Bitterroot valley communities


 Big Hole Road :   Story of the first automobile trip across the Big Hole Road in 1914.

is located at the south end of the valley, on the East Fork River, and is 16 miles from the Idaho border on Highway 93. It is known historically as Ross' Hole because a Hudson Bay fur trader, Alexander Ross, spent the severe winter of 1824 in the area. Sula is best known for being the place where the Lewis and Clark expedition met the Shoshone Indians. Sula was originally settled by Jacob Wetzsteon and his large family of sons and daughters.  Ross Hole

Darby is located 19 miles north of Sula on Highway 93. It was first settled in 1882 and on July 4, 1888, the valley's southern-most town, officially became the town of Darby. It was originally called Doolittle, then Harrison, because there was already a Montana town named Harrison, the local postmaster, James Darby, sent in his name. The name was accepted and the town became Darby. At that time, the town consisted of a general store, saloon, livery stable, and a boarding house. The town grew, and at various times, there was a bank, drug store, newspaper, theater, bakery and doctor's and dentist's offices located in Darby. 

    Probably the main reason for the changes in Darby businesses was a fire that swept through the town, destroying everything except the old Miles building on Main Street. It was later remodeled and became a grocery store. 
    Darby began as a mining and fur trading town, gradually changing to logging, agriculture, and cattle ranching. In 1910, Tiedt, Gus Gorus, Ostragren and Boyd Gibford had successful apple orchards around the town of Darby. In 1917, Darby became incorporated and James W. Piece, the local blacksmith, became the first mayor. In 1930, Darby had the first all woman town council in the state. 

    Electricity came to the town in 1932, the water system in 1959, and the sewage and sanitary lagoon in 1963. U.S. Highway 93 because Darby's main street in the mid 1930's. 

    In early days, there were several small schools in the Darby area, usually within walking distance of each small settlement. Darby began with a typical one-room school. It now has a large school complex with a high school, junior high, and elementary school and two gymnasiums.

Grantsdale was founded by Henry H. Grant whose family traced their ancestry to General Ulysses S. Grant. Henry Grant came to the Bitterroot Valley in 1884, to a 160-acre farm on Willow Creek, east of Corvallis. Later he sold that land and moved to the Skalkaho area where he purchased a grist mill and several hundred acres of land. He remodeled the mill and produced quality flour with the brand name of "Home Favorite." In 1885, the town was surveyed and platted, at the request of H.H. Grant, and thereafter the town was known as Grantsdale. On the property, he built a 2-story hotel where he lived with his wife and 10 children, and rented rooms and served meals to boarders.

    H.H. Grant was very concerned with educational affairs and served on the Board of University Regents for Montana. During the years from 1891 through 1895, there was much discussion concerning the placement of the units of the University system. Grant wanted the State College at Grantsdale and offered to donate land for the college, but politics entered the picture and Montana State College was located at Bozeman, and Montana State University was placed in Missoula.

  Hamilton, the county seat, is located 18 miles north of Darby, on highway 93. It was established by Marcus Daly, the Butte copper mining magnate, in the late 1880's when he came to the valley in search of timber to supply his copper mines on the east side of the Continental Divide. He purchased small sawmills west of the present site of Hamilton to serve his timber operations and established the town to serve the mill. Marcus Daly began buying land in the valley in 1886, and, in 1887, he purchased 28,000 acres of land on which he built his summer home and his Bitter Root Stock Farm. The farm was devoted to his hobby of breeding and racing thoroughbred horses.

    In 1890, Marcus Daly brought James Hamilton and Robert O'Hara from Minnesota to plan and develop his dream town. Daly named the town for James Hamilton,  and Robert O'Hara was named the first mayor when the town was incorporated in 1894.  Hamilton was a "company town" revolving around the activities of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) and the Bitter Root Stock Farm. Most of the residents worked for the Daly enterprises, living in "company" homes and shopping in "company" stores.

    Marcus Daly began the development of an valley irrigation network that gave rise to the "Big Ditch Boom" which ran from 1906 through 1915. This grandiose irrigation and land development scheme was promoted by Chicago developers, Sam Dinsmore, W.I. Moody, F.D. Nichols and L. Burns, who invested in the building and management of the Big Ditch irrigation system. The ditch company had acquired much of the land to be irrigated and would have purchased more, if the state owned land in the Three-mile area (west of Stevensville) hadn't been priced so high ($10 per acre).

    Slick salesmen and misleading literature promising fertile land and a good climate for growing fruit trees (mainly apples) attracted many unsuspecting farmers. Prospective buyers came by train, were wined and dined, and taken on tours of the speculative fruit orchard land. The prospective buyers were told they could make $4,000 a year (a lot of money in those days), but failed to mention how many years it would take before a producing orchard was established. Farmers planted acres of trees but the irrigation system installed by the speculators did not provide enough water for the trees to survive and most of the trees died. After a short time, many buyers realized they would not be able to make a living, so they walked away from their land to find other employment or moved away.

