BOZEMAN, Mont. - If you want to upset John DeHaas, strip the doorknobs and wood from an abandoned building in a Montana ghost town.
Then go a step further and
sell them to tourists.
The retired architecture
professor might not call you a thief to your face, but if someone
else does, he won't object.
"There's no other
word for it but "thieves," " DeHaas said from his Bozeman living
"I don't know why, but there's something
very primitive and vicious in mankind ... that wants to destroy,
takes pleasure in destruction," he said.
four men who founded the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society in
the late 1960s, DeHaas said Montana must have had 500 or 600 ghost
towns at one time. And that's only the towns or camps that revolved
DeHaas said he couldn't begin to
guess the number of ghost towns now, but society president Bob
Culbertson of Billings said, "They are disappearing at between a
dozen and two dozen a year. Either the last building falls down or
someone tears it down, moves it or burns it down."
A ghost town is technically an abandoned town,
although a few people may still live there. "We are interested in
not only abandoned towns but also historic towns and cities,"
Culbertson said. But the group focuses on former mining camps
because most agricultural towns have been plowed under and don't
have the history that the mining camps
Several factors contribute to the
disappearance of ghost towns, DeHaas said. Nature, for one, takes
its toll. Then there are arson, vandalism and
"I say theft, because people don't have a
right to take it," DeHaas said.
ghost towns sit on land that's owned by someone, he explained. So
if visitors remove siding from a building, it's thievery. Besides
that, if someone removes the siding, that exposes the studs to the
"When you take the skin off, studs are
not strong enough without bracing, and the roof collapses," DeHaas
Once the roof goes, the rest of the
Owners sometimes remove or
burn down buildings because they consider them dangerous. Visitors
might use them for target practice.
"I used to
love to target shoot. I grew up with a gun," said DeHaas, who
gradually lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa. "But I don't
think you have to shoot at buildings."
have taken a tremendous toll on ghost towns, DeHaas
"In the 1970s, when the use of weathered
wood became very popular in "interior desecration" ... that helped
destroy some fine buildings," DeHaas
Culbertson said the Montana Ghost Town
Preservation Society is trying to teach people to follow the "good
ghost towning rule," which says, "Take only pictures. Leave only
The society has about 135 members
from all over the nation and is "trying to educate people to take
pleasure in what's left because it does reflect the culture of the
area," DeHaas said. The corner notching of a building, for example,
can indicate whether Canadians or Swedes built the
Besides education through annual
meetings and a quarterly newsletter, the society has been engaged
in hands-on projects to preserve buildings in various ghost towns.
One of those involved researching and obtaining the title to Miners
Union Hall and Superintendent Weir's house in Granite, east of
Philipsburg. The society then presented the title to the Department
of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Volunteers restored the roof on Weir's
house, but the Union Hall succumbed to the elements before work
could be done on it.
In Elkhorn near Boulder, the
society did a structural analysis and gave funds to obtain the
fraternity hall and saloon for a state park site. In Gallatin City,
the group stabilized the hotel.
Ghost towns are
part of our heritage, Culbertson said. And if they're going to last
another generation, they're going to have to be taken care
For more information, write the Montana Ghost
Town Preservation Society, P.O. Box 1861, Bozeman, MT
Evelyn Boswell is a
free-lance writer in Bozeman,