The Billings Outpost

Train trips to Paradise: Montana and railroads

Second of two parts

By HARRY W. FRITZ - University of Montana - Department of History

After all these non-mechanized years, three railroads in the 1880s! Montanans were, literally, transported. The railroads mark a fundamental turning point, the greatest historical watershed in Montana history. All but ending the captivating river and wagon trades, they linked Montana to vital national markets. They opened the territory (and soon the state) to outside investment and exploitation. They goosed economic growth and development. W. G. Conrad said it all:

“The railroad … changed all the channels of business and many … were unable to adjust themselves to the new conditions it brought. The coming of the railroads annihilated time and distance … and annexed the country to the commercial territory of the great eastern merchant princes.”

By 1909, a third transcontinental, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific (the “Milwaukee Road”) had cut through central Montana just in time to capitalize on the great homesteader boom. Railroads were absolutely essential to homesteading in central and eastern Montana – there’s almost a causal connection. Railroads brought farm families into the state with all their goods, livestock and equipment. They allowed grain growers and ranchers to ship their products to eastern markets. The Northern Pacific in 1900 was the largest landowner in Montana, and it had millions of acres to sell. The Great Northern and the Milwaukee Road depended for their very existence on filling up the plains – once home to widespread Indian nations and buffalo – with productive, Jeffersonian, agrarian yeomen. Their message to potential farmers all over America and Europe was simple: Come hither, and replenish the earth.

Factors other than railroad promotion and cheap transportation drew settlers to Montana after 1890. Land was free – 160 acres under the Homestead Act of 1862. The acreage doubled in 1909, and the proof period dropped from five to three years. Governments at all levels sought to attract citizens. Rainfall seemed ample, and if not, scientific agriculture – or dryland farming –promised good crops anyway. Commodity prices were high.

It all seemed so easy … free land, railroad competition, instant returns, endless markets, high profits. No wonder people poured into Montana – 103,000 in the 1890s, 133,000 in the 1900s, an incredible 173,000 in the 19-teens. From 1890 to 1920, Montana’s population exploded by nearly 300 percent. In 1910 on a single day in Havre, 250 homesteaders arrived. In 1913, each month, 700 people filed there. In March 1916, the number reached 1,200 a month. The plains areas alone accounted for more than 70 percent – 220,000 – of Montana’s population increase in the first two decades of the century. 

Everything expanded – prosperity; population; land under cultivation; wheat production (both yield per acre and price per bushel); women, children, and families; the number of towns and counties; railroad trackage. The years 1900 to 1920 were years of frenzied railroad construction in Montana. The great transcontinentals sent feeder lines to the farthest hamlet, mine or forest. Steel rails crisscrossed the state. You could go anywhere, it seemed, on the iron horse.

Every boom, unfortunately, produces a bust. The homestead era began gradually and collapsed abruptly. When the Great War ended in Europe in 1918, the bottom dropped out of the market.

Commodity prices plummeted. A searing drought, for which even scientific agriculture had no remedy, scorched the plains. Crop yields imploded. Fire, wind, hail, plagues of locusts, a flu epidemic and dust storms of biblical proportions battered Montana’s grasslands. Paradise became hell overnight.

The same trains that had carried thousands of settlers into Montana for 30 years carried thousands away after 1918. Montana was the only state in the nation to record negative population growth in the 1920s. Though no one realized it yet, the railroad era in American history was over. Trains built the country and made Montana. But when Henry Ford rolled a cheap Model T off the Dearborn assembly lines in 1915, the world changed. Automobiles, trucks and highway construction constitute the next, enduring chapter in Montana’s transportation history.

It was a great ride for 15 or 20 years on either side of 1900. Railroads and homesteaders go together in Montana. Each had its glory days. We still have farmers in Montana, and trains, but the romantic connection is history.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 11:30

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Art tours help retain memories

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

Artist Adonna Khare’s “Elephants,” a prize-winning large-scale paper drawing on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum, was an ideal central stop for seven visitors from the Eagle Cliff nursing care facility.

The massive, adorable elephants are intertwined with a menagerie of animals. It’s certainly a must see.

The art piece pours out warmth and harmony, without class distraction. All the creatures belong, all are engaged.

