From PPJ Archives,
Prickly Pear Elementary
construction site
2017 to 2018
(Click on images to view full-size)

To see the full photo-essay of Prickly Pear Elementary construction project, click on this link: Photo Essay


New for 2024 ~ In Their Own Words:
5 Questions for East Helena Mayor Kelly Harris
and East Helena Police Chief Mike Sanders

Prickly Pear Junction believes Mayor Kelly Harris and Police Chief Michael Sanders are doing exceptional work leading East Helena through a time of tremendous growth: increasing population as well as huge advances with construction projects. Valley Drive is finally getting much needed upgrades. METG (Montana Environmental Trust Group) and Prickly Pear Land Trust are turning East Helena into a beautiful and fun “playground” out at the old ASARCO Smelter Site. Restoration of wetlands along Prickly Pear Creek. Removal of up to 2 million tons from the unfumed slag pile. And Habitat for Humanity is coming!

On that note, here are 5 questions we asked Mayor Harris and Chief Sanders. (Use blue scrollbars to see all)


1) Same question I asked you in January 2023:
What do you think is the biggest challenge East Helena is currently facing?

David, thanks for reaching out it is always fun to answer some questions about East Helena. I would say the answer is likely the same as last year, with the growth we are facing and the ripple effects from the growth is our biggest challenge. I believe growth will be the biggest challenge for East Helena now and for the foreseeable future.

2) I suspect you are pleased with the work that was completed on Valley Drive between Canyon Ferry Road and Plant Road with the addition of a “turning” lane. Do you have any idea of when work will resume to finish upgrading Valley Drive/Montana Ave.?

Yes, we are quite pleased with the results of the county portion of the upgrade to Valley Drive. As for the city portion of this project, the Council has made the decision to seek a federal RAISE grant. We are currently working with Staley Engineering to submit the grant application. When we talk timing, it would all be contingent on if we have a successful grant application. A successful grant award could result in construction starting in the summer of 2026.

3) What are your thoughts on the work being done at the old ASARCO Smelter Site? Anything particularly interesting that stands out in your opinion?

The most notable thing occurring currently is the sale of some of the unfumed slag and its transport to Korea. I am a bit of a throwback here, when I look at the old smelter site, I cannot do so without a great deal of thought/respect for the individuals who worked so hard at that site. The remaining super fund site and its cleanup have been progressing quite well, and the METG and its representatives have been excellent partners to the city.

4) In general, do you believe East Helena is adequately prepared to handle the tremendous amount of growth occurring: new homes, new businesses, new residents, etc.? Is this amount of growth presenting new challenges to the police department and City Hall, such as rising crime rates, increased road traffic, etc.?

The people that work for the City of East Helena are what make us prepared to handle the growth that is occurring and is yet to come. I am in awe of their effort and talents every day. I also believe that the culture and environment within the city right now are exactly what we need moving forward. As expected, as new homes are built, new businesses are established, and we receive new residents the city services will need to expand. Much time and effort are given currently to make sure that we are not only prepared for the future but are ready to meet whatever needs arise.

5) There is a huge new Town Pump gas station, convenience store, and casino currently being constructed at the edge of town. A number of residents have asked me if East Helena really needs another casino? Isn’t the number of casinos already in East Helena enough?
Your thoughts?

Let me first answer this by saying that the new Town Pump casino will replace the current one located just across Wylie drive. So, there will be no additional casinos in East Helena. The Town Pump Corporation purchased the former Lamping Field quite a few years ago from METG. Last year they decided to develop the corner of this land with a modern store. I think overall the continued development of this property will only add to the City as a whole.


1) Same question I asked you in January, 2023:
What do you think is the biggest challenge East Helena is currently facing?

The biggest challenges for the Police Department are the budget and staffing. We could definitely use more money for crucial equipment and training as well as additional staffing. We had a challenging year in 2023. We hired two new officers (late April and early May) who were in training for most of the year. Drugs are another challenge for law enforcement nationwide, and one we frequently face in East Helena. The fentanyl and methamphetamine arrests and seizures were higher this year compared to last year in Montana and we are also seeing an increase in cocaine usage in Montana.

2) I suspect you are pleased with the work that was completed on Valley Drive between Canyon Ferry Road and Plant Road with the addition of a “turning” lane. Do you have any idea of when work will resume to finish upgrading Valley Drive/Montana Ave.?

We are very pleased with the completed work on Valley Drive. Mayor Harris can provide more details about when work will resume on Valley Drive.

