The Roundup -

"Boomtown Country" To Portray Montana's Boom & Bust Heritage

 


John White and the “Pikes Peakers” began an era that changed the heritage of Montana, with the discovery of gold in Grasshopper Creek. The first boomtowns were born as thousands rushed to Bannack, Virginia City and other outposts in the 1860s. News of the strike spread fast, and led to the greatest flood of prospectors to the west since the California gold rush in 1848. Miners lived in tents, caves, dugouts, shanties, huts and wagons. It wasn’t long before Montana’s gold and silver mines began to falter as the majority of easily recoverable precious metals had been removed. A pattern of boom and bust ensued, writing the next chapter of history in a state rich with natural resources and opportunities.

Less than 40 years later, a similar story unfolded in Butte, as thousands flocked to the newly booming city to stake their claim to the vast amount of copper buried in what locals referred to as “the richest hill on earth”. The world was shifting from gas lamps to electricity, and Butte’s plentiful copper resulted in one of the largest and most notorious cities in the American west. Butte exemplified the boomtown of the era. The influx of miners gave it a reputation of a wide-open town where any vice was obtainable. The city’s famous saloons and red-light district attracted miners from all over the region. While lasting longer than the gilded age of the 1800s, the copper boom would also fade. The declining grade of ore coupled with competition from other mines marked the beginning of the end for the boom times in Butte.

Montana’s times of flourish have inevitably been followed by devastating decline, above all the great depression. The 1930s brought desperate times to the nation, and the Treasure State was hit hard. There were few jobs, no unemployment checks and very little government aid. The prospect for change and the hope for another boom came from Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the building of the Fort Peck Dam. Once again, thousands of men and their families flocked to Montana in search of work. While booms of the past offered the chance to get rich quick, life at Fort Peck was largely based on survival. Dozens of boomtowns rose from the dusty plains, housing more than 40,000 in extreme conditions, with no running water, no electricity and little food. After the dam was completed, the boomtowns disappeared as quickly as they were built, as workers moved on in search of the next job.

The heritage of Montana’s history is forever repeating. Today, the towns of the northeastern plains are again beginning to boom, with the discovery of vast amounts of oil in the Bakken formation, spanning the border with North Dakota. Many say America is entering a new age of plenty; the implementation of new technologies in oil extraction and undiscovered deposits has resulted in many regions facing explosive energy development. Some want to get rich quick, while others are searching for an honest living. Beneath the surface of the vast opportunities, there is a harsher, more threatening reality. The influx of a large number of people has a significant impact on the small towns in the region. Housing is short if not impossible to find. The cost of everything from fuel to groceries is skyrocketing. The infrastructure, law enforcement and school systems are stressed, and small towns don’t have the resources to make improvements.

A bold effort is being undertaken that is unparalleled in modern times, or history. The Eastern Montana Impact Coalition has been formed, and involves federal, state and local governments as well as local communities, businesses and citizens. “Working together we can insure we are prepared for and able to take advantage of all that energy development has to offer our state. We want solid, sustainable communities that can thrive now and in the future and that we can all be proud of,” says Martin DeWitt, of the Great Northern Development Corporation, a member of the Impact Coalition. It remains to be seen if, and how the efforts to affect growth are successful, or if the Bakken story fits the well-established pattern in which every natural resource boom is followed by an inevitable sharp decline.

Boomtown Country is a documentary film portrait of Montana’s boom and bust heritage, and its juxtaposition with the extraordinary story of the modern oil boom. It will tell the human tales of our rich past from the gilded age of gold mining, to the copper rush in Butte, to the construction of the world’s largest dam at Fort Peck. Over three years, producers Scott Sterling and Gene Brodeur will unearth the untold stories from our history, while following the modern impacts occurring to the small, tight-knit communities of eastern Montana. Many of these towns are no stranger to booms, as oil discoveries in the 50s and 70s led to spikes in population and the associated impacts. When the booms decline, these communities have always defaulted to their agricultural roots, wrestling a living from the land. Will the modern and largest boom follow suit, or can the work of an unprecedented group of people bring more sustainability? The extended length of the film’s production will allow the producers to document real change over time, and bring more depth to the film than possible on a tighter schedule.

Production Team

This film represents the second in a series of long form documentary portraits of Montana’s history, and present, produced by Sterling and Brodeur. It is a successor to Fort Peck Dam, which earned critical praise and touched the hearts of thousands of Montanans. The producers’ powerful storytelling has been recognized by PBS, as Fort Peck Dam has been selected for national broadcast. We hope you will consider reviewing Fort Peck Dam online at: montanapbs.org/Fort-PeckDam/ to get a sense of the style and quality Scott and Gene have established for their films. Like Fort Peck Dam, Boomtown Country will not be an ‘issues film’, rather it will strive to provide a portrait of Montana’s past and a positive look ahead for our statewide community. Aaron Pruitt will serve as Executive Producer and will guide the project from development through the public television distribution process in an effort to achieve the largest audience possible.

Production Status/Timeline

Boomtown Country is in the initial phase of research and development, with anticipated broadcast in 2016.

Distribution Plan

Boomtown Country will air statewide on MontanaPBS upon completion and MontanaPBS anticipates presenting the film for national distribution in 2016. Additionally, MontanaPBS will make Boomtown Country available for online viewing at http://www.watchmontanapbs.org.

Funding

The overall production budget for Boomtown Country is estimated at $150,000, which will consist of expenses in the areas of rights acquisition for historical materials, music composition, writing, narration and significant travel. We hope to raise $75,000 of the budget in direct cash donations. Currently, we are in the early stages of the project, conducting research interviews and developing a production schedule for this three-year project.

 

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