Living History – John Ellingsen recalls preservation work with Charles Bovey

A love of old fashioned items proved to be beneficial to John Ellingsen and the towns of Virginia City and Nevada City.

Ellingsen, originally from Great Falls, first visited his now home when he was six years old in 1952. His family made yearly visits after that.

“It was one of my favorite things to do,” Ellingsen said of his travels.

His eventual work with Charles Bovey preserving the two towns made it possible for people today to enjoy their trips to the area as well.

Charles and Sue Bovey are responsible for the restoration of much of Virginia City and Nevada City. In the 1940s they started buying buildings that were empty and in need of repair. Over many years they restored buildings, brought some in that were being torn down, and preserved them for the future.

Bovey was born in Minneapolis, Minn., and after college he followed his father into the flour milling business. He went to work for the Royal Mill in Great Falls in 1926. In Great Falls, he recreated a western world called “Old Town.” The display moved to Nevada City in 1959.

Ellingsen began working with Charles in 1972. He had completed college, worked for the Bureau of Land Management and served some time in the Army before becoming a curator.

“I minored in history, but I never thought I would become a historian,” Ellingsen said.

Ellingsen said it’s pretty neat to have lived through a lot of Virginia City’s history. He said the 100-year anniversary seemed unfathomable and that he is enjoying the 150th a great deal.

The majority of the work consisted of Ellingsen and some locals moving buildings both whole and in pieces. Ellingsen said work on the buildings started soon after he received the phone call from Bovey asking for his help. Most of the buildings were moved in 1976, according to Ellingsen. Only one was moved after Bovey’s death in 1978.

Some buildings simply consisted of the exterior shell and others kept their small windows, doors and other parts. Ellingsen said Charles Bovey did a lot of the furnishing once the buildings were put in place. He did his best to make them look as livable as possible.

“We rescued buildings that were going to be made into fire wood,” Ellingsen said. “It was like a jigsaw puzzle. We had to build some several times before we were satisfied.”

When not putting buildings together, Ellingsen found time to work on music machines. He even apprenticed with an expert in Colorado. These music machines are on display in Nevada City.

“John is a remarkable and loving individual who is liked and treasured by everyone in Virginia City,” Elijah Allen of the Montana Heritage Commission said. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Bovey and John I doubt there would be a Virginia City in its restored form.”

Ellingsen, author of the book “Witness to History,” said he believes the preservation work that was done and continues today through the Montana Heritage Commission makes Virginia City and Nevada City fabulous assets for Montana and certainly Madison County.

“Charlie and Sue were absolutely wonderful to have saved history, whether or not anyone comes to see it,” Ellingsen said.

The Virginia City Preservation Alliance is dedicating the memorial of the Bovey Family at the Hangman’s Building on Wallace Street on August 10. The Charles and Sue Ford Bovey Visitor Center grand opening was held in Nevada City on June 15.

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