Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 4: Lewis and Clark

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 020The Missouri River runs through Cascade County and is at the heart of any future Great Falls Heritage Area.  This section of the river, and the portage around its falls that fueled its later nationally significant industrial development, is of course central to the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806.  The Lewis and Clark story was recognized when I surveyed Cascade County 30 years ago–the Giant Springs State Park was the primary public interpretation available then.  But today the Lewis and Clark story has taken a larger part of the public history narrative in Cascade County.  In 2003 the nation, state, and city kicked off the bicentennial of the expedition and that key anniversary date spurred the


many new efforts to preserve and interpret the “whole story” of the expedition.  The designation of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail led to many upgrades in markers and interpretive signage across the state.  Then Great Falls became a center for trail interpretation through the opening of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center along the river banks not far from Giant Springs State Park.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 023Despite federal budget challenges, the new interpretive center was exactly what the state needed to move forward the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and its many levels of impact of the peoples and landscape of the region.  The center emphasized the harrowing, challenging story of the portage around the natural falls of what became Great Falls but its

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 006exhibits and programs have significantly broadened our historical understanding of the expedition, especially its relationship with and impact on various Native American tribes from Missouri to Washington.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 045The contribution of the interpretive center to a greater local and in-state appreciation of the portage route cannot be underplayed.  In the preservation survey of 1984, no one emphasized it nor pushed it as an important resource.  When threats of development came about in last decade, though, determined voices from preservationists and residents helped to keep the portage route, a National Historic Landmark itself, from insensitive impacts.

At the south end of the county, the state worked with the national historic trail to established Tower Rock State Park, which preserves and interprets an important natural landmark along the river and trail, which, in 1984, was not part of the public interpretation of the expedition.  It also created a valuable heritage asset easily accessible from Interstate I-15, meaning thousands of visitors have learned about the trail as they have rushed through the state.  These developments in the last 30 years to both preserve and enhance the understanding of the expedition are just the more obvious of the efforts to improve the trail as a real heritage asset for the city, county, and state.  We can only hope that a similar effort will emerge soon to re-energize the preservation and understanding of the next major military excursion through the region–the Mullan Road of the

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 075 Mullan Monument - Version 2late 1850s.  Hundreds pass by the monument near the civic center in the heart of Great Falls but this story is another national one that needs more attention, and soon than later.


Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 3: Fort Shaw and the Sun River Valley


Another common features of heritage areas are properties associated with the nation’s military history and the process of nation building in the post Civil War United States of America.  Cascade County has two major sites, one old and often forgotten, the other still at the heart of the nation’s defense.  Let’s start with the oldest federal facility, Fort Shaw along the Sun River Valley in western Cascade County.  As I was conducting the survey for the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, Fort Shaw was on everyone’s mind at the state historic preservation office.  A proposal to list it in the National Register of Historic Places had been received, and the response was, generally, it is about time.  This place had an important story to tell and was listed in 1985.


Commanders’ Quarters at Fort Shaw

As I noted in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, “Built in 1867 in what was then the heart of the country dominated by the Blackfoot Confederacy, Fort Shaw stood just a few miles west of where the Mullan Road [the important pre-Civil War federal military road through the region] crossed the Sun River.  Colonel I.V.D. Reeves designed the fort, which was built with timber from nearby hills and sandstone and fieldstone found nearby.  The soldiers also made adobe bricks that were used to construct the walls of many buildings at the fort.  You can still see [in 1986 and 2015 as well] several of the original buildings, including two sandstone washhouses for the officers, the officers’ living quarters, and the commanding officer’s house.”

I emphasized in 1985 the property’s military significance in protecting the Mullan Road and the mining camps throughout western Montana.  I also noted how it became a focal point for white settlement in the region.  But I missed the bigger picture on what the site says and means.

Heritage Areas do a good job of looking at the “whole story” and how a landscape can have multiple meanings.  Fort Shaw is an important military story:  established two years after the end of the Civil War it represents an extension of federal military might into the West and how federal officials understood that occupation posts (Fort Shaw remained a post until 1891) represented federal power and authority, some 2000 miles away from Washington D.C.  But certainly part of that process of nation building post 1865 was the federal policy to convert Native Americans.  Here at this same place the Fort Shaw Government Industrial School was established, and here that federal officials and missionaries undertook that process of “civilizing” the Blackfeet.  The idea behind industrial schools was that Native American children would be taken from their families, boarded at the school, and then taught skills that allowed them to contribute and compete in the modern white man’s world.

