Denton: Fergus County’s Agricultural Trade Centers

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Fergus County, with Lewistown as the county seat, lies at the heart of Central Montana.  Although gold and other precious minerals were found at Maiden and other sites in the early years, the region grew once the railroads came at the turn of the century.  More than a dozen substantial agricultural trade centers, all connected to Lewistown by the rails, soon surrounded the county seat.  When I surveyed the region in the 1980s, the continued vitality of these towns impressed–and they still deserve a close look today.

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In 1984 I came looking for railroad depots, frankly, but was blown away by the Farmers State Bank, one of the best “strongbox” style of small town banks I had encountered anywhere in Montana.  The town then was in a pattern of slow, steady decline, from a high of 435 residents in 1950 to 356 in 1980.  That rate in most Montana country towns meant that the bank was long gone–but here it remained and stood proudly along Highway 81.

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Thirty years later, the bank building still made its statement of permanence in materials (brick) and in style along the highway.  Indeed, the town’s population had continued to slip downward, especially in the last 20 years, reaching a mere 255 residents in the last census.  But the bank remains–and even has a new addition to the rear of the building.

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I passed by this iconic Fergus County building in late May of this year, just weeks after the completion of its merger with Dutton State Bank (another great building to be discussed later).  All was well: it remained one of Denton’s anchors.

IMG_9896The town’s schools are another important anchor.  The football field (see the first image) serves as the eastern gateway to Denton; the schools are bunched together as though they grew organically from that spot one hundred years ago and have evolved ever since.

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True, Denton and its neighbor to the west Coffee Creek celebrated their centennials in 2013.  And it was appropriate that a granary announced this fact since grain is king here. The elevators standing along the old Milwaukee Road line still boldly state the importance of agriculture to Denton. Even after the Milwaukee ceased operations in 1980 state officials worked with local governments and ranchers to create a new Central Montana line, which kept the elevators running, and in more recent times, has made Denton the western terminus of the popular Charlie Russell Choo-Choo excursion train.

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Schools, a bank, and grain elevators are anchors but Denton also has maintained vibrant cultural institutions from its town library, housed in a brilliant c1960 building, and churches such as the historic Gothic-styled Our Savior Lutheran Church and St. Anthony Catholic Church.

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Residents also have kept the local Masonic Lodge in operation, housed in the 2nd floor of the post office building, which, due to its overall neoclassical style-appearance and corner lot setting, was probably a bank building built shortly after Denton became a town in 1913.

Fergus Co Denton post office and masonic hall  - Version 2

Toston: Another Northern Pacific Town in Broadwater County

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Toston has become a forgotten town of the Northern Pacific Railroad line as it stretched from Logan, in Gallatin County, through the headwaters of the Missouri River and into the broad Missouri River valley of Broadwater County. Today Toston is best known to travelers of U.S. 287 as a scenic stop on the Missouri River, and the access to Toston Dam reservoir, a project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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The town’s heyday came early, especially with the discovery of pyrite goal ore at Radersburg to the west in the Elkhorn Mountains and the establishment of a smelter at Toston in the late 1880s.  In the 21st century the old smelter site has received a superfund clean-up and a large interpretive marker explains the smelter and its impact on both Toston and Radersburg, another good example of the much better public interpretation you can encounter on the Montana landscape.

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At the Missouri River fishing access, Montana Wildlife and Park erected another interpretive marker, a huge boulder marking the location of the Lorentz homestead.  William B. Lorentz was the Northern Pacific’s agent in Toston and he filed for a homestead along the Missouri south of the tracks in 1887.

