Meagher County: Crossroads between East and West Montana

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Meagher County Courthouse, White Sulphur Springs, 2007. One of the best New Deal era courthouses in the state.

Meagher County has been a place that I drive through rather constantly.  If you take U.S. Highway 12 east/west or U.S. Highway 89 north/south–both are important historic roads–you pass through this county where the central plains meet the mountains of the west.  The county seat of White Sulphur Springs is near the crossroads of the two federal highways, and home to one of the great roadside cafes of the state, what we always called the Eat Cafe, since the only marker it had was a large sign saying “Eat.”

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And the old historic bar, the Bucka-Roo Bar , was not a bad place either to grab a beer on a hot, dry day.  It is not the only commercial building of note.  The town has both the

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classic Victorian era commercial block but also the 1960s modernist 1960s gas station.

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The Wellman Block, now home to Red Ants Pants, was built in 1911 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Red Ants Pants is the sponsor of an annual Americana music festival outside of the town that ranks as the highlight of the summer in this part of the state.  Next door to the Wellman Block is the historic Strand Theatre.

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The reason I came to White Sulphur Springs in 1984 was none of these places–it was to visit the local historic house museum, a granite stone Romanesque styled house known as The Castle.  It was rather amazing to everyone in preservation back then that a tiny town

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had tackled the tough task of preserving a historic house as a local museum–especially one so far away from the interstate visitor.  Byron Sherman had the house constructed in 1892, with rock taken from the nearby Castle Mountains.  This stockman wanted to show that livestock could pay, and pay well out in the wilds of central Montana.  It has been a tough go for The Castle over the last 30 years.  The local historical society built a new storage building adjacent to the house but the house itself doesn’t get enough visitors.  The town’s major landmark in 1984, it seems almost an afterthought today.

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That neglect is really no fault of the house, its story, or its keepers.  It is the reality after a nearby ranch house–famous in 1984 but closed to visitors, even someone as intrepid as me, back then.  Of course I am speaking of the Bair Ranch, east of White Sulphur Springs in Martinsdale.  Its story comes in the next post.

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An Easter Greeting from St. Peter’s Catholic Mission

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In all of the justified and well-meaning excitement for a Great Falls of Missouri heritage area–an effort I fully support as an administrator of a statewide heritage area in Tennessee–let’s always remember the western end of Cascade County where so much started.  The First Nations Buffalo Jump State Park at Ulm is the reminder of the centuries old Native American shaping of the landscape.  Here, on a graveled road within a working ranch, stands another key National Register site where Catholic missionaries attempted to build a new world with Blackfeet Indian–St. Peter’s Catholic Mission.

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Just getting there is awe-inspiring as the road winds its way around Crown Butte and through dazzling landscape of where the plains meet the mountains in Montana.  St. Peter’s did not become a major settlement, despite its early founding–it seems in the middle of nowhere today, which it is, but in the mid-19th century it was right where it needed to be, at the intersection of Native American and white missionary culture.

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The church itself is an unassuming log building, c. 1878, with a frame bell tower later later. But it was an outpost in that missionary effort among the Blackfeet 150 years ago.  I wrote about this place and the later Holy Family Mission on the Blackfeet Reservation in en essay “Acculturation by Design” years ago so I won’t belabor the success and failure of those efforts here.  You can see for yourself. Other remnants of the old mission school survive,

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some barely hanging on, as they are still part of a working ranch.  The cemetery high above the church, and every other part of the old mission, is probably the most compelling site.  And a perfect place today, or any day for that matter, for contemplation of the story of men, culture, faith, and history on the northern plains.

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Reedpoint, Stillwater County, Montana

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Reedpoint, a tiny Yellowstone Valley town located between Columbus to the east and Big Timber to the west, typically never makes the news, except when a forest fire sweeps near the town boundary, as was the case a few years ago, or when it is Labor Day Weekend and the state’s big newspapers arrive, along with thousands of others, for the tongue-in-cheek “Great Sheep Drive” through the town’s main street.

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But the Great Sheep Drive, which has now been around for a generation, is more than what keeps Reedpoint on the map, and surviving.  The Reedpoint Community Club, established in 1979, keeps the community together and looks for opportunity.  Historic buildings such as the ones above and below have been remodeled or renovated for new uses, reflecting the railroad’s town greatest prosperity in the early 20th century.

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The local dive bar comes alive on weekend, when anglers come in greater numbers to fish along the Yellowstone.  Its ramshackle appearance is new “Old West” at its best.

