If you were to stick a pin in the very center of the state of Montana it would land in the Judith Basin. This is a landscape as unforgettable as any in the West, with endless blue sky, wide green plains, and distant purple mountains.
The Judith River, a tributary of the Missouri River, flows through the basin. Captain William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, named the Judith for Julia Hancock, whom he later married in 1808.
The little community of Utica began here in the 1880s, as headquarters for cowboys working the basin's huge herds of open-range cattle. Prospectors arrived a bit later when a sapphire mine was discovered, but there wasn't enough money in the mining for everyone who came, so some settled on the land.
During this time, a teenage boy left his schooling and well-off family in St. Louis for a Western adventure. He wintered for two years with a mountain man, worked wrangling cattle near Utica, and became one of the greatest artists of the American West - Charlie Russell. This magnificent landscape inspired many of his watercolors, sculptures, sketches, and illustrated letters. They depicted the Native American tribes who were the prairies' original inhabitants, explorers and fur trappers, and, most memorably, the cowboys of the open-range ranches.
Today Utica stands slap-dab in the middle of Montana wheat country. It is a place where, more than any other in Montana, the romantic vision of the Old West still survives in cowboy sagas and tales. AND, the local ranchers are not above having a little fun with it all...
Back in the '80s - 1980s, that is - a couple of neighbors began joking around with each other one fall. It seems that they got into a bit of personal one-upsmanship between themselves. Oh yea, and since it was readily available and lay in every direction as far as one could see, their competition involved bales of hay. Their friendly little competition involved such humor that others wanted to get involved. Soon their neighbors joined the fun and What the Hay! was born.
Things have changed only a little since then. Now in its 22nd consecutive year, this is now the Montana Bale Trail and is held on the first Sunday after Labor Day. Thousands of people now drive the country road to view these artistic creations. The hay bale sculptures are displayed in fields between Hobson and Windham, with Utica being the halfway point. Titles of the bales are mounted next to each entry. Although local farmers and ranchers make up the majority of the sculptures, there have been entrants from all parts of Montana as well as California, New York, and Arizona.
There are two categories: adults and children aged 12 and under. The only rules are it must be made out of hay. Anyone from anywhere is welcome to enter the contest; hay and a location can be provided. Entrees are free. Ten entries are chosen as winners by a panel of judges and those driving through can vote for a "People's Choice" winner.
If you're ever in that neck of the woods in September, your long drive will not have been in vain. There is the Utica Day Fair and Chokecherry Festival in nearby Lewistown to add to the festivities. It might seem like a bit of a drive just to see a bunch of hay bales, but what the hay, it's Montana, after all!
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