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Toston had a second economic boom during the homesteading era when state officials decided to build a new steel truss bridge over the Missouri River.  The Toston Bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.  Its interpretive marker records that state engineer Charles A. Kyle designed “a riveted steel Warren through truss design”

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for the bridge in 1918, with Security Bridge Company of Billings as the contractor.  The Billings company used 11 local residents, including William Lorentz, the former Northern Pacific station master. and the bridge was opened in the summer of 1920. Soon thereafter, the Bureau of Reclamation announced its intention to create a new irrigation project, initially called the Townsend Bench project. Reclamation officials designed a project for what they called 15,000 “excellent acres,” irrigated by a gravity system with the diversion dam located east of Toston on the Missouri River, identified today as the Crow Creek Pump Unit.  Consequently, Toston has several buildings remaining from the first two decades of the 20th century, including concrete block commercial buildings and the town’s most impressive building, a two-story frame school, which is now a private residence.

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With the irrigation project came a set of large grain elevators, which in 1984 dominated the highway view of Toston along U.S. Highway 287. These have been demolished.  One historic church building, I believe it is a Methodist Church, remains but does not hold services.

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The Toston Bridge kept the town vibrant since its location meant that all traffic between Helena and Bozeman on U.S. Highway 287 passed over the bridge, over the tracks, and through the middle of town.  In 1955, however, a new bypass bridge was constructed and Toston began a decline that has slowly drained away most of its population.  At the 2010 census, it had 108 residents.

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Townsend: A Railroad Town on the Missouri River

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Townsend is a classic Montana crossroads town, with its historic heart, and primary commercial district, centered on the intersection of U.S. Highways 12 and 287.  But a closer look reminds you of the town’s origins as a railroad town, part of the Northern Pacific route, as it moved westward from Bozeman to Helena, Montana, along the valley of the Missouri River.  The town’s layout is a good example of a T-town plan, with Front Street (now U.S. 287) forming the top of the “T” while Broadway (U.S. 12) forming the stem, as shown above.

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Grain elevators and other light industrial and transportation-related buildings the lots between the railroad tracks and Front Street.  At the corner of the highway junction is one of the town’s oldest buildings, the Commercial Hotel of 1889, which still operates today as

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a bar and restaurant.  Historically this large two-story frame building, with hipped roof dormers creating even additional rental space under the roof, would have been an attraction for travelers and business people looking for a place just off the tracks, or later the highway. It is among a handful of late 19th century railroad hotels left in Montana.

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Broadway also had its historic landmarks, especially the neoclassical-styled State Bank of Townsend, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Dating to 1918, the building’s architect was the Albert Mooreman and Company firm from St. Paul, MN. The flanking two-story classical columns root the yellow brick building to its prominent corner lot–the bank’s survival into the twenty-first century is also a rarity in rural Montana.

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Broadway also has its mix of one- and two-story business buildings, from the American Legion and another Montana Mint Bar to the Professional Building of 1911.  Despite its proximity to both Helena and Bozeman, the town has retained its commercial vitality.

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At the end of the commercial district is the Broadwater County Courthouse, a mid-1930s New Deal project that has expanded significantly in the three decades since I carried out the original historic preservation plan survey in 1984-1985.  Its understated Art-Deco styling fits well its highway location.  And as to be expected in a “T-town” plan, its location at the end of Broadway, meaning the end of the stem of the “T” reflected well the comparative power between local government and the corporate power of the railroad.

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Being a resident of Helena from 1981 to 1985, I passed through Townsend many times on my way east since US 12 was a favorite trek.  I noticed these major landmarks and the patterns of railroad town plans but I must admit that I never strayed off of either Front Street or Broadway, and that was a mistake.

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South of Broadway are several valuable late-19th or turn of the century Victorian-styled residences, some of which have found their champions and have been restored while others need that champion to see the potential jewel underneath decades of change.  One historic neighborhood school building–now a Masonic lodge–also remains, along with many different churches, most of which date to the second half of the twentieth century.

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North of Broadway is a notable exception, the Victorian Gothic styled Townsend United Methodist Church, again an important survivor from the town’s opening generation of history.

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Townsend also had a set of interesting bungalows from c. 1920 on U.S. 12 as it moves east of the courthouse.  These are made of concrete block, shaped to mimic stone masonry.  It was a popular technique to give a house a solid, permanent look, and you tend to find it more in the west than in the east.  Of course, Townsend was not far from the major concrete works at Trident–a topic for a later posting.

