LINCOLN — This story has its roots in the summer of 1865, when gold seekers flooded into the mountains of Montana Territory.
They came from North and South, an important distinction in those days.
The story goes that David Culp of Pennsylvania and Thomas Patterson of Missouri sank a 45-foot deep shaft in a gulch above the Blackfoot Valley and found enough traces of gold to stake claims.
A rush followed. Within weeks, a mining district was established, apparently by Union-leaning folks. On Aug. 31 they named it Andy Johnson District after the new president. In the same resolution they christened the three-mile-long Abe Lincoln Gulch after his predecessor, who’d been assassinated just 3 1/2 months earlier.
Because they did, there’s going to be a free screening of the blockbuster movie “Lincoln” in the Lincoln Community Hall next Tuesday, Feb 12.
It’s one of eight towns and villages from across America chosen by movie marketers to be part of a civic engagement program called “Stand Tall. Live Like Lincoln” on the day Honest Abe would have turned 204.
The film that stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln was released last fall and has garnered 12 Academy Award nominations, more than any other in this year’s Oscar field.
To accommodate the big-screen smash in a theater-less western Montana town, the movie’s production company is spending between $2,000 and $2,300 on improvements to the Community Hall, including a new movie screen and an upgrade of the public address system.
And there’ll be more on the program than just a 2 1/2-hour movie. A Lincoln-style top hat will be given away and some men and women will show up in Civil War period garb.
“They’re also asking that following the movie you have a panel discussion on what it takes to affect social change in any community,” said Susan Howsmon, one of the local coordinators. “It’s how to stand tall, as depicted in the Lincoln movie, how to change people’s minds about things.”
The gold camp in Lincoln Gulch waxed to an estimated 3,000 people before waning in the 1870s, according to the Upper Blackfoot Valley Historical Society’s 1994 history book, “Gold Pans and Singletrees.”
Culp and Patterson initially took their gold and went home, though Culp returned to buy and operate a store in Lincoln Gulch. Strikes were made in nearby gulches, and the enduring town of Lincoln emerged on the flat four miles to the southeast.
In 1916, the Community Hall was constructed there of gigantic logs. It has a rich history itself, said Howsmon, who with her husband Nyle operated the weekly Blackfoot Valley Dispatch until recently and currently manage the hall for a volunteer board.
“It used to be church, it used to be a school, it was a skating rink on the hardwood floor,” she said. “Lots and lots of dances. A little bit of moonshine sold outside the doors ...”
And, yes, it has served as a movie theater before, probably in the 1960s and ’70s, said Howsmon.
The former longtime secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce, Howsmon was answering the chamber phone last month when a call came in from California.
“It was from Active Voice, which is a company in San Francisco that evidently contracts with film distributors to kind of help publicize films,” Howsmon said last week. “They asked if we were interested in showing the move ‘Lincoln’ in Lincoln.”
Her first thought was to call Annette Gardner of the Council for the Arts.
“She was terribly intrigued,” said Howsmon.
The fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary, Gardner makes the 16th president and the town’s namesake a focus in her classroom.
Disney’s Touchstone Pictures was expected to approve distribution of a news release detailing the “Stand Tall” effort on Monday. An Active Voice spokeswoman said late in the day she was still waiting for the release and thus couldn’t discuss the nationwide scope in detail.
According to an account published in New Mexico in January, the other Lincolns taking part are in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota.
“They would like to show it in a town that has the same name as Lincoln and far enough away from different major markets that the people in town would not have a real good opportunity to see the film otherwise,” Howsmon said.
Lincoln, in extreme northwest Lewis and Clark County, fits that bill. Its slogan is “part wilderness, part paradise,” and a lot of its residents have fled there from Missoula, Helena and Great Falls.
Like many small towns, it’s self-reliant.
“Lincoln is an unincorporated town. There are no real funds coming back into town, and so we rely heavily on volunteers,” Howsmon said.
They’re in the American Legion, the volunteer fire and ambulance departments, Senior Citizens, the Community Council – some 20 organizations in and around Lincoln.
“They are the movers and shakers in Lincoln that get things down,” Howsmon said, adding that the panel discussion on “Lincoln in Lincoln” night is a chance “to let people know about these groups, and if you have any concerns about anything in Lincoln, can one of these groups help you?
“Can you come to the meetings and be part of the discussion to make things better?”
Bill Frisbee, president of the Upper Blackfoot Community Council, will join high school English and visual media teacher Greg Christiansen and government/history teacher Steve Maughan on the panel.
It’s only coincidence that the unique program falls on another important day in Lincoln, the end of the 350-mile Race to the Sky sled dog race. Depending on weather and trail conditions, the leaders are apt to be crossing the finish line at Hi-Country Snack and Foods west of town in the hours before the movie shows.
With luck, local fans can take in both, Howsmon said. They can simply migrate east a few miles, just as the town did more than 100 years ago.