By Kevin S. Giles
Everyone has a hometown, or should, because it figures strongly in matters of the heart.
Mine is Deer Lodge, a dab of humanity in a seam between two rambling mountain ranges. Deer Lodge is a dwindling place, even smaller than my long-ago days there, but it stands proud before a mighty promontory known as Mount Powell in western Montana. It’s here, in a town with a real Main Street, where memories sleep and the fictional Summer of the Black Chevy takes place.
My favorite postcards show the downtown district through the years. It’s less robust now, but the buildings remain much the same, like history stood still.
Indisputably the treasure among those yesteryear facades would be the Rialto theater, revived from a near-death of fire and ashes to become one of the most remarkable stories of salvation that you’ll find anywhere. The community saved that theater, and in doing so,
preserved much of the town’s history and nostalgia — and most certainly its pride. The Rialto looks very much the same as it always did, restored to its pre-fire dignity, but outfitted with modern safety protection to guard against further catastrophic overheating of the popcorn butter machine at the snack bar.
Down the block stands another remarkable reminder of the past, the old Hotel Deer Lodge. It’s dark and leaky and empty but not forgotten. Local activists have reunited to save the 1911 railroad hotel, unused for 25 years. Will they succeed? We had better hope they do, because like the Rialto, the hotel “anchors” downtown Deer Lodge. Its potential role in the revival of the business district is vast – and the rebirth of the Rialto demonstrates that if residents of the town will pony up one more time, they can save the old hotel.
Deer Lodge also has Old Montana Prison, a museum of classic cars, and the Grant Kohrs Ranch managed by the National Park Service. Despite the amenities the town’s population has fallen 1,500 residents from its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. Empty storefronts and abandoned houses tell the story.
Five of my childhood houses remain standing. The sixth, actually the first we inhabited after moving to Deer Lodge from Columbia Falls, Montana, caught fire a few years back. The wrecking ball finished the job. Each of these houses represents a strata of memories from first grade through high school graduation. I recall each room and its furnishings, see my parents and siblings at the Christmas tree, hear their voices over dinner. It was a long time ago and yet seems like yesterday.
In Summer of the Black Chevy, I employ some of those scenes: my father’s recliner and his pipe that smelled like cherries, my cold bedroom, our kitchen where my mother’s cooking steamed the windows in winter, my writing of the all-orange kitchen that resembled our all-turquoise motif. Yes, I changed the colors.
We had the willow and cottonwood trees described in the book, and my father’s gray pickup, and a big shop out back with a bedroom built inside. In the book, it’s an old barn. In my real life, it was a free-standing garage where my prison lieutenant father kept a second job sharpening saws, skates, hay blades and everything else with a sharp edge.
In real life I occupied that bedroom in the garage for parts of my sophomore and junior years. It had no heat. On winter days, when I arrived home from school, I warmed the room with glowing wire coils in an ancient space heater. My mother, concerned I would set the garage afire, knocked frequently on the window to make sure I wasn’t asphyxiated.
When I was a boy I couldn’t imagine ever leaving Deer Lodge. When high school ended I couldn’t imagine staying. As the years passed I found room in my heart for both points of view. They say you can’t go home again – or at least Thomas Wolfe said so as he wrote a tale of an author estranged from his hometown.
Montana writers tend to draw on their personal experiences. I’m no exception. I live in Minnesota now but consider myself one of those Montana authors who showcase the Big Sky State. Montana is a long road, and it’s hard to shake the mountain dust off your heels when you knew it close and personal. I went back to Deer Lodge when writing Summer of the Black Chevy and stayed long enough to appreciate what my hometown gave me.
The waters run deep.
(Deer Lodge, an early mining center, is about 40 miles northwest of Butte on Interstate 90 and about 80 miles southeast of Missoula. To the southwest, about 25 miles away, sits Anaconda. Helena is about 60 miles to the northeast. Bozeman, Kalispell, Great Falls and Billings are farther. Anyone traveling to Glacier National Park or Yellowstone National Park will find Deer Lodge about halfway in between. Deer Lodge is home to Montana State Prison. The town, now about 3,200 residents, got its name from Indians who called it “lodge of the white-tailed deer.”)