At Target Range's historic Little White School House, just one tree remains of what was once a cottonwood grove that dotted the historic school's South Avenue perimeter at the turn of the 20th century. For more than 100 years, as the grove died off, the one poplar's knobby limbs continued to grow, an irresistible invitation to thousands of school kids looking to climb the leafy landmark.
But, in a story emblematic of the area's transformations in recent years, the lone cottonwood is in trouble. A nearby ditch that provided its primary water source was paved over about a decade ago, and the 86-foot-tall tree has become dehydrated and hollow. Unstable now, it's slated to be cut down.
As locals prepare to watch the cottonwood go, other changes are prompting circumspection. Dale's Dairy, a community hub and grocery store, was sold in November after being in the same family for 37 years. Orchard Homes, which was originally named after 18,000 fruit trees, continues to see growth with new homes built where the orchards once were. Most significantly, the Target Range Neighborhood Association recently presented a blueprint to help guide growth in the area over the next 20 years. The proposal came after more than a year of meetings and planning.
Target Range resident and budding historian Kris Crawford finds all the change ironic. One hundred and fifty years before Target Range residents worried about housing density, water quality and urban encroachment, Irish immigrants settled at the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers to avoid Missoula's bustling center.
"They settled this area because it wasn't downtown where all the uppity ups were," she says.
Target Range residents today echo a similar, if less pointed, sentiment. They enjoy a rural lifestyle, but accept that growth will continue to be an issue. That's what makes the new neighborhood plan, which was developed entirely by Target Range residents, so vital. It calls to further limit development and protect agricultural heritage, among other things.
"The plan process is fairly unique. It's the first neighborhood plan actually written by the neighborhood itself," says Lewis Yellow Robe from Missoula County's Office of Planning and Grants (OPG). "It's definitely a new way of doing things here."
The neighborhood association approached OPG because it felt bottom-up planning was the best way to address Target Range's unique needs.
"Those of us that got this whole thing started felt that nobody knows a neighborhood better than the people who live in it," says Peggie Morrison, the homeowners association president.
The neighborhood rolled its plan out to the city's Plat Annexation and Zoning Committee at the end of October. Though the city has no authority over Target Range, the meeting provided an opportunity to brainstorm with people well versed in the challenges that come from growth.
The neighborhood plan next goes before county commissioners for approval, likely in the next several months, Yellow Robe says.
In the meantime, Target Range has successfully preserved a sizeable portion of its fertile farmland. Missoula County reports 21 percent of its total prime agricultural soils are in Target Range, and a sizeable portion of local farmers' market produce is grown here. Morrison hopes to keep it that way.
"Hopefully, Missoula, if it's going to continue to grow, it's going to find another direction that wants to grow," Morrison says.
For Crawford, however, a significant amount of change has already occurred. She got hooked on Target Range history several years ago, after falling in love with the Little White School House at the corner of South and Clements. Since learning about one of the oldest schools in the state, she's spent a sizeable chunk of her time sifting through photos and seeking out stories from descendents of area homesteaders.
"My goal is to try to preserve the history," she says. "But my main goal is to share the history, because nobody knows all these stories."
Crawford then rattles off a list of quirky Target Range trivia. For example, the Pepper Pot House was once a hotbed of hooch and ladies during prohibition. She says illegal booze was shipped to the speakeasy under slats of strawberries, and "the strawberries went under the compost pile."
Aiming to better preserve stories like this, Crawford is lobbying the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission to designate Target Range a historic district. It's especially important to document these stories now, she says, before time further erodes landmarks and leaves the past permanently hidden.
Crawford points to the historic home across from the Little White School House that was recently demolished, leaving a "For Sale" sign in its place, and the lone cottonwood. Learning the stories, she says, at least helps offset the losses.
"Knowing the history of it," Crawford says, "makes it all the more special."