I drove 1600 miles to Havre, Montana to celebrate the July 4 holiday and found the North Baltimore of my childhood there. Havre (pronounced like “have ‘er” in the phrase “You can have ‘er, I don’t want her”) is a town of approximately 10,000 located in north central Montana on U.S. 2, also known as the hi-line. My daughter, Lindsay, is a photojournalist for the Havre Daily News.
On first glance, Havre and North Baltimore share the similarities of being located on an active railroad line and along an important regional highway. Both towns are surrounded by farmlands. The main streets boast buildings constructed during the same era.
On the other hand, there are significant differences between the towns. Havre sits between two Native American reservations. Also located nearby are communities of Hutterites, a communal branch of Anabaptists who, like the Amish and Mennonites, trace their roots to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century. There are many faces in Havre that look nothing like the North Baltimore of my childhood.
On July 4, Lindsay’s assignment was to photograph the town picnic so I tagged along to the community park. Lindsay shared that one of the townspeople, who we had met at the lunch diner the day before, raises enough money to put on a July 4 picnic each year.
As soon as I jumped out of the car, I knew this picnic was something special because there was an incredible energy in the air. In the course of Havre community events, this is one of the year’s biggest happenings. There was a long twisting line of people stringing across the park waiting to get a free hot dog, hamburger, slice of watermelon, brownie and a can of soda. Never being one to pass up a free meal, I joined the line and found it full of smiles, laughter, and neighborly banter. The talk was about fishing, camping, and upcoming work trips on the railroad. Families were picnicking. Children were frolicking with a huge inflatable ball. On a small bandstand, townspeople were taking turns sharing their musical talents. There was a shiny new bike being raffled by a local agency.
As Lindsay worked, I sat down with my plate of food and was overcome by a feeling of déjà vu. Here I was surrounded by strangers, some from very different cultures than my own, but I had never felt more at home. For me, the Havre picnic had recaptured that old sensation of North Baltimore’s July 4 fireworks of years past: the delight in seeing friends who lived in the country for the first time since the last day of school, the simple joy of many generations gathered in one place sharing food and conversation, and the relaxed sense of belonging.
As I enjoyed the picnic, I realized that I had stumbled upon the heart and soul of a small town community: a social group that shares common values and experiences. Havre is still a place where folks need to bond together to survive in a fairly isolated location. This creates a strong sense of family, and like any good family, there’s always room at the table for one more guest. In essence, the Havreites invited me to break bread at their community dining room table on July 4. I enjoyed the free hot dog and soda but received a far better gift: a surprise visit back to memories of my childhood in North Baltimore, to special times when we joined together to celebrate the heart and soul of our community, to a time when we all seemed like family, to the very essence of the North Baltimore of my childhood.
If you want to learn more about Havre, Montana, you can follow it on Facebook: Havre-Hill County, MontanaHavre-Hill County, Montana or http://www.havredailynews.com. Better yet, have a chat with Gregg and Ann Glamm who lived in this area early in their careers.