Tour founder Karen Fried brought the Eagle Cliff residents to the display on the museum’s second floor and first let them gaze. And gawk. And admire. Most smiled. Eyes lit up.

Then Fried solicited the group. She asked each individually to opine, those who wished.

What did they see? What is happening in the picture? Did they see any tiny, hard-to-spot creatures? Anything unique that can be observed?

She commented and questioned softly, slowly. Patient for responses. Fried didn’t proceed until all had a chance to speak. To be part of the engagement. Nobody cut off in their say. No rush to go on to the next exhibit.

Fried worked for more than 20 years as an executive director of assisted living memory care in Southern California before retiring to Montana to be near family 11 years ago.

“I saw firsthand how you could stimulate people with memory loss, to keep them engaged, keep them calm, and most importantly to take note and treat them like adults, where their opinion counts,” Fried said during one of her recent tours.

Fried, while never an artist, always loved and studied art. In retirement, she traveled to Europe with her husband and saw the world’s great museums - Louvre and Musee D’Orsay. And it got her to thinking.

Why not create an interactive art tour for older people, those who suffered strokes, have circulation problems, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, many who suffer memory loss. A program to keep residents at nursing care, assisted living or retirement facilities engaged and feeling like they are still part of the community. All the while enjoying the wonderful world of art.

Fried worked with the museum’s director of education Linda Ewert, and two years ago the program launched its first tour. They’ve done about 40 tours since then.

The tours are free of charge. They last about an hour, with a tea, coffee and cookies get-together afterwards. Fried takes seven to 10 residents on each tour.

“Karen does an excellent job,” said Eagle Cliff activity director Carla Christensen. “She knows her stuff, but more than anything, Karen talks to the residents. Whenever we want to butt in and talk for them, she stops us, and says, please, let them talk. So we just do the pushing (of wheelchairs) and that’s fine with us.”

Christensen brings over a staff of four to be part of Fried’s tours. In addition, two other docents from the art museum join, adding to a warm and secure environment for the visiting residents.

“Karen chooses just a few pieces in the museum because this gives the residents a change to process and think about what they are seeing and feeling,” said Laurie Schmidt, a retired school teacher who’s known Fried for seven years and helps with the tours. “She really wanted to make this work.”

And it has, as evidenced by the Eagle Cliff staff. Activity aide Kristi Rudolph remembers the group’s last tour.

“Two of our residents, Cece Ensrud and Julie Benson, talked for a good two hours afterwards about the tour,” Rudolph said. “And it inspired both of them to begin doing art work again.”

Benson was on the recent tour again.

“I do draw, but I’m not very good,” said an engaged Benson. “But I’m enjoying this immensely. I just love it. There’s such a variety here, and there so much creativity that the artists use.”

Fried said nursing care, assisted living, retirement center and church organizations can contact the Yellowstone Art Museum for information about future interactive art tours.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 May 2014 12:27

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Hospitals rated tops for safety

Designed to rate how well hospitals protect patients from accidents, errors, injuries and infections, the latest Hospital Safety Score has honored both Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare with an “A” – its top grade in patient safety.

The Hospital Safety Score is compiled under the guidance of experts on patient safety and is administered by The Leapfrog Group, an independent industry watchdog. The first and only hospital safety rating to be peer-reviewed in the Journal of Patient Safety, the Score is free to the public and designed to give consumers information they can use to protect themselves and their families when facing a hospital stay.

“Safety should come first for our families when we pick a hospital,” said Leah Binder, president and chief executive officer of The Leapfrog Group, which produces the Hospital Safety Score. “No hospital is perfect, but we congratulate the board, clinicians, administration, and staff of Billings Clinic for achieving an ‘A’ and showing us that you made the well-being of your patients your top priority.”

In a news release, she made the same comment about St. Vincent Healthcare. St. Vincent Healthcare CEO Steve Loveless said, “Safety is one of our core values at St. Vincent Healthcare. Every day we make it a priority to deliver care that seeks to eliminate all harm for our patients and our associates.”