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The Reedpoint School–a photo of the older historic building is featured here–remains a key to the town’s survival and its future.  With somewhere south of 200 residents, good schools are a must or the sinews of the place come apart.

IMG_1217So too are community institutions important.  The local library is small but still there, a place of valued interaction between young and old.

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I worry about the historic Occidental grain elevator.  For 30 plus years I have roared past this place going to and from Billings, but the elevator was a landmark.  Not only did it link

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the homesteaders of 100 years ago to the railroad, it also linked whatever grains from this part of the valley to that worldwide market accessed by the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railway.  Some years ago the old depot was moved off

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the tracks and found a new life in town.  That conversion is not so easy with an elevator.  When this tall landmark goes so too does a key part of Reedpoint’s history, and yet another link to its origins as a Northern Pacific railroad town.

Wheatland County’s Roadside Architecture

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My previous post focused on Harlowton, the seat of Wheatland County, and its railroad past as a key division point for the Milwaukee Road.  Now let’s consider that other half of the county’s transportation corridor–the one created by U.S. Highway 12.  The Two Dot Bar, shown above, was an early destination point for me in eastern Montana.  What other Montana town back in the early 1980s had a song about it by Hank Williams, Jr?  Hank’s verse, “I’m from Two Dot, Montana, and I don’t give a damn” was one of many theme songs on my boom box for those long drives across the state.

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The new highway visitor center, at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S. 191 outside of Harlowton, speaks to the region’s dependency on the railroad, but to get around here anymore you need the roads.  Harlowton has several compelling properties along the highway, none moreso than this carefully preserved mid-20th century service station.

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Nearby is the historic county jail, converted into a very casual and fun local eatery.  Indeed the public architecture of Harlowton is different from many rural Montana towns–the historic jail and courthouse are out on the highway, not down in the heart of the town, nearer to the railroad core.

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The Corral Motel sign is one of my favorites of central Montana, and is a reminder of how historic highway motels that are not part of a major chain remain good travel options.

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Then there are the old garages and gas stations all around Harlowton that are still used in some way today–they too are reminders when U.S. 12 was a major artery.

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Then at the north end of the county, on U.S. Highway 191, is Judith Gap, and perhaps they have grabbed bragging rights for the most spectacular bit of roadside architecture.  Nope it is not the neat town sign–although I like it a lot.

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Nor is it the not-to-be-missed Hitchin’ Post Bar.

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it is the interpretive site with one of the huge steel blades used on wind turbines found along both U.S. 12 and U.S. 191 in Wheatland County–wind turbines are defining elements now of the northern plains landscape–and here you can touch one.

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Harlowton: Lost Landmarks in a Milwaukee Road Town he

IMG_9748Harlowton is my favorite of Montana’s Milwaukee Road towns.  Its roots lay with the vision of Richard Harlow to build an independent central Montana railroad.  When the Milwaukee Road assumed control of Harlow’s mini-empire, it turned Harlowton into one of the line’s key division points, the place where steam engines switched to electric power for the journey up and over the Rocky Mountains.

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Fischer Park with Milwaukee Road electric engine, Harlowton, 2006

When I surveyed the town in 1984, I did so with the blessing and insight of Lon Johnson, then the historic architect of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office.  Harlowton was a special case for Lon, especially the dream of restoring and reopening the magnificent State Theatre (1917), a hallmark of its days when Milwaukee passenger traffic promised so much for this small plains town.

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Before the restoration could take place, however, the theatre caught fire in 1997 and plans were set aside until 2011 when a new effort to restore the building occurred, but a second fire in 2012 again stopped progress.  The photos above from 2013 show that the hulk of the 1917 theatre remain but with the declining local population, renewal of the theatre will be difficult.

Milwaukee Road depot and offices, Harlowton, 2006

Milwaukee Road depot and offices, Harlowton, 2006

My great interest in Harlowton centered on the Milwaukee Road and its works.  In 1984, the company’s bankruptcy was only a few years old.  Down at the tracks, there was still the railroad line, the depot, the roundhouse, and other buildings.  I considered these remnants, especially in the local context, as extremely significant.  Afterwards, locals and the SHPO agreed and the Milwaukee Road depot historic district was created.  Over the next 25 years, I would stop by Harlowton periodically to monitor the district, and noted with approval how the depot had been repaired.  The roundhouse, unfortunately, was lost.

