dry in the sun as we drove.
Cora had brought nearly enough of everything else to get her through almost the whole trip and a week or two beyond. I’d packed light and included Dri Fit shirts which I washed in the evening and were dry to wear by morning.
Now we could do a whole load and skip the hand washing for the remainder of the trip.
After we’d settled in, Cora relaxed, and I took Lexi for a walk up Broadway. It was just a few blocks to and through downtown.
Red Lodge, like many settlements in the plains and mountain states, had its beginnings through some sleight of hand by the United States Government, which, in a treaty consummated in 1851 ceded the area to the Crow Tribe.
And, as was often the case in the American West, when a mineral of any value sprang from the ground, the indigenous population drew the short stick.
With the discovery of coal, in what is now Carbon County, the U.S. government, in 1880, essentially said to the Crow Tribe, ‘we were just kidding,’ about that 1851 treaty, tore it up, and established a new treaty that allowed white settlement. Opening the territory up to white settlement wasn’t unlike throwing open the doors at Walmart on Black Friday – only on a grander scale.
The town was founded shortly after the Rocky Fork Coal Company set up mining operations in 1884. Red Lodge followed the blueprint of most frontier mining towns with an economy that was based largely on whatever was coming from below ground along with the collateral drinking and debauchery that happened above ground – not always above reproach.
During the heyday of riches and sin, Red Lodge hosted 20 saloons. Wild West celebrity visitors included William Jennings Bryan, Frederic Remington, Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill, along with an unwelcome visit by the Sundance Kid (Harry Longbaugh), who attempted to rob the local bank in 1897.
Mining only goes so far before Mother Nature’s largess gets depleted. By the early 1940’s the Red Lodge mining industry was played out.
A short stint of bootlegging under the medicinal guise of “cough syrup” during prohibition helped to prop up the economy until tourism, recreation and ranching gained traction.
While it isn’t a one horse town, Red Lodge is a no stop light town, with the frontier flavored quaintness that’s common to many of Western Montana’s small towns.
Like many small towns in America, Red Lodge has largely dodged the corporate footprint.
There are no Golden Arches, no Burger King or any other fast food royalty. Popeye doesn’t fry chicken in Red Lodge, there are no Churches save the ones that minister to the pious and the sinners, and the only colonels who live there were leaders of men, not fryers of chicken. No Pandas, no Dunkin, and no Starbucks. There are no lockers selling shoes and the only barns are of the working farm or ranch variety.
It isn’t as if fast food hasn’t gained a toe hold. A Subway Sandwich shop is tucked into a little corner next to the Silver Strike Casino. It’s just a little toe.
The town is made up of the usual suspects; a few tourist oriented shops, a mix of taverns, some of them divey and some bordering on frou-frou (you shouldn’t go all in on the frou-frou in Montana). Restaurants from coffee shops to a steak house, a bakery or two, the motorcycle shop, a museum and all of the mundane businesses and services that support any community.
On a movie theatre marquee the local candy store advertises huckleberry caramels.
Huckleberries are the big deal in Montana. One afternoon on the drive from Missoula to Ritzville, Washington, we stopped in St. Regis to take a break from the drive and the heat, and to sit in the shade sipping huckleberry milkshakes. Advertised as the best shake on Earth, they most certainly were on that broiling day. An iced cold beer would’ve run a distant second.
Just down the street from our Red Lodge home, I found a little coffee shop. Prindy’s Place is close inside, with a narrow passageway between a row of tables along one wall and a counter that looks over the flat top griddle, where slabs of butter melt into gleaming bubbling pools, bacon sizzles, dinner plate sized pancakes rise and various egg concoctions are hatched.
Prindy’s is where locals hunch over steaming bottomless cups of morning coffee and read the local news, on real newspapers. Some hellos, and some exchanges of gossip, good news and grumbles. I imagine that in winter it’s a place where the oven warms the body, and the cordiality the spirit.
We walked past the Red Lodge Cafe. A small hand scrawled sign offered the place for sale. The owners were headed for retirement. I remarked to Cora that maybe we should buy the place and make a go of it. We could turn it into a Filipino restaurant and have lines down the block 24/7. The whole world loves lumpia (a Filipino eggroll), lechon (whole roasted pig) and pancit (a noodle dish) even in rural Montana. Doesn’t matter that they’ve never tried it, they’ll eventually love it.