Calculated under the guidance of Leapfrog’s Blue Ribbon Expert Panel, the Hospital Safety Score uses 28 measures of publicly available hospital safety data to produce a single “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” or “F” score representing a hospital’s overall capacity to keep patients safe.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 May 2014 12:26

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‘100 Greatest’ picks clinic

Becker’s Hospital Review has published the 2014 edition of “100 Great Hospitals in America,” a compilation of some of the most prominent, forward-thinking and focused healthcare facilities in the nation. Billings Clinic is the only hospital in Montana to be included on the list.

According to Becker’s Hospital Review, hospitals included on the list are home to many medical and scientific breakthroughs, provide best-in-class patient care and are stalwarts of their communities, serving as academic hubs or local mainstays.

To develop the list, Becker’s Hospital Review’s editorial team conducted research, considered nominations and evaluated reputable hospital ranking sources, such as U.S. News & World Report, Truven Health Analytics’ 100 Top Hospitals, Healthgrades, Magnet designation by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, The Leapfrog Group and several other resources.

The complete list can be read at www.beckershospitalreview.com/100-great-hospitals-2014/full-list.html.

Billings Clinic is Montana’s largest health care organization and serves a vast geographical region covering much of Montana, northern Wyoming and the western Dakotas.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 May 2014 12:25

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Train trips to paradise: Railroads made Montana

By HARRY W. FRITZ

Railroads usually connect regions, states, cities and towns. But they also connect time, eras and centuries. In Montana, there is a direct railroad connection between the transportation revolution of the 19th century and the homestead era of the 20th. This is that story.

The coming of the transcontinental railroads to Montana Territory in the 1880s is the single most transformational economic development in the entire history of Montana. This careening generalization certainly deserves explication.

Here in the 21st century, it is impossible to recall how isolated Montana was for the non-Native population in the 19th – how out-of-the-way, how off-the-beaten-trail. Montana’s transportation history before 1880 is colorful, exciting, romantic but ultimately ephemeral. Transportation was seasonal. It was hard to get here in the summer and even harder to leave in the winter. Most people came on foot. They walked or picked their way across the plains and over the mountains on horseback. Montana was a long way from nowhere. The Bozeman or Bridger trails from southeastern Wyoming to the gold fields along Alder Gulch were hundreds of dangerous miles long. Sioux Indians resented the intrusion. They forced closure of the trails in 1868. But the next year, the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific at Promontory Point in Utah. Now the hike straight north to Montana was less than 400 miles.

Along this route – modern Interstate 15 – muleskinners and bullwhackers hauled the mighty Murphy wagons, bringing almost five tons of goods and equipment at a crack to Montana. Stagecoaches also plied this “Corinne Road,” maintaining regular schedules to Montana towns. Drivers were called “Jehus,” from II Kings 9:20: “And the driving is like the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi, for he driveth furiously.”

Montana also boasted water transportation for almost six weeks out of the year. Booming little Fort Benton on the Missouri River, the “Chicago of the West,” became America’s most interior port city. When the water was high in the spring, American steam vessels, built to run on a thick dew, could travel 2,600 miles up the river from St. Louis.

In terms of costs, figured at price per ton per mile, this was the cheapest way to get supplies, equipment and people to Montana. Long wagon trains fanned out from Fort Benton to Helena and the Montana mining camps and even north into Canada. But Montana’s rivers run dry in mid-summer, and Fort Benton is drydocked.

These early travel ventures are the stuff of frontier literature, but nobody expected them to last. Railroads represented the coming of age in 19th-century America, and until they reached Montana the territory would remain in its infancy. Already railroads had impacted the state. In 1853, Isaac Stevens had led a northern-tier transcontinental railroad survey through yet-undefined Montana. However, no one would build a railroad through unorganized territory. The first step was to segregate Indians; so just two years later, the same Isaac Stevens was back in Montana setting up reservations. Stevens’ chief lieutenant, John Mullan, later hacked out a mountain road across the Rockies. All this happened before the great gold rushes of 1862-1864.

Miners, merchants, farmers and cattlemen all arrived in Montana in the 1860s, dreaming of railroads. Early territorial legislatures nearly pledged their patrimony to attract them. Many Montanans must have experienced rapture when the Northern Pacific Railroad was chartered in 1864. But the N.P., although a land-grant road, suffered from extremely shaky finances and even went bankrupt during the Panic of 1873. Another line, the north-south Utah Northern, also was curtailed by the Panic.

A reorganized Utah and Northern/Union Pacific finally reached Butte on a sub-freezing day in December 1881. Two years afterward, the Northern Pacific, under the new financial management of Frederick Billings and then Henry Villard, drove its last spike at Gold Creek east of Missoula.

Just four years later, a second transcontinental, James J. Hill’s Great Northern, cut across the Hi-Line to Havre, then southwest to Helena and Butte.

 

Harry W. Fritz teaches history at the University of Montana.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 May 2014 09:01

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Scam feared

HELENA – Montana Securities Commissioner Monica J. Lindeen has filed a temporary cease and desist order on Wednesday against TelexFREE, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) sales program that Lindeen’s office suspects may be a pyramid scheme that has already cost Montanans $70,000.

The order prevents TelexFREE, which filed for bankruptcy protection in Nevada on April 14, from conducting further business or accessing investors’ money. TelexFREE, a multi-level marketing company, sold phone service calling software for a personal computer.

 or smartphone. The software could be used for unlimited calls to landlines and mobile phones to about 70

countries for a fixed monthly price of $49.90. A VOiP competitor, Vonage, sells a similar product for $12.99

a month.

While it was possible to simply buy the VOiP software, TelexFREE heavily marketed a related program that

the company advertised as a way of earning money for TelexFREE “members.” In that program, individuals

had to pay $289 a year for an AdCentral membership. This membership required users to sell one

TelexFREE calling software a month for a full year. On the sale of the software, the member would keep

90% of the commission. TelexFREE would also pay members $20 a week for posting template

advertisements on approved websites daily.

Lindeen’s office has identified 34 Montanans who had participated in TelexFREE and collectively paid more

than $70,000 into the program.

On April 15, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil fraud charges against TelexFREE,

Inc., which stands accused of operating a $1 billion pyramid scheme. TelexFREE, Inc. is a Massachusetts

corporation that has raised more than $90 million in the state alone. The state of Massachusetts has also

filed a cease and desist order against the company.

Lindeen filed the temporary cease and desist order to stop TelexFREE from doing business in Montana as

a multi-level distribution company because it failed to register as such in the state and it appears to have

engaged in practices that violate the Securities Act of Montana. TelexFREE has 15 days from when they

receive the order to respond for a request for hearing.

For more information about the Commissioner’s office and smart investing, visit csi.mt.gov or call the

Commissioner’s consumer hotline at 800-332-6148.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 May 2014 09:00

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Artwalk marks 20th season of exhibitions

Jane Waggoner Deschner’s works are at the Catherine Louisa Gallery through May 14.The 20th season of ArtWalk in downtown Billings kicks off on Friday, May 2, from 5-9 pm. Twenty-five galleries, artist studios and small businesses will display new art exhibits  by local and regional artists.

Two new galleries have joined Chinatown Gallery on Minnesota Avenue, including Anderson Art Studio & Gallery (2706 Minnesota Ave.) and Big Sky Blue Gallery (2702 Minnesota Ave.)

The ArtWalk bus has retired. ArtWalkers can walk, ride their bikes or ride in one of the three rickshaws that will be transporting folks around the downtown area (courtesy of David Dean Young and Jason Jam.) The pedalcab drivers will not charge for their services but will accept tips.

Visit www.billingsartwalk.com to get a copy of the map, pick one up at any of the venues or see Page 21 of this issue. Also visit Billings ArtWalk on Facebook to see more art images from the stops.

Among the highlights:

• Visit the Catherine Louisa Gallery to view “Altered Moments: Works with Found Photographs” by Jane Waggoner Deschner, who says,  “I appropriate everything - photographs taken by others - fonts  and embroidery stitches created by others. My contribution is to combine these disparate elements into something more than the sum of their parts.” For more than a dozen years, Deschner has collected, studied, and altered vintage snapshots and studio portraits, movie publicity shots and news photos. The show will run through May 14.

• Sandstone Gallery will feature the oil paintings of Sue Hammersmark and the photography of John Havener, both longtime members of the cooperative art gallery. Jolene Yellowrobe will be the featured guest artist with her oils.

• CTA’s spring show will be the exhibit of the Billings Art Association, a nonprofit, community-based, publicly supported arts organization. The exhibit will include a wide range of media and showcase the talents of Phil Bell, Ev Bergeron and others. The show will run through the month of May.

• Good Earth Market and the Apple Gallery will show the work of native Wyoming artist April O’Brien. Her art expresses her deep fantasies and vivid dreams. She will show a range of media including photography and acrylics.

• Level 504 has changed its name to Trulove Studio. It will present the following artists: Stacy Ruckstad (mosaics), Matthew O’Brien (mixed media), Patrick and Justin Choriki (photography), Hawk and Thistle with Nick and Vickie Nichols and Charlie Haagenson (Western art). Song Dog Serenade plays live music.

• As spring arrives, Clark Marten Photography will feature photography of flowers. New this year, Clark Marten Photography has created a calendar that features select art pieces each month. At May’s ArtWalk they will give May, June and July calendars to all who visit the studio that evening. Ten Billings Central High School students also will be exhibiting their art for the May event.

• Visit Jens Gallery & Design to see “Patterns Upon Patterns” and new work by Montana’s Lisa Ernst. Her porcelain pottery with hand-painted designs drawn from nature and soft watercolor glazes has been described as “holding a Monet in your hands.” Motivated by childhood memories of spring’s colors and textures, Ernst has found ways of combining her signature patterns, creating a vernal collection of vases, plates, bowls and other functional forms to create a look that harkens back to another era. The gallery also features “Nature Girls II,” a whimsical collaboration between Billings’ artists Gerald Kindsfather and Connie Jens. Both shows run through May.

• Kennedy’s Stained Glass will display “The Tree of Knowledge,” an interactive piece with disciplines of education hidden throughout the tree and window. It will continue to be on display through May 9 before it leaves Billings to be installed in the library at University of Montana Western in Dillon.

• Anderson Art Studio & Gallery has invited Keith Feely and his FossilArt to exhibit in its first ArtWalk show. Feely has explored much of Montana by foot and observed and recorded our western heritage. He works in sandstone and oil paints to animate stones into works of art that appear to have fish emerging out of solid rock.

• The Northern Hotel will present its mix of artists in the hotel lobby along with food and beverages. Artists will include The Girl Who Ran Away with the Spoon (vintage silverware jewelry), Ashley Prange (photography), Charlene Magargal (rebound journals), Cassy Crafton Kramer (504 Pottery) and Steve Kuennen/Robin Earles (printmaking).

• Big Sky Blue Gallery will feature art by the owner, Dana Zier and also guests including other artists in her family. “Though my paintings vary in subject, they are all part of the vast landscape of Montana  and my family’s part of that landscape,” she says.

• Global Village begins ArtWalk’s 20th anniversary year with photographer Cindy Hummel, who shows digital photography from her world travels.

• The Billings Food Bank will feature Leland W. Stewart, a member of the Crow Whistling Water and Knight Hawks Society. Raised on the Crow Agency, he grew up on his grandparents’ ranch surrounded by horses. He attended the  Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and Rocky Mountain College. He is a graduate of the Fortin Culinary Center of the Billings Food Bank.

• Toucan Gallery will show paintings by Romanian visual artist Cristina Simona Marian Albin. Painting since kindergarten, she studied art in middle school and then studied at a fine arts high school in Bucharest. She graduated from the National University of Fine Arts in Bucharest in 2003. She moved to the United States in 2013 and now lives in Bozeman.

• Billings artist Susan Germer will show new creations for springtime during ArtWalk. Fine silver jewelry, colorful watercolor notecards, pastels, bead embroidery, and framed photography will be shown at Germer’s (susang) studio. She has been creating fine silver jewelry since 2004 and is certified to teach the Precious Metal Clay process.

• McCormick Café will host two local Billings artists, Ev Bergeron and Jim Vincent. Ms. Bergeron has a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Montana State University Billings. Jim Vincent is the designer and founding co-director of the Welch Heart Center and past chairman of Cardiology at the Billings Clinic along with being a pastel artist.

• Stephen Haraden’s colorful art is created by applying pieces cut from his previous paintings and applying them to a new canvas. He then adds paint and charcoal to complete the image.

• The Yellowstone Art Museum invites ArtWalkers to view “Face to Face, Wall to Wall,” an exhibit that explores contemporary approaches to portraiture, and “Un/Conscious Bent: A Survey of Regional Surrealism.” Jam at the YAM features Justin Johnson.

