By BAY STEPHENS/Montana State News
Big country and little towns with skies that stretch from one eternity to the other: classic Montana. An element of legend and grit has swirled around the state since its inception. For those that have grown up here, the land and culture have changed, especially in a place like Bozeman.
Once a town to supply the surrounding ranch and farm communities, Bozeman became a place where cultures met: cowboy and ski culture, rustic and modern, and everything beyond and in between.
With a university to draw young students, it didn’t take long for the word to get out. Today, Bozeman – often referred to as the next Boulder, Colorado – faces dramatic change brought on by a burgeoning population and a nexus of interests and people.
Though change is not inherently bad, three generations of locals attest that Bozeman is not what it once was, in some ways for the better, yet, in other ways, elements have been lost.
Betty Sauvageau, 72, is the fifth generation of her family to live in the Gallatin Valley. Born and raised in Bozeman, she raised her own children here then watched and helped them raise theirs. She shared her memories of the quintessential small-town Bozeman while sitting in a new Starbucks near the high school.
Sauvageau told stories of her grandmother bringing butter and eggs from the farm to sell at Sawyer’s – where D.A. Davidson is now – in exchange for other groceries. She told how her mother had to stay in town during the week so she could go to high school, then spent the weekends with family on their Reese Creek farm.
Farming and ranching were the lifeblood of Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley being endowed with beautiful black soil, wonderful for growing. Though many of Sauvageau’s family farmed the fields around Bozeman, she lived in town near Beall park.
“As a youngster,” Sauvageau said, “we played outside continuously. You were told to go outside and play.” She laughed, “It wasn’t, ‘I’m going to find something for you to do.’ It was, ‘You go out and figure out what you’re going to be doing today.’”
In those days, Main Street ended at Eighth Avenue, and little beyond Mendenhall or Babcock was paved. On weekends, Main Street was the place to hang out and meet up with friends. “Or if you had a car you could, as we’d say, ‘drag’ Main Street,” she said, smiling.
“Dragging” was when the automobile-enabled teens would drive down the street one way, turn around and drive back the other way. “That’s what they did in the evenings to see their friends.”
For the next generation, Main Street was still the center of the social scene, as her son, Lane Bos, 47, can attest.
“What we used to do as kids,” Bos said, “Friday nights, you’d go out and cruise up and down Main Street.” From Heeb’s on the east side to a parking lot on the west side. “You’d do that several times and, you know, through that you’d meet up with various people and find out where the parties might be and you’d go there.”
Their vehicles did more than help them find friends, though. “We’d go off-roading kind of up by Pete’s Hill where the water tower is,” he said. His friend had a four-wheel drive Ford Ranger that they would load up in and romp just outside of town.
“It was certainly easier to go have a bit of rough fun back then than now, I’m guessing,” Bos said, “You know, fun for kids, back then, was yeah, you went out and kind of made your own fun. It probably had something to do with driving somewhere.”
Bos said he used to call Bozeman a cow town, where most people who lived there grew up there as well, having long histories in the valley. “Nineteenth (Avenue) was a gravel road that I used to cross,” he said, on his way to school from his house on North 25th Avenue. They had five acres right next to their house on which they raised cows and played golf. Bos remembers early mornings feeding the cows hay.
“It was living in the country,” he said, even though they were just outside of town. Now, the area he grew up in is well within city limits, swallowed by duplexes, paved streets and cars.
According to Population.City, Bozeman’s population grew .46 percent per yeat between 1980 and 1990, from 21,650 to 22,660. The next decade, that growth rate more than quadrupled to 2.11 percent, then to 2.93 percent the following decade. As of last July, Bozeman’s growth rate topped 4 percent, with a population set to break 45,000, according to the Bozeman Chronicle.
“Bozeman’s so big nowadays,” Bos said, “I go around town and I don’t even see anyone I recognize. … Now it feels like the majority of the people going around Bozeman are not from Bozeman.”
For Bos, this is one of the hardest pills to swallow: “You kind of feel like you’re a stranger in your hometown.” He used to see friends and acquaintances left and right. “It’s not as small a town now, where you felt like you knew a lot of people. Now it’s a town with a bunch of new-coming strangers.”
Bos’ mother can agree with the sense of lost community. “I don’t think that the people get together in (their) homes like they did when I was a young woman,” she said. “We would get together and have coffee with different neighbors and kind of go around the neighborhood. I don’t think they do that anymore. Everybody’s so busy.”
