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"Other Colors"
by Orhan Pamuk

by Nathaniel Philbrick

March 21, 2009

License plates

I don’t pay much attention to license plates on cars here in California, unless one hits me or is doing something crazy on the freeway. However if I am in Montana, license plates are another matter. If a car drives in the driveway with a license plate that reads, “14-1234,” I would call to the other person in the room, “Someone is here from Miles City!”

County numbers were originally assigned based on the most populous to the least populous counties about 1930. At that time Butte, in Silver Bow county was the largest city and the most people lived in Silver Bow county so their license plate number was “1.” In 1999 a plan was proposed in the Legislature to change things but it was defeated. I am glad it was. It is convenient to know where the cars are from. When I see a car from Montana I look to see where the people came from and I try to restrain myself and not make a spectacle of myself by waving and calling out the window. People in Southern California don’t always take kindly to gestures from another driver. When Kay was young we had a sign that would say things like, “Your turn signal is on,” or “Hi,” or something like that. I think there was a blank one so we could write, “Hi, Montana!” Montana people tend to be friendly.

There are 56 counties in Montana. I love some of the names. I think at one time I had to know them.

2 - Cascade – Great Falls is the county seat
This county was named for the falls in the Missouri River
3 – Yellowstone – Billings is the county seat
4 – Missoula – Missoula is the county seat
Supposedly a contraction of the Flathead word, "im-i-sul-e-etiku", meaning "by or near the place of fear or ambush", a reference to Hell Gate Canyon, in which Flathead Native Americans were sometimes attacked by Blackfeet Native Americans.
5 – Beaverhead – Dillon is the county seat
This county was named for the rock in the Jefferson River which is shaped like a beaver’s head
19 – Choteau – Fort Benton is the county seat
This county was named for Jean Pierre Chouteau and his son Pierre Chouteau, Jr., of the Chouteau fur-trading family. One can find many French names in Montana as well as native American names.
36 – Judith Basin – the county seat is Stanford
This county was named for the Judith River which was in turn named by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) for Julia "Judith" Hancock, whom he would later marry.
26 – Pondera – the county seat is Conrad
Originally pend d'oreille, French words meaning "ear pendant"; the name was changed to a form resembling the phonetic spelling to avoid confusion with the lake and town of that name in Idaho.
29 – Rosebud – the county seat is Forsyth
Named for the Rosebud River, which was named for the many wild roses along its banks.
31 – Teton – the county seat is Choteau
It is named for the Teton Range which is in turn named for the French word for breast, teton.

And you thought history and geography was boring. I won’t bore you with the Montana State song which I sing when provoked.

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