    After running out of accessible timber, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company Mill closed in 1915. By 1917 the irrigation district and speculators were having financial problems and the boom went bust. The economy went into decline but Hamilton survived due to timber production, dairy farms, and farms producing fruit, berries, vegetables and potatoes. The biggest boost to the valley economy came when the U.S. Forest service employed many people to oversee thousands of acres of government owned forest and the Rocky Mountain Laboratory was established in 1927 to research the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Corvallis, originally called Sunflower City, probably because the good fertile soil grew sunflowers, was later named Chaffinville. It is located in the heart of the valley, about 6 miles north of Hamilton on the East Side Highway. The East Side Highway was once the main route through the valley and on the way to the Daly Mansion from Missoula. The present U.S. Highway 93 was originally the railroad bed for the Northern Pacific Railroad. The tracks are now located east of the East Side Highway.

    Corvallis is one of the oldest communities in the state and was founded in 1866 by a settlers from Kentucky and Missouri.  Slack, Mitchell, Strange, Goff and others, led by Ellijah Chaffin, moved to the valley by wagon train from Oregon. Ellijah Chaffin was the first to arrive in Corvallis with his wife Margaret (Mitchell) and their children in 1864. They stayed the winter then went on to Oregon to see if he liked it better there. From Oregon, he led a wagon train back to the Bitterroot Valley. Coming with Elijah and family were: Catherine & William (Billy) Strange; Cortez and Sarah Jane (Strange) Goff and son Willie; Elijah's brother Amos; Milton Chaffin and family; Ison Robinson; Bill East; Sandy Cowan; John McCarty; and Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester Strout. Ellijah and Milton Chaffin settled in the "Sagebrush" district, located 5 miles north of town, then, in 1867, they moved to farm land near Corvallis, where most of the Chaffin descendants were born.

    Tom B. Rollins was the first post master and established a store in 1869. He operated the store until he went broke, and was succeeded by William McWhirk from Missoula. A man named Blake operated a blacksmith shop and "Doc" Tibby ran a saloon. Farming was the main source of income with farmers growing a variety of crops. One of the remaining apple orchards is the Swanson Orchards which originated in 1908 and is the largest orchard in the Bitterroot Valley. A few farmers raised sugar beets from 1918 to 1919, but the primary crop was wheat. Several factors led farmers to quit raising sugar beets. Grain prices were high and there was a market for grain during WWI. The distance from the fields to the rail road, located on the west side of the valley, was too far for the farmers to transport more than one wagon load of beets per day, which didn't make the crop economical for the farmers to continue raising beets.

    The first Protestant chapel in the valley was started in Corvallis by Rev. William D. Lear in 1881. It was the Christian (Campbellite) church then later was used as a community hall and meeting place for the Corvallis Ladies Aid and Womens Club. The building is now an eating place called "The Memories Cafe." It is decorated with old farm implements and pictures of people, places and events of people who lived in and around Corvallis.

    Otto E. Quast was instrumental for the re-introduction of the cultivation of sugar beets in the valley in the late 1920's. He got the agreement of the area farmers to commit a portion of their acreage to sugar beets. By 1928 the rail road had been moved from the west side of the valley to the east side, which reduced the time spent by farmers to haul the beets to the rail road beet dump. The beets were taken to Missoula by train to the Great Western Sugar Company refinery to be processed into sugar and molasses. The beet tops were used for cattle feed. Quite a few Bitterroot valley farmers prospered raising beets: the Hagen brothers, Jim Winters, Gib and Morris Strange, Ed O'Hare, Norris Nichols, Albert and Joy Wood, Otto Quast, and W.S. Bailey, to name a few.

    During the 1920's, The Cheese Factory on the west edge of Corvallis became the largest cheese factory in the United States. The business moved to Stevensville in 1954. The building is now the site of the Cheese Factory Garage.

Stevensville is the oldest town in Montana. St. Mary's Mission was the first permanent white settlement in Montana and was established in 1841 by Jesuit missionaries. They were led by Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, who was asked by the Salish Indians to come to the valley. St. Mary's was the first church and the first school in the Northwest. The missionaries were responsible for establishing agriculture, cattle raising, the first flour mill, the first sawmill, the first distillery of camas root for medicinal purposes, and the first pharmacy.

    Major John Owen, a trader with the army, established Fort Owen in 1850 and it served as a trading post for trappers, miners, settlers and Indians for 20 years. Owen served as an Indian agent as well as being a credit manager, banker and merchant. He kept a daily journal of life on the frontier. In 1893, the legislature created Ravalli County from Missoula County and was named in honor of Father Antony Ravalli. Father Ravalli was an Italian, a Ferrarese, who was 15 years old when he entered the Jesuit order and came to St. Mary's in 1845. He had knowledge of surgery, pharmacology, medicine, and mechanics, as was versed in literature, the natural sciences, and many other fields.

