Sidney, Montana, and the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project

The initial success of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation project, along with the homesteading boom of the early 1910s, led to the creation of Richland County in 1914. The new county, so named for the promise of the U.S. Reclamation Service project and the booster rhetoric of the era, used the existing town of Sidney as the county seat.

Northern Pacific Railway corridor at Sidney, MT

Northern Pacific Railway corridor at Sidney, MT


Sidney was the largest town on the Northern Pacific’s spur that ran up the Lower Yellowstone Valley. The historic grain elevators along the tracks testify to generations of agricultural products shipped from the town, although today the incessant freight traffic serving the booming oil fields of the nearby Williston Basin overwhelm the earlier agricultural focus.
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But the oil boom has not overwhelmed the city’s traditional agriculture-based economy, yet. The reason why is the persistence of two institutions that both received an economic shot-in-the-arm in 2002. First was the former Holly Sugar refinery that came to Sidney in the mid-1920s. Sