Big Sky Spotlight: Meet James Behring
Story and photo by Chris La Tray
It’s a late Saturday morning in August and already starting to swelter when James Behring meets me at the door of his shop around the back side of Missoula Winery on the city’s west side with a large cleaver in his hand.
“Check this baby out,” he said with a grin. “This is the prototype. I just thought of it last night. It’s our first multi-tool.”
The knife is called the Elk Cleaver, a custom blade Behring dreamed up to sell under the Behring Made brand that bears his name.
It’s a heavy thing with a thick, convex, 7-inch blade of hand-forged high carbon spring steel.
Its integral inverted gut hook can cut through sinew, the blade edge is sharp for skinning – Behring demonstrates this by slicing effortlessly through a thick piece of scrap leather – and the overall heft can be used to chop through thick hunks of meat.
It’s just one of a multitude of custom knives that Behring and his three-man crew – Travis Williams, Dustin Millard and Grant Cunningham – have conceptualized themselves or manufactured to desires of discerning customers since Behring founded the business in 2011.
Behring grew up in Michigan and went to school to pursue a teaching degree. After graduating, he decided the last place he wanted to be was in a classroom again.
Behring preferred being out in the wilds hunting and fishing, pastimes he’d enjoyed his entire life.
The knife trade appealed to him.
His father, Jim Behring, started a knifemaking business in 1998 called Treeman Knives, and the junior Behring decided to learn the trade as well. It seemed a potential way to make a living tied to a lifestyle he enjoyed.
On a road trip to Austin, Texas, he met a woman from Montana. They married and decided to relocate to Missoula. After a few months acclimating – and fly fishing – he moved into his current shop started Behring Made.
“I started in September of 2011 and worked October, November, December,” Behring said. “Around the first of the year I met Travis (Williams) and I mentioned, ‘I’m thinking about hiring someone, it’s kinda lonely working here by myself.’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll work for you!’ ”
Behring blades are made using old school, hand-forged knife-making techniques.
The steel used is sourced either as a length of bar stock, or in sheets, and each knife begins as a piece cut to rough size. It is then worked over by forge, hammer and anvil until the desired shape is attained.
From there, a Behring blade is tempered and heat-treated, worked (repeatedly) over a belt grinder, until a handle – usually made of antler – and hilt is affixed. The final step is grinding and polishing until the knife is finished and ready to sell or deliver.
By the end of 2012 the shop had produced more than 900 knives and sold them all. Online business generated the bulk of the sales.
Word of mouth generated the rest. Initially, that was about the only way to get a Behring Made knife.
Since then, Behring has sought partnerships with other companies to reach a larger customer base. Among the most impressive partnerships to date is a five-year contract with Wisconsin-based Mathews Inc., the bow and archery accessories manufacturer, that will sell Behring Made knives co-branded under the Mathews logo.
There are also pending projects with Cabot Gun, the Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company and Pheasants Forever.
Locally, Behring has built partnerships to make knives for Cooper Firearms of Stevensville, The Resort at Paws Up (including making kitchen knives for the “Montana Masters” grilling event held there), Rock Creek Cattle Company and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Behring isn’t shy about admitting that he’s learning as he goes, but he says that’s part of the fun. “We all work together on design concepts, construction, what’s the best product to use for this versus that,” Behring said. “I’m trying to create careers, not jobs. I would be so happy if this work could support 10 families in this community, [because] this is where we live. There’s so much fun stuff to do, you know. It’s about lifestyle.”
A lifestyle built on making knives.
What do you say when someone comes to you with a custom idea for a knife they think they might like you to make?
We’re like, “Buddy, we can make whatever you want!” I don’t think people are used to hearing that these days. They’re more used to hearing, “No, no, we can’t do that.”
What if you make a knife that isn’t quite perfect for their needs?
We say, “Send it back. We’ll make you a brand new knife.”
What’s the biggest difference in working with larger companies, like a Mathews, to working with smaller, local companies?
The lead time. The time from concept to production is like six months on some of this stuff, to a year.
Where in Montana do you go to relax?
Butler Creek. Quiet mountain living with hiking, skiing and hunting a rocks throw away.
What three words describe Montana?
Challenging. Opportunity. Emptiness.
Chris La Tray is freelance writer from Missoula.
Written and submitted by Willena Burton
Queenie had been gone for four days.
I could hardly wait for four o’clock and dismissal from the small one-room school that I, my younger sister, Pug, and two older brothers, Abe and Doc, attended in the Bull Mountains of Montana. There was a place that we hadn’t searched yet, and when Doc finally joined me after school we struck out for a coulee by the river where we had so often hunted rabbits with Queenie, a small brown and white fox terrier.
