They are hard to miss on Montana's highways: giant monograms printed on the sides of mountains, hills and bluffs.
Hillside letters are commonplace in the U.S., particularly in the mountainous Western states, where it's easier to find a high point for a school or community to project their pride from.
With more than one hundred known hillside letters and symbols, Montana is among the states with the most such sites in the nation. The icons can be found in nearly all areas of the state, from the rugged western terrain to the eastern plains.
The letters vary in size, visibility, color, style, construction and location relative to the place they represent. Some are simply arrangements of whitewashed rocks, others are painted onto the side of shear cliffs. Some sturdier examples are constructed of poured concrete.
Most letters are designed to represent a local high school or college, a cultural phenomenon that dates back more than a century.
Ancient peoples drew symbols on cliffs and mountainsides thousands of years ago, but the modern practice of creating letters for school or civic pride is said to have started in the 1900s.
A famous early example of a hillside letter is at the University of California Berkeley, where a large C was constructed on a hillside overlooking the school's stadium in 1905. The Cal C is claimed to be the letter that started the trend of hillside letters throughout the American West.
The following year, Brigham Young University students began adding the letters "BYU" on a mountainside near the Utah school's campus — but only finished the 380-foot tall Y before giving up. The mountain is known today as Y Mountain.
Hillside letters began to spread to other western states, including Montana. Although it's difficult to say with complete certainty which was the first such letter in the state, one of the earliest examples — and perhaps the most famous — is the M on Missoula's Mount Sentinel.
The mountain above the University of Montana campus is known to have been home to a hillside letter since at least 1911, with some sources dating the M as far back as 1908. The well-known Missoula landmark has gone through multiple iterations over the years, including two different versions built with painted rocks, an upright wooden version and the current concrete letter, built in 1968. A 3/4-mile trail of switchbacks allows public access to the site from the UM campus, making "hiking the M" a popular activity for students and visitors.
Montana Tech's Big M was built in 1910 by graduating seniors of the college, then known as the Montana School of Mines. Lights were added to the letter in 1962, in emulation of a similar M above the Colorado School of Mines. Students later programmed Tech's Big M lights to flash a V for victory whenever the Orediggers win a game, a tradition which continues.
Montana State University's M, which sits on Mount Baldy just northeast of Bozeman, was originally installed in 1915 by engineering students at what was then known as Montana State College.
As hillside letters gained popularity, they came to represent colleges, high schools and communities in much the same way that water towers do in some areas of the U.S.
While the most well-known examples of hillside letters in Montana may be associated with higher education institutions, the majority of examples of letters scattered across the state represent high schools.
Drummond's letter D is nearly impossible to miss when traveling eastbound on Interstate 90. Frenchtown's letter F is also easy to spot for I-90 travelers.
The letters aren't exclusive to towns along major highways, and can be found in some of Montana's smallest communities — including many towns that no longer have their own high school. Places like Avon, Elliston, Klein, Raynesford, Ulm and Windham all have hillside letters to represent the community.
In some places, the letters were constructed by a local club or other group. The Broadwater County community of Winston, near Canyon Ferry, has a hillside letter to represent the local 4-H club.
Some cities have more than one letter or symbol. Missoula is home to three prominent symbols: UM's M, an L on Mount Jumbo representing Loyola Sacred Heart High School, and a peace sign on Waterworks Hill. The letters "MCHS" were once visible, representing Missoula County High School before the naming of Hellgate and Sentinel as separate high schools in the 1960s, which subsequently led to both S and H letters appearing at various times.
Livingston is home to both a P for Park High School and a giant trout, designed to promote the National Trout Derby that once brought many fishermen to the city each year.
Other towns with multiple symbols include Anaconda, Bozeman, Deer Lodge, Dillon, Great Falls, Havre, Helena, Lavina and Stanford. There may be more, especially in places where an earlier letter has been abandoned for a place with better visibility.
Perhaps surprisingly, Billings, home to four Class AA high schools, one Class A high school, two four-year colleges and plenty of hills and cliffs, has no prominent hillside letters aside from a few pieces of graffiti and faded advertising on the city's sandstone rimrocks. Billings Skyview High School has a stylized S on its campus, but the letter is scarcely visible from anywhere other than the air and the school's parking lot.
The neighboring community of Lockwood erected a large letter L in 2016.
Pride and pranks
For many towns and schools, the creation of a hillside letter brings with it a larger set of traditions.
One ritual among some schools with hillside letters is the annual whitewashing or repainting of the letter by incoming freshman, outgoing seniors or other groups. The tradition often serves as an initiation rite, and may require a long day for some of the more remote letters in the state.
Some letters are accompanied by the graduation year of the most recent class to do maintenance, and in other cases, like Columbus, there may even be multiple years visible.