In the last decade, historical markers have been installed to help tell that story at Fort Shaw, highlighting the accomplishments of the 1904 girls’ basketball team, truly a remarkable story.  Again, heritage areas like to talk about cultural history, and basketball and Indian nations across the northern plains are linked by this sport.  The story of these girls and their successful run to a “World Championship” at the 1904 World’s Fair has been the subject of a PBS documentary (Playing for the World, 2009) and a recent book by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, Full-Court Quest (2014).  Their accomplishments are also marked by a monument at the old

Cascade Co Fort Shaw and Indian School 8 - Version 2

industrial school site, an interpretive site not there in 1984-1985 and another great example of how public interpretation of Montana’s landscape has broadened and improved in the last 30 years.

IMG_9529Fort Shaw was not the region’s earliest mission site.  That designation belongs to St. Peter’s Mission, located on the winding Mission Road to the south of Fort Shaw.  An earlier blog discussed St. Peter’s but this special property is worth further discussion, as it is linked in time and purpose to what happened at Fort Shaw.

IMG_9518The property has limited public accessibility as an active ranch surrounds it and uses some of the remaining historic buildings.  But since my first visit in 1984, a small metal interpretive marker has been installed, which emphasizes its founding date of 1865-1866 by Catholic missionaries, many

whom are buried on a hill, along with some of their Blackfeet converts, overlooking the mission.  The Jesuits established this outpost a year or so before the military post at Fort Shaw.  In 1884 they too established a girls school for Blackfeet children at the site.

IMG_9474Often we forget these connections between religious missionaries and the nation-building process of government.  Within a few hundred yards of Fort Shaw school, for instance, is the old road connecting the school to the historic St. Ann’s Catholic Church (seen above is the historic church building; the congregation has built a modern church in recent years).

IMG_9507And we further forget, or choose to ignore, how the messy present lies side by side with these older, seemingly sacred places.  Along the Mission Road and the Simms Road are nuclear missile bases, some active, some inactive, that are administered by the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.  Much like Fort Shaw from 100 years earlier, military commanders in the 1960s saw Cascade County as part of the edge of America’s national defense, the ideal location for nuclear bases that could protect, or retaliate, in case of a nuclear strike from the nation’s enemies.

IMG_9090The Sun River Valley was transformed by homesteaders and irrigation during the great boom of the early 20th century; it shares that story of course with many towns in the Great Falls heritage area.  Montana Highway 21 (shown above) connects with Montana Highway 200 to provide great opportunities to explore that landscape.  The Sun River project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation especially left its mark.

While the old roadside stores at Fort Shaw, the project’s headquarters, suggested that the homesteader landscape was everyday vernacular, not designed to last, other properties, such as the wonderful Simms school complex, tells us that some built to last.  At Simms, reclamation engineers designed what they considered to be a model townsite plan, with the school at the center, and broad avenues radiating out from the school.  Simms no doubt never reached the population that the planners envisioned, but here too in an unlikely place is the hand of the federal government, re-orienting the landscape in ways that can be seen, if you know where to look.


Another property of note to my SHPO colleagues in 1984 was the J.C. Adams Stone Barn, which had received a grant for “brick and mortar” work as part of President Reagan’s efforts to jump start the economy in 1982-1983.  This magnificent structure predated the federal agricultural programs, dating to the mid-1880s.  It rather spoke to the promise of stock-raising and freighting–Adams did both–as the region began to develop in the last years of the Montana territorial period.

IMG_9492The barn is part of a still active ranch and is on private property.  But the stone masonry can be viewed and appreciated from Montana Hwy 200.

IMG_9495When one considers a Great Falls heritage area, the Missouri River of course will take center stage; as the next postings will show, it should be at the center of the story.  But what happened along the Sun River, and what remains today, adds immeasurably to the national story and the overall significance of the region.


