A few days ago, I had to drive down to Boulder to register BlackTruck in Jefferson County. Although I’m only four miles from Helena and a mile from the county line, I live in Jefferson and not Lewis & Clark County. So it was up over part of the Elkhorns, down into the Boulder Valley, and on into Boulder. Going over the Elkhorns was nothing like pulling Pipestone Pass or Monida Pass, but BlackTruck still had its work cut out. It was a nice sunny day unlike many we’ve had recently, so the drive was a pleasure.
Like many towns in western Montana, Boulder grew because of the mining and declined for the same reason. That Boulder continues to have any population at all is probably due to the presence of the School for the Mentally Disabled. It still has a nice nineteenth-century court house with clock tower. While the clock no longer works, someone still had an office in the tower—not quite at the top but pretty darn close. (So many of the clock towers fail fire safety standards that they’re not much used. Too bad. I’ve always wanted an office in a nineteenth-century tower of some sort.)
But the reason that I went to Boulder was not to gawk at clock towers but to get a license plate. One of the nice things about modern license plates is their variety. For an extra $20, a driver can support a university, a youth organization, a wildlife club, or a wilderness group. Yes, it is possible to get the garden-variety Montana plate, but the current design has me somewhat mystified. I think it’s supposed to portray Montana as Big Sky Country with the first number as the county designator, but the design suggests more of a January blizzard. Just doesn’t seem to be the right message to be sending. The Gallatin County Humane Society had a nice plate, but we support the Humane Society in Virginia. Besides, I wanted a history plate.
My choices were: Lewis & Clark Bicenntenial, the Custer Battlefield Museum, Museum of the Rockies, Whitefish Historical Society, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame. (You can see my options here. Perhaps you would have selected something different.) It was a difficult choice. Which organization should I support? Which one was the best design? Should I do eastern Montana or western Montana? In the end, I choose the Custer Battlefield Museum. I liked the woodcut font, the sepia tone, and the images. That the little museum has chosen to call itself the Custer Battlefield Museum is a bit troubling, but I suspect that the National Park Service has the more correct Little Bighorn Battlefield sewn up. Still, it looks like the fellow is trying to do some history, and I’m always a sucker for labors of love in history.
So why meditate on a license plate? When I get right down to it, the reasons dissolve into cliche—really dreadful cliches at that. There’s the giving part: “To whom much is given, much is asked.” There’s the history part: “We write historical interpretations even in the smallest act.” And then there’s the 4th of July part. The Fourth marks the beginning of conflict that would create the “great republic.” The Battle of the Little Bighorn is a reminder that the “great republic” would not include everyone. It’s instructive to remember that newspapers delayed reporting the Sioux victory until after July 4, 1876, in order not to spoil the nation’s centennial celebration.