Montana is too large and diverse for definition or characterization in general terms. Children in its schools are taught that the name Montana means "mountains," but many of them see only prairies rolling to the horizon. They are told that Montana is still a great ranching State, where cattle graze and cowboys ride, but some of them, as in Butte, see only ore dumps, great dark sheds, and barren buttes.
To the dry-land farmer in the eastern part of the State, Montana is a vast agricultural plain checkered with brownish fallow land and fields of green wheat that ripen to a dusty gray-gold in August; or it is a drab waste seen through a haze of wind-blown soil. For him the mountains of the western part exist chiefly as the goal for some long-deferred vacation.
To the resident of the mountain region, Montana is a land of rich valleys, small thriving cities, and uncounted mineral treasures. He hesitates to admit that anything important or interesting can exist in the immensities of dead brown grass and gray stubble that make up the eastern twothirds of his State. At best, he believes, tank towns are there, and cattle and wheat. Less than best means badlands, coyotes, tumbleweeds, and dust.
These attitudes of high valley dweller and plainsman derive, on the one hand, from knowledge of the importance of the western region, the greater economic security of its rural population, and its relative wealth in people and in cultural opportunity; on the other, from knowledge of the sheer immensity of the plains and from the comfortable thought that the crops and livestock they produce are worth more to the State, in prosperous times, than are the minerals dug in the mountainous area.
The people vary less than might be expected, considering that they live far apart and in widely contrasting environments. They number only 6.19 per square mile, compared with 80.00 for the Nation, and are thus as scattered as the residents of Baltimore would be if distributed over Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and New England. But they make frequent long trips, and think of a hundred-mile drive to a Saturday night dance as part of the regular order of living. Modern highways, built mostly since 1925, have emphasized this trait by making communication easier. A "neighborhood" on the plains, or the "environs" of a city, may include points separated by distances that would seem absurd to a stranger.
Where physical vastness in land and resources is an accepted fact, people are likely to be prodigal in measuring the size of their enterprises. The copper industry is most conspicuous for its leviathan structure. But every cowpuncher scales his ambition to the proportions of the great old-time cattle outfits. Every farmer wants to own or rent more land, buy more and bigger farming machines, and then acquire still more land to keep his machines profitably employed. Little avarice or scheming is involved in this continued reaching out; there is plenty of land for everyone. Montanans are merely so accustomed to vastness that anything less than huge seems trivial to them.
The compulsion to be big is solidly rooted in the State's history, with its traditions of big fur companies, big cattle and sheep outfits, and big mining operations. During Montana's period of greatest growth ( 1880-1920), size became an end in itself. Population increased 1,400 percent, and still more manpower was needed. Many argued that the area and resources of this "Treasure State" warranted a population of millions. Here day-laborers could become owners, and owners could become wealthy. To gain wealth in the new empire (Montanans liked the word) became the hope of everyone. The prime requirement was to "get in on the ground floor."
Even when expansion itself faltered, with the post-War failure of prices and credit, the habit of thinking in terms of expansion continued. Farmers, however, remembered that Montana is semiarid, and began to use moisture-conserving tillage methods. The mining industry had serious troubles: profits on Butte copper dwindled in competition with open-cut operations elsewhere; silver was not in demand; coal had two rivals, oil and gas, growing steadily in importance. In business, sales were slow, collections difficult. The trend of population was away from the State.
In Montana's "wide, open spaces" the cowpuncher no longer rides hour after hour, unimpeded by fences. He wears few fancy togs and carries no gun; he is a workingman who does his job well and cares nothing about the traditions of the motion-picture West. But he does ride. In at least the southeast quarter of the State, the resident, male or female, who cannot sit a horse well is a rarity.
Increasing tourist trade and a growing dude ranch industry have made Montanans think of themselves as hosts, and has added a certain smoothness to the simple good-fellowship and bluff hospitality of older times; but, among themselves, they remain informal and respect few artificial conventions. Hospitality, as proud a tradition West as South, has come down from the days when a rancher's home was everyone's castle and a good citizen never locked his door, knowing that a cold, tired, and hungry rider might need to enter and cook a meal.