By Brad Reynolds
It would be a mistake to attribute “creativity” to artists alone. Imagination is everywhere—in our bustling cities, where shopping, dining, and entertainment prosper; on our rural landscapes, where farmers and ranchers develop new ways to make the most of their products. In every community, across every landscape, creativity permeates Montana. Innovation is our greatest commodity.
Near the Treasure State’s center lies a community founded on innovation. Great Falls—the Electric City—grew from nothing more than a dirt patch and a dream. From that first dusty street to the lively Central Avenue which cuts through Great Falls today, the one constant has been the Downtown dreamers—men and women with the passion and vision to see their community grow.
Innovation Built Great Falls
This scenery, composed of valleys and rivers, flanked by smoothly rounded table lands, formed a picture never to be forgotten. I had looked upon this scene for a few moments only when I said to myself, here I will found a city.
It was no small achievement that Great Falls should so quickly become a cultural epicenter. From that spark of inspiration in 1881 to the city’s commencement in 1884, Paris Gibson lost no time developing his dream and seeing it realized. His certainty in the future of Great Falls lay (in part) in the falls themselves, which he recognized as a valuable source of hydropower. Railroad magnate James J. Hill partnered with Gibson in this vision, and with the assistance of H.P. Rolfe and Robert Vaughn, the men platted the Great Falls Townsite (though Gibson had suggested naming the city “Hillton” in honor of its prominent financier). A dozen men constructed homes that year, but only S.A. Beachley remained through the winter—the sole inhabitant of Great Falls.
By the end of the following year, Great Falls was home to no less than 200. Ira Myers stationed his portable sawmill here. W.P. Wren opened Great Falls’ first general store. The city’s first child was born and first deceased buried.
Hill, upon his initial visit to Great Falls in June 1884, promptly outlined a plan to extend the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway to this city on the rise.
In October 1888, Great Falls was officially incorporated, and the following month, Gibson was elected the city’s first mayor.
In 1890, the Federal Census recorded Great Falls’ population at 3,979.
The hydroelectric dam at Black Eagle Falls, and later the Boston and Montana Smelter, would only spur on the community’s growth. By century’s end, many of Great Falls’ long-standing institutions, like the Park Hotel, had been established. A trolley line was constructed on Central Avenue, and a park system was developed to enhance the community’s atmosphere.
In 1913, Arthur L. Stone of The Missoulian wrote, “[Paris Gibson] is hale and hearty—and he is living to see his ideals realized and his fondest hopes fulfilled. Where years ago he found a bare and treeless plain, there is now a beautiful city with magnificent parks and long, shaded streets.”
Innovation Sustained Great Falls
Even the burgeoning Great Falls could not escape hard times in the early Twentieth Century. First came the Great War. Then Prohibition dug its claws into the community. By the 1930s, the citizens of Great Falls had either succumbed to economic depression, kept afloat with ingenuity, or turned to illicit activities to survive.
Ike Kaufman (whose family has owned Kaufman’s Menswear in Great Falls since 1895) remembers the general depravity once rampant downtown.
“Politicians would get on these guys every three years or so… usually when they were up for reelection,” begins one such story. “I had a personal friend who was a policeman in the Thirties. The police go [to the Belmont Hotel], go upstairs, and get all of the prostitutes out of their rooms. They start writing down the prostitutes’ names—they’re going to book them all—but before they can finish the madam comes out. She calls the captain down to her office. So he goes down there. She has all the names of the guys who use their services—very prominent men in town. She looks him in the eye and says, ‘I don’t think this is a very good idea.’ He says, ‘Neither do I.’ So they leave.”
Similarly, lifelong resident Jerry Weissman recalls unsavory types in the heart of Great Falls. As a youth during WWII, he and his brother would occasionally get a dime from their mother and go down to the Civic Center Theatre. The problem was: to get there, they had to cut through Skid Row.
“That was on First Avenue South, between about Fourth Street and First Street,” he remembers. “There were alcoholics lying in the gutter, rain and snow coming down on them. The cheap wine of the time was Muscatel. The street stunk of Muscatel.”
The Weissmans, in stark contrast to Downtown’s seedy characters, pulled through the 1930s with resourcefulness and vision. While many panicked, Jerry’s grandfather Carl looked past the Depression, anticipating the future needs of Great Falls.
“People couldn’t afford to keep their cars, so Carl took them. He took in junk metal and hides,” says Jerry. “He came out of the Depression with a cellar full of hides, acres of old cars, and five dollars.”
When Great Falls had money again, Carl had commodities in demand. Carl Weissman and Co. (established in 1915) grew into Carl Weissman and Sons, expanding beyond hides and auto parts into hardware, housewares, and more. For decades, the family’s Downtown enterprise operated under the slogan: If it’s available, it’s available at Weissmans.
Though the company discontinued in 2000, the family is still deeply involved in the community. In 2012, they donated the Maurice B. Weissman Memorial Bridge, which links the city’s Westside to Downtown for pedestrian use.
The Weissman family—as with anyone who has set up shop in the center of Great Falls—knows that Downtown is more than a business district; it’s a community. The city depends on Downtown boutiques, eateries, bars, and entertainment. Without promotion and development of local business, a community dries up.
In that regard, Great Falls is fortunate. Downtown is alive with citizens who will never let that happen.
Innovation Guides Great Falls Forward
In 2019, over $8.8 million was invested in renovating/rehabilitating buildings in Downtown Great Falls. More than a dozen new businesses opened in the district, creating more than thirty new jobs. Local businesses, civic leaders, and everyday volunteers donated over 42,000 hours of their time and energy toward Downtown beautification projects, development, and events.
“Downtown represents the heart of any city,” says Joan Redeen, Community Director of the Great Falls Business Improvement District (BID). “We in Great Falls have everything we could possibly want downtown, for every age birth to 99—and older. There are so many amazing local businesses that people still don’t know about.”
It’s Redeen’s job, in part, to change that. She and others in the community have worked fervidly to make Downtown a welcoming community.
“So many things have happened and are still happening,” says Redeen, who took on her job with the BID in 2009.
Since then, the BID has maintained the 382 boulevard trees within the district and increased the number of hanging flower pots in the summer. A speaker system now plays music on Central Avenue, and more than thirty bike racks in the area have been renovated or newly built by local high school students. Perhaps most noticeably, Downtown has taken on an artistic flair. The district is a delightful blend of historic architecture and contemporary urban art—painted traffic signal boxes, large murals, and creative crosswalk designs.
“It’s sad when you go to a community and the kids say, ‘I can’t wait to move away from here.’ We want to give them a desire to stay,” says Cameron Moberg, the Bay Area artist who led a Downtown mural painting project in 2018. “Something like this gives them ownership of their city.”
“What makes a community is a mix of all that’s original about it,” remarks Carol Bronson, Director of Community Initiatives at NeighborWorks Great Falls. “I think this will be a catalyst for more interesting and unique things here.”
On the face of it, public art doesn’t seem like a major victory for Great Falls, but the Downtown community will tell you otherwise. Every business owner, every resident, every city official can provide you an example of how art has enriched the community. If this innovative art project is any indication, Downtown Great Falls has a beautiful future in store.