• Underground Culture Krew will feature all 10 of its members and their work. Member artists include photographers Kristin Rude and Jenna Martin, fused glass artist Gloria Mang, potter Tina Jensen and six graffiti artists.

• The most recent new comics are shown at the Jason Jam Gallery on the second floor of the Carlin Hotel.

• Chinatown Gallery will include new work by its regular members with an emphasis on the paintings of Roundup artist Coila Evans. Evans took her first painting class in 2008 and has been painting ever since.

• Tompkins Fine Art will show works by Sarah Morris, its newest member. All of the regular artists will also show work and several will be on hand to meet visitors to the gallery.

• Gallery Interiors is celebrating spring with artwork and home accessories featuring “Birds and Barnyards.” Artists include Bob Barlow, Joseph Booth, Dennis Boyd, Barbara Butler, Jessica Durnell Smith, Greg Eislein, Loren Entz, John Felten, Connie Herberg, Gerald Kindsfather, James LeBar, Cyndie Mohseni, James Poulson, Jeff Schaezle, Kevin D. Showell, C. David Swanson, Tom Temple, Robert Tompkins and Susie Van Pelt.

• Guido’s Pizzeria will offer both art and pizza.

Last Updated on Saturday, 03 May 2014 11:48

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On Earth Day, 10 easy ways to save planet

ICF International

1. Compost your garbage. Biodegradable waste, such as food scraps and yard clippings comprise about 25 percent of landfills. Compost at home and nurture your garden.

2. Reduce your carbon footprint. Leaving your car at home twice a week can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 1,600 pounds per year! To reduce your carbon footprint, try to combine your errands and shopping trips so that you do not have to make as many trips in your car. If you commute to work, ask if you can work from home once in a while, and you’ll reduce air pollution, traffic congestion, and save money. EPA has great info on reducing greenhouse gases on the road.

3. Use reusable dishes. Replace disposable goods with reusable ones. Buy rechargeable batteries and use reusable dishware instead of disposable products.

4. Make it a full load. Run your dishwasher only when it’s full. Don’t pre-rinse dishes (tests show pre-rinsing doesn’t improve dishwasher cleaning) and you’ll save as much as 20 gallons of water per load. When you buy a new dishwasher, look for one that saves water. Water-efficient models use only about 4 gallons per wash. Learn more about using water wisely via EPA’s WaterSense program.

5. eCycle it. Take your old computer, DVD player, or other electronics to an electronics recycling center. Reusing and recycling materials like copper, gold and others saves natural resources and reduces mining and processing. eCycling also helps avoid land, air and water pollution by capturing and reusing hazardous substances such as lead or chromium. Find eCycling centers near you.

6. Head to the dump. On average, each of us creates 4.6 pounds of trash per day, and 55 percent goes to landfills (the other 45% is recycled or incinerated). Take a trip to your landfill to see where your trash goes.

Be an informed consumer — it could influence your habits.

7. Plant a tree. Trees are one of the planet’s strongest natural defenses against carbon accumulation and greenhouse gases. Not only do trees provide much-needed oxygen, but they also use the carbon we create.

8. Wash your laundry in cold water. Most loads don’t need hot water, and 90 percent of the energy used by washing machines goes into heating. The higher the water temperature, the higher the cost to you and the planet.

9. Reduce your energy bill by avoiding peak usage hours. Avoid running large appliances such as washers, dryers, and electric ovens during peak energy demand hours from 5 to 9 a.m. and  4 to 7:00 p.m.

10. Dispose of your pooch’s waste with biodegradable bags instead of plastic grocery bags. You can find biodegradable options at most pet stores. Remember: plastic grocery bags take forever to decompose in landfills, and many end up in our waterways. Want to go the extra mile? Consider composting pet waste.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 April 2014 16:33

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Antibiotics may be making us even sicker

FLASH IN THE PAN

By ARI LeVAUX - @arilevaux

Antibiotics used in livestock are making us even sicker than we thought. For decades, livestock producers have used low doses of antibiotics to expedite animal growth. The practice, dubbed sub-therapeutic antibiotic therapy (STAT), lowers feed costs while increasing meat production, and nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are for this purpose.

