More Landmarks from Sweet Grass County

IMG_6338Big Timber and Sweet Grass County, in the heart of Montana’s Yellowstone Valley, create an imposing built environment set in a beautiful county, framed by mountains and defined by historic river corridors and later transportation routes. In the last post, I focused on Big Timber, its public spaces, its town plan, and the properties there already listed in the National Register.  Today I want to focus on other just as worthy historic properties found both in town and in the county.

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Let’s start with landmarks from the New Deal era.  The town city hall/ fire hall is recognized but just southwest of Big Timber is the Mountain View Cemetery, which received a new stone gate, cemetery office, and other landscaping improvements from the WPA in the late 1930s.  It is a splendid small town historic cemetery, with its majestic setting providing a proper dignity to those town founds, and generations of later residents, buried there.

IMG_6310The beautiful stone masonry of the cemetery reflected a vernacular theme already noted in the Sweet Grass County Courthouse and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.  But the smart use of stone throughout the town’s residential district is a significant design theme, from the magnificent Lutheran Church above to numerous examples of early 20th century homes.

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IMG_6321Indeed, community institutions could be another important theme to explore in the built environment of Sweet Grass County.  In addition to the town’s churches, schools, courthouse, and New Deal-era public park, downtown Big Timber still has a thriving bowling alley, the American Legion Hall,  and the active Civic CenterIMG_6294 IMG_6293

IMG_6302Certainly community landmarks are a useful way to think about Melville, once an important trade town at the north end of the county on U.S. Highway 191.  The town now lies just west of the realigned highway but it is worth a brief detour, if for no other reason than one of the state’s great rural churches, the Melville Lutheran Church.

Melville Lutheran Church, Sweetgrass Co (38-7)

When I encountered this gable-front vernacular Gothic church in March 1984, its unadorned beauty framed by the Crazy Mountains was a take-your-breath away experience.  I featured the church in my A Travelers Companion to Montana History book on page 121, and noted the congregation, established in 1885, had built the church in 1914.  It has weathered the subsequent 100 years well, as the image below shows.  The stewardship of the congregation in maintaining the building, when so many other rural churches have closed in the last 30 years, is to be congratulated.

IMG_6243But Melville has more than the church–its rural school is still there, and probably as old as the church, serving as public space within the shadows of the Crazy Mountains.

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Finally, back in the center of the county, let’s close with the Yellowstone River.  Now at a public access site just north of Big Timber and just west of U.S. 191 is a Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail site that interprets the expedition’s experience at this spot in 1806.

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IMG_6255This beautiful spot sums up the special quality of Sweet Grass County–a beautiful natural landscape that has been shaped in expected, and unexpected, ways by 200 years of history.

The Sweet Grass of the Yellowstone Valley

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Sweet Grass County has one of the most spectacular landscapes of the entire state of Montana.  Located in the middle of the Yellowstone Valley, the county has long been a significant crossroads, from the prehistoric era to today.  At the county seat of Big Timber, Interstate Highway 90 (along with the historic route of old U.S. Highway 10) parallels the Yellowstone River.  The town is also the southern point of origin for U.S. Highway 191,

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The Lazy J, near the intersection of U.S. 191 and old U.S. 10, is a classic bit of mid-20th century roadside architecture.

which strikes northward cutting across Central Montana and continuing until the highway ends at the Canadian border, north of Malta.

IMG_6331Established by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1882-1883, Big Timber has the classic T-Plan town plat found on so many Northern Pacific towns.  But one reason I have long liked this place is the quirkiness of its town plan.  The depot and the elevators are where they

IMG_6329should be, forming the top of the “T,” but the beautiful early 20th century stone masonry Sweet Grass County Courthouse is neither on McLeod Street (the stem of the T) nor at the end of the T, dividing the town’s commercial area from its residential neighborhood.  No, it IMG_6333is a block west of the intersection of McLeod Street and old U.S. Highway 10–an uncommon arrangement of public space in northern plains railroad towns.  A public park

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effectively marks the end of the historic town.  When I first surveyed the town in 1984, I found that an old 1946 highway marker for the Lewis and Clark Expedition had been moved to the park a year prior to my visit, and the interpretive sign told me that the town had a sense of its place in history.  In the decades since, residents have added a monument to the town’s early wool industry along with a bronze sculpture, titled “Free Spirit” by Dave Hodges, linking the place to the open spaces and cowboy culture of the valley.  Coming soon will be the new headquarters for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, an institution that searched high and long for a home until finding Big Timber.

