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Best of Montana in Summer: Festivals and Events

Discover the best events to attend in Big Sky Country during summer.

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A rider competes in the Event at Rebecca Farm, the nation's largest equestrian triathlon of dressage, cross-country, and show jumping.

The Event at Rebecca Farm, Kalispell

Western, not English, riding may be the norm in Montana, but for one weekend each July, the sport of eventing (an equestrian triathlon of dressage, cross-country, and show jumping) is king in Kalispell. Attracting some 550 competitors, 350 volunteers, and over 20,000 spectators, the Event at Rebecca Farm is the largest competition of its kind in the nation. Admission is free (the suggested $5 parking donation funds cancer research), and being part of the experience is a summer tradition for many local families, says Mike Powers, managing editor of the Whitefish Review. If you can only make one of the four days, Powers recommends Saturday’s exhilarating cross-country competition. His family sets up a little blanket-and-chairs camp on the northern part of the hillside in the center of the course. “That’s the perfect spot to watch the horse-rider teams travel up and down hills, through water, and over jumps,” he says. “I find myself holding my breath as the horses soar through the air only to exhale when the hooves hit the ground.” Arrive early to visit the trade fair, and bring bikes or strollers to explore more of the course and the 650-acre farm.

Pioneer Days, Scobey

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The homesteaders who followed the railroad to eastern Montana’s wide-open spaces in the early 1900s grew wheat—lots of it. With all that wheat to harvest and thresh, farmers turned to traveling threshing crews—groups of men who moved from farm to farm with engine-powered threshing machines. The annual Pioneer Days, staged at the Daniels County Museum and Pioneer Town in June, celebrates Scobey’s early farm and railroad heritage. There are tours of 35 restored Pioneer Town buildings and a rollicking Dirty Shame Show performed by local volunteers and starring the Dixie Shame Belles and the Dixieland Band. One of the festival highlights, however, (and, likely, the highlight of a thresherman’s day) is eating a hot breakfast in an antique cook-car. Sort of a food truck-mobile home hybrid, the wheeled cook-cars served as kitchen and dining room for the threshing crew as they crisscrossed the prairie. “The thresherman’s breakfast is a favorite with locals and a unique way for visitors to experience our pioneer history,” says Daniels County Museum secretary Katee Cook. “There aren’t many places where you can sit in an antique cook-car and have pancakes, sausage, eggs, and coffee prepared just for you.”

Celebrate Native American Heritage at Crow Fair, Crow Agency

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For five days each August (12-17 in 2015), southeastern Montana is the site of what’s dubbed the “tepee capital of the world.” It’s Crow Fair, an all-out celebration of Apsaalooke Nation culture and heritage held annually since 1918. Tribal members erect some 1,200 to 1,500 white tepees along the banks of the Little Bighorn River for the fair, creating what’s considered the nation’s largest modern-day American Indian encampment. For locals and visitors eager to learn about authentic Indian tribal traditions, Crow Fair ticks all the boxes: daily parades showcasing traditional beading, buckskin, and leatherwork artistry; singing, dancing, and drumming competitions; an evening powwow; and an all-Indian rodeo. The Crow name for Crow Fair is Chichi-a'xxaawasuua, or “running in a circle,” which is what the painted horses and their bareback riders do in the must-see event—the hugely popular and highly dramatic Indian Relays. Crow Reservation is one of the seven Montana Indian reservations, many of which host summer gatherings that are open to the public.

Virginia City Grand Victorian Balls, Virginia City

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Summer tourists flock to Virginia City to pan for gold and visit the historic ghost town’s frozen-in-time, Gold Rush-era buildings, which number around 75. Lesser known is the history of the frontier mining town’s genteel side. As the largest of the mining towns that grew up along Alder Gulch, which yielded an estimated $30 million in placer gold between 1863 and 1866, Virginia City served as the Montana Territory capital, as well as the region’s transportation and social hub. Newfound wealth (at least among the merchants—miners rarely struck it rich) helped create a Victorian-era cultural oasis amid the dusty and often lawless Old West. The period music, clothing, and customs of Virginia City’s glory days are celebrated at the Grand Victorian Ball, held every June and August. Visitors of all ages are welcome to attend (local costume rentals and $5 dance lessons are available) or to line the Virginia City boardwalk before each ball to watch the Grand Promenade of costumed participants. “This is a part of Montana history most tourists don’t know about,” says Janet Allestad, an event committee chairperson. “Tickets usually are available; however, we like to keep it to around 60 couples—many more makes it difficult to fit all the hoop skirts on the dance floor.”

Tour the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, Helena

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Everywhere you look at the Archie Bray Foundation you see art—statues in workshops, ceramic objects placed on the 26-acre grounds, and art on display or for sale in the three exhibition spaces. Housed on the site of a 19th-century brick factory, the Bray hosts the finest ceramic artists from around the world as resident artists. Visitors are welcome to watch the artists at work and ask them questions, sign up for hands-on workshops, and take a self-guided walking tour and picnic on the grounds. Nineteen wet clays are manufactured and sold here, making the foundation Montana’s only clay manufacturer. At the end of July, the Bray celebrates with the community by hosting its annual Benefit Auction and Brickyard Bash. The event includes a live and silent auction, public reception, and live music by the Big Sky Mudflaps. If you bring kids—or the kid in you—to the Bray, try to spot all 44 large ceramic tops—called verrices vortices—placed on the ground, in windows, and atop smoke stacks throughout the complex.

Annual Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous, Lewistown

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The slogan of the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous is “Keepin’ It Cowboy.” The event does just that; it’s dedicated to celebrating and preserving the history, heritage, and values of the cowboy lifestyle of the upper Rocky Mountain West. For four days each August, cowboys and cowboy wannabes tell stories and play songs evoking the spirit of the Old West. “Fergus County, where Lewistown is located, is the fifth largest county in terms of beef production in the United States,” says cowboy poet Jeff Bolstad. “We have lots of cows and lots of cowboys.” The event starts Thursday with the Welcome Chuck Wagon Supper and Open Mic Poetry event. Music sessions totaling more than 50 hours begin on Friday, along with the Western Art and Gear Show and two dances. Saturday brings an evening concert, and Sunday features Cowboy Church. The event celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2015.

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