Early this summer members of a North American Estonian-themed electronic mailing list were asked by a curious subscriber - does anyone know anything about an Estonian House in Montana? The posting provided a link to a Montana High School history project, which documented a derelict building. The link is as follows: http://www.folkways.org/Cheste...
Tiina Ets was among those who responded to the posting. She wrote as follows:
"There was indeed a large Estonian community, Estonian school and Estonian house in Chester, Montana in the early 1900s. Agu and I visited back in 1977, and purchased a book from their library entitled "The History of Liberty County", which includes bios and photos of lots of Estonian immigrants. As far as I know, the Estonian House was used as a storage building by John Deere for many years after the members of the Estonian community moved away, and it's sad that the house has obviously been left to the elements. But it's the real thing! (And undoubtedly was the first true "Eesti Maja" in the U.S. I wrote an article about it years ago in the magazine Esto-America.)"
Agu Ets added his own comments:
"Chester Montana had a lively, thriving Estonian community living there in the early twentieth century, not unlike any of the Estonian houses and association we have now in Baltimore, Lakewood and New York. They had organized choruses, a supplemental school and other cultural activities to maintain their culture. Around 1910, they built a community hall (Eesti Maja) that they used for such activities. There is a picture dating from I believe 1916, which shows the community assembled in front of their Eesti Maja, about 100 people of all ages.
In the summer of 1977 my wife Tiina and I were planning a long cross-country tour by car around North America. Our good friend, the late Dr Tönu Parming, said he had run across some research which indicated there may have been an Estonian community in Chester Montana. So we included Chester in our itinerary.
Chester is about 45 miles East of Shelby MT, a major town in NW Montana about 35 miles south of the Canadian border. As we approached Chester along Route 2 from Shelby, the first thing we spotted was the massive grain elevator by the railroad tracks. The town was a modest farming community, about 6 blocks square. As we cruised the streets looking for signs of Estonians, we noticed that there was not a single street name posted - I guess the locals knew and nobody else needed to. We also noticed our car was followed by curious stares from the youngsters about. A green Volvo with Maryland license may have been a first for them. The only sign of Estonians we found was 'Laas Bar'. We went in and asked about Estonians and they directed us to the Liberty County Museum, directed as "two blocks over and two blocks south - you can't miss it."
We found the Museum, actually a converted church, but it was closed. In the house next to the Museum were two old ladies in rocking chairs on the porch... We said we were Estonian visitors from far-away Maryland and inquired when the Museum would open. The ladies were friendly and helpful, saying they would call the Museum's director who was also a teacher at the local school. The director showed up a few minutes later and promptly opened the door. She was as curious about us, as we were about the Estonians who had lived there sixty some years earlier. After showing use around she proudly displayed what the county had put together as part of their Bicentennial celebration project. This was a 500+ page book entitled 'Our Heritage' which contained the stories and pictures of the people in Liberty country. Thumbing through it we found stories about Joseph Oraw and Lizzie Laas, as well as the picture of the Estonians in front of their community hall. We immediately bought a copy and thanked the director for her time in giving us a special tour. Leaving Chester, we felt as if we were leaving behind a piece of history, but we had the book and our memories of our short visit. Little did we know at that time, but our contacts with Chester were just beginning."
We made e-mail contact with Tiina Ets, asking her for more about the Chester Estonian House, and she kindly faxed us the original article from Esto America as well as a wealth of other material. Unfortunately, due to some technical problems we have not been able to get a quality photograph of the house as it stands now. The small photo accompanying this article is from the folkways.org link. However, friends in Montana may make the trip to Chester soon to see this historical site with their own eyes. With some luck, then, we may soon provide the reader with more info about the first "Eesti Maja" in North America.
Looking back in history: the first Eesti Maja in the U.S.