Cradled at the foot of the Cabinet Mountains in eastern Sanders County some 80 miles north of Missoula lies one of western Montana’s unspoiled treasures: the tiny town of Hot Springs, an enclave of some 600 residents at the northwestern edge of the Flathead Indian Reservation. First settled by Indian people who discovered the curative properties of the mineral waters that lend the town its name, Hot Springs today is visited by people from as far away as Taiwan, Finland and Australia who are seeking relief from arthritis, rheumatism, joint and back pains, high blood pressure or the everyday stress and toxic residue of modern life.
Though the hot mineral-rich waters may be this town’s biggest draw and economic asset, it is, as one longtime resident put it, the people are its greatest social asset. This is a place where friendly gossip is one of the most thriving and popular pastimes, where a visit to the local convenience store is less an obligatory errand than a friendly social call, where neighbors look out for neighbors. So stop by, come and soak your tired bones for a while. The water is warm—and so is the company.
From top to bottom:Carl Crops, a 90-year-old immigrant from Belgium, drives his patriotic tractor through town during Hot Springs’ annual Homesteaders Parade for the tenth year in a row, offering rides and historical tidbits to anyone who flag him down. His motto: “Enjoy life.”
Ann Magera Wicks Christie, 93, is one of the area’s original homesteaders from back in the days when Hot Springs was still known as “Pineville.” Christie, wife of the famous accordion player Arney Wicks, recalls how as a girl she was fascinated by the local Indians, whose teepees were spread across the Camas plains. She and her brother used to watch them from their yard, imitating their drumming using an old upside down wash bucket.
Maurice Helterline, a resident of Plains, pays a visit to the Lone Pine Cemetery in Hot Springs. “I’ve been visiting Lone Pine Cemetery most of my life,” he says. “This is where my family is buried, and it is all tied up in the Indian culture and with the homesteader days.”
LeRoy O’Bennick, caretaker of the Big Medicine mineral plunge, displays a coat worn by the Hot Springs High School team bearing the school mascot, the “Savages.” O’Bennick, a Kootenai tribal member, finds the name particularly painful and insulting and has petitioned the school board to change the name to something more innocuous. “ I think this coat never did have a time or a place here in Hot Springs. The depiction of the Indian is terrible and degrading,” O’Bennick says. “You don’t take a nationality of people and draw them in this manner, with a big nose and buck teeth, because this is a reservation town where Indian people live.”
A winter sun breaks through the early morning fog hanging over a field outside of Hot Springs.
Local Hot Springs resident Jack Ass—yes, that’s his legal name—offers a grand tour of Hot Springs viewed through the back window of his car. His tour ends at a particularly beautiful forested area the locals have dubbed “Skunk Hollow.” Jack Ass is also the originator of “Hearts Across America,” a one-man national campaign that places hearts instead of crosses on graves and highway roadsides for those who have died in car accidents.
Leo Harteis, who teaches at the Salish Kootenai College, waits for his lunch to be delivered, alongside an afternoon dozer outside the Red Tail Cafe in Hot Springs during the Homesteaders Day celebration.
Brothers Lynden Flagen, 15, and Drew Flagen 11, stop to play “Pokemon” on their way home Sunday night.
Dave Oxford, the retired mayor of Hot Springs, and his wife Susan, sit in the cafe at the local Conoco station—the “Y Quick Stop and Deli,” as it’s known by locals—smoking and balancing their checkbooks on a Saturday evening. “I work at the Bucks grocery store, where you don’t just check someone out and say good-bye,” Dave says. “It’s always ‘See you later, so-and-so,’ or ‘Say hi to so-and-so for me.’ You can’t get service like that at Safeway.”
Guests of the Historic Symes Hotel, Hot Springs residents and locals from the surrounding areas enjoy the live music from Jody Mosher on a recent Saturday night. The hotel, which features live music on Friday and Saturday nights, is one of the few places for miles around to find a happening nightlife.
Kids stay up long past their bedtimes for a late-night soak in the Historic Symes Hotel outdoor mineral pool. The Symes Hotel, built in 1928, is still a hot spot for tourists and locals alike, who gather on Friday and Saturday nights to relax in the artesian mineral water, enjoy live music, food, massages, watsu therapy and relaxed conversation.