I seriously thought of my daughter though. Her dream is to own a bakery or a cafe.
I told Cora that I could stand to live in Red Lodge. It was all a joke of course. Cora is welded to the San Francisco Area and her stock answer is, “I’ll visit you.”
I was actually kidding myself with the suggestion. I don’t do well in the cold and I doubt that I would fare well in a Red Lodge winter. You have to spend a couple of winters to determine whether or not you’re up to shoveling snow, driving in snow, or running the daily risk of breaking your ass in a slip on a patch of unseen ice.
In Ennis, Montana we’d met a woman at the local Farmer’s Market who told us that she was a transplant from sunny Florida. She spent her first winters in Ennis hunkered down, wondering how the locals could survive just leaving a warm bed. And then one year she ventured out and was hooked. She told us how magical Christmas is. Well, yeah – compared to a palm tree yuletide in Florida.
Make no mistake, Red Lodge gets snow – and plenty of it. We briefly shared an outdoor lunchtime table with the Red Lodge Police Captain at a barbecue joint called The Hardwood Smokehouse. He told us that snow and skiers take up residence in October and don’t leave town until May. Summer brings the fishermen, the hikers, the campers, and the tourists who stop in town before making the drive over the hump of the Beartooth Highway into Yellowstone National Park.
After the barbecue lunch we visited the Carbon County Historical Museum, taking turns touring inside while the other sat with Lexi.
The docent, a prim woman, greeted me and explained the various exhibits, particularly the mining exhibit in the basement.
We briefly discussed the pandemic. She told me that COVID had barely touched Red Lodge, a claim belied by the masking regulations in some of the town’s businesses.
The museum relates the typical frontier mining town story; a tale of treaties with Native Americans made and broken, of rowdy times, the transition into more civilized times, the cycles of boom, bust and resurgence and, as is common with many of the mining towns that we’ve visited over the years, of a local mining disaster.
Just off Highway 308, between Red Lodge and Bearcreek, on a hillside of rocky ground and scrub grasses, sits the remains of the Smith Mine. We’d seen it when we first drove into town, wondering just what that eerie group of buildings could be.
During our last afternoon in Red Lodge, a day when the wind was just starting to kick up, I went to photograph the Smith Mine ruins.
A deep gully runs between the road and the mine, where a few cattle graze on the rough vegetation and wander among the tumbledown structures. I walked down the hill but well before I reached the bottom I was stopped by a barbed wire fence and a no trespassing sign.
On the morning of February 27, 1943, an explosion tore through the Smith Coal Mine, instantly killing 30 of the 77 miners working that day. But for three who escaped, the remaining men died from injuries suffered from the explosion, or from suffocation from carbon monoxide and methane.
The explosion resulted in 58 widows and 125 fatherless children. The oldest victim was 72, the youngest, 19. A woman from Bearcreek put 11 of her relatives to rest.
As I wandered the edge of the fence, the wind picked up, slamming together loose pieces of sheet metal. I paused and stared out at the scene across the gash that separated me from that ghostly place. The wind and clanging of metal on metal hit me with a chilling sensation. For a few moments I could almost feel the presence of spirits. I took one or two more photos and hastened back to the car.
Much of the life of “Liver Eating Johnson,” the owner of the little cabin at the north end of Red Lodge is a mash of mystery, wild west myth and Hollywood scripting.
One tale has it that during a battle with the Sioux, Johnson killed a warrior with his knife, which on removal from the dead man held a piece of liver that Johnson scraped into his mouth and swallowed.
The more sensational story, the one shared around campfires and barrooms, has it that Johnson’s wife, a young woman from the Flathead Tribe, was killed by members of the Crow. The story goes on to relate a vengeful Johnson embarking on a vendetta against the Crow, purportedly killing 300 warriors and eating their livers.
The latter story was the one adapted for the movie Jeremiah Johnson, which starred Robert Redford.
In an ironic twist, Johnson’s end came not in the rugged mountains where he spent most of his life, but in an old folks home in Los Angeles.
For his part, Johnson denied ever eating a human liver.
A farewell note was found in the Smith Mine. “Walter and Johnny. Good-bye wives and daughters. We died an easy death. Love from us both. Be good.”