    Stevensville was founded in 1860 by John Winslett and others. He was a native of Georgia and came to the Bitterroot in 1865, after spending several years in the California gold fields as a freighter and trader. John Houk and John Winslett ran Stevensville's first general merchandise store, which served as the polling place in 1867.

    The first white woman to come to the valley was Mrs. George Dobbins in 1861. Their daughter Lauretta, born in 1862, was the first white child in the valley, and the first boy was Alec Chaffin, born in 1864, the son of the Elijah Chaffins of Corvallis. The lack of material available to make clothing was of great concern to Mrs. Dobbins, who came from the east. She was even more concerned her that she could not buy stockings in the stores so she had to make hers from gunny sacks because no proper lady would go without them.

Edwin C. Smalley, a Stevensville druggist and a representative to the Montana state legislature, introduced House Bill 16 to create "The County of Bitter Root." It was to be taken from the south end of Missoula County. The bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor J.E. Richards and Stevensville was designated to the the county seat.  In the general election ballot the election of November 1898, the people voted to make Hamilton the seat of county government in Ravalli County.

Victor is located beneath the shadow of St. Mary's peak. It was originally named Garfield, in honor of President James A. Garfield, by Frank Woody, Missoula Probate Judge and attorney for the NP Railroad.  It was later renamed for Chief Victor of the Salish tribe. In the mid-1860's, A. Sterne Blake and his Shoshone wife came to the valley and were among the original founders of Victor. Blake was the first elected state legislator from Missoula County, of which Victor was then a part. The town of Victor came into being in 1881 because of the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad through Missoula and the discovery of silver in the area. Silver fever became rampant and several men who had mining experience realized access to a railhead was needed to haul the ore to smelting facilities. During the winter of 1885-1886, Christopher Higgins, Washington J. McCormick, and John Hickey pooled resources to keep 4 teams of horses and teamsters to haul ore to the Missoula railhead. 

    By 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad had reached Missoula from the West coast. Because the NP Railroad charter prohibited its own building branch lines, Samuel T. Hauser and others arranged to build most of the branch lines in Montana and, after completion, were sold to the N.P. Railroad. There was a great deal of speculation whether the Bitter Root track would be located on the east side or west side of the river. The decision was made by Andrew B. Hammond, a Missoula business man, and Samuel Hauser to lay the track on the west side because Hauser needed the rails accessible to his silver mine.

    The line was completed to Victor by 1887 and went on to Grantsdale in 1888. The first depot in Victor was at the end of the town's Main Street and the depot agent lived in an apartment upstairs. That building was destroyed by fire in 1916 and the Northern Pacific replaced it with a one-story structure.

    The first white people to visit the Victor area were members of the Lewis and Clark expedition when they traveled through in 1805 en route from Lost Trail Pass, at the south end of the valley, to Lolo Pass, west of Lolo. Some of the earliest settlers in the Victor area were Bob Nelson, Roswell Parkhurst, Thomas McMurray, J.P. Martens, Frank Ess, and Caleb and Monroe Fulkerson.

Florence is located at the north end of the valley, about 2 miles from the Missoula County line, and 20 miles south of Missoula. It was named One Horse by the earliest settlers, but was later renamed Florence in 1880 for the daughter of A.B. Hammond. He was instrumental in opening the Bitterroot Valley for lumbering and brought the railroad to the valley to transport timber. A.B. Hammond was the founder and owner of the Missoula Mercantile Company in Missoula. 

    Robert Carlton was a homesteader in the early 1860's and started the community named after him. He built a grist mill, livery barn, and trading post. As the population increased, a school, church, cemetery, post office and depot made up the town of Carlton. Eventually, the town of Carlton became part of the town of Florence.

For more history of the Bitterroot Valley, the following books contain a wealth of information of valley history and the families who lived here. Some of the books are available from the Ravalli County Museum

1. MONTANA GENESIS, a history of the Stevensville area of the Bitterroot Valley written by the Stevensville Historical Society. 
    This book is presently out of print, but plans are to re-publish.  
2. THE VICTOR STORY, History of a Bitter Root Valley Town, by Jeffrey H. Langton  
3. BITTERROOT TRAILS I & II, published by the Bitterroot Historical Society
4. BITTERROOT TRAILS III, published by the Bitterroot Historical Society  
5. SOME BITTERROOT MEMORIES 1860-1930, A Homey Account of the Florence Community, published by the Florence Civic Club
6. THE SONG OF THE BITTER ROOT, Chaffin family and valley history
    240 pages (8 1/2 x 11"), heavy card stock cover with picture of Blake. The book contains some genealogy, lots of pictures and many stories of Blake and other Montana Pioneers. Contact:
Pat Close
265 NW Cornelius Pass Rd.
Hillsboro, OR 97124
or e-mail: [email protected]
Put in subject line: Blake Book