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Last but not least Townsend, and Broadwater County, has an active historical society and local museum, established during the American Bicentennial in 1976–and expanding ever since at its location behind the county courthouse.

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A second look at Ringling

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Ringling, a stop along the Milwaukee Road in northern Meagher County just off U.S. Highway 89, served as the eastern gateway for the railroad’s move west into the Rocky Mountains along its electric line.  From Ringling the Milwaukee passed through the famous Sixteenmile Canyon then crossed the Missouri at Toston and began its ascent in the copper kingdom of Butte.

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I had last passed quickly through the village in 2011 and its iconic Milwaukee Road combination depot was weathered but appeared as if it would yet survive for sometime.  Within four years, however, its fate was much more uncertain.  Roof decking is missing–will this now rare survival of the railroad’s corporate stamp on the northern plains survive till the end of the decade?

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Brumfield’s Garage is more an example of roadside architecture from the first half of the twentieth century than a building that dates back to the Milwaukee’s heyday.  Its vernacular interpretation of Art Deco styling by means of the four brick pilasters catches the eye–this adaptable property has been many things, and in my past visits has served as a store and as a bar.

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Ringling also retains its school–now a residence–another of the remarkable rural frame standardized designed schoolhouses found throughout central Montana. It sits south of the depot, as if the corporate and the public defined the north-south boundaries of the village.

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Still overlooking the town, and serving as an important landmark on U.S. Highway 89, is the historic Arts and Crafts-styled St. John’s Catholic Church, to which I have already devoted one post in this blog.  What I was pleased to find in 2015 is that some preservation work was underway–with weatherboards being repaired and replaced.  With a decent roof and a recent paint job, the church is in much better shape than many of its brethren across the region. The continued use of this Montana plains church as a “community church” is the best way to keep it alive in the 21st century even as the rest of Ringling shrinks and disappears from the Meagher County landscape.

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Geraldine: A Milwaukee Road Town that made it

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My last post looked at the disappearing towns of the Milwaukee Road in central Montana’s Meagher County.  Those themes of a railroad, town creation, and abandonment were constant in several posts as I traced the imprint  of the Milwaukee on Montana’s landscape in the 20th century.  However, not all central Montana plains towns tied to the Milwaukee Road have disappeared–Geraldine in Chouteau County is one of those exceptions.

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Milwaukee Road depot at Geraldine, c. 1998

Geraldine was established c. 1913 along a major spur line of the Milwaukee Road that connected its division point at Harlowtown to the much larger railroad transportation center of Great Falls to the north.  Due to the richness of the high plains agriculture of southern Chouteau County–the land south of the Missouri River–and the commitment of its citizens, Geraldine has remained generally solid through the decades.  According to census records, the town has never topped 400 residents, 375 being the largest number of residents, and now, according to the 2010 count, there are only about 100 less, a little over 260 residents.  Losing what amounts to 25-30% of the population over the 100 years sounds like a disappearing town, true, but in an eastern Montana perspective, it is not.  As this blog has documented at many places, too many plains country towns have lost 50% or more of their population in just the last 30 years.

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In the 1984-85 historic preservation survey, Geraldine impressed me for several reasons.  First was the dominating presence of the grain elevators, as seen above and with the first photo in this blog.  I had grown accustomed to Milwaukee Road towns where the corporate standardized design for the combination depot–a building that joined both freight and passenger operations–dominated the railroad corridor.  Here the elevators punctuate the skyline and loom over the town itself–the railroad created the need for them, certainly, but by the end of the 20th century the elevators were still viable businesses while the depot had become a local museum and community center.