Harlowton depot and offices in 2013

Harlowton depot and offices in 2013

Looking north from the depot, on the bluffs of the Musselshell River overlooking the railroad tracks, stood a third key landmark, the Graves Hotel.  My colleague Lon Johnson also had

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Harlowton, from the railroad depot, 2006

been a big fan of this Queen Anne-styled stone railroad hotel, with the stone carved from the nearby bluffs.  I too fell in love with the Graves, staying here periodically in the 1980s.

Graves Hotel, Harlowton, MT, 1984

Graves Hotel, Harlowton, MT, 1984

When I visited in 2006, however, the Graves looked good–from a recent repainting of its late Victorian detailing–but it was closed, and so it has remained ever since.  I do not

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pretend to have the answers on how do you maintain a large three-story National Register hotel that is miles from an interstate and located instead on a little-used-by-tourists route

Graves Hotel in 2013

Graves Hotel in 2013

(U.S. Highway 12), but even if the hotel can come partially back to life, it would be a real tourism boost to Harlowton.

It’s not like the local residents aren’t in the game and trying.  The county museum, the Upper Musselshell Valley Museum, continues to grow its profile along Central Avenue.  The buildings made of locally quarried stone, with late Victorian cornices, harken to the turn of the 20th century when Harlowton held such promise with the Milwaukee Road’s arrival.

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The Harlo Theatre remains in business too, and is a throwback to small town theaters, and a rare survivor in today’s home entertainment world.  Plus it is a cool building.

IMG_1592 copyDespite missing out on the interstate, losing a railroad, and dropping a lot of population, there is still something to Harlowton that makes me return, trip after trip.  More on that something in the next blog.

Billings: a few more words, for now

HPIM0190.JPGI always have more to say about Billings, the centerpiece of the Yellowstone valley and Montana’s largest city.  I have been thinking about it, and exploring its history, since 1982, a time when hardly anyone in the history field (except for Dr. Lawrence Small at Rocky Mountain College) was paying attention. But for now–until I get back in May for new fieldwork–I want to place Billings aside, but offer some words about how historic preservation and adaptive reuse–at least what I have witnessed since 1982–have impacted the city.

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

When I began my first project at the Western Heritage Center, that historic library building and the old county jail, turned into the Yellowstone Art Center, was about it, for historic preservation, in Billings.  There also was the county museum, which was early resident Paul McCormick’s “town” cabin since moved to the airport and used as the county museum, and The Castle, Austin North’s downtown residence turned into a store. Many thought that was plenty–few thought that even the Classical Revival landmark of the

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Northern Pacific Railway depot deserved much attention.  Luckily, three women that I met in those days, Senia Hart, Ruth Towe, and Lynda Moss, thought otherwise.

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Hart, whose husband had built the Hart-Albin store into a regional brand name, was distressed by the apparent death of downtown Billings.  Everyone, and many businesses, wanted to relocate to either the Heights or at Rimrock Mall.  Traffic shifted away from downtown into the suburbs and interstate.  Hart saw a robust still viable building stock, and thought otherwise.  I heartily agreed.  Everyone back then liked to show off the Rex Hotel as a sign of the future.  The old flea bag railroad hotel had been transformed in downtown’s best restaurant by the early 1980s.

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Hart was not the only business woman or man devoted to downtown–it took many to keep it alive, such as Alberta Bair.  Her donation for the conversion of a historic Art Deco theater into a modern performing arts center interjected new life into downtown.

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In the 1990s the first historic district was created along Montana Avenue, with the Rex Hotel as a real anchor to encourage other new investment.  To say that Montana Avenue has worked in the decades since would be a major understatement.

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Success didn’t come immediately–for a long time, the Rex stood alone, but the depot got new life, most buildings were repaired, or restored, and by the 21st century a new wave of adaptive reuse gave new opportunities to once forgotten industrial buildings around the district.  Montana Avenue, and downtown Billings, once again became a destination.

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Montana Avenue in 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

Encouraging CTA and others to see downtown in new ways back then was State Senator Lynda Moss (who served 2005-2013)–she got introduced to the potential of downtown as the director of the Western Heritage Center, in some ways bringing the story full circle.  Moss though pushed investors and residents to think about the south side of the tracks downtown, and the potential of Minnesota Avenue.

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

And then came the news that the once lap of luxury hotel–but closed for some years– in downtown Billings was also receiving a new life.  The 2011-2012 restoration of the Northern Hotel–I haven’t had a chance to visit the final result yet–marked the close of a decade of real, sustainable change in downtown Billings.