The snow, left by the first Chinook wind, was deep and heavy crusted with ice. Soon that snow would be icy rivulets racing into the coulees, filling the trails and falling over the cut banks in miniature waterfalls.
Deep in thought, I followed Doc’s tracks in the drifted snow. I knew that Queenie, an inveterate hunter, often went into the hills by herself, returning late in the afternoon, exhausted, her wiry fur matted with the orange-brown pulp of old rotten logs.
Queenie loved chasing rabbits. Although she never caught one, she never gave up trying, digging her way into the log where the rabbit was hiding.
It was beginning to get dark when Doc and I reached the snow-choked coulee. Though we searched for any sign of life, the only tracks to be found were those of a pack of coyotes or wolves. We called hopefully, but only hollow echoes of our voices came back. Disappointed and tired we turned back, floundering through the snow crusts that sometimes gave way and plunged us waist deep into the drifted snow banks.
“There’s one good thing about it anyway, Doc, Queenie is so light she can walk on top of the drifts,” I said hopefully. Doc looked skeptical but said nothing.
We were nearly home when we heard the wolves. The high-pitched nearness of the howls, echoing in the cold, dry air sent a shiver up my spine. Wolves were common in the mountains around us but they had never been known to harm anyone, even the livestock. There was plenty of other small prey, such as mice and rabbits to satisfy them. I drew closer to my brother and fear gave wings to our feet as we hurried on to the welcoming lamplight ahead and Mom’s anxious face pressed against the kitchen window.
With questioning looks in their eyes every head turned as we came stamping snow from our overshoes. I could feel them thinking,
“How can she be so sure that Queenie will come back? Doesn’t she know that Queenie is probably already dead?”
Everyone was quiet, knowing the search had been unsuccessful. Silently Mom filled our plates as we joined the rest of the family around the table.
I knew that all of us believed that prayers were answered, especially Daddy. I also remembered that Daddy had told us that sometimes God said, “No.”
I had already run this and a hundred other things through by mind, and after all had been duly considered, I knew that God would take care of Queenie and send her home to me.
Daddy was always the last one to go to bed. I could hear him walking around as he banked the fire and turned down the kerosene lamp. Then, I could hear him scraping frost from the window and thought, “Daddy’s looking for Queenie, too.”
I lay wide-eyed after saying my prayers and listened to the wind sigh through the pines, the creaking of the windmill and the yipping howls of the coyotes. Slipping out of bed, I scratched a patch of frost from the window and stared out into the clear winter night, searching the shadows. The sparkly-bright snow glowed in the moonlight and every star in the universe seemed to be out.
“Queenie can see her way home,” I thought with some relief as I jumped back into the flannel sheets, freeze-dried and sweet smelling. I fell asleep, dreaming of winter wheat, oatmeal cooking on the stove, and Queenie. All the sudden, Queenie was licking my face and I turned away laughing, trying to escape that rough little tongue! Someone was shaking me and Queenie was still licking my face!
I didn’t want to give up my dream, but the gentle shake was insistent. Was I awake or was I dreaming?
Daddy was sitting on the edge of the bed, his face soft and unguarded. “She ate four fried eggs! She must have hung up in a rotten log and starved her way out,” the words came out in a rush!
“I knew she’d come home, I just knew it!” I said.
Half laughing, half crying, I hugged her skinny, fur-matted little body close. The whole family came awake, crowding into the room to exclaim over Queenie’s miraculous return. As she was passed from one to another she basked in the attention she was getting and wagged her tail weakly.
After everyone but Daddy had gone happily to bed, Queenie snuggled down comfortably in “her” spot on the pillow. Suddenly she sat up and took stock of her surroundings, which included Daddy’s formidable presence.
Remembering former scoldings, she scuttled under the covers to the very foot of the bed. Feigning a look of stern disapproval, considering a “dog” in the bed, Daddy’s face broke into a resigned smile as he closed the door behind him.
Queenie squirmed from under the covers and with a tremendous sigh of relief settled herself back on the pillow beside me. And again, I fell asleep to dream of tomorrow, of sunshine and Chinook winds, of melting snow and waterfalls, of crocuses and pine-covered mountains to climb with Queenie and the reassurance that, with God, all things are possible for those who believe in Him.
August in Montana
Written and submitted by Kirsten Billingsley
There is an argument that, because they pass on the July crop in favor of chokecherries, bears do not like huckleberries. This is nonsense. The bears know that the larger, sweeter huckleberries that appear in August are worth the wait. Huckleberries are the grand finale of the mountain berry season. Bears simply save the best for last. I, too, am a huckleberry snob and have been since I was little. The year I turned 3, we lived smack in the middle of a huckleberry heaven.
