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Ravalli County celebrating 130 years of history this month

Ravalli County is home to Montana's oldest town
Ravalli History Exhibit
Posted at 10:46 AM, Mar 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-13 12:46:56-04

HAMILTON - Ravalli County, home to the St. Mary’s Mission and Stevensville — the oldest town in Montana — turned 130 years old this month.

The county was born in 1893 after being separated from Missoula County. It was also in the Washington, Oregon, and Idaho territories before settling in Montana.

"The important thing is to see how far we’ve come. That we started off like most western communities, as small settlements, mining and logging operations, Fort Owen, St. Mary’s Mission, and then how we grew to become our own county in 1893,” explained Ravalli County Museum director Michelle Nowling. “To have our own county seat and then the transfer of that seat and everything that has happened since.”

From old opera houses to schools, the exhibit at the museum is a symbol of unity with each town contributing to what Ravalli County is today.

Ravalli History Exhibit
A new exhibit at the Ravalli County Museum in Hamilton is helping to mark the county's 130th birthday.

Through the beauty of the landscape, the people of Ravalli County all have a special place in the valley.

"We have national attention from things like Rocky Mountain Labs, the different farming, the agricultural industries here, the building of the big ditch, Highway 93, becoming a part of the national trail system, becoming a part of the Lewis and Clark national trail, the Nez Perce national trail. All that combines to create who we are and what it means to be a Bitterrooter,” Nowling said.

From the beginning of the county being founded by the Jesuit priests at St. Mary’s Mission and Major John Owen of Fort Owen — who started the first settlements — to the modern day, there are plenty of different unique stories and memories for every person that has lived in or visited the Bitterroot Valley.

Michelle Nowling
"The important thing is to see how far we’ve come," noted Ravalli County Museum director Michelle Nowling.

"I personally have lived in seven states across the country and I find the Bitterroot Valley so unique,” Nowling observed. “There are such diversity and unique stories and people. And the strength of people to come and settle in this wilderness and create it into what it is today. That’s what stood out to me, the unique individuals that made the valley.”

The entrance to the museum exhibit features one of the most important artifacts of the county — the original pen that was used to sign the bill to separate the county.

It was originally going to be named Bitterroot County after the bitterroot flower but was later changed to Ravalli County after Anthony Ravallli, the priest at the St. Mary’s Mission.

The exhibit also features a birthday cake with 130 candles and also has facts about each city or community in the county.

Ravalli County Birthday Cake
The Ravalli County Museum exhibit features a birthday cake with 130 candles and also has facts about each city or community in the county.

“We’re hoping that folks will come and share their stories and help us to collect more information that we can build on in the future,” Nolwing concluded.

The museum — located at 205 Bedford Street in Hamilton — is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Additional information can be found online at or by calling 406-363-3338.