Great Falls Heritage Area, part two: First Nations Buffalo Jump

Ulm Pishkun, Cascade Co NR (29-23)Successful heritage areas have chronological depth to their history, and places that are of national, if not international, significance.  To begin that part of the story, let’s shift to the other side of Cascade County from Belt and explore the landscape and significance of the First Nations Buffalo Jump State Park.  When I visited the site in 1984 there was not much to it but the landscape:  no interpretive center existed and there were only a few markers.  To give the state its due, it then only owned a portion of the site, with the first land acquisition dating to the New Deal.  Listed in the National Register in 1974, the site only had opened as a state park a few years earlier, and no one seemed to know much about it or even how to get to it.  But as this photograph from “A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History” shows, wow, what a view:  it was totally impressive, and had a big story obviously to convey.

IMG_9585Buffalo jumps were ways that the first nations in Montana could effectively kill large number of bisons–by planning, gathering and then stampeding a herd over a steep cliff.  Native Americans used this site for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The cliff is hundreds of yards long and kill sites are throughout the property.


IMG_9587State park officials, working with local residents and ranchers, have significantly enhanced the public interpretation at the park since the late 1990s.  Hundreds of additional acres have been acquired, better access roads have been installed. and new interpretive features, such as these reproduction sweat lodges on the top of the cliff, have been added to the landscape to physically enhance the Native American feel to the park.

IMG_9589The interpretive center is a model of 21st century Native American-focus history.  It provides facilities and exhibits for visitors, and encourages a longer stay and exploration of the site.

IMG_9576Park managers understood that this site had special significance to all Native Americans thus they included capsule history displays about all Montana tribes of today along with displays that emphasize the Native American dominance of the landscape when the jump was in use.

IMG_9566  IMG_9567

IMG_9573As the park was being expanded and improved into an effective heritage asset, both in its public interpretation and visitor facilities, research on the property continued.  The buffalo jump is now considered the largest in the United States, and quite likely the world.  In the summer of 2015, the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark as one of the nationally significant archaeological and Native American properties in America. The bone deposits remain deep and rich in artifacts, still awaiting further exploration despite being mined for a brief time during World War II for phosphorus production. Indeed the entire site is one of reflection and respect for the cultural contributions made by the First Nations long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark just over 200 years ago.

IMG_9591Here is a property that today tells us how the earliest Montanans used their wits and understanding of nature and landscape to enrich their diet and to make their world, one far from that of our own, and one still difficult for those of us in the 21st century to grasp.

IMG_9586This buffalo jump remains a place of mystery and meaning, and when you look to the south and see the shadow of Crown Butte you glimpse into that world of the deep past in Montana,.  If you look in an opposite direction you find the patterns of settlement that surround this sacred place.  And that is where we go next to St. Peter’s Mission and the Sun River Valley.


The Great Falls Heritage Area, part one

IMG_9146Along the Missouri River is Paris Gibson Park, deep in the heart of Great Falls, Montana.  Gibson was one of the classic civic capitalists of the late 19th century who understood that as the community prospered he too would achieve this dream of building a great western empire, with his town of Great Falls as the center.  Almost 100 years after his death, in 2015, residents, preservationists, historians, and economic developers began discussions on establishing a heritage area, centered on Great Falls, but encompassing the Missouri River as the thread between the plains and mountains, that has shaped the region, and the nation, for hundreds of years.  I strongly endorse the discussion and will spend the next several posts exploring key resources in Cascade County that could serve as the foundation for a larger regional story.

Sand Coulee Coal Mine, Cascade Co (32-34)

Abandoned coal mine at Sand Coulee from the 1984 preservation survey.

Let’s begin with the coal deposits to the east of Great Falls, often forgotten places today but the exploitation of the easily accessible belts of coal not only provided the railroads crisscrossing the region with necessary coal but also left in their wake classic mining communities such as Belt, just off of US 87/Montana 200.


Situated along a creek nestled within coulees of coal, Belt is a classic mining town, where all of the historic buildings are situated along the main road into town.  When I visited in 1984, Belt like most central Montana towns was no where near its population height of over 1100 residents during the homesteading boom, but its 800 plus residents in 1980 was a marked increase from recent decades and many of the town’s historic buildings were in use.

