30-year anniversary of Lewis and Clark Festival draws big crowds

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GREAT FALLS – The 30th annual Lewis and Clark Festival drew big crowds to Great Falls over the weekend to commemorate the Corps of Discovery’s journey through Montana in the early 1800s.

The Electric City staple did not disappoint.

Festivities kicked off Friday night with a music concert at Gibson Park. The opening event of the three-day-long festival — aptly dubbed Bluegrass in the Park — was headlined by two bands: the Lazy Owl String Band from Bozeman and the Two Tracks Band, a group from Sheridan, Wyoming.

The fun continued Saturday morning, blasting off with a black powder rifle demonstration and followed by Native American dance performances. Members of the Lewis and Clark Honor Guard, a historic reenactment group from Great Falls, taught history lessons from a hovel of antiquated tents, where they showcased popular nineteenth century activities like beaver skinning and sextant navigation.

Live music also serenaded event-goers throughout the weekend, with artists like the Lucky Valentines and Jeni Dodd on display in Gibson Park’s indispensable bandshell.

The Lewis and Clark Festival is an annual fundraiser for the Lewis and Clark Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1991 in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service: the entity responsible for managing the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls. “Inspiring financial support for the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center” is the group’s mission statement, according to the foundation’s webpage.

Founded in 1994, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center has undergone major renovations financed by the Lewis and Clark Foundation. The sprawling wheelchair-accessible building now offers a 158-seat theater, scenic overlooks and audio tours available in five languages — thanks to the foundation’s work.

Speculation circulated in 2017 that the U.S. Forest Service was in talks to shut down the Interpretive Center, as reported by the Missoula Current, but no such action was ever taken. The Interpretive Center continues to operate at capacity with the monetary assistance of events like the Lewis and Clark Festival.

Over the years, dollars raised through the efforts of the foundation have underwritten several major developments involving heritage preservation on the Lewis and Clark Trail. A $90,000 partnership with the National Parks Service, for example, made possible a “Field Investigations Program” that educates approximately 1,700 middle school children each year in both scientific and historical subjects at the Interpretive Center.

For Jay Russell, executive director of the Lewis and Clark Foundation, the community of Great Falls exhibits a special zeal when it comes to events like this one.

“It’s fun to see so many people come out to really learn more about Lewis and Clark and the native tribes they encountered and what life was like back then,” Russell told MTN News. “We’ve kind of condensed it and pulled everything a little bit closer in [in terms of area], so it’s just full of people and life.” 

Russell attributes a few new attractions to this year’s success as well. Snakes, reminiscent to those Merriwether Lewis and William Clark would have encountered, were introduced to the festivities with the help of some experienced handlers. But traditional features, like Native American music and Bluegrass in the Park, will always keep people coming back, Russell said.

“We have had another great crowd this year,” he said.

On Sunday, a historic tour of the Great Falls Portage is slated to take place, tailored for “history buffs and adventurers.” The trip will trace the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition through Great Falls and the surrounding areas, including Rainbow Falls and Black Eagle Dam. Bussed attendees can also expect to picnic on Ryan Dam Island. Prices for the excursion vary.

For more information on how to get involved with the Lewis and Clark Foundation, visit the group’s website here.

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