Appalachia, Mont. 

Historians are scratching their heads over the recent discovery in the old Hellgate Village, four miles west of downtown, of a house built in a distinctly Southern architectural style. Six months ago, JTL Construction called Philip Maechling with Missoula’s Historic Preservation Commission about an old farm building on their property along Mullan Road. JTL was going to give the building away, but first asked Maechling and Bernie Weisgerber, a historic preservation specialist, to take a gander.

Maechling immediately recognized the structure: “I said, ‘That’s a dog trot.’ And then I said, ‘That’s a dog trot house? What’s it doing in Montana?’”

The design, which Weisgerber says comes straight from Appalachia with examples dotting the American South, actually generates a breeze. It’s composed of two discrete cabins joined in the center by what traditionally was an open breezeway. The central area, open along the front and back but shaded by a continuous roof, stayed cooler and more comfortable than the “pens” on either side. Weisgerber thinks he knows when the cabin was boarded up.

The Meitchells, perhaps a Scottish family from Texas, built their home under these conditions, he speculates: “It was hot, it was dry, it was wonderful, it was green.” Soon enough, the inevitable: “Then winter came. I think that was an ‘awshit.’”

The craftsmanship also makes the house unique. The structure sits on piers—hand-hewn wooden blocks atop basement rocks. Hand-cut pine logs meet in dovetail notches at the corners.

It may look crude to us, says local historian Alan Matthews, from under his grey fedora, but the woodwork was all done by hand—handsaws and axes.

Along with a visual reminder of the old Hellgate Village, the house brings a mystery. Who were the Meitchells, who filed on the land in 1872? Were they running from the Civil War? Did they look for gold? Did they find it?

Currently, says Matthews, the old log house is only the second extant visual reminder of Missoula’s earliest beginnings. The other, he says, is the Conoco at 6265 Mullan. It calls itself the Hellgate Trading Post, and it’s just east of a formidable fleet of dump trucks.

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