Sometimes the backstory is the story, and that is certainly the case with the preservation of Virginia City and Nevada City, Mont. Decades ago Charlie and Sue Bovey began the effort to purchase and “save” many of the frontier era buildings in Virginia City, a town that was the Territorial Capital of Montana. They bought buildings, and made repairs in order to extend their life span.
The Virginia City buildings were those dating from the gold rush era and without the Bovey influence almost certainly would have been demolished, torn down, or perhaps just have fallen down in disrepair.
The Boveys also undertook the task of locating other historic buildings throughout Montana, ultimately relocating them to Nevada City, located a scant mile from Virginia City. This had also been a frontier mining town, but few structures remained at the time Charlie and Sue started “building” the frontier town again. In Nevada city structures range from small cabins to large homes, from those picked up and moved intact to others that were disassembled, loaded onto trucks, and then painstakingly reassembled.
It takes more than a couple with resources and desire to preserve historic structures. Enter John D. Ellingsen. As a boy, he visited Virginia City with his mother and was enamored with the Victorian structures. He ultimately earned a Masters degree in Applied Arts from Montana State University, lined up a job with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and was called to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
But then fate stepped in. The need for draftees to fight in the jungles of Vietnam diminished with the wind-down of the war in 1972, and before he could report to his new job with the BLM, Charlie Bovey took Ellingsen to lunch, repeated an offer of a job working on preservation of buildings in Virginia City and Nevada City at half the salary of the BLM job. “Naturally I jumped at the chance,” Ellingsen wrote in “Witness to History: The Remarkable Untold Story of Virginia City and Nevada City Montana and How they Came to be Restored and Saved for Future Generations.” (That just may be the longest book title I’ve every typed for this column!)
The book is not long, but the story is riveting. Ellingsen would work alongside Charlie Bovey until the elder man died, and then continue his efforts with Sue until her death as well.
They moved buildings, restored, revamped, reshingled, repaired. And created two “cities” that are not only Montana treasures, but certainly among the best preserved frontier towns in the West.
Ellingsen’s work continued long after the deaths of Charlie and Sue Bovey; he was instrumental in continuing their preservation work and most important in pushing the legislature in Montana to approve a bill that allowed the state to purchase Virginia City and Nevada City, thus further preserving the historic structures for the enjoyment of all visitors.
Ellingsen’s book is a brief history of these two towns, and a personal account of his own love of preservation from the time he was a young boy. As and example of his dedication to preservation, even as a young boy, after the Methodist Church he and his mother attended in Great Falls was torn down and replaced with a more “modern” structure, he refused to attend in the new building. Instead he and his mother began going to the Christian Church.
Witness to History is a fast-paced account of the saving of Virginia City and Nevada City, told in a heartfelt way by a man who was largely instrumental in the saving. Though he would never say that himself; he is far too unassuming.
The first time I visited Virginia City years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a tour given by John Ellingsen. His passion for the place was evident, and that same passion comes through in his book. ❖