A springtime walk in Bozeman presents many beautiful sights: flowers in bloom, greening grass, friendly people, happy squirrels.
So why has retired math teacher Kay McAllister been keeping her eyes fixed on the ground?
The answer is etched into the concrete beneath Bozeman’s feet. For two summers, between 2003 and 2004, McAllister documented the various inscriptions and markers embedded in the city’s sidewalks and curbs.
This winter, McAllister published an article about her study in the Pioneer Museum’s quarterly newsletter.
“I’m not the first one to treasure them, and I won’t be the last,” said McAllister, 72. “I just happened to get systematic.”
Back in 2003, McAllister was taking regular walks to help her recover from knee surgery. Eventually, she started to notice the sidewalk markers near her home on South Fifth Avenue.
Before long, she and her husband, Byron, were walking up and down city streets, photographing the markers and writing down information about them.
Some of the markers show the names of the companies that laid the concrete. Others list the people who inhabited a particular home. Still others simply name the streets they’re etched on.
The oldest readable marker in McAllister’s register dates to 1906.
The youngest, at at 311 E. Main St., dates from 1999.
In 2006, McAllister published a booklet of her work containing pages upon pages of tables that list the locations, lettering and dates of hundreds of markers around town. It’s available at the Pioneer Museum and at the Bozeman Public Library.
“They fascinated me, and I wanted to save them,” she said. “The only way you could save them was to take pictures of them.”
The city doesn’t preserve the markers when it does sidewalk repairs, said Andrew Kerr, the engineer who oversees sidewalks for the city.
“It’d be nice to save them, but sometimes it’s impractical to work around them and save that little piece,” Kerr said.
Kerr didn’t think the markers were ever required by the city and said they were more likely free advertisement for the makers.
Still, the engineer was impressed by the longevity of the old concrete.
“You get a piece of sidewalk that’s 100 years old and still in good shape. Some of the stuff we see nowadays is having trouble after 10 years,” he said. “Those old timers really knew what they were doing.”
McAllister’s study produced some surprises and mysteries, such as a 10-block trail of paw prints in one sidewalk and the myriad hand and foot prints.
The study also revealed quite a few century-old errors, such as the markers on “Thrd Ave S,” “W Aldersun St,” and “Eight Ave S.”
Those mysteries and errors only made McAllister more interested in the history around her study, and she hopes that she can do another research project someday, though it’s hard for the retiree to find the time between all her volunteer commitments.
“This was my first major project,” she said. “I hope it’s not my last.”
For now, she just hopes that people go out to see the markers before they’re gone. In just the few years since her study, some of the markers she documented have already disappeared.
“It’s our history, and it’s free and there for everyone to see,” she said. “And it’s disappearing.”
Michael Becker can be reached at [email protected].