By Sam Korsmoe
Madison County Economic Development Council
More than 130 years ago, an entrepreneur from Kentucky with a get ‘er done attitude acquired a 4,000-acre ranch along the Jefferson River. The ranch was in an area that would become Madison County and in a territory that would become the great state of Montana. The entrepreneur’s name was Noah Armstrong. He had made a fortune in the gold fields of Montana and was returning to his passion for horses and horse racing.
One of Armstrong’s first moves was to build a three-layered, round barn reminiscent of the fabled Kentucky horse barns of the late 19th century. In 1885, he purchased a thoroughbred mare named Interpose and had her bred to Hyder Ali, a well-known racing stallion of the time. The resulting foal was named Spokane because Armstrong learned of the birth of his new foal while in Spokane Falls, Washington.
Three years later, Spokane, a small chestnut sorrel, was in the starting gate awaiting the start of the 15th Kentucky Derby. He was a 6-1 long shot. When Spokane trotted onto the track to warm up, the Kentucky fans laughed at him because of his small size while heartily cheering for the odds-on favorite and native son, Procter Knott. Though he started slow, Spokane poured it on in the stretch and beat Procter Knott by a nose. He set the Kentucky Derby track record that still stands today for the 1.5 mile distance. To further prove his mettle, Spokane beat Procter Knott at least one more time on his way to winning the equivalent of the Triple Crown of the era by winning the American Derby and the Clark Handicap. Spokane is Montana’s only Kentucky Derby winner.
Six months to the day after Spokane’s record setting Kentucky Derby win, the state of Montana was born. The spirit and get ‘er done attitude of Spokane flows through the veins of most Montanans, most especially the residents of the county of his birth.
Why is this relevant?
The Madison County Economic Development Council has nominated the round red barn plus 30 acres surrounding the barn on the Hamilton/Seidensticker Ranch near Twin Bridges as Madison County’s selected site for the competition to win the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. We had four sites to choose from and we are going with our strongest horse. We intend to win.
The new owners of the Hamilton/Seidensticker Ranch – Tony and Amie James – have said they would consider donating the barn plus 30 acres of land to the project if Madison County is selected. I’m working out the details, but this is a real opportunity. The barn and Spokane are already inductees in the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame. The other communities still in the running for the hall of fame have not yet proposed gifting any land to the project. All their proposed sites have price tags. We are ahead of the competition on at least two counts. First, the land and an iconic barn will be a gift, thus greatly lowering the costs of getting the hall of fame project started. Second, the barn and Spokane, Montana’s most famous racehorse that was born and trained in the barn, are already hall of fame inductees. We’re definitely on a roll, but we have not yet won.
Here’s what you can do to help us win.
First, we need everyone in Madison County to get behind this proposal. If we win, the museum will be built on the site just outside of Twin Bridges. It will naturally impact Twin Bridges the most in economic development terms, but it will bring investment dollars, jobs, economic activity and visitors to every corner of Madison County. We need to work together to close this opportunity out. You can start by sending me a letter of support for the project. In your letter, tell the selection committee what you can bring to the development of the project. Drop the letters off at First Madison Valley Bank in Ennis or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org before the end of January. These letters will be included with our final proposal.
Second, despite the proposed gift, our proposal has some challenges. The primary one is the relatively remote location of Twin Bridges. It is 25 miles away from Whitehall and Interstate 90 and 25 miles away from Dillon and Interstate 15. How can we get people to Twin Bridges to visit this destination? Our primary competitors are Livingston and Big Timber and both of those locations are right on the Interstate. Send me your ideas and strategies.
Third, year-round viability will be a challenge for any site in Montana. The summer with all our tourists will take care of itself, but what about the winter and the shoulder seasons? What can we do to compel visitors to come to this destination during those times? Again, please send me your ideas.
Fourth, Madison County’s final proposal to the hall of fame selection committee will include a detailed capital campaign plan to raise about $1,000,000 to renovate the round red barn to a public functional use. This means we intend to raise the needed capital and hire contractors to renovate the barn so it can host a variety of functions ranging from a lecture or workshop on Montana history and heritage to weddings to annual meetings or to any other kind of public use. Obviously, this will take money. If you’re able to participate in this campaign, please consider sending me a pledged donation. If you know someone we should contact and/or need more information about the campaign, contact me directly. This will be a statewide capital campaign and not just in Madison County.
Lastly, we need to show the hall of fame selection committee that Madison County is a community of doers and not talkers. Being selected as the host community is only step one. Step two and beyond is working with the hall of fame to develop a plan and execute it to get the job done. We need to show the selection committee that Madison County is full of leaders who lead by example.
We need to send them a message: We are Spokane. We will get it done.