3) What are your thoughts on the work being done at the old ASARCO Smelter Site? Anything particularly interesting that stands out in your opinion?

What stands out to me is the added trail system completed by Prickly Pear Land Trust near the old ASARCO smelter site. I believe that having a safe and scenic trail system in East Helena is wonderful for the community something we will all be able to enjoy for years to come. We see a number of East Helena citizens enjoying the new trails near JFK Park and everyone we speak to says they really enjoy the new trails. A big thank you to Prickly Pear Land Trust and the City of East Helena for making this wonderful resource a reality.

4) In general, do you believe East Helena is adequately prepared to handle the tremendous amount of growth occurring: new homes, new businesses, new residents, etc.? Is this amount of growth presenting new challenges to the police department and City Hall, such as rising crime rates, increased road traffic, etc.?

The new growth has added to the Calls for Service in East Helena and has definitely added to increased traffic volumes. Due to the increase in traffic volume this year, we have been placing a significant focus on proactive traffic enforcement and in doing so, we have seen traffic violations decrease in some areas this year in comparison to 2022. The East Helena Police Department continues to concentrate their public safety efforts in and around East Helena and will maintain our focus in continuing to build confidence and trust with the members of the community and we will always strive to become the best law enforcement agency we can be.

5) There is a huge new Town Pump gas station, convenience store, and casino currently being
constructed at the edge of town. A number of residents have asked me if East Helena really needs
another casino? Isn’t the number of casinos already in East Helena enough? Your thoughts?

This question would be better answered by Mayor Harris.

Montana Environmental Trust Group Website:

METG hosted a public meeting in East Helena on Wednesday, November 15, 2023 to provide updates about the former ASARCO Smelter Site. The meeting included updates about Site cleanup in 2023, redevelopment progress, and presentations from partners such as Prickly Pear Land Trust and Helena Area Habitat for Humanity.  Prickly Pear Junction presents highlights of that meeting.

All photos and other content by METG and Habitat for Humanity
• Download the presentation PDF here.       • Watch the full meeting recording here.

The METG public meeting covered progress being made on a number of exciting big projects which are going to greatly improve life in East Helena. Including:

 Continued removal of up to 2 million tons of unfumed slag from the 16-million-ton slag pile and its shipment for recycling to South Korea.

Restoration of wetlands and along Prickly Pear Creek: finished in 2023
An update on groundwater quality improvements.

Prickly Pear Creek Realignment Project completed removal of temporary bypass channel.

Habitat for Humanity 257-Home Residential Subdivision 72 acres.

Prickly Pear Land Trust Greenway Trail – 322 acres.

8-mile trail system (under construction).



These photos were taken from the middle of the new passing lane on Valley Drive, between Canyon Ferry Road and Plant Road, which was constructed during the summer of 2023. This is a tremendous improvement to Valley Drive.


For years East Helena residents have complained that Valley Drive/Montana Ave. were no longer viable roads for current traffic needs. In the past 10 years Prickly Pear Junction has been doggedly pursuing all available sources for answers to when these roadways might be updated. As of summer 2023 we have some answers and some results! Construction crews have completely updated Valley Drive from Canyon Ferry Road to Plant Road with a new, third lane for turning. It’s beautiful (see photos above) and plans are in the works for doing the same thing to the rest of Valley Drive in the future. (See the artist rendering in the module below.) However, no dates are available. In addition to the road construction, East Helena crews have been busy fixing the many potholes around town. (See photos below.)  

All summer, 2023, East Helena road crews worked on fixing the myriad potholes around town.



Looking across Wylie Drive from the end of Main Street. This is the construction site for a new 26,000-square-foot Town Pump that includes a 22,500–square-foot convenience store and 3,500-square-foot Lucky Lil’s Casino. Town Pump will include 11 fuel pumps with 22 fueling stations and 4 RV dumps. Completion is scheduled for March/April 2024.  The $14.4 million project at Wylie Drive and Highway 12 will be one of the chain’s largest stores.

Just a sign of the times — our little town is growing up.
(Click on these photos to view full-size)

Valley Drive / Montana Ave. Future Reconstruction (Aerial View)

Many East Helena residents have asked us how Valley Drive/Montana Ave. would work as a “three-lane” road. This artist’s rendering shows that the third lane (middle “turning” lane) would begin at Canyon Ferry Road and would end and merge into two lanes at Lewis Street/Prickly Pear Elementery School. This model is not intended to represent a final plan but is fairly close to being an accurate model. (Click on the map to view full-screen!)