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Yet, at the same time, it took us back to the city’s roots.  Banker Preston W. Moss had championed the need for a luxury hotel, to attract business and further investment.  More than anyone, Ruth Towe, made the preservation of Moss’s story, and his mansion, to be a life task.  I had the chance to listen to many of the Moss Mansion group’s plans and

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dreams back in the 1980s.  Their legacy today is not just the city’s primary historic house museum, but also a renewed interest in the historic downtown residential neighborhoods.  Billings has a rich collection of domestic architecture, and the good condition of those places today, like the ongoing renovation and expansion of the McKinley School, tells anyone that downtown Billings is alive and well.  Individuals like Ruth Towe willing to work with others can make a difference in historic preservation.  I have seen it in my professional career in Billings.  There will be much more to be said about this place in future postings.

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The Art Deco style of the Babcock Theatre is yet another downtown historic preservation anchor.

Billings: heart of the Midland Empire

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The irrigation ditch at Hesper Ranch, where the irrigated empire of eastern Montana began in the late 19th century.

Billings, due to a young energetic staff at the city’s major history museum, the Western Heritage Center, gave me my first opportunities to learn and embrace the amazing landscape of Montana.  In 1982 the museum was finding its way; it was not the community institution that it has become some 30 plus years later.  Board members in 1982 were

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Western Heritage Center (the historic Parmly Billings Library), Billings, in 2006

interested in possibly recreating the old river village of Coulson, of which not a trace was left.  I explored the issue, recommended no, and then suggested that actually the founding and development of the town was a fascinating story–with a cast of characters.  Well, only a few people (Lynda Moss the education director then and David Carroll the exhibit curator) were fascinated with what I found, but I was a convert, and ever since I have been exploring the Midland Empire of Billings and Yellowstone County.

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The Big Ditch, at Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings)

Irrigation, those man-made slivers of life that slice through eastern Montana, was one important key to the story.  When Frederick Billings, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, helped to established the “town on paper” called Billings in 1882, he soon discovered that while there was coal in the Bull Mountains to the north there was little land worth his salt for agricultural development, and Billings was nothing if not an energetic, progressive farmer back at his home in Vermont.

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The city’s centennial statue of Frederick Billings, which stood by a parking garage when I began my Billings history work in the 1980s. Due to the good efforts of Lynda Moss and others, it was appropriately moved to the grounds of the historic Parmly Billings Library (Western Heritage Center) over a decade later.

He counted on Benjamin Shuart, the local Congregational minister (who was supported by his wife Julia Billings) to be his man on the ground, checking into the agricultural potential.  Everyone understood that only water would make the ground bloom, so the construction of the Big Ditch began.  It ran through Shuart’s property he managed for the Billings family,

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

known as Hesper Farm.  When Billings lost faith in Shuart, and his own son Parmly unexpectedly passed away, Billings turned to one of his son’s workers, and friends, I. D. O’Donnell, to make his land valuable and to give life to the town that was named for him.  O’Donnell, self taught in the value of land, irrigation engineering, and the possible miracle crop of sugar beets, became the Oracle of Irrigation for not only the Yellowstone Valley but for all of the northern plains.

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O’Donnell expanded the ranch at Hesper Farm and turned into a private demonstration farm for the entire region, a place of beautiful cottonwood trees and modern barns.

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His enthusiasm and connections attracted other investors, and soon caught the attention of the new U.S. Reclamation Service, which made the Huntley Project its second one across the West.  Amazingly the very simple farm-vernacular building that housed the project’s office at Ballatine still stands, a little building that really conveys a huge story of a federal program that transformed a region.

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IMG_1295O’Donnell’s empire depended on others for capital, none no more so dependable that Preston Moss.  Moss also looked to the Midland Empire, and built his grand mansion in pursuit of that dream.  The Moss Mansion became a house museum in 1983.

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Not far away I. D. O’Donnell also had his town house, on a more modest scale but grand as far as many homes in the “new” Billings.  This Queen Anne house, like the Moss Mansion, were listed in the National Register in the 1980s, and the Moss-O’Donnell story

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became better known.  And the legacies extend to places not often thought historic.  That place would be the Billings Sugar Factory, a huge sprawling complex of where town meets farm, ironically located about halfway between downtown Billings and the old Yellowstone River townsite of Coulson.  Sugar beets made the valley bloom, and the landscape still shows those marks today.

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