Like I Was Saying

Montanaisms, Revisited

Area code 406 has become an integral part of our state’s identity

By Kellyn Brown

With so many people new people arriving in Montana, at least 18,000 between 2020 and 2021, it’s probably as good time as any to catch up these immigrants on some of our “isms.” Here is a piece I wrote about Montananisms in 2017 …

Our single area code, 406, is more than an area code. To many Montanans, it represents the vastness of this place; the fact that such a large state has one prefix is a point of pride. For others, they have adopted it as part of their brand.

“The 406 area code is a unique part of our heritage in Montana. It’s become such an integral part of our state’s identity that some businesses have built their entire brand around the novelty of our single area code,” Public Service Commissioner Bob Lake said in a press release announcing plans to extend its singular life a little longer.

Four years ago, the 406 area code was expected to be exhausted by 2019. And in a very Montana move, the PSC sprung into action and partnered with Montana telecommunications companies to require mandatory number pooling. It apparently worked, and across the state, everything from restaurants to magazines to tattoo parlors to breweries to gyms to nonprofits can continue to use the numbers in their respective names without the threat from competing area codes for several more years.

The Federal Communications Commission informed the PSC that the state’s single area code will now last until 2031. This means all those bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing the numbers will still make sense for a few more years.

The length the PSC went to preserve the number a bit longer reminded me of the fight that surrounded another Montana moniker: “The Last Best Place.”

That phrase gained prominence in 1988 as the title of an anthology by Montana writers published by the Montana Historical Society. William Kittredge, who along with Annick Smith edited the publication, came up with the wording.

“I was thinking of the book ‘The Last Good Kiss’ by James Crumley, and Lincoln’s statement that the U.S. was the last best hope of mankind,” Kittredge told the New York Times. “The phrase popped into my head and I said, ‘How about The Last Best Place?’”

“It immediately took on a life of its own.”

Did it ever.

Soon the phrase was everywhere. Several businesses used it in their marketing and the state of Montana even campaigned on it.

Except it was never trademarked. And in the early 2000s, when a Las Vegas businessman and owner of private Montana resort applied to trademark the phrase, the state’s residents and Kittredge were up in arms.

“I’m vehemently opposed to it,” Kittredge told the Missoulian at the time.

In 2006, former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., inserted a provision in the Department of Commerce Appropriations Act that cut off funding to process any application that would trademark “The Last Best Place.” In response, the applicant filed a civil suit against the trademark office. Burns’ provision was overturned.

But this was a bipartisan issue.  

In 2008, former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced language to another appropriations bill, which Congress approved, that finally protected the phrase for public use forever.   

 “The Last Best Place,” like “Big Sky Country” and “406,” lives on, although the latter still has an expiration day, even if it’s more than a decade away.

On that fateful day when the new area code is introduced to parts of our state, I’m sure many Montanans will lament the change. There may be a few businesses that change their names as we lose one of our favorite Montanaisms. Or, we’ll simply ignore the new area code and buy T-shirts and bumpers stickers that say, “It’s still 406 to me.”

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