It's the center of Montana--and the hub of the chokecherry universe.
Had he lived in another place and time, Tom Petranek might have been a legendary woodsman like Paul Bunyan. But Petranek is from present-day Lewistown, Mont., so instead of felling trees, he spits the pits of chokecherries—sometimes as far as 68 feet. Lewistown, a community of 6,000 smack-dab in the center of the state, celebrates the tart, maroon fruit every September at its Chokecherry Festival where, for nearly all of the event's 19 years, Petranek has been crowned pit-spitting champion. "Lewistown bills itself as the Chokecherry Capital of the World," he says. "And since no one from Ukraine or Tibet has challenged me, I think it just might be."
Locals often enjoy chokecherries raw (prepare to pucker!) but during the festival, held this year on September 6, you'll also find chokecherry jams and jellies, muffins and mustards, cakes and cordials, salsas and soups, plus wine, pies, and breads. The gift shop at the Lewistown Art Center will also proffer chokecherry greeting cards made by local artists. Main Street, home to a tack shop, a soda fountain, and a movie theater, welcomes more than 150 vendors selling pottery, knit hats, glassware, and lumpia (Philippine egg rolls).
The day after the Chokecherry Festival, locals celebrate the Utica Day Fair and the What the Hay competition, in which families build large, elaborate straw sculptures with punny titles in the fields between nearby Hobson and Windham.
Wander into Rogers Jewelry and ask to view deep blue Yogo sapphires mined at nearby Yogo Gulch in the Little Belt Mountains, or check out handmade leather bags at Big Dry Saddlery. Two blocks away, grand mansions and towering elm trees make the boulevard named Boulevard fun to stroll.
Lewistown is surrounded by wide-open ranch country and embraced by five mountain ranges that offer tempting day excursions. You may spot antelope as you dine aboard the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, which rumbles on a 3½-hour narrated trip between Lewistown and Denton. On a private ranch 27 miles from town, Macie Ahlgren will take you on a 1.5-mile walk beneath limestone cliffs to view ancient rock art at Bear Gulch Pictographs. And a 30-mile drive into the Big Snowy Mountains brings you to the Ice Caves Trail, where you can hike five miles to the permanent ice caves on Snowy Crest. After a trek like that, you might just need another wedge of chokecherry pie.
Photography courtesy Lewistown News-Argus
This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.