Right up front I will admit one of my very favorite places to experience Old West history is in Montana — Virginia City and Nevada City to be precise. The first time I went to Virginia City years and years ago, I was on a press trip with Travel Montana. We’d been tooling around Western Montana for several days visiting various locations, always looking for ideas for future articles.
When we drove into Virginia City, I knew I had found the Old West in all its glory. The buildings, now owned by the Montana Historical Society, are original. There was the Bale of Hay Saloon, Fairweather Inn, Rank’s Mercantile and other businesses. The Virginia City Players present a melodrama during the summer; the fire truck gives tours.
Just up the road in Nevada City, a put-together town of historic buildings from across Montana, summers are filled with the people of the 1860s as a group of living historians truly bring the place back to life.
Although there are programs and events in both Virginia City and Nevada City throughout the summer, August is particularly appealing in part because you can experience the different personalities of the two communities.
Virginia City, which once served as the Montana Territorial Capital, shows its genteel persona the weekend of August 15-17. Put on your Victorian clothes and take part in Victorian High Tea at the Bennett House Country Inn. This will prepare you for the bigger events of the weekend.
On Saturday, August 16, the Virginia City Grand Victorian Ball of Peace 1865 will celebrate the end to the Civil War, a war that had impact in Virginia City since people from both the Union and the Confederate States had found their way to the gold fields of Alder Gulch.
You can brush up on (or learn) the dances of the era during a dance lesson at 1 or 2 p.m., then put on your finest 1860s-era gowns or men’s attire, and make your way to the Ball to take part in the Grand Promenade through town starting at 6:30 p.m., followed by dancing for several hours. There is a light repast as part of the evening with music provided by an orchestra where the players are also wearing their Victorian clothes. The final waltz will be played at 11 p.m.
The flowing gowns, the curtsy at the end of a dance, a man’s gloved hand carefully placed in the small of a woman’s back as the float across the dance floor, make this event as entertaining to watch as it is to take part as a dancer.
There is more to the weekend, though. A new event this year is the Tom Sargent Memorial Garden Party on Sunday, August 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. at Bettinger’s lawn on Wallace St. (Hwy 287) near the eastern edge of Virginia City. This event honors Sargent, whose enthusiasm for all things Victorian was an impetus for the Grand Victorian Balls. Among the events will be croquet, Victorian games, an historic presentation by Anne Foster, homemade ice cream, lemonade, and more for an afternoon Victorian Experience.
For a grittier experience, make the short trip from Virginia City to Nevada City where you can experience history as it comes to life. While various programs have already been presented this summer, there is much more to come starting with “Miner’s Court” on August 2, when the living historians deal justice in trials that are held as the result of a disturbance over gold claims.
In the morning on August 9, the first altercation is expected involving Virginia City “residents” Mruphy and Brady. Their enmity for each other will spill over into the evening when a lantern tour takes place, and then you can expect there will be more action on the streets as the dispute between Murphy and Brady erupts into a full-scale conflict.
The events surrounding a flour riot are the theme of the Living historians on August 16, when the “residents” of town must deal with the fact that freighters cannot get to town with a supply of flour.
The women will take to the streets on August 23, as they let everyone know that it is time for woman suffrage to come to Montana Territory.
Jack Slade spent much time in Colorado and southern Wyoming, where he was the superintendent on the Overland Trail, serving at Virginia Dale Station, which is named for his wife, and later at Halleck Station (near present-day Elk Mountain, Wyoming). But Slade relocated to Montana after the discovery of gold at Alder Gulch, and spent his last days in Virginia City and the nearby region.
This character will be in Virginia City during the day August 30, where, joined by Bill Fairweather, Jack may just shoot up the town if Virginia Slade can’t get him under control. But during the evening the second lantern tour of the month will focus on Slade, perhaps finally taking care of him so he cannot bother the good residents of the community any longer.
The events in Nevada City will continue in September with a program about frontier foods, “Beans, Bacon and Bannock Bread,” on Sept. 6 and another Sept. 13 that will focus on the travels of people as they came to the region in the 19th century and were finally “At the Trails End.”
Set aside your modern conveniences, put on your 19th century-style clothes and step back into the Old West at Virginia City and Nevada City. ❖