July 9: Chester to Cut Bank, North Dakota - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

July 9: Chester to Cut Bank, North Dakota

Lonnie Cook, sweating his way in the opposite direction... although with the wind behind him.
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AT LAST, AT LAST! Cut Bank is our farewell to this wretched US2 and we can turn away from the noise, the traffic, the tedium of never having to read a map, find our way.

The one place on the route of size, and thoroughly recommended for its mixes of espresso and ice cream, was Shelby. It has an unusual story and it unfolded right beside the route of the Northern Tier, although Adventure Cycling doesn't say so and neither, perhaps embarrassed, does Shelby.

Why is Shelby maybe red-faced? Because in 1923 it got ideas above its station. It was the first town in northern Montana to find oil and it decided to attract the world's attention to the fact. And how better to do it in this place of 2,500 than hold the world heavyweight boxing championship?

The man behind it was James "Body" Johnson. Don't ask me how he got the nickname. Johnson read in the paper that Montreal had offered Jack Dempsey $100,000 to defend his title there. Shelby, he decided, would do better. He reasoned that there was no TV so crowds would arrive by train to see the fight. And they would see Shelby and its oil boom and they would buy land and perhaps sink their own wells. And who owned much of that land? James Johnson.

Now, landowners and oil men are pretty shrewd but they are no match for boxing agents and promoters. Shelby's banks put up the money but the price kept going up and up. It got so high that Johnson eventually called the deal off.

The trouble was that by then hotels had been built and expectations set and work had been finished on an octagonal stadium the size of a football field. So Shelby thought again, came up with the extra money, and the match was on again.

Sadly, word spread too slowly to sell tickets and only a handful had been sold for a stadium of 42,000. The others had been returned and the money refunded.

All that's left of where Shelby held the world boxing championship. There's no sign to mention it.
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Well, the fight went ahead. But only after Johnson had cut the price from $25 to $10. But even that was too high for most and thousands broke through barbed wire and saw the match for nothing. Shelby came close to bankruptcy and banks went out of business. The match was deadly dull and the stadium disappeared when it was demolished and the wood sold or stolen. All that remains now of Champions' Field is a pizza parlour and an electrical substation. You'll pass it, riding west, on the left as you leave town, just before the interstate bridge.

There are historical markers for far less elsewhere in Montana but nothing for the day Shelby tried to show off to the world.

A sad piece of Montana's history.
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We are camping tonight at Cut Bank's only camp ground. We don't like it and we took an instant dislike to the owner, a man who told us within moments that he'd prefer to be paid in cash and that "this is a pretty clean place and we like it kept that way."

Alongside us on the sloping, unsheltered, scruffy and otherwise unrentable area reserved for cyclists is Leah, a slender girl with a lightning smile who is riding home to Maine. I do hope we stay in touch.


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