If it's new to you...
Hey there, good to see you, thanks for picking up the paper. You must be new here. Just starting school? Still getting your bearings? Well lucky you. Lucky to be here, for one (and try not to worry about all the smoke—it won't last forever). But lucky to have stumbled across this issue, too. If it feels fatter than your usual free weekly newspaper, that's because it's carrying a brand-new edition of Fresh Facts, our back-to-school/newcomers' guide. Check that out and maybe keep a copy handy at home. There's a lot of good who-what-when-where-and-why in there to help orient you to Missoula. You'll probably find something you can use even if you're an old hand about town. Because if there's one thing you need to know about Missoula, it's that it's always changing, so even old-timers have questions. And that's why this issue is all about answers. Here are a few to get you started.
Q: Are there really tunnels beneath downtown Missoula?
A: If you're new to Missoula, it's only a matter of time before you start hearing stories of opium dens and underground speakeasies. The Prohibition era always seems to tickle our curiosity, and the historic tours of subterranean "cities" offered in Butte and Havre lend plausibility to the tales. But even people who have lived here for years might not know the truth behind the legends.
Fortunately, the anthropology department at the University of Montana has dedicated a significant amount of time to researching the hidden spaces beneath our feet. In 2013, professor Kelly Dixon led a team of 15 students from an archaeology survey course on an expedition to learn more about Missoula's underground. One of those students, Nikki Manning, turned the project into a 2015 book, titled Historic Underground Missoula, that documents eight sites researched and documented by the UM crew. The book comes complete with maps of the city's old steam tunnel system and photos of bricked-up doorways in downtown basements. The takeaway? Missoula's underground is there. It just may not be what the rumors would suggest.
- photo courtesy Jared Fischer
- The entrance to one of downtown Missoula’s many steam tunnels.
In an email to the Indy, Manning explains that the biggest misconception surrounding Missoula's so-called tunnels is that Chinese immigrants built them to travel around town unseen. This popular myth, Manning says, is why she chose to focus her master's thesis on Missoula's underground to begin with.
"I spent about three years surveying sites in downtown Missoula, searching for any archaeological evidence that this rumor is true," she adds, "but never found any data to support it."
Manning's book notes that some of Missoula's more significant underground findings are sealed sidewalk voids—spaces below sidewalks that offered exterior access to basements or between buildings. They're notable, Manning writes, because they represent "the more mundane realities ... of underground features that have somehow become rather sensationalized as opium dens and prostitution cribs." So while it's fun to imagine a serpentine network of tunnels once used by drug peddlers and bootleggers, it's important to remember that the facts don't always line up with the folklore. That doesn't make Missoula's underground any less cool. (Alex Sakariassen)
Q: How did a little town like Missoula end up with two new concert amphitheaters?
A: Ambition and competition. Missoula has cycled through all sorts of music venues over the years, with places including the Top Hat, Jay's Upstairs and the Cowboy Bar (now the Sunrise Saloon) hosting buzzworthy mid-tier acts for decades. But aside from the occasional outdoor festival (the Aber Day Kegger, for instance) and some concerts at the University (now Dennison) Theater, big-time touring acts have been few and far between. In the mid-2000s, the Wilma, which was still mostly doing business as a movie theater, began ramping up its live music offerings, partnering with Boise, Idaho, promoter the Knitting Factory to bring in acts like Jane's Addiction and Iron & Wine. In 2009, when Top Hat owner Steve Garr died, his children took over the venue and began booking bigger acts, too.
Then, in 2011, Big Sky Brewing Co. announced a summer concert series that over the next few years would include acts including Willie Nelson, Cake and Primus. Around the same time, the downtown scene underwent a major shift when entrepreneur Nick Checota bought the Top Hat and installed renovations including a state-of-the art stage and sound system. The new space began booking popular acts like Shooter Jennings, Jeff Tweedy and the Polyphonic Spree. In March 2015, Checota bought the Wilma Theater and decided to keep the booking in-house, with the idea that he would work on occasion with outside bookers. This did not make Knitting Factory happy, and the company brought suit against Checota in November 2015 with a claim that he was operating as a monopoly. Checota counter-sued alleging that Knitting Factory, which booked shows at Big Sky Brewing Co., was dissuading bands from playing at Checota's venues.
- photo courtesy Logjam Presents
- photo courtesy Big Sky Brewing Co
- A tale of two amphitheaters: KettleHouse Amphitheater, top, and the Big Sky Brewing Amphitheater.
In December 2016, Checota announced the launch of his own booking company, Logjam Presents, and began building an amphitheater in Bonner, which opened in July with an inaugural performance by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. This summer also saw the opening of Big Sky's new amphitheater, managed by the Knitting Factory, which kicked off with a performance by Trey Anastasio. Big Sky's major highlight was the Travelers' Rest festival curated by the Decemberists' Colin Meloy.
Meanwhile, Missoula's DIY scene has struggled to find venues for local and underground touring acts until recently, when a group of bookers secured the Zootown Arts Community Center Basement for regular shows. As for big-time acts, the fierce competition between Missoula's two biggest promoters has made for some interesting drama, and in the end it's given Missoula and its surrounding communities more top-notch live music than we could have ever imagined. (Erika Fredrickson)
Q: Why are the thrift stores so expensive?
A: It's a common Missoula complaint, but it may not be just Missoula. As it turns out, thrift stores have plenty of reason to be expensive. While one could argue that since the inventory is donated, prices should be rock-bottom, it's actually a little more complicated than that.