In 1965, East Portal was a Milwaukee Railroad substation, tucked away in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. The tiny community consisted of two small houses, one for the substation manager and one for the electrician’s family; a bunk house for maintenance workers; and a brick building full of the wires, conduits and transformers that kept the trains running. The railroad tracks were only a few yards from the creaky wooden front porch of our house. You could hear the trains coming long before they arrived and, for some time after, you watched the caboose disappear into the woods. My father was employed as the substation electrician.
The morning of my birthday, my father prepared for a walk in the woods in search of berries for a much-anticipated huckleberry pie ala mode. After supplying the two of us with plastic ice cream buckets, my mother warned us to be careful of bears.
“Claws” raised above his head, my father growled a deep bear growl. The two of us laughed while mother shook her head.
The memory ends after we stepped across to the other side of the tracks. I do remember, from other huck hunts and hikes of my youth, that the forest ground in late summer is covered with dry evergreen needles that fill the air with the scent of pine as they crunch under your feet, mixing with hints of wild mushroom, grasses and earth, inviting you to breathe a little deeper.
As you hike, you feel rocks, twigs and packed dirt under your feet. If your huck hunt is rewarded with a berry patch, and you don’t hear the grumbled warnings or rustling of a grizzly bear, your buckets fill much more quickly if you do not eat the berries as you pick.
My older brother Tim always did just that – unrepentantly. It takes a stronger will than my brother possesses for the berry to make the trip from bush to bucket. There is nothing more intoxicating than deeply inhaling the sweet, tart aroma of a bucket full of fresh wild huckleberries; their scent more than hinting of their bold flavor. If left unattended, he would sneak berries picked by others as well.
Several years ago I visited my childhood home for the first time since I was 3. Now known as The Hiawatha Trail recreation area, East Portal, Montana remains just as I remembered it: a magically colorful and aromatic micro-climate of fairy story proportions. The railroad tracks have been removed, but the imposing 50 foot, rough, blackened wood tunnel door remains – as does the breathtakingly beautiful woodland of my childhood. One need only walk a few steps out of the warm sun into the cool shade to hear the creek that feeds into the Clark Fork River. Along the banks of the creek are lacy ferns, soft moss and a mixture of sweetly scented delicate wild flowers.
As I had as a child, I picked a bouquet of paint brush, glacier lilies and phlox. To retrieve lavender harebells and columbine for me, my younger brother Stephen braved the slippery wet rocks of the “crick,” as the Montana boy in him still pronounces it.
When I returned to Utah, I placed the flowers in my curio, on top of the brick I took from the pile of rubble that marks the place where my father died of electrocution on Nov. 9, 1965; three weeks after Stephen’s birth, and three months after my third birthday.
Whenever I return home to the mountain air of Montana, or hike in the woods, or taste huckleberries, or hear a train, I am transported back to a perfect August day from my childhood.
Celebrated Place: Hogeland welcomes hundreds for church’s centennial celebration
By Jenna Cederberg
Photos by Todd Klassy
Early summer sun filtered brightly through the sturdy stained-glass windows that line the worship hall of Hogeland’s American Lutheran Church onto pews packed full of people last June, as the worship bell rang to announce the start of special Saturday morning service.
Just outside the church, nearly 200 people sat under a white and green party tent set up for the day, their folding chairs turned toward a pair of flat screen TVs set up to stream the service live.
“This is a living house of worship,” visiting Bishop Jessica Crist told the crowd as the service began. “I give thanks to God for the ministry of this congregation.”
The red-roofed, white washed church that makes up the skyline of the tiny northern Montana prairie town celebrated its congregation’s 100th year on June 28 when it welcomed almost 300 people and eight clergy members to its centennial celebration.
Crist joined Bishop Rick Hoyme, five former pastors and current pastor Ellen Ayres at the head of the church.
Susan Billmayer ran the registration desk outside before the service. She helped hand out nearly 275 meal tickets and nametags to attendees, most who had come back especially for the church’s celebration that Billmayer and other church members worked for nearly a year to plan.
Of all the living former pastors, only two were missing, Billmayer said.
“I had all the pastors’ seats and all their wives assigned seats. I had a map,” said Billmayer, a Chinook native and Hogeland church member since 1976.
To see the entire story on Hogeland’s American Lutheran Church, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Ready, Set, Go! to Glasgow’s World Wildlife Experience
By Andrew McKean
Photo by Sean Heavey
A surly water buffalo stares down a dappled axis deer that seems to be slipping beneath the flowing flamboyance of peacock feathers, maybe in an attempt to avoid that malignant bovine gaze.
Across the way, a long-bearded Barbary sheep watches a Persian ram. Around the corner, a South African springbok arches its back in its raggedly gymnastic “pronking” vault.
