Hot Springs celebrates 70th Homesteader Days
HOT SPRINGS – During the 70th annual Homesteader Days Celebration wind gusts whipped down Main Street, something the original homesteaders would probably know a lot about.
According to Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce records, the event is held the second weekend in June to honor the original homesteaders in the area who first started turning up the dirt in the 1890s. The town was called Pineville at the time. As part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, the land was open to homesteading in 1910. The town was re-named around that time for the warm “healing waters” in the area.
“As the fame of our wonderful hot mineral springs grew, accommodations were built to house our international visitors, and in 1948, the tribes completed their beautiful new bathhouse and swimming pool complex,” according to the records.
The original homesteaders experienced one problem after another. In 1931, fire destroyed most of Main Street and then the sawmill burnt down. The hospital was also closed. “Finally, in 1985, the tribes closed the bathhouse, dealing a devastating blow to the economy.”
A number of problems caused the town to dwindle in size, including the loss of the Hot Springs Mercantile after it burnt to the ground. “To top off the bad news, cattle price sagged and logging was severely curtailed. The population of the town dropped to about 400 in 1990.” According to the United States Census Bureau, Hot Springs was home to 567 people in 2018.
Despite the problems, the locals kept a positive outlook. “We now have a bank on the old “Merc” site. We have a clinic open five days a week, instead of one afternoon.” The historic Symes Hotel is under new ownership. The community has built a public swimming pool, utilizing the mineral water, and the Homesteader Days Celebration continues every year.
The three-day event opened on Friday with live music. The festivities continued on Saturday with a car show, fun run, breakfast, rummage sale, kiddy parade and more music. The open rodeo began just before the sun started to set. The party continued on Sunday with a big parade and more rodeo events.
On Saturday, Charlie Scott was busy organizing the car show. She also owns Fergie's Pub and Grill in town where huckleberry milkshakes are a hot item. She wasn’t sure how the weekend event was going to turn out when she looked at the weather that morning. She worried attendance would be down. “It’s cold and a bit windy,” she said.
Despite the weather, vendors set up along Main Street. A stage was in place for the circulating musical performances and a few fair-style kids’ activities were moved in, including a bouncy house.
The cars started to line up early along Main Street so people walking by could get a close look at the shiny machines. Scott took over the show at the last minute in an effort to keep it going this year. The car show was also a fundraiser for the Salmi family.
Harlee Salmi, 5, was diagnosed with a brainstem tumor earlier this year. Her parents are taking time off work to be with her, and the folks in town are doing everything they can to help the family, including a GoFundMe page that is still taking donations. People can call and leave a message at the Hot Springs City Hall if they want to help the family in some way.
On Main Street, Wailing Aaron Jennings was singing country folk music on the stage. After he sang, “Somebody loves you” in a low raspy voice, a fan belted out, “I love you, too.” The wind kept blowing and a slew of leashed dogs walked along with their owners. At one booth, high school students were selling cupcakes to raise funds for a field trip. Other vendors sold food and goods. A few bikers wearing leather rolled into town on motorcycles to see what was going on.
Down the road at the Creekside Bar, a horseshoe tournament was happening. Tracy Dyson scored a ringer. Darla and Alan Reisinger celebrated a winning victory after one of the games. John Porterfield said the game was probably something the original homesteaders played because it was easy to play. “The sport has been around as long as there have been horses and horseshoes,” he said.
At another bar (there are three in town), Donna Redmond was having lunch with friends. She has lived in the town for more than 50 years. She has helped organize several different activities for the Homesteader Days over the years. This year, she was at the rubber ducky race earlier in the day to make sure the ducks were floating down the creek in town. Participants could win a cash prize at the race. The revenue from the duck race went to the Homesteader Days committee to pay for prizes, insurance and other event costs.
Redmond said the people who volunteer to help put the event together work “really hard” and it couldn’t get done without them. “We also couldn’t do this without the generous business owners who contribute,” she said. She didn’t want to get too negative but did say that more volunteers are needed because she wants to see the celebration continue.
“This is my home, and I get a little emotional about it, but it’s true. I’ve seen so many happy times here and sad times. I’ve raised my kids here. This is my town and I celebrate that. In the past, I've brought my kids to the Homesteader Days and my grandkids. We need more young people to get involved and keep it going,” she said.