Because STAT can encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” it’s banned in many countries, but remains common in the U.S. - despite recent public pleas to stop it by two former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioners.

Although STAT has been in use since the 1950s, how it works has long been a mystery. But evidence is mounting that it might be due to antibiotics killing microorganisms that populate animals’ guts.

If so, antibiotics could do the same thing to humans. In support of this idea, a paper published last year in Nature identifies a correlation between diversity of gut microflora and human obesity.

A nine-year study, led by Dr. S. Dusko Ehrlich of France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, compared microbiotas – the 100-trillion-member microbial ecosystems that populate the body – of slim and obese people. The team found obese people have lower microbial diversity in their bellies. This is consistent with earlier research in mice, as well as a paper published last year in Journal of Obesity that found a strong correlation between young children’s exposure to antibiotics and later obesity.

Perhaps more significantly, the team behind the Nature study found a correlation between low microbial diversity and heart disease, diabetes and cancer, regardless of weight. “Even lean people who are poor in bacterial species have a higher risk of developing these pathologies,” Ehrlich told NPR.

Our understanding of human microbiota is in its infancy, but the possible implications of such research are profound. Could our frequent use of antibiotics, both to treat human sickness and to encourage animal growth, be having unintended consequences on our health?

There are strict limits on the amount of antibiotic residues allowed in commercial meat, and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, violations of these limits are extremely rare. But this could be interpreted in two ways: maybe there isn’t much antibiotic residue in meat, or maybe the legal thresholds are set too high.

Research published last year in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology found that legal amounts of antibiotic residues in cured meats can still be high enough to kill bacteria that sausage manufacturers intentionally apply to their products.

Sausage is treated with lactic acid-producing microbes to make it more acidic, which kills dangerous microbes like salmonella and E. coli. The researchers found that while legal levels of antibiotic residues in meat don’t kill the pathogenic microbes, they can kill the acidifying microbes intended to keep the “bad” bugs at bay.

The growing recognition of the importance of gut flora has spawned an industry valued at $8.7 billion, according to Carl Zimmer at National Geographic’s Phenomena blog.

Currently, the retail products of that industry are regulated as food and cosmetics, not as medicine.

Zimmer notes: “It’s possible that the bottle of probiotics you buy in the drug store really will help your digestion, or your immune system, or your bad breath. But it’s also possible that the bacteria you’re buying will get annihilated in the ruthless jungle that is your body. A lot of species you’ll find in probiotic products do not actually belong to the dominant groups of species in the human microbiome. Stop eating them, and they’ll disappear from your body.”

That said, the Nature study did identify eight species of bacteria generally missing from underpopulated guts, and there is talk of putting those in a probiotic. But until such a product is available, there are other promising approaches to managing your microflora.

Another article by Ehrlich’s team, in the same issue of Nature, reports putting overweight people on low-calorie diets quickly increased their gut diversity. Together, the two studies suggest eating less could help enrich your gut flora, which could help you stay lean, in turn reducing your risk of associated diseases.

Another option is to consume microbe-rich fermented foods. In a recent New York Times article about the human microbiota, Michael Pollan wrote that several researchers he’d spoken to had added fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut to their diets, as well as having cut back on processed foods.

“In general they seemed to place less faith in probiotics (which few of them used) than in prebiotics – foods likely to encourage the growth of ‘good bacteria’ already present,” Pollan wrote.

South Korea, the land of kimchi, has one of the lowest obesity rates in the developed world. It may be a leap to connect that with richer gut flora, but it’s not inconsistent with the recent Nature papers.

And finally, no discussion of microbiota enrichment would be complete without mention of the fecal transplant, a medical procedure wherein fecal matter from a person with healthy microbiota is used as a suppository to seed the intestinal flora of a sick person. Fecal transplants are proving incredibly effective at treating some diseases.

In her Wired blog, Superbug, Maryn McKenna described recent research comparing fecal transplants with antibiotics in the treatment of a chronic, potentially deadly form of diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. The fecal transplants proved so much more effective that the trial was ended early, for ethical reasons.

Ninety-four percent of sufferers treated with fecal transplants recovered from the disease after two treatments, while just 32 percent recovered on antibiotics. The researchers determined they could not, in good conscience, continue treating C. diff patients with antibiotics.

