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Know the West

Montana ghost towns are haunted by vandals


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 room.

"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.

One of 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 around mining.

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 had.

Several factors contribute to the disappearance of ghost towns, DeHaas said. Nature, for one, takes its toll. Then there are arson, vandalism and theft.

"I say theft, because people don't have a right to take it," DeHaas said.

Usually, the 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 elements.

"When you take the skin off, studs are not strong enough without bracing, and the roof collapses," DeHaas said.

Once the roof goes, the rest of the building deteriorates.

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."

People have taken a tremendous toll on ghost towns, DeHaas said.

"In the 1970s, when the use of weathered wood became very popular in "interior desecration" ... that helped destroy some fine buildings," DeHaas said.

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 footprints."

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 structure.

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 of.

For more information, write the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society, P.O. Box 1861, Bozeman, MT 59771.

Evelyn Boswell is a free-lance writer in Bozeman, Montana.