During homecoming festivities, holidays and other events, some letters are decorated. This is especially true with Montana Tech's Big M, which is lit up for various occasions, including green lighting on St. Patrick's Day and lighting to match fireworks on Independence Day.
While hillside letters may serve as a display of pride for one school or town, they may also serve as a target for vandalism by rivals.
According to a 2008 Great Falls Tribune story, students from Belt and Geyser were known to rearrange the rocks that formed Stanford's hillside S into a B or G. Stanford and Geyser now form a co-op with Denton in several sports.
Some schools even have a tradition of posting students, often freshman athletes, to guard their letter from would-be vandals prior to and following rivalry games.
Helena's hillside letters have been particularly prone to attacks and pranks. In 1952 and 1953, students from the Montana School of Mines attempted to blow Carroll College's C off of Helena's Mount Ascension using dynamite.
As recently as June of 2020, Helena High's letter H was rearranged into a C, presumably to represent archrival Capital High School.
It wasn't the first time the H, which has appeared on Mount Helena in various forms since the late 1910s, was changed. Incidents in the 1970s and in the late 1990s led to debates over whether Capital should receive its own letter, or the H should be removed entirely, out of fairness to both schools.
Ironically, it was Helena High students who first defaced a letter in the capital city. When students from Mount St. Charles College (now Carroll College) attempted to place their own C on Mount Helena in 1919, high school students became upset by what they believed was an attempt to encroach upon their own letter. The Carroll C was later moved to Mount Ascension.
Rival schools Great Falls High and C.M. Russell High both have their own logos sprawled across hillsides. Hill 57 (which sits directly west of C.M. Russell) is home to Great Falls High's "GF" logotype. Charlie Russell's initials once graced the same hill, but were removed in the 1990s. CMR students installed a new version, matching Russell's real-life initials, on Gore Hill at the end of the main runway at Great Falls International Airport in 2007.
Much like welcome signs, hillside letters are used to signify to travelers that they have arrived in a particular town.
They are sometimes placed above or within view of stadiums in order to make it clear to other teams just whose "house" a game is being played in.
Regardless of whether they are visiting for a high school or college football game, visitors to Havre's Blue Pony Stadium are greeted by the home team's letter on the opposing hillside, where an MSU Northern N and a Havre H sit just 150 feet from one another.
Forsyth's F faces straight down the town's 10th Avenue to Riverside Park, where the Dogies play football.
Centerville, Drummond, Highwood and Lockwood all have letters that overlook their football stadiums.
In some places, hillside letters have found themselves at the center of different types of messages, often political.
Missoula is undoubtedly the most likely place to see a hillside monogram used as part of a larger statement. The Mount Sentinel M and Mount Jumbo L have been used in many displays over the years, ranging from activism to messages of hope.
In 1998, the "L" was incorporated into several messages of unknown origin before being used to spell out "Get well Heinle." Missoula Police Sgt. Bob Heinle was shot in October of that year while chasing a forgery suspect. Heinle, who was paralyzed in the shooting, died in 2010.
Both the L and the M have been used in messages promoting the legalization of marijuana.
When President Donald Trump visited Missoula in 2018 to campaign on behalf of Republican candidates, protesters used the two letters to spell out messages such as "LIAR" and "IMPEACH."
The Mount Sentinel "M" was outlined in red in August of 2019 to bring awareness to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people.
Figuring in the future
Perhaps because there are already so many hillside letters in Montana, new letters aren't often created. More than a hundred letters and symbols mark the slopes across the state today.
New letters may also be an uncommon occurrence due to the fact that the number of high schools in the state has continued to shrink for decades, as enrollment dwindles at some of the smaller rural schools. Many schools have been forced to enter into co-ops with neighboring districts, making individual hillside letters in those towns more of a sign of community pride than of athletic cheerleading.
The changes in the academic landscape of Montana haven't completely ended the practice of adding new letters to the state's physical landscape, though. Local pride in Lockwood led to the creation of a giant letter L in 2016. Three years later, Lockwood's first high school class began studies, the same year as East Helena High School's first class.
A few letters have been at the center of controversy over their perceived intrusion upon the state's natural beauty. During the debate over whether to add a C to Mount Helena for Capital High School, a vocal minority suggested that Helena High's H be removed not out of fairness, but because it did not fit with the wild surroundings.
Other hillside letters face threats not from vandals or nature lovers, but from backhoes and bulldozers. Some letters sit on private land, like Great Falls' GF insignia, which has so far escaped removal despite occasional rumblings of relocation.
Some letters have simply been left abandoned and unmaintained, allowed to become one with the hillsides from which they once promoted the locals' hometown pride.