The Stevensville Creamery Picnic reportedly is the oldest ongoing community festival in Montana – following in the tradition of the town’s many firsts. It all began with a fire and evolved into a party that people have marked on their calendars for decades. Family and class reunions are planned around Creamery Picnic. The main parade on Saturday morning attracts swarms of people and the kids’ parade on Friday evening is particularly popular with the younger set along with large numbers of moms, dads and grandparents. From start to finish, Creamery Picnic is always a winner.
The Creamery Picnic story begins with a fire that destroyed the Bitterroot Cooperative Creamery. The creamery provided a marketplace for milk and cream produced by local dairies as well as jobs for a number of residents of the community. It was managed by John Howe who went on to be a successful businessman in both Stevensville and Hamilton. He eventually was renowned for his ice cream and other dairy products, but not until after he and the Bitterroot Cooperative Creamery suffered the losses of a devastating fire in 1911.
“The flames started from a smoke stack in the engine room, and the fire smoldered in the rafters between roof and ceiling for some time before it was discovered,” according to the book Montana Genesis, written by the Stevensville Historical Society. By the time the fire was discovered, it was out of control and beyond the abilities of Howe and his employees to put out.
“The town was alarmed, and everyone who could absent himself from business left for the creamery,” the book related. “The hook-and-ladder truck arrived, bucket brigades were formed, and a determined effort was made to save the building. When it became apparent that the roof was about to cave in, the fighters turned their attention to saving the machinery and the butter stored in the refrigeration room.”
Sixteen thousand pounds of butter was removed from the burning building, and also the big churn, the cream vats, and the ice cream-making equipment, the book said. “The latter consisted of a three-gallon freezer that was turned by hand. The fire by this time had reached the west of the building, where the refrigeration plant was located. The machinery was valuable, and the men succeeded in pulling down the frame walls and checking the fire just as it reached the ice house. There was no such thing as manufactured ice at the time; the building housed tons and tons of ice cut from nearby ponds and sloughs during the winter and stored in sawdust.”
The damage from the fire included the total destruction of the main building, broken machinery and fittings, and the loss was hard on the community’s economy. Howe put out a call for help to rebuild the creamery and the citizens of the town rallied around to help. Construction began on July 1, 1911, and the creamery miraculously reopened for business on August 1.
Howe had promised the community and the construction crew that if they could finish rebuilding the creamery in a month he would throw the biggest picnic the town had ever seen. “The workers met the challenge… and Stevensville’s Creamery Picnic was born,” according to Montana Genesis. The picnic has been celebrated annually since 1911 except for one year during World War I.
About 1,000 people attended the first Creamery Picnic. There were speakers, a free lunch that included the creamery’s ice cream, butter, and all the buttermilk the participants could drink. Howe cranked his hand freezer to make 51 gallons of ice cream to serve all the comers. The 1911 Creamery Picnic was a howling success and the celebration continues annually to this day.
And this also from Montana Genesis (published in 1971):
“After almost 60 years the Stevensville Creamery Picnic nearly collapsed from inertia in 1969. The citizens’ committee in charge first canceled it, citing lack of interest and support plus various problems of location. Stevensville rose to the challenge, and, as the newspapers put it, “there was a groundswell of protest.” The picnic was back on again with revived support and an accent more reminiscent of early days.”