|Birdie Brown's Homestead in Fergus County. Courtesy Great Falls Tribune.|
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
The rutted road was a familiar one to Fergus County locals during the days of Prohibition. You had to be careful—bad hooch could cause blindness and even death. Those looking for a place to party knew to point their cars toward Black Butte and Birdie (or Bertie) Brown’s place. She was as nice a woman as they come, and her still—according to locals—produced some of the best moonshine in the country. Birdie was among a very small number of young African American women who homesteaded alone in Montana. She was in her twenties when she settled in the Lewistown area in 1898. She later homesteaded along Brickyard Creek in 1913.
During Prohibition in the 1920s, Birdie carved a niche for herself. Her neat homestead where she lived with her cat was a place of warm hospitality. Birdie’s parlor was legendary. In May 1933, just months before the end of Prohibition and Birdie’s livelihood, the revenue officer came around and warned her to stop her brewing. But as Birdie multitasked, dry cleaning some garments with gasoline and tending what would be her last batch of hooch, the gasoline exploded in her face. She lived a few hours, long enough to request that someone take care of her beloved pet. But the cat that followed her everywhere was never found. Birdie’s once orderly homestead now lies in a state of collapse, tragically transformed into a ghost of its former self. Roundup artist Jane Stanfel, who has painted Birdie’s homestead, makes a strange observation. Although it’s been nearly eighty years since Birdie’s passing, every so often someone catches a glimpse of a black cat perched in her parlor window.