It is not easy to make connections between Bulgaria and Montana. Besides the fact that both places have lots of mountains, it is hard to imagine what else they might have common. Trying to make a connection between the two is difficult, both literally and figuratively. The closest I ever came to bridging the divide between this Balkan nation and the Last Best Place (a nickname given to Montana) was on my first trip to Eastern Europe when I flew between Montana and Bulgaria. As one might imagine there was no direct flight between the two. This meant a journey that took twenty hours and required three flights. By the time I arrived in Bulgaria, bleary eyed and luggage less, I could barely remember leaving Montana. The difference between my point of departure in Billings (Montana’s largest city) and arrival point in Sofia (capital of Bulgaria) was vast. About the only thing the two places had in common were mountains rising in the distance. Everything else, including language, landscape, and culture, could not have been more different. It would only be later that I made more enduring connections between these disparate places and name associations between them. ‘.
Associative Disorders – Place Based Names
The Bulgars managed to find a way to unwittingly connect Montana and Bulgaria. The city of Montana (pop. 43,000) lies in the northwestern part of Bulgaria. The city has a long and less than illustrious past. Its beginnings go back to a second century Roman military camp located along the Ogosta river. While Bulgaria is positively ancient when compared to the American state of Montana, one thing is not. The name of Montana for the city in Bulgaria is a very recent concoction. It is the fourth iteration of the city’s name. The first Slavic inhabitants referred to the city as Kutlovitsa. That name changed only slightly during five centuries of Ottoman rule, when the city went by a Turkish derivation, Kutlofca. It was not until the late 19th century that the name changed once again. This time to Ferdinand, in honor of Prince Ferdinand (later Tsar of Bulgaria). Such an overt homage to an aristocrat would not survive communist rule.
The communists had their own brand of elites, high level party functionaries whose names graced cities, streets, and squares throughout the nation. Thus, Ferdinand became Mihaylovgrad, named in honor of party activist Hristo Mihaylove. The latter did not live long enough to see his name bestowed upon the town because he died during World War II. Like its namesake’s life, Mihalovgrad as the city’s name did not last long. When communism collapsed in 1989, another round of name changes began to occur throughout Bulgaria. Communism was out, while princes and tsars were anachronisms relegated to the dustbin of history. This left Bulgarians in a quandary. Finding a name disconnected from history would be difficult. Finding the answer meant reaching back to the ancient past, specifically a military encampment named Castra ad Montanesium. Mihalovgrad became Montana, acquiring its new name in 1993. Up until now it has yet to change.
High Plains Drifter – Plevna, Montana
There is another connection between Bulgaria and Montana that only a couple of hundred people are aware of today. That is because visiting Plevna, Montana means driving to one of the most remote regions of the High Plains. Since interstates have relegated America’s two-lane long-distance highways to obscurity, the towns along them have faced depopulation and decades of decline. Along US12 in the far reaches of eastern Montana, I once came upon this strange outlier of a town with a Bulgarian connection. The name was familiar to me for two reasons. One was that Pleven was the site of a famous siege in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, a conflict that led to the liberation of Bulgaria from five centuries of Ottoman rule. Secondly, I came across the name in one of my favorite reference books that informed years of travel throughout Montana. I purchased “Names on the Face of Montana” almost twenty-five years ago in a small, remote town that stood in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains.
The book provides etymologies for hundreds of Montana towns. Among those listed is Plevna, along with the story of how the town got its name. The Milwaukee Railroad (the route of which US Highway 12 now follows) came to the area in 1909. Originally, the railroad company planned to name the station Edina. Then Bulgarian laborers who were helping to build the line, lobbied to name it Plevna (a derivation of Pleven) instead. Railroad officials approved the name and so it became the only town in Montana named after one in Bulgaria. Plevna, Montana has neither the rich history, nor provincial cosmopolitanism that the Bulgarian city of the same name does. It was one of the last swaths of the continental United States to receive settlers. Anyone entering this tiny town, population 179, will immediately notice a sign on the eastern approach to Plevna which states that it is one hundred years old, a point of pride in a region which has seen countless towns disappear into the grass and dust. The sign is now eleven years old, but no one has saw fit to update it.
The Lonesome Whistle – Old World, New Opportunities
Plevna’s most striking feature is a grain elevator, ubiquitous architectural symbols that are known as skyscrapers of the Great Plains. There really is nothing else to recommend Plevna except for the usual restaurant/bar. These seem to be the only mainstays of every small, down at the heel town in Montana. It is hard to imagine that a place so remote would have a connection to Bulgaria, but it does. Those railroad workers were among the first waves of Bulgarian immigration to the United States. Like other Eastern Europeans they were looking for jobs and economic prosperity. Working on the railroad offered an opportunity for both. Along the way, Bulgarian immigrants left a legacy from the Old World at a railroad siding and settlement that still stands today. Plevna, Montana might not be much to look at, but the name speaks across time and distance. Thus, Bulgaria and Montana will stay forever connected unless there is a name change.
Click here for: Ecstatic Experiences – Tripping by Train In Eastern Europe (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny # 48)