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IMG_6271Public interpretation through art is another change I encountered in Big Timber.  The most striking dates to the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial at the start of this century.  On the walls of the local grocery store are three panels telling the story of the expedition in Sweet Grass County as the men encountered the confluence of the Boulder and Yellowstone rivers.  IMG_6296On another commercial building near the intersection of U.S. 191 and old U.S. 10 was an unexpected surprise:  a mural recreating–or is it reinterpreting–the famed Milwaukee Road promotional poster from the turn of the 20th century that encouraged homesteaders

IMG_6267to head to Montana. Oddly the reproduction mural gives the Northern Pacific corporate emblem but the route shown is the Milwaukee’s route, admittedly also showing where the two lines ran side by side in parts of the Yellowstone Valley.

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Public interpretation has not extended into an intensive involvement with the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1984, only one property–a segment of the Bozeman Trail where it crossed the Yellowstone–in the county was listed, and that stood on Sweet Grass’s far western border to Park County.  Then, right after I had finished the project, the iconic western hotel, The Grand, was listed in the National Register.  In the 30 years, a handful of Big Timber landmarks also have been designated on the National Register:  the Classical Revival-styled Carnegie Library, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and the Big

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Sweetgrass Co Big Timber 6 - Version 2 IMG_6306Timber City Hall.  Little doubt these landmarks are cherished–when more library space was necessary this century the expansion of the historic building was done appropriately, keeping this landmark in service for decades.

IMG_6308But when you consider just how intact the town’s historic environment from the 1880s to the 1950s is today, you think a National Register historic district nomination in order, or at least one for the historic commercial district, which has a wonderful array of building types, designs, and, luckily for Big Timber, open businesses, including one of my favorite bars in all of the state–at least favorite bar signs–the Timber Bar.

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IMG_6275IMG_6284The next post will look deeper in the historic buildings of Big Timber, and then stretch north to a real jewel, the Melville Lutheran Church.

Chouteau County’s Plains Country Towns

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Thirty years ago geographer John Hudson wrote a series of articles and a book on the topic of “plains country towns,” addressing the landscape patterns he found among the railroad-established towns of the northern plains.  Ever since Hudson’s concept of plains country towns has influenced how I look at the Montana’s small towns.  Even in such river counties as Chouteau County where the Missouri River trade base of Fort Benton has dominated the county’s economy and population since the mid-19th century, you can still find the unmistakeable imprint of the railroad and the grain elevators that mark the presence of a town.

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Earlier in this blog I have discussed Square Butte (above) and Geraldine.  Today I want to review two other small towns, Highwood and Carter.  Highwood is the largest, counting

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just about 175 people in the last census.  Like most plains country towns, it has steadily lost population in the last 50 years.  In fact this weekend’s Great Falls Tribune discussed how the Highwood High School was going to forge a co-op for sports with Geraldine so both schools could continue to have basketball, volley ball and 7-man football, played at this tiny field in Highwood.

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The Highwood School is no doubt the pride and center of this community, a place not often found by travelers nestled as it is in a gulch formed by Highwood Creek along Montana Highway 228.  It began in the 1880s as cattle country but with the coming of the railroad in the 1910s t became an outlet for grains, as its set of tall elevators makes apparent.  A small one-story false front building for the 1912 Highwood Mercantile Company also remains to mark the town’s railroad years.

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Carter has one-third the population of Highwood–only about 50 people in the 2010 census–but is better known to travelers due to its location along U.S. Highway 87 between Great Falls and Fort Benton.  The Rocking K Bar is the roadside landmark but travelers

IMG_9334should turn south and drive down into Carter proper since the town, despite its tiny number of residents, still has many of the community institutions that defined a proper plains country town of 100 years ago.

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First, there is the still operating Carter Elementary School, probably the one institution that keeps the town alive–when country towns lose their school soon everything else goes too.

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Next comes the tracks, railroad depot, and the grain elevators–while not public institutions they do give the community commercial lifeblood, and as long as the trains roll by there remains an economic reason for Carter to exist.

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The depot has been moved from its original location paralleling the tracks, but this early 20th century standardized designed combination depot for the Great Northern Railway still stands–there were hundreds across the state in my survey of 1984-1985 and one of the more disturbing trends of the new survey of 2013-2015 is how many Great Northern depots are gone, eliminating from the landscape they once dominated.

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Faith too has remained in Carter, with the persistence of the town’s small vernacular styled gable-front little white Methodist church, although in its first generation several congregations had been established here.

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Carter also still has its Community Hall–an institution across the northern plains that defined hope and persistence in the years following the homesteading bust of the 1920s.
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Community halls too were more numerous in 1984-1985 than today–the building in Carter is a significant community link between past and present.