Welcome to the highly concentrated world of wildlife, where dozens of species of familiar and exotic wild animals are frozen in place by time and taxidermy on the interior walls of an unremarkable building in downtown Glasgow that, until a short generation ago, housed the prairie town’s J.C. Penney department store.
It’s wildebeest meets pronghorn antelope meets catalog-order pajamas.
This isn’t Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History – not quite.
It’s missing the expansive vaulted ceilings and the dramatic painted dioramas that define that rarified space just off Central Park in New York City.
But eastern Montana’s newest wildlife installation has something that world-class museums lack: a sense of both singular purpose and wild improbability.
The collection of glassy-eyed mounts represents the efforts, affections and prodigious stalking skills of Skip Erickson, himself a fixture of Glasgow.
Erickson, 66, has been a hunter all his life.
Children’s Museum of Northeast Montana
The Children’s Museum of Northeast Montana in Glasgow was established in 2005 as a result of community power serving a community need. It is a nonprofit 501c3 organization with a mission to offer hands-on learning in a fun way. To learn more about the museum or to donate, visit www.nemtchildrensmuseum.org.
To see the entire story on the World Wildlife Experience, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Pioneer Pilot: Esther Vance was Montana’s first licensed female pilot
By Jon Axline
Photos from the Montana History Society Research Center Photograph Archives
Airplanes and pilots captured the American imagination in the early 20th century. Americans loved the new technology and the feats of young men and women who attempted to tame the sky in airplanes.
Stories about aircraft and the exploits of daredevil pilots filled newspapers after World War I. While the aviation industry was dominated by men, there were several notable female pilots who took to the skies and become pioneers in the emerging field.
Amelia Earhart is the most famous, but she was certainly not the only female pilot flying in the United States in the post-war years. Montana had several; including Katherine Stinson and Maurine Allen. But the most famous and influential was Esther Vance, the state’s first licensed female pilot.
Born in Indiana in 1903, she moved with her family to Sidney at the tender age of 2. Her father, Billy Combes, was Sidney’s undertaker, movie theater owner and landlord with an interest in technology.
In the early days of aviation, many itinerant pilots who displayed their fearless flying abilities in traveling shows throughout rural America also offered rides to residents. These daredevil barnstormers gave the first airplane rides many people experienced, and for some, it installed a lifelong love of flying.
To see the entire story on Esther Vance, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Celebrated novelist Mildred Walker used Montana as inspiration for books
By Carol Bradley
Photo courtesy of Ici Schemm
The yellow bungalow on Great Falls’ north side is devoid of frills and unpretentious – the type of house motorists might drive right by without a second glance. There’s no hint that at this spot, more than half a century ago, author Mildred Walker penned some of the most realistic novels ever written about the West.
From her desk lined with pigeon holes in her bedroom at the rear of the house, Walker created complex portraits of ordinary characters wrestling with below-the-surface dramas.
Her books evoked vivid images of Montana and other locales. She wrote about family relationships, the changing roles for women and children, and how lives changed when people migrated across country to the sprawling, still somewhat unsettled Intermountain West.
She wrote 13 novels in all and is best-known for Winter Wheat, the stirring story of a young girl’s efforts to make sense of herself and her family as she comes of age on a Montana dry-land farm.
“Mildred Walker writes with distinction,” the Los Angeles Times enthused when the book appeared in 1944, “and this penetrating story…is a sincere, honest, and substantial novel, superb as a picture of family life and as a view of one part of rural America.”
To see the entire story on Mildred Walker, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Elk camp provides family of hunters more than a place to sleep
Story by Jack Ballard
Photo by Lisa Ballard
“Home is where the heart is,” or so the threadbare, but penetratingly truthful, saying goes.
Where one sleeps for the night may define his or her place of residence. The tiny space on a vast planet to which one is most emotionally connected more appropriately qualifies as home.
On the Thursday prior to the fourth weekend in October, I yearly depart the location described on various legal documents as my “physical address” to return home, perhaps for 5 days or as long as two weeks.
The moving truck, laden with all the earthly possessions required for the relocation spins beyond the houses and lots of Red Lodge, past towering cottonwoods clinging to their last few golden leaves of autumn along Rock Creek, then westward through a range of hills covered in prickly ponderosa pines to Interstate 90.
Hours of work are left undone in the office. The 6 a. m. scheduled departure occurred just before noon. Gas mileage be damned. Even with a loaded pickup it seems imperative to inch the speedometer a wee bit beyond the speed limit.
At Whitehall, my course veers southward from the state’s four-lane, east-west transportation artery onto ever-narrowing roads.
To see the entire story on the Montana elk camp, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.