Things were far more intimate for her growing up. “Back then, if you got in trouble, your mom probably knew about it before you got home,” Sauvageau said laughing, “because everybody knew who you were.”
Change has its benefits though. Both Sauvageau and Bos agreed that many good things have accompanied the growth. “I mean, Bozeman schools are great,” Bos said. He mentioned how impressive it was that the Bozeman cross-country team took nationals last year, himself having run cross country for Bozeman High.
For Sauvageau, the variety of culture is impressive. “You can’t be bored if you allow yourself to get out, (to) find what you want to do,” she said. With the Bozeman Symphony, bands playing around town, film and documentary showings, dance clubs and various festivals, a wide variety of experiences are available to locals.
One of the festivals Bozeman hosts – born in the ‘30s then revived in the ‘70s – is the Sweet Pea Festival. Though, Sauvageau said, it used to be a local artist’s opportunity to showcase their creations, the festival has grown as much as Bozeman, catering more now to tourists and out-of-state artists.
Sauvageau’s granddaughter, Lane’s daughter Brianna, a 22-year-old about to graduate from the MSU engineering program, remembers going to Sweet Pea when she was little. She remembers doing the festival’s fun run one year – “I was like five, probably” – wearing a red, white and blue swimsuit, waving at every single person she ran by.
“They bring in a lot of good artists,” Brianna said of the Sweet Pea festival, “but it doesn’t necessarily represent the local artists. It used to be a huge community thing, but now people come from outside to see it, which is almost how I feel about Bridger, or even Bozeman as a whole: Rather than being more of a community, it’s more of a tourist place now.”
Though she doesn’t think growth is bad (aside from the traffic, which has been a thorn in the sides of both her dad and grandmother, as well), she said it’s hard to adjust when a bunch of people who just moved to Bozeman call it their home when she has so many tender memories woven into the houses, streets and fields throughout the valley.
“I think it’s OK for people to call this their home,” Brianna Bos said, “I think people should be at home wherever they are. But, it’s just that, my home is a lot different than the home that they see, and it’s like, you want people to respect that. But you like don’t want to be mean, or exclusive.”
Her father has a similar perspective. Lane Bos started biking in the late ‘80s on the narrow roads near his house on Stucky Road. Though it wasn’t a problem when there weren’t as many people around, now-busy roads have caused an outcry by motorists against road bikers who use the country roads around Bozeman.
For Bos, it’s frustrating to have people tell him he can’t bike the roads that his grandfather helped break with a horse team in the ‘30s.
“When newcomers come and think they have all the right answers for Bozeman, they need to, I guess, just respect the fact that, with them coming – just with them even showing up – they’re changing what was paradise for a lot of people a long time ago.” It’s not easy to watch one’s paradise slip away.
“On the positive side,” Bos said, “there’s a ton more paved roads, so there are a lot better loops than there used to be.”
What we regard as home is a tender thing, whether that be the place that one is actually from, or something that can be moved from one place to another. For Brianna, home is family. She considers Bozeman home because it’s where her family is.
“Bozeman’s a good place,” she said, “The old, I think, is better, but the new one isn’t bad. I think it’s just as good, I just – I’m such an old country person that I love that kind of stuff, which is why I’m OK leaving Bozeman now, because it’s just so much bigger.”
For Brianna, there’s a draw to somewhere else. “My two things in life are family and the ocean, she said, “I love the ocean so much.” Brianna likes sharing her mountains with people who didn’t grow up in them; she hopes people will share the ocean with her.
It’s not as easy for her dad: “I’ve been trying to think, ‘When Bozeman gets too big, where do I want to go?’ And I haven’t found a place yet…. That’s the problem, is that I haven’t found a replacement for it.”
Bos knows the change can’t be stopped, but that still doesn’t make it easy square with. “Maybe there should be a support group for people that grew up here, to just help us cope with the fact that it’s not the same place,” he said, “‘Cause it is going to change and, at the end of the day, we want to be happy and comfortable, and we have to accept that it’s not the same Bozeman I grew up in.”
Bozeman is a special place and, in Bos’ mind, it’s important that the growth be managed well. “All’s we can do is try the hardest to keep it as good as we can,” Bos said.
This mission applies to all locals, from those who remember when Main Street was surrounded by unpaved roads to the MSU students and professors who are so excited to work and live here.
For the more recent-comers, though, empathy for the roots and memories of long-time locals is reason enough to live well, yet tread softly.
– edited by Tim Stover