BILLINGS, Montana — Tucked away in a copse of pine on a hill overlooking the steady hum of Interstate 90 is a small relic of local history — a rustic 12-by-12-foot log cabin that was reportedly used by author and artist Will James.
"The fact that you can see it from the interstate but nobody knows about it is so cool," said Liz Harding, associate curator at the Yellowstone Art Museum. "It's kind of a nice little oasis."
The YAM is the keeper of 5,000 Will James items, everything from old saddles to artwork and hand-written book manuscripts. The Bureau of Land Management, which in 1999 purchased the property where the cabin stands, has been making repairs to keep the structure, and its ties to history, standing.
"We're trying to preserve it yet keep it historically accurate," said Jennifer Macy, archaeologist for the Billings Field Office of the BLM.
The cabin was built in the early 1900s above a narrow, brushy draw behind the Snook Ranch, just southeast of the I-90 bridge over the Yellowstone River and before the 452 Exit onto Old Hardin Road. The property is now part of the 765-acre Four Dances Natural Area, but it's a remote corner that sees little visitation compared to the more dramatic sandstone cliffs that overlook the Yellowstone River or the route down to the river bottom.
The cliffs are the site of the Crow Chief Four Dances' vision quest in the 1830s. Four Dances was an important religious and military leader. Peter Yegen, a prominent early businessman in the Yellowstone Valley, was the first to patent the property in 1907. Yegen transferred the property in a quit claim deed to one of his employees, W.E. Dixon, in 1928. He in turn sold it the city of Billings, who sold it to J.J. and Grace Arnett in 1938. It wasn't until 1940 that Earl Snook bought the property.
Earl and Virginia Snook were patrons of the arts, as well as owners of a local wallpaper and arts supply store. They were friends with many of the area's artists and writers, including an injured Ernest Hemingway and Will James.
"Earl Snook always took care of Will James, especially at the end of his life," Harding said.
The Snooks ended up with a vast collection of James' artworks, writings and personal effects, much of which is now in the YAM's permanent collection.
"Ideally they would go in a Will James museum," Harding said. "There's some seriously cool stuff in there."
Deciphering James' links to the cabin behind the old Snook Ranch is a little more difficult to document.
The local legend is that James used to be hauled up to the cabin, or rode his horse there, to dry out after drunken sprees in Billings' saloons.
"Virginia Snook used to talk about that all the time," said Vince Larsen, who bought the property from the Snooks. "How he'd ride his horse out, tie it up and sleep off the drunkenness. Then he'd sober up and go back to his ranch at Pryor Creek."
James eventually died from the effects of alcoholism. That might explain why in all of the drawings and paintings that James produced, the small Snook cabin was never depicted.
"I'm guessing he wasn't in the best state anytime he was in the cabin," Harding said. "It probably wasn't a real comfortable spot."
However the cabin was decorated 100 years ago, it's now austere. Wide wooden boards, spaced about an inch apart, were used for flooring. The door is short, opening into a cabin with windows on three sides. An old wooden bed frame stands against one wall. A small table holds rocks and nails picked up around the place. A blackened wall is evidence that a wood stove once sat in one corner. Pegs driven into holes in the logs appear to have been used for hanging coats as well as boards for a makeshift shelf.
The only irrefutable artifact tying the cabin to James is an undated photograph showing the Snooks and James astride horses in front of the structure. Harding guesses the photo was taken in the early 1930s, given how young James looks.
"Will James didn't really officially return to Montana 'permanently' until the late 1920s, and died in 1942," Harding wrote in an email.
Last year, the BLM hired Forest Service restoration specialist Kirby Matthew to lead a Montana Conservation Corps group in re-chinking some of the logs, painting the cabin's trim and door a soft sky blue and re-sodding the roof.
"It was like a living garden when they first planted the roof," Harding said. "It was amazing."
The crew used small sections of sod cut from the surrounding grassland, putting native grasses, plants and even prickly pear cactus atop the old cabin. It was the third time the roof has been repaired since the BLM acquired the property, Macy said. New logs have also been added to replace rotting ones. The question Macy faces is how much to improve the cabin without changing its authenticity.
"It's kind of a dance between maintaining its historic integrity and preserving it," she said.
A bench about halfway down the half-mile trail to the cabin provides a place to rest and look across the gulch. A picnic table has been placed next to the cabin, as well.
"We put in the bench last year to make it a more user-friendly space," Macy said. "We put in the picnic table because we want people to hang out and visit."
The BLM is considering building more trails at Four Dances, one of which would loop down to the cabin from the other side of the natural area.
The BLM archaeologist is hoping to learn more about the cabin and surrounding property under a bid she's preparing for a contract to perform historical research of the Four Dances area.
Until then, visitors to the site, accessible just off Coburn Road, can stop to read two BLM signs providing some information on Will James and the surrounding property overlooking Billings and the Yellowstone Valley.
"You kind of forget it's so close to town," Harding said. "When you're up there, it seems like you are in the middle of nowhere."
Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com