In 2008-2010, the National Folk Festival was hosted in Butte, Montana, marking the first time in 44 years it had been presented west of the Mississippi River. Despite its small size, the NCTA recognized Butte’s landscape, unique history, spirited local pride, and strong support from state and local governments as ideal for mounting both a successful National and a sustainable legacy festival to follow.
Perched on a dramatic incline in the Northern Rocky Mountains on the Continental Divide, Butte lies within an expanse of land long regarded as a common hunting ground by Blackfoot, Crow, and many other First Peoples of Montana. Established as a mining camp in the 1860s, Butte quickly grew into Montana’s first major industrial city. Its mineral-rich land attracted workers and fortune seekers from all over the world, with especially large groups from Ireland, England, and China. By the turn of the 19th century, Butte had become a copper mining boomtown, a hotbed of labor organizing, and the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco. Its ethnic diversity and mining industry wealth had birthed a distinctive and cosmopolitan community, making Butte the entertainment and cultural center of Montana.
Beginning in the 1920s, international competition led to the decline of Butte’s mining industry and reduced its population by a third. Economic diversification efforts were launched in the final decades of the 20th century, including the revitalization of its historic uptown district. A newly energized business corridor emerged amidst Butte’s beautifully preserved, storied architecture, punctuated by dramatic, deep-shaft mining headframes set against a mountainous backdrop. Spearheading these initiatives was Mainstreet Uptown Butte, a local, nonprofit affiliate of Main Street America, which saw the National Folk Festival as a perfect opportunity to reinvent Butte as a festival city and center of heritage tourism. In 2007, the organization submitted an application to the NCTA, and Butte was selected to host the 70th, 71st, and 72nd National Folk Festivals. With attendance soaring to 165,000 by year three and statewide economic impact estimated at $25 million, the success of the National stunned Butte and the state of Montana. In 2009, Butte was recognized by the Montana Department of Commerce as the Montana Tourism Community of the Year, and the National Folk Festival as the Tourism Event of the Year.
Building off this momentum, Mainstreet Uptown Butte launched the Montana Folk Festival in 2011 in partnership with the NCTA, which continues to curate the artistic program. The festival has since attracted up to 175,000 visitors and generated as much as $31 million statewide, exceeding the National both in attendance and impact dollars. Featuring over 200 musicians, dancers, and craftspeople, the event includes six stages, the First Peoples’ Market, the Montana Folklife Area, the Montana Traditions Arts Market, and a food court with global and regional cuisines. Now 10 years strong in a town historically called “the Richest Hill on Earth,” the Montana Folk Festival contributes invaluably to Butte’s cultural, social, and economic well-being, and is a beloved tradition of which the NCTA, the community of Butte, and the state of Montana are incredibly proud.