J4 Automotive
Visit J4 Automotive Website

Kit and Vi Johnson started J4 Automotive over 22 years ago in 1994 with an SBA loan, some help from family members and a lot of prayers. Fast forward to today and we find the shop doing close to 1 million dollars in gross sales and still family owned and operated. The second generation of Johnson’s are now working in the business, with Kit and Vi’s daughter Nikita and her husband Chris carrying on the strong tradition of outstanding automotive repair and service and giving back to our community. The third generation of Johnson’s (the grand kids shown sitting with Viola) are growing up in the shop just like their mothers did and will most likely continue the family tradition well into the future.

J4 Automotive’s mission statement stresses community service, which they do a lot of. The yellow veterans ribbons, the kids activity tent in the Christmas stroll, sponsor of the spring school clean-up, the Halloween movie in the park and Frite-night are but some of the events Kit and Vi and the J4 Crew organize and participate in. Their experienced staff of seven, including three Master Mechanics, fix all makes and models of vehicles and are the recipient of many awards. The National Technician of the Year, and the Helena Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year are just a few examples of their commitment to excellence.

J4 Automotive is a Better Business Bureau A+ rated member, AAA Top Shop and NAPA AutoCare center that enjoys a 5 star Google and Yelp rating. Give them a call next time you need advice or maintenance and repair on your vehicle and use their convenient pick-up service while you work! 227-8622 or make an appointment on line at j4

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Meet your Police Department: (Left to right)
Chris Kirkegaard, Police Officer
Bonnie Jones, Evidence Technician / Administrative Assistant
Trent DeBoo, Police Officer
Kirk Johnston, Police Officer
Ed Royce, Police Officer
Mike Sanders, Police Chief

Did you know PureView has two local pharmacies that offer FREE delivery of your prescriptions and other health product needs right to your door ? And you do not have to be a patient of PureView to enjoy this service! Just call our main pharmacy number at 406-500-2080 or visit our website at

Thank you East Helena for your continued support for PureView Health Center!

PureView Health Center
1930 9th Avenue
Helena, MT 59601

Call us at 406.457.0000

Call: 406.227.5750

East Helena Branch

16 East Main Street, East Helena
10 am to 6 pm Monday – Wednesday
10 am to 5 pm Thursday – Friday
10 am to 1 pm Saturday

Closed Sunday

(Click on these images to view full-size.)

East Helena Branch Library
February Happenings

Storytime: Every Wednesday at 10:30 AM. It’s a half hour of preschool age appropriate stories and activities. On February 28th will be special guest Patricia Osborn; a local author of two children’s books about helicopters. February 7, 14, 21, and 28.

Movie for Children: Saturday, February 17th at 11:00 AM. Enjoy the movie Under the Boardwalk. Rated PG and runs 83 minutes. Popcorn and a drink are provided.

All Ages:
First Fridays: February 2nd from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM. Every first Friday in 2024 (July will be 2nd Friday), pick out a free book (one per person and must be present), receive a small gift or craft, and enjoy refreshments.

Blind Date with a Book: February 12th through 17th during library open hours. A table of wrapped books from which to pick your “blind date”. Participants can enter a raffle drawing to win $50 gift card to a local restaurant. All ages are welcome to participate. Books of all age levels provided.

Third Tuesday Board Games: Tuesday, February 20th from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Library provides games or bring your own. Light refreshment provided.

Presidents’ Day Closure: Monday, February 19th all day. Resume normal hours on the 20th.

Craft Swap: February 20th through 24th, drop off crafts during library open hours that are gently used or new. February 26th through 29th, shop for crafts that are new to you from donated crafts.

Reading Circle: Friday, February 23rd at 3:00 PM. Meet to discuss Beartown by Fredrik Backman. A small amount of copies are available at the beginning of February to read and share among the group.

Library Hours are Monday through Wednesday 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
Thursday and Friday 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Saturday 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.
Sunday Closed. Located at 16 East Main Street.


Read stories from past editions of
Prickly Pear Junction!

Contact Us ~ Click Here!

Saint Chales Hall, Carroll College, Helena, Montana ~ September 8, 2002
All photos and panoramas by david george hill.


Help is right here!

Times are tough but nobody should go hungry or be left out in the cold! On this page are some resources to help you and your family:

Dept. of Public Health and Human Services: administers SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Call: 1.888.706.1535

Salvation ArmyEmergency food, clothing, shelter, and utility assistance. Call: 406.442.8244

God’s LoveProvides food, shelter, clothing, and any other basic necessities for transients and families. Call: 406.442.7000

LIEAP – Low Income Energy Assistance Program: pays part of winter energy bills for those eligible. Can also help in emergencies if your power is cut off for non payment. Call: 406.447.1625

Rocky Mountain Development Council:

If you know a family in need,
please share this information with them.

East Helena Mobile Pantry Update

The East Helena Mobile Pantry is open with service Mondays and Thursdays. The Lewis Street Pantry in Helena is open for Choice Shopping and is open Monday through Friday. If you are in need of food support, please come see us. We have food for all who need it. There is no need to provide an ID – just let us know the number of people in your household.

Mobile Service:
50 Prickly Pear Avenue N.
East Helena, MT 59635
(406) 443-3663

Monday 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Thursday 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Helena Food Share is closed on the following holidays:
Thursday, Nov 23 – Thanksgiving
Monday, Dec 25 – Christmas
Monday, Jan 1 – New Year’s
Monday, Jan 15 – Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Monday, Feb 19 – President’s Day
Monday, May 27 – Memorial Day
Thursday, July 4 – Independence Day
Monday, Sept 2 – Labor Day

for schedule updates.


         In 1993, Gary Thomas bought a building on Main Street in downtown East Helena, Montana for a practical reason: it was the closest commercial space to his house that he could afford. His plan was to change the nature of his business from retail to mail-order and do away with most of his products to concentrate on making sheepskin slippers. It turned out to be a great decision because of something he didn’t initially expect – East Helena is a truly great place to run and operate a business. It’s a small town that should brag about itself more often than it does. Downtown may only be a couple of blocks long, but it has filled up with incredible business owners who are all in it for the long haul. It’s a quiet place in good country.

            There are several reasons for why East Helena works out so well for an independent business. The commercial real estate is reasonably priced yet still easily accessible to the nearby population of the Helena area. Bank access, postal service and City Hall are a few things that are just down the street. The primary element that makes East Helena such a great location is its abundance of amazing neighbors – both in the business community and residents of the town. One of those neighbors that we would like to single out is our incredible local Post Office. We are a mail-order business, and we ship out over 2,000 packages each year. The East Helena Post Office is a local partner that we could hardly do without. Everyone on staff really goes out of their way to streamline the process and get our goods into the postal stream as effortlessly as possible. We owe those folks a tremendous amount of gratitude.

Our Founding
         High Plains Sheepskin was started in the cold and windy basins of southern Wyoming (hence the name “High Plains”) in 1975. Gary’s first shop was in Laramie, WY. After nine years, he moved to Last Chance Gulch in Helena, MT. Then, in 1993, Gary moved one final time to our current location at 5 West Main Street (formally known as Prickly Pear Junction) in East Helena, MT. We are right across the street from Dave and Annie’s restaurant, Main Street Easts (best breakfast around!), and next door to Stacks Clothing CO. & Antiques. This is our factory, warehouse, shipping center and retail outlet all rolled into one.

         Prior to starting High Plains, Gary had several years of experience in the tanning and industrial sheepskin industry. In the tannery, he worked as a sheepskin finisher and grader. As an apprentice under an old school Czech craftsman, Gary made sheepskin paint rollers, industrial applicators, and saddle pads. His passion for doing what he loved led him to work for himself, building High Plains Sheepskin from the ground up. Gary employed many ambition and talented people throughout the years who helped him build and sell his slippers, mittens, and hats. Spencer Haire was his final trusted employee and worked alongside him until Gary made his last pair of slippers. Gary Thomas tragically passed away in August of 2019 leaving Spencer and his wife Casey Sasek to purchase High Plains and continue providing his beloved sheepskin slippers to tens of thousands of customers around the country. They make a good team. Spencer manages the shop and makes all of the products while Casey’s background in banking allows her to handle the books and marketing. In 2020, they welcomed their first son, Jackson, to the wonderful world of sheepskin slippers.

         The new management of High Plains has also hired their first employee, Trevor Held, who is an East Helena native and part of the first graduating class of East Helena High School. Go Vigilantes!

         High Plains Sheepskin has always been a small business. We work all year to make thousands of slippers, mittens, and other products that we then ship to all 50 states, Canada and overseas. We enjoy what we do and love being a part of East Helena’s small but growing community. 

CLICK HERE to see Duke’s crew in action!

Contact Us ~ Click Here!

Sales of my artwork and art books on the ETSY Art/Craft website help support
Prickly Pear Junction “CLOUD”.
Click HERE to visit my ETSY Shop!

contact Prickly Pear Junction (Click)>  ~  phone  ~  406.431.6026