Belt, Cascade Co (32-23)

The Farmers and Miners State Bank said so much to me in 1984, and beyond its classical facade so in keeping with the Classical Revival style favored by state banks throughout the state.  It was the name:  farmers and miners–both walked the street and helped to make the town.

IMG_8860Thirty years later, Belt’s population had bottomed out, declining to under 600 by the time of the 2010 census.  But both times I have stopped by, in 2013 and 2015, the town has a sense of life about it, and hope.  The town’s two historic taverns, the Harvest Moon Tavern  and the Belt Creek Brew Pub, as well as the Black Diamond Bar and Supper Club attract visitors from nearby Great Falls and elsewhere, giving the place a sense of life at evenings and weekends.



IMG_8868When planners talk about heritage areas, they often focus on the contributions of local entrepreneurs who take historic buildings, like the Pioneer above, and breathe new life into them.  Throughout small town Montana and urban commercial districts, new breweries and distilleries are creating such opportunities.

Cascade Co Belt Hardware 1896 Belt historic district NR  - Version 2

IMG_8859IMG_8862Belt has a range of historic buildings, mostly of vernacular two-part commercial style that speak strongly to the boom of 1900 to 1920.  The Victorian-styled cornice of the Belt Hardware Store (1896) speaks to the town’s origins.  The Knights of Pythias Lodge of 1916 has been restored as a community theater, another reason for visitors to stop and explore.IMG_9850.jpgThe result is a living cultural experience, since nothing in Belt is over-restored or phony feeling.  It is still a gritty, no frills place. That feel is complemented by the Belt museum, which is housed in a historic jail on road down into town and within sight on a railroad trestle, a reminder of what literally drove the town’s development, coal for the railroads.

IMG_8865During the 1984 survey, I gave the jail a good bit of attention since this stone building spoke to the craftsmanship of the era, the centrality of local government as the town developed, and the reality that this building was the only thing in Belt listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But in 2004 the state historic preservation office approved the Belt commercial historic district, and that designation has done much to drive the town’s recent revival.  Belt is just the first place that speaks to the promise of the Great Falls heritage area concept.



Lewistown’s Heritage Development


Photo by Montana Preservation Alliance.

During the state historic preservation planning process in 1984-1985, the new historic preservation efforts in Lewistown, especially the focus on the sandstone masonry of the Croatians, were noted and celebrated as well as the town’s only “marked” historic site, Reed’s Fort Post Office, associated with the very early history of settlement in Fergus County and the history of the Metis who lived here in the 1870s and 1880s.  Certainly much more was known about the community’s history and architecture. But there was little public interpretation, except for this log building and, on the other side, of the town, a public park with military artifacts including an ICBM missile–a rarity then and now for a public park anywhere in the west.


IMG_0010Even the local museum was at the beginning stage, sharing quarters with the chamber of commerce in a Ranch-style building, like the park, on the outskirts of town.

IMG_0016How times changed over 30 years.  The museum is still at its location but adjacent is now a new facility, replicating a huge barn, expanded exhibits and artifacts about the region’s history.

IMG_0017Markers about National Register-listed properties and districts exist throughout town, courtesy of the exemplary interpretive marker program of the Montana Historical Society.

IMG_9390What happens within town is supported by recent interpretive marker installations at the highway rest stop as you enter Lewistown.  From this spot there is an excellent view of the historic Lewistown airfield, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, for its significance in World War II aerial supply lines and defense.

IMG_9416Not only can you see the historic district, you also can learn about its significance through an interpretive marker developed by Montana Department of Transportation.

IMG_9415Steps away is another interpretive kiosk, related to an earlier, sadder military story, that of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians and their attempted flight to freedom in Canada in the 1870s.  Both markers also emphasized the overall theme of transportation and how Lewistown has been crisscrossed by important historical events for centuries.


Walking tour brochures help visitors and residents understand more of the history and architectural beauty of the town, from landmarks such as St. Leo’s Catholic Church, an amazing interpretation of Italian

IMG_9965Renaissance revival style from the prominent Montana firm of Link and Haire, and the historic early 20th century domestic architecture in the downtown neighborhoods.

