Everything Begins With Roots
Watch as this warm and vibrant Montanan takes us on a journey from the pioneers to everyday life and gardening…proving that knowing our past is a big part of knowing who we truly are.
“I do a lot of stuff around this town.”
Thompson Falls, Montana is about as picturesque a small town as you could imagine. Rolling mountains seemingly flank the wide blue river, giving way to rumbling rapids and more sky than you can see. This is the Montana of postcards and dreams. But this state's beauty isn't cultivated or curated. Its beauty endures, resisting civilization's efforts to tame or manage it.
And according to local historian Sherry Hagerman-Benton, that’s perfectly in step with the spirit of the American west, and specifically Montana.
“The American West was not a structured civilization,” she says. “It made its own way and its own rules. That mentality, it is still alive in Montana, because we're kinda self-sufficient out here, you know, especially people who have been here a long time like me.”
As much a part of the land as it is a part of its people, that independence remains edged by what can't be quite called a wildness, but nevertheless still recalls the echoes and essence of the Wild West. From Main Street's wide openness to its classic western brick store-fronts, Thompson Falls is very much shaped by its past. A past that Sherry finds irresistible and has occupied much of her interest over the years.
“I've been interested in history for as long as I can remember,” she recalls. “Even as a small child I was interested in history. It's fascinating. It's fascinating to realize how people lived. They were mainly about the history of the American West, and the settling of the American West.”
For Sherry, the story of her town and Sanders County isn't just purely historical. It's personal. Her family has been here for generations, fighting to survive and thrive. This town's history contains pieces of a past she can't seem to leave behind. It's a true tale that beckons her with dates and photos and stories of people who risked everything they knew and loved just to find a new, better life for themselves.
“It was a hard-scrabble life, especially for the pioneers who came out West,” says Sherry. “Word got back that there was this vast territory out here. Think about that. Pack this wagon full of a bunch of stuff, and you just head out into the unknown. Say goodbye to your friends and family, knowing you will never, ever see them again. That's incredible to me. And I would really like to be able to meet them and talk with them. 'What made you think this was going to all work and that you would come out west and become an entrepreneur?' I find that fascinating. Isn't that fascinating? I think it's fascinating.”
“I'm the town's historian—nobody actually gave me the title, it just has gravitated to me."
It's this insatiable curiosity and this drive to know more that drove Sherry's forty-four-year career writing for the Sanders County Ledger. And if writing it wasn't enough, she's read the archived issues all the way back to 1905. There's a good chance that Sherry knows more about Sanders County than anyone else in the area. She is a walking Wikipedia of Sanders County history.
“I'm the town's historian—nobody actually gave me the title, it just has gravitated to me. When people stop in at city hall or the courthouse, they always say, 'Go talk to Sherry,'” she laughs.
Here in Thompson Falls, the seat of Sanders County, Sherry is also a living reminder that a community—what creates, builds, and maintains it—is about the people who live there. And if Sherry is any indication, this town has one heck of a lot of character.
“I think we're typical of a small town,” she says. “Everybody is cheerful, the atmosphere is cheerful. Or maybe it's me, I'll just go 'Good morning!'” and here she throws her arms wide with aplomb.
But it isn't surprising that Sherry is the keeper of town's historical roots. It's not just her avid obsession with history or her own family's ties to the community (“All us Old Timers know each other”). Sherry is a cultivator, whether of stories, the past, or her relationships in the town. And if you needed more proof about her ability to not only know the roots but how those roots grow and unfurl into a vibrant present, you just have to look at her garden.
We already know that Sherry knows a lot about roots. As it turns out, she's pretty handy with vegetables, fruits, flowers, and more. She has an enormous garden that provides a large portion of her food and she does her own canning. Sherry is in fact famous (at least locally) for her green thumb.
“Well, I can hardly walk down the street without somebody asking me a question and it's usually about plants.”
The garden of the “Plant Lady” is verdant and lush, filled with healthy greens and lovely flowers, many of which can be found gracing local businesses. Even the Thompson Falls branch of Whitefish Credit Union features her hanging basket plants and her holiday wreaths. Sherry's green thumb is everything, nurturing, supporting, and growing things.
There are people in every town who seem to just exist. For some, survival is a struggle. For others, it's just about going through the day-to-day motions and getting by. And then you meet a Montanan like Sherry, who seems to have been born instinctively knowing life's rhythms even as she combs through the history of the place. Every discovery, it seems—from some events in the town's past to exultantly pulling a crisp new head of lettuce from her garden—seems to hold its own kind of joy for her.
It's like speaking to someone who found the secret to enjoying the good life.
In these moments, we get a glimpse into another way of seeing the world and interacting with it. A world where every life—old, new, animal or vegetable—is cause for celebration and joy. Where every interaction is the potential to engage in an authentic way. And every morning seems to hold the promise of some kind of adventure.
And yet Sherry's life is much the same as so many others. Her rhythms are the same. “Get up in the morning, have your breakfast, got to work, have lunch, work some more, go home,” she grins.
Much like her ancestors did, Sherry is living by her own set of rules for life. She is Montanan to the core.
And who better to tend to this town's roots?
For Members Like You. Because What We Do Pays Dividends.