Article & Photos by J.B. Chandler
Montana’s homesteaders were either speculators or builders. The land speculator’s goal was to “proof up” the land and immediately sell it. The builders, on the other hand, plotted out and fenced their land, then built churches, schools, and roads. Some of these spots eventually became towns. These are the people who built Montana. We want to take a look at how three unique cultures—Estonian, Danish, and Scottish—built up their lives in pioneer Montana.
Estonians often get lumped into the greater Russian diaspora, and that’s not fair. Prior to World War I, Estonia was an independent country with a strong, agrarian lifestyle. Weather being somewhat similar to northern Montana, about forty Estonian families set out for America to make a life of their own with the promise of free land. These immigrants eventually made it out to the Chester area. As Russia transformed into the USSR, which in turn invaded Estonia, most Estonian immigrants arrived in America as forlorn asylum seekers, but not these people. These Estonian immigrants came as happy homesteaders, and they worked to build a good life.
Famous for their black rye bread and rhubarb pies, Estonians brought cuisine and culture to Montana. Called an Eesti Maja, the first Estonian house built in America was built outside of Chester. A lack of trees on the open plains led to an ingenuitive design, mud bricks instead of wooden walls, which was both cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The decaying remnants of this building still stand. Though 100 years have passed, Estonian names remain in the phone book, and their grandkids are growing up as Hi-Line Hawks.
Dagmar of Bohemia became the queen of Denmark in 1205. Dagmar’s Cross is worn by Danish girls on the day of their confirmation into the Lutheran Church. When deciding what to name their newfound town some 4,000 miles from Denmark in northeastern Montana, the Danish settlers named it Dagmar. Nestled between Medicine Lake and Brush Lake, and dotted with many smaller alkali lakes in between, Dagmar had many good years during those rainy days of the 1910s. The drought years followed, and where towns along the nearby railroad failed, Dagmar persisted, in part, because the Danes stuck together.
The Danes built a school and a few churches, and despite not having a railroad or major highway, had a business district that survived into the 21st Century. The churches still stand, an amazing reminder of Danish architecture on the high plains of Montana. Even with their own town, the culture of the Danes can be harder to pin down in a land of mostly German and Norwegian immigrants. As a descendant of a Danish family, it was partly hidden even to me! I just thought eating Danishes was as normal as dancing around the Christmas tree and singing songs on Christmas Eve.
“Many a muckle makes a mickle,” is a Scottish saying you might have heard here in Montana. This translates to “small things lead to big things,” and before the floods of German and Scandinavian homesteaders came into central Montana, the Scottish people were a distinct majority, and it showed. Small towns in the area like Straw, Moore, and Ubet put on grand Bobby Burns celebrations where they could share Scottish music and food. Bobby Burns is the national poet of Scotland, who wrote many great rhymes including “Auld Lang Syne,” which remains a New Year’s Eve hymn to this day. “The small town with a big reputation,” Garniell takes the cake for over-the-top Bobby Burns celebrations, so we end with this tale:
Bob Shiell was the big name in town when Garneill was in its heyday. Between the El Dorado saloon, which he co-owned, and the hotel he built himself, Bob was a very popular feller in Garneill. So when he ran for Justice of the Peace, he easily won. There shouldn’t be any need to spruce up a true Highlander affair featuring the whole town singing Scotch songs and poems, everybody wearing kilts and plaids and dancing to bagpipes, eating all sorts of Scotch food, haggis and tripe, and of course, Scotch whiskey. But Bob knew just how to put his small town on the map, adding to the festivities in Garneill was Schiell’s duty as Justice of the Peace. What better way to dress up a Scotch festival then by sandwiching a few weddings in between the event of the day: a murder trial. Something for everybody in Scottish Montana!