IMG_9330Finally there is the federal presence–marked by a concrete block post office from the last decades of the 20th century.  The threat a few years ago to close hundreds of rural post offices across the region brought new, and necessary, addition to role of post offices as modern community landmarks for plains country towns.

Admittedly, Carter is a place that hundreds roar pass daily as they drive U.S. Highway 87. But with its extant school, depot, brace of elevators, church, community hall, and post office, Carter is a valuable physical document of the plains country towns that once populated eastern Montana, serving as important way stations along the metropolitan corridors of rails and sidings that crisscrossed the west.

Circling Back to Rosebud, Montana

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Rosebud, Montana, is a small Northern Pacific era railroad town in Rosebud County.  A recent commentator on the blog asked for more about this town, admitting that a real loss had been a fire that destroyed its historic school from the turn of the 20th century.  But Rosebud has rebuilt a modern school and like any credible Montana town, students maintain a “R” for the school on a bluff outside of town, and when the football season starts this month, this tiny field will be full of spectators, family, and players.

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One reason I liked Rosebud back in 1984-1985 was the town bar, which had great food.  I didn’t remember it as the Longhorn Bar, but that’s the name today and the place still is friendly and worth a stop along old U.S. Highway 10.

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Rosebud was never a major railroad town in this part of the Yellowstone Valley but it has kept its school, a handful of businesses, and its post office, which had been updated since my last visit here. It’s still an important part of the valley’s historic landscape.

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Grassrange: Fergus County Crossroads

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Grassrange is a central Montana crossroads, where U.S. Highway 87 meets Montana highways 19 and 200, and it serves as the eastern gateway to Fergus County.  The wonderful vernacular roadside statement of “Little Montana”–an obvious homage to the much larger and more famous “Little America” in southeast Wyoming–reminds even the most oblivious traveler that you have reached a highway crossroads.

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As the name implies, this is ranching country, with several of the state’s most famous spreads nearby.  The school reflects the pride in ranching, witness its school emblem and name the Rangers.

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There is more than livestock to the history of Grassrange, as the elevators attest.  This is also farmers’ country since the early 20th century homesteading boom.  Yet Grassrange has never been a bit town itself.  It dates to 1883 when the first post office was stab listed to serve surrounding ranchers; the town still has its standardized 1970s post office building.

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Grassrange has a definite sense of its past.  Despite its scant population–just over 100 in the 2010 census–it has a city park (top image of this blog) plus its own public interpretation of its history, literally carved from local hands.

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It also has surviving historic landmarks, from a false-front Masonic Lodge to a vernacular Gothic-styled United Methodist Church, to a well-worn one-block commercial building that, considering its add-ons and alterations, has served the community in several different ways over the last 100 years.

Fergus Co Grassrange masonic hall  - Version 2

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Many rural Montana crossroads are little more than a combination bar/cafe/store/gas station today.  Grassrange has dwindled in size since my first visit in 1984 but it has kept its school and such community buildings as the church, Masonic hall, and city park.  It is home than the home of “Little Montana”; it’s a reminder of the precarious state of Montana’s small towns across the vastness of the northern plains.

Coffee Creek: More than a Romance Novel

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Coffee Creek, Montana, located on the high plains of northeastern Fergus County, is undoubtedly best known today as the backdrop for a series of Harlequin romance novels. The setting and the starkness of the landscape is probably not what you envision in a romance novel but it does convey the reality of what Coffee Creek was, and is, today.

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Coffee Creek was a railroad town, established in the same year as many of its neighbors, in 1913.  Unlike Denton to the east or Stanford to the south, Coffee Creek never grew beyond its booster beginnings.  Like the others it had a state bank, a post office, school, churches.  Today the post office remains–one of the best rural historic post offices of the region–but most everything else is closed.  The church is a well-kept example of early

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20th century vernacular Gothic design, but it no longer holds regularly scheduled services. It remains a community landmark.

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Another community landmark is the building above, which I believe is a Community Hall from the 1920s or 1930s.  Throughout rural Montana in the 1920s a movement began to build structures where the homesteaders who stayed could gather and have events, play basketball, or dance the night away.  New Deal agencies in the 1930s built many more, like the one this blog has already recorded in Sanders, Montana.  This building in Coffee Creek reminds me of the Sanders community hall–hopefully someone reading this blog can add details about it.

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The volunteer fire hall, like the post office, is one community institution still in service to local residents and surrounding ranches as is the town cemetery, perched to the north, high on a hill overlooking the town, Highway 81, and ranches as far as you can see.

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As the buildings of Coffee Creek fade away, here the cemetery will record the names of those who staked out this place as their home, while those who return to pay their respects will keep the memories of this disappearing place alive for as long as they remember to return.

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