Aliens near Canyon Ferry Lake, a ghost at Bryant School and Bigfoot on the loose in the Helena Valley.
These are but a few of Helena’s more oddball and colorful stories appearing in a new book, “Hidden History of Helena, Montana,” written by historians Ellen Baumler and Jon Axline.
A series of book events are scheduled in December, see If You Go box.
Baumler and Axline were inspired to write the book because of their previous work on the popular series of local history books, “More from the Quarries of Last Chance Gulch,” which were collections of history stories originally published in the Independent Record.
“We knew another history book is there,” said Axline. They both had many more stories to tell.
A number of Baumler’s stories initially appeared in her talks or short articles, but she wanted to “recycle” them into a book.
Don’t know much about Helena history?
Well, who can resist the call of such intriguing stories as -- “Was Helena Invaded by Hairy Aliens in 1976?”
It all happened just before 5 in the morning on Sunday, April 4, 1976, when Capital High School student Bob Lea woke up in his bedroom and looked out his second-floor window onto an open field.
In the semi-darkness, he spotted “something unusual walking across the field east of his house -- a very large something,” writes Axline.
“Lea quickly retrieved his glasses and was immediately spooked because
‘it wasn’t someone, it was something.’
“He watched the creature walk north across the field to a haystack about 250 yards from his house. There it met a second creature that was much shorter than the first.
“Both creatures appeared about the same -- hairy with ‘little or no neck.’
“At the haystack, both creatures examined what appeared to be some kind of device.”
Thus, begins Axline’s saga of a Bigfoot loose in the Helena Valley that’s intrigued him ever since he was a teenager decades ago working at Buttrey grocery store and hearing wild accounts of hairy aliens.
Turns out Lea’s younger sister believed her brother and later went out in the field and made a plaster mold of one of the “footprints” she found.
“The plaster cast showed a footprint seventeen inches long and seven inches wide. “The print indicated that the creature had three toes, with the middle toe being longest, and it was decidedly not human.”
While the Lewis & Clark County sheriff’s deputies dismissed the sighting -- as a teenager’s overactive imagination, Cascade County Sheriff Keith Wolverton later paid a visit to the Lea home on Hickman Drive.
“The sheriff had been fielding reports of UFOs, hairy giants and cattle mutilations for several months.
He told the Independent Record that “there had been fourteen reports of hairy creatures called into his office after he made an appeal for information in February. The latest sighting just happened to involve an East Helena resident.”
On the morning of Feb. 22, 29-year-old Leonard Hegele, was driving south on Interstate 15, south of the Great Falls airport with his wife and two children, when he “spotted a seven-foot-tall, ‘solid and muscular’ creature striding along a knoll on the north side of the interstate about a quarter mile from the highway.
“He stopped the car, crawled through the right-of-way fence,” and pursued it with a .357 magnum pistol.
“When Hegele got within about 750 feet of the entity, the creature stopped and turned to face him.”
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Hegele retreated to the car, but reported seeing a hovering oval object near the creature.
Wild and improbable, but still “It was pretty creepy,” Axline concluded.
One of Baumler’s favorite stories is that of “Bryant School’s Unusual Friends,” which tells of strange and unexplained sightings of ghostly presences at Bryant School.
These feelings particularly ramped up as staff and students prepared for moving from the old school to the new one this year, said Baumler.
“Bryant staff and students... began to experience events that suggested the school’s past was in many ways entangled in the present,” writes Baumler.
“Knocking in the basement crawlspaces, the distinct smell of cigar smoke, music drifting out of the locked music room and footsteps in empty hallways became commonplace for many who spent time in the old building.”
“A couple teachers called me over,” said Baumler, who has written several popular ghost books about Montana.
“They were experiencing all this weird stuff,” she said.
“The librarian saw a guy in a cap walking through the book cases,” she said.
The ghostly presence was “a dead ringer” for a former beloved custodian, John G. Black, who worked in the building from 1929 to 1953.
Another teacher working on weekends in the building kept smelling cigar smoke, Baumler said.
Black was known to always be smoking a stogie.
Black’s name used to be on a dedication plaque near the old flagpole, Baumler said.
Other teachers reported hearing the sounds of a child running in the hallways when they worked late at night.
“We did find a news story about a Bryant fourth grader who had been hit and killed by a car” in 1935, she said.
While Baumler can’t give a definitive answer about ghosts, she can report, “all the kids thought it was really cool their school was haunted.”
Baumler may not be a ghostbuster, but she hopes to be a mythbuster about some local tall tales.
One such tale is that early Chinese settlers in Helena had underground opium dens and that there are Chinese tunnels under the city.
While the Chinese may have rented basement apartments because they were cheaper, she said, there are no Chinese tunnels, nor any underground opium dens.
Smoking opium wasn’t illegal in Helena’s early history, she added. “A lot of people smoked opium, not just the Chinese.”
And the places where people gathered to smoke it were typically on the first or second floors of buildings, and not hidden. “Opium dens weren’t clandestine.”
Among the array of interesting and colorful characters you’ll meet in the book are two of Helena’s early entrepreneurial madames; a famous local wrestler, King Kong Clayton; and Sheriff Seth Bullock, who would go on to fame as the sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota.
The book is published by Arcadia Publishing and costs $23.99.
It’s available at book events listed in If You Go box and at Montana Book Company.