IMG_9923The town’s historic districts serve as anchors within the commendable trail system developed in Lewistown over the last 20 years.  Local officials and representatives, working with the state government and abandoned railroad property and corridors, have established a series of trail loops that not only provide excellent recreational opportunities, as signified in this trail head near the Yogo Inn, but also paths for heritage tourists and

IMG_9403residents alike to explore the landscape, and how history in the 19th and 20th centuries created the place where they live and play today.

IMG_9405As we will see later in western Montana, like in Butte and Kalispell, trail systems can be the best of heritage development because they take advantage of the state’s greatest asset–its landscape and sense of the Big Sky Country–and combine it with explanations of the layers of history you encounter wherever you go, creating an asset that visitors will like but that residents will cherish, because they can use it on a daily basis.

IMG_0014Of course recreation, to my mind, is never complete unless there are nearby watering holes where one can relax and replenish, and Lewistown is rich in those too, being they the various classic roadside establishments along the highways entering and leaving town or the can’t miss taverns downtown, such as The Mint and the Montana Tavern, where the signs speak to the good times to come. Those properties are crucial for heritage development because they are important in themselves but they also are the places that get people to stop, and hopefully explore.


Fergus Co Lewistown Montana tavern sign downtown commerical HD 24 - Version 2Using multiple pasts to create new opportunities for communities:  Lewistown has it going, and it’s far different world today than in 1984.






Lewistown’s Public Buildings: Legacies of Service in Two Centuries


For a town of 6,000, Lewistown has an imposing, impressive public presence in its historic built environments.  Clearly town founders and generations of later residents have taken the meaning of public architecture to heart–not only are they just buildings meant to hold public services but they are buildings that are meant to ennoble–to say that the town matters to those who use them, and those who come this way.


The Fergus County Courthouse (1907-1908) lies at the center of town, on a rise above the railroads tracks and central business district and then the homes and schools that surround it.  Newton C. Gauntt of Yakima, Washington, was the architect.  He also designed courthouses in Washington and Oregon.  His Classical Revival design reflected a more vernacular interpretation of the style that preceded the courthouse by two years–that would be the Carnegie Library of 1905.  T. J. Tubb was the


contractor/designer and used the town’s Croatian stone masons to create one of the most distinctive Carnegie designs in the state.  The additions below and in front came in 1990–quite the change in 30 years but also a necessary one to keep the original building as a community landmark and to serve a much different public library audience of the late 20th century.


Behind the library was the place I always stayed at in Lewistown during the fieldwork of 1984–the Calvert Hotel.  Originally built as a girls’ high school dormitory, the building was a disappearing relic from the early homesteading days before buses and automobiles dominated traffic do and from county schools.  Students in faraway ranches would spend the week, maybe more, in the dorms during the school term–a reality that spoke to sense of distance and the limits of transportation 100 years ago.  In the 1980s, the Calvert was much like its dorm-day appearances: some modern upgrades but it was a rustic, and inexpensive, stay, perfect for someone like me.  New owners, thankfully, carried out a complete restoration and upgrade between 2007-2009.  The Calvert is now a totally different place, and fits squarely in our theme of a public building serving the community well, through adaptive reuse and historic preservation, in the 21st century.


The same can be said for the historic school just up the street from the Calvert and its conversion into the Esplanade condominiums.  Here again, a public building still serves the community but in a different way than before.



In the central business district, the grand triple-arched entrance of the Civic Auditorium is a reminder of the impact of the New Deal on the city.  The Works Progress Administration did a lot of little things in Lewistown, streets, sidewalks, utilities, but its most lasting contribution is the civic auditorium of 1936, still a meeting place for community events.


Another federally funded building a few steps away was finished during the beginning of the Great Depression, the Lewistown Post Office, an impressive Classical Revival design from 1931.



On the outskirts of town is another important set of buildings still in community service, not just to Lewistown but to towns and villages from miles away:  the Central Montana Fairgrounds.  The monument at the front entrance, part of the fair’s centennial celebration a few years ago, says it all:  100 years of pulling together.  Yes, it is a good motto for the fair, but to my eye it’s also a fitting motto for the entire town.