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Then there was the town plan.  Milwaukee Road country towns were “T-plan” towns where the tracks, depot, and elevators defined the top of the T while the town’s business district formed the stem of the T.  Geraldine was a bit different, a tilted T-plan town, where the top

IMG_8818of the T, due to the railroad’s approach was slanted, giving Geraldine, compared to other Milwaukee towns, an off-kilter look.  Geraldine also still had business, although the number of independent places had diminished since 1984-1985.  Two key institutions today are

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the local state bank, a Classical Revival-styled two-story building from c. 1914 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the First National Bank of Geraldine.  Unlike scores of other local institutions in the 1920s and 1930s, the Geraldine bank did not close its doors and continues to serve ranchers and town residents today.  It is a rock from Geraldine’s past that surely helps to define its future.  The same can be said for the

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Geraldine school–home of the Tigers.  This local school has several different building periods, as this image of its facade indicates, but maintaining a school district is vital to the town–plains country towns that lose their schools soon become abandoned places.

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Geraldine touches upon many key theme of eastern Montana history–in subtle yet significant ways.  It even lightly touches on another theme of this blog–Montana Modernism.  No one was much looking at the contemporary styled buildings of the late 1950s and 1960s in 1984-1985.  I was no exception.  But in the 21st century, we want to document those buildings and appreciate how the new architecture expressed the hopes of the post World War II generation.  Geraldine’s contribution is its United Methodist

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Church, with its particularly notable tall concrete bell tower, mixing a bit of tradition with the new look of the postwar generation.

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Geraldine of course has a classic western watering hole–Rusty’s Bar and Grill, completed with its front glass block windows.  It is highly recommended–not much on the outside admittedly but a full community experience on the inside.  Historic depot and bank, modern-styled church, unique town plan, and great bar:  more than enough reasons to come to Geraldine, not once but whenever travels take you between Great Falls and the Musselshell River Valley.

The Disappearing Act of the Milwaukee Road

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Montana State 294 is one of my favorite highways.  For Montana it is a short route, just around 30 miles between Martinsdale and where the road junctions with US 89 and meets up with Ringling.  But these 30 miles are packed–well in a Montana sense–with resources of the original mainline of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad (the Milwaukee Road) as an electric line, such as the roadbed that parallels the state highway above at Lennep–it now serves as a secondary dirt road for residents.

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The Milwaukee maintained transformer stations about every 30 miles of its electrified tracks so AC power could be converted into DC current for its trains.  I apologize for the poor quality of my 1984 image of the station along Montana 294 but then it was still generating power for local use.  Thirty years later that had ended–the power lines were gone, taking away context from the building itself and leaving those who don’t know any better wondering why a big two story brick building was out here by itself.

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The station is about five miles west of Lennep, which I described in 1986 as “a tiny village where residents have preserved an old store and where the schoolhouse is still in use.”

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The school is now a residence and the store is still there, though not in business.

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The true landmark of the entire road is the Trinity Lutheran Church, built in 1910.  Its soaring Gothic bell tower, gleaming bright in the sun, is a beacon for anyone traveling along the road. It is one of my absolute favorite rural Montana churches and clearly eligible for listing in the National Register–as would be the entire remaining hamlet of Lennep.

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To the east of Lennep is Martinsdale, a tiny place that somehow has already managed two different blog posts about it.  Maybe that tells you that it too is a favorite place.  In 1984, its intact combination depot, what the Milwaukee called a “Standard Class A Passenger Station.”  This standardized design building, standing at the head of the town, spoke

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volumes of how the Milwaukee reshaped this landscape in the first decade of the twentieth century. But since this image from 2013 I have learned that the depot is gone–part of the roof decking was missing then so I am not surprised at the lost.  Just disappointed in the lack of vision of keeping this heritage asset together for the future.

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The news is not all bad from Martinsdale.  In 2013 the Stockmen’s Bank was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, only the sixth such place in Meagher County.  Yeah I know the photo above from 2007 shows it missing one entire bay from when it was converted from a bank into a garage.  But its brick construction and classical style made it

Renovations at the Stockman's Bank, 2013

Renovations at the Stockman’s Bank, 2013

a landmark in Martinsdale.  Can’t way to see its condition in 2015 because the town has several key buildings, and I just don’t mean the Mint Bar.