Some researchers are now contemplating probiotics made from the patients’ own feces, collected earlier in their lives, before whatever health problem may have emerged, and stored cryogenically until needed. Transplanting one’s own feces makes sense, given how distinct each person’s microbiota is. And it’s slightly less icky, arguably. If you wish to freeze your own microbiota sample, we recommend labeling that package really well.

But a more preventative approach would be to avoid unnecessary antibiotics, and antibiotic-laced meats.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 April 2014 16:30

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1955 snowfall set record that still stands

By ED KEMMICK - Last Best News

If you live in Billings and think the recent run of heavy snowfall was bad, you should have been here in 1955.

We’ve seen use of the terms “snowpocalypse” and “snowtravaganza” to describe the recent storms, but these hardly begin to compare with the storms of early April 1955.

And fortunately for anyone with an interest in Billings history, that whole record-breaking storm was caught on film by a local chiropractor, the late Allan Downs.

He must have had great faith in the weather forecasts, because Downs started filming the storm in its early stages, then stuck with it until the snow finally stopped falling three days later.

The 14-minute color film, complete with narration by Downs and a musical score that is alternately ominous and dramatic, is an artistic and historical treasure.

In it he refers to “what was to be the worst snowstorm in recorded weather history in Billings.” Fifty-nine years later, it still holds that title.

Newspaper accounts at the time said the storm dropped 42½ inches of snow on Billings between April 2 and April 5, 1955. Tom Humphrey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings, said the figure is very nearly accurate.

According to weather service records, he said, the total was actually 42.3 inches, and 39.1 inches fell in just two days, April 3 and 4.

Asked if that was a record snowfall for Billings, Humphrey said, “Oh, yes, yes. That’s going to be very hard to dethrone.”

The recent storms in Billings lasted twice as long as the ’55 storms, from Feb. 22 to March 1, and dropped a total of 26.4 inches of snow. Even more telling is the water content of the 1955 storms. In four days, Humphrey said, the 1955 storms dumped 4.15 inches of water on the city. The recent snowfalls, by contrast, contained just 1.39 inches of water.

All that wet, heavy snow in 1955 virtually shut down the city and collapsed the roofs on three downtown businesses.

There are contemporary echoes in the documentary filmed by Downs. Early in the storm, he narrates, “A few optimists like myself even cleared their walks, expecting the snowfall to end.” And “parking without chains usually meant abandoning the car right on the spot.”

He also tells how “walls of snow and ice divided lanes of traffic in the business district.” This winter, for the first time in decades, the city of Billings is once again plowing snow to the center line on many streets, then picking up the snow at a later date. The documentary also refers to the “slow and immense task of removing snow from the metropolitan area.”

The film contains many recognizable locations, including the Babcock Theatre and Northern Hotel, familiar houses on North 32nd Street and a shot looking up North 30th Street, which was then bisected by a park-like median.

All that snow, however, didn’t stick around long. Then as now, Billings was subject to thawing chinooks and rapid temperature swings. As the Billings Gazette reported on April 5, the last day of the storm, the weather service had warned that “if warming occurs as expected during the next couple of days, rapid runoff is likely to produce a flooding problem.”

Downs says at the end of the documentary, however, that the ground had thawed sufficiently to absorb the melting snow, and there was no local flooding.

So, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Sure it was snowier in 1955, but this winter has been hideously cold, too.”

OK, but consider the winter of 1936. This February was unusually cold in Billings, Humphrey said, with an average daily temperature of  18.7 degrees. In February 1936, the average temperature was 2.7 degrees — 27.7 degrees below the normal average.

If you still feel inclined to complain, maybe all you have to do is wait. We could still set records. Three of the worst storms in our history, in 1917, 1941 and 1955, all came in April.

Allan Downs was an enthusiastic amateur filmmaker who also recorded memorable days of music at the Skyline Club and the Elmo Club. Those films, plus a film about Christmas 1956 in Billings and Downs’ account of the 1955 storm, were donated to the Western Heritage Center by his friend, Steve Hovis.

All four films were put on a DVD, which can be purchased from the Western Heritage Center. Call 256-6809 for more information.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 April 2014 16:29

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