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Roadside Crosses: American Legion Markers Remind Of Lives Lost To Traffic Crashes

Across Montana’s state highways, roadside memorials mark the locations where a life or lives were lost in an accident.

The memorials are red stakes with white crosses that fit standards set by the Montana Department of Transportation.

The American Legion, under an agreement with MDT that dates back to 1953, builds the memorials and cares for them. They are designed to remind passersby to slow down and obey traffic rules. Many people also have looked at them as memorials to their loved ones who died in the crashes. And that’s fine, according to MDT. 

But many people bring objects to adorn the memorials. Flowers, black drapings, even a 5-foot-tall teddy bear, have been placed on the memorials, said Dave Brewer, who just became chairman of the memorials program for the Havre American Legion.

Dave Brewer (Paul Dragu/Havre Herald)

And some people design their own memorials and place them on the state right-of-way.

That concerns MDT, which fears the objects will create a distraction for motorists. Limits on the memorials are set by departmental policy and Montana law.

When problems arise, MDT removes homemade memorials and stores them in state facilities until families retrieve them, said Lori Ryan, an MDT spokeswoman.

But the state can’t let homemade markers remain in the right-of-way, she said.

People can attach discrete items, such as flowers or the name of the deceased, to the American Legion marker’s shaft, but not to the crosses, Brewer said.

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The Havre Legion is trying to beef up the program so new memorials will be built as soon after a fatality as possible and so old markers are restored as soon as possible. When that task is complete, the Legion will work to restore older memorials that have been placed on highways over the last 60 years.

Many, he said, have been removed by contractors who were widening the highway or making other road repairs. Some have been damaged by storms and the passage of time or have bullet holes in them.

Brewer said those memorials are either gone or weatherbeaten.

The specifications are exact. The stakes have to be embedded 18 inches in the ground and should be 54 inches above the ground, Brewer explained. They have to be 30 feet from the road, so motorists’ views of the highway are not obstructed.

The crosses also have to meet state specifications.

At many locations around the state, the legions have had difficulty doing the work, he said, because of declining membership and aging veterans. The revenue obtained from member dues is relatively small, so fundraisers for legion projects are small.

So if family members or the general public would like to help  financially or with manpower, that would be welcome, Brewer said.

MDT often pays farmers or ranchers to mow the grass on the side of the road, he said. Especially when they are using rider mowers, it’s difficult to trim the grass carefully around the memorials. So people might want to cut the grass with a weed wacker or a lawnmower around the memorial.

Or family members may want to donate to the Legion to help defray the cost. Brewer estimated that each memorial may cost about $60 to construct. People can mail checks to Les Johnson, Legion secretary-treasurer, 11225 River Road, Havre, MT 59501.

He said he is looking for welders who can donate their time and help with the work. 

The project will involve work on the part of Legion members, Brewer said, but it should help remind motorists to drive carefully, honor the deceased and maintain highway safety.

Email John Kelleher at (406) 262-7778
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