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I really mean the Martinsdale Community Center.  Rural reformers in the early 20th century pushed western communities to establish centers–where people could gather in a secular public space, vital for not only individual sanity but community togetherness in the dispersed population of the northern plains.  The center at Martinsdale has always been well maintained, and now that the depot is gone, it is the community landmark.

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Business, however, is not booming in Martinsdale.  The Crazy Mountain Inn serves as the local restaurant and lodging option, the older classic false-front Martinsdale Hotel is now shuttered.

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Even classic roadside institutions like the town’s two historic service stations/garages have closed–their mid-20th century designs are reminders of the days when automobiles came this way in numbers.

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Now let’s shift attention to the “eastern end” of this route, the town of Ringling, a place once of high hopes founded by the circus master John Ringling.  Like Lennep, the Ringling townscape is dominated by two elements:  the Milwaukee Road standardized depot–in

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better shape in 2011 than the Martinsdale station–and the sacred landmark that dominates the view from U.S. Highway 89 for miles:  St. John’s Catholic Church.  The church dates c. 1910 and is a wonderful example of Arts and Crafts style in an otherwise basic gable-front rural church building.  Although used much more sparingly today, it has been restored and maintained well.  It too is eligible I would think for the National Register.

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Montana 294, like the Milwaukee Road itself, is no longer a major artery–it wasn’t really in 1984 and it is even moreso in 2015.  But what remains is a reminder of how the Milwaukee Road shaped the state’s landscape for 100 years, leaving in its wake landmarks of transportation, engineering, architecture, settlement, and faith.

The Bair Ranch of Martinsdale, Montana

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In the early 1980s the Bair Ranch outside of Martinsdale, Montana, was almost a mythical place.  Curators and historians told me of wonders to be found inside, of an outstanding western art collection surrounded by the most eclectic mix of European antiques and decorative arts imaginable, especially for such an isolated spot.  When I visited the area for the historic preservation plan in 1984, locals again repeated the stories of the wonders inside, but they were wondering what would happen to it all once Mrs. Alberta Bair passed–she was in her eighties then.

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The Bair Ranch was a landmark for not just what was alleged to be insider–and the compelling, striking Colonial Revival design of the ranch house–but for the man whose empire it represented, Charley Bair, who first showed the stockmen of eastern Montana

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that wealth could be gained from sheep–hundreds of thousands on ranches both on the Musselshell River valley near Lavina and along the Big Horn River near Hardin–but also by translating that agricultural wealth into investments in banks and industry.  Bair was a stockman but his wife and daughters were more urbanities–and their Martinsdale home, with its irrigation ditch just outside the front windows, was proof.  This house belonged more on Summit Avenue in St. Paul than it did on the plains of central Montana.

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When Alberta Bair, the last of the daughters, died in the early 1990s, she confounded many by leaving the ranch house and its contents not to the state museum but to a local foundation.  When I visited the place almost 15 years after her death in 2007 it was obvious that the foundation had maintained the property–it looked much as it did when I had been there in the late 1990s–but its hours of operation were sorta unknown and it was just there–still a powerful physical statement but little interpretation available.

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In 2011 and 2013 it was a different world.  Rather than gathering people at the historic stock barn, there was a visitor center and a museum that could properly light and preserve not only key pieces of art and decorative arts from the collection but also serve as a place for small traveling exhibits, giving local residents a reason aways to return.

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The Bair Ranch was no longer just a mythic place–it was a destination.  And from talking with the educators and volunteers who were working there in those years, the obvious pride of place was apparent, but they also took great delight in seeing how outsiders reacted to this touch of elegance, in the middle of nowhere.

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Here was one of those places transformed between 1984 and 2014–and transformed into a huge heritage asset not only for residents but for heritage tourism throughout central Montana.  Certainly Alberta Bair left money–but it took some time for the foundation to find its legs and actually change the place from a preservation project into an education venue that could generate sustainable tourism.  By making a visit unique and special, the foundation has helped secure the future of the Bair Ranch and its story that sheep could pay, and pay big–for this century.  Just one of several stereotypes about the West and ranches smashed at this place outside of Martinsdale.

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