Virginia City’s Pioneering Spirit

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on November 14, 2004

A handful of hardy people with a pioneering spirit are crafting a new future out of the rough and tumble past of an old Montana gold-mining town and national historic landmark.

Jack Waller says he moved to Virginia City (pop. 130) to “retire to a life of creative and contemplative poverty.” Like the gold prospectors who built the town 140 years ago, this folk artist and photographer found what he wanted.

“It’s a great place to be poor,” says Waller, laughing. “That really appealed to me; it’s the ability to barter with your friends in the community that makes it possible—that and the fact that it’s a small town, and there’s not a lot of ways to spend your money.”

The barter system has been a staple there since gold was discovered in 1863. A vibrant city with dance halls and blacksmiths blossomed overnight from a picturesque mountainside. Within two years, Virginia City became the territorial capital of Montana, a designation it kept for 10 years.

Even when the gold rush boom ended, the town with Greek Revival storefronts and fancy French doors remained viable for decades. “We had a school, a grocery store, a meat market, a gas station and restaurants,’’ Debbie Rogers says. “Then it got hard to make a living, and people moved into the valley.”

Rogers spent 34 years in Las Vegas but came home in the mid-1990s to a near-ghost town that the U.S. Department of the Interior had designated a national historic landmark in 1962. Most buildings were privately owned until the state Legislature paid $6.5 million in 1997 for buildings and artifacts in both Virginia City and nearby Nevada City. The state earmarked another $3 million for preservation.

That turned Virginia City into a place where the curious visit to explore the frontier past, while residents keep that past alive.

Keeping history alive brought Jon and Rikki Scott and their blacksmithing and tin-smithing business, Virginia City Forge & Tinworks, to town.

“We had done a lot of traveling with craft shows but wanted to stay in one place where the market would come to us,” Jon says. “The tourists coming here provide that.”

Jon often displays his craft at a “tent village,” a living history gift shop where artisans demonstrate 19th-century trades. Relying on the old techniques appeals to tourists and is required by the state. Main street stores—including the tent village—are on state lands, and those who rent space there need state approval for their activities. That means the Scotts are barred from using electricity and other modern conveniences.

“All the historical ways are being reinterpreted by individuals in the tents,” Waller says. “People who live here are not bound by history, they’re keeping history alive.”

Many of the stores remain stocked with staples from the early 1900s. Silver Leaf pure lard, Hills Bros. coffee and bolts of cloth all are on display. The blacksmith shop still houses horse-drawn sleighs, and bloomers can be bought through Ranks Mercantile.

Two professional acting companies also offer a slice of history. The Virginia City Players, established in 1949, perform six nights a week during the summer season, with a melodrama followed by vaudeville routines. Down the road, the Brewery Follies provides a more bawdy interpretation of the past.

Still, Virginia City isn’t just for tourists. It’s the Madison County seat, and business takes place daily at the county courthouse.

Once the first snow settles in, the locals decorate downtown for Christmas and trade guitar licks at weekly jam sessions.

“It looks like a fairyland at Christmas,” resident Rikki Scott says. Still, with no grocery store, no school, no hospital, no movie theater, and most of the tourist shops shut down during the winter, Virginia City is a town for the self-reliant, much as it was in 1863, when those early miners found that first glimmer of gold.