The fairgrounds has an array of historic barns, stalls, and exhibition buildings that define the grounds while the new grandstand defines the signature events of today’s 21st century fair experience.



Lewistown: at the heart of Eastern Montana

IMG_9389Lewistown, the seat of Fergus County, has been a hub for trade and government for eastern Montana since the 1880s.  Beginning as a trading post, the town next served as a crossroads for traffic going to short-lived precious metal mines at Kendall, Maiden, Giltedge, and other places.  Cattle ranches, such as the famous DHS Ranch and the N-Bar Ranch, also surrounded the place.  By the turn of the 20th century, the town had over 1,000 residents.  But by this time, railroad companies eyed the area for possible agricultural development, and within 20 years Lewistown had boomed–gaining six times its population–and a fascinating array of commercial and public buildings in the wake of the population growth.

IMG_9381The Great Northern Railway not only an understated Classical Revival depot on one end of the town, it also expanded lines throughout Fergus County like tentacles desperate to grab as many wheat crops as possible.  The depot remains today, converted into a convenience mart and gas station (an adaptive reuse you do not commonly find for railroad depots).  On the other end of town stands the other major line–the Milwaukee Road–devoted to the homesteading rush in Fergus County.  It built an even grander

IMG_0004complex as a statement to its wishful dominance of the agricultural trade.  Shortly after the closure and bankruptcy of the line in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the depot became a large adaptive reuse project, turning the Milwaukee Road complex into the Yogo Inn and convention center, where, in 1984, I attended the Montana Historical Society statewide history conference.

IMG_9400The bloom grew stale over the decades and when I visited in 2013, the Yogo was clearly on life support; I was encouraged in May 2015 to find renovations underway–maybe there will be a third life for this Milwaukee Road landmark in Lewistown.

The Great Northern and the Milwaukee created the transportation network that brought homesteaders to central Montana by the thousands. Merchants, bankers, and craftsmen then rebuilt the downtown from 1904 to 1916, and much of that flurry of construction still serves residents today in the central business historic district, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

IMG_9973Classical Revival was the architectural statement of choice to this new Lewistown taking shape along Main Street.  The architects of the Montana State Capitol, Bell and Kent, designed a new Bank of Fergus County (above, on the right) in 1904.  It received another layer of classicism in the pilasters a decade later when owners wanted to match the flashy Judith Theater (1914), certainly one of the great examples of Beaux Arts design in a small Montana town movie palace.

Fergus Co Lewistown neoclassical bank  - Version 2

By 1916, however, bank officials were ready to support the town’s most complete interpretation of Classical Revival design in the new Montana Building, designed by the firm of Link and Haire.  The bank seemingly had few limits in front of it–homesteaders still arriving and agricultural prices were high.  But the boom went bust in the early 1920s and by 1924 the building had new owners, the First National Bank.  It has remained home to financial institutions ever since.



IMG_9951The splashy Beaux Arts classicism of the banks and theater catch your eye but much more common are two-story commercial blocks, often with a more understated classicism, where retail businesses used the first floor and professionals occupied the second.  The town had a several gifted craftsmen who left their mark in these buildings and others.

Detail Masonic Temple Lewistown Fergus Co IMG_9955Croatian stonemasons left impressive stone Romanesque arches at the Masonic Lodge, a detail I photographed in 1984 (left) and 2013 (right).  The building itself is a dignified statement of both craftsmanship and purpose, combining both classical and Romanesque elements using locally available stone.  It’s one of my favorite buildings in town.

Fergus Co Lewistown masonic temple downtown commercial HD 13 - Version 2Not far away is the I.O.O.F. Hall, from 1914.  Here is an even later example of Romanesque arches highlighting a building that is both a fraternal lodge but also valuable retail space.

IMG_9966Be they multi-story or just one-story commercial businesses, this set of commercial designs convey so strongly the promise of early 1900s to thousands of Montanans.  Lewistown’s population had reached 6,000 by 1920–that generation would be shocked to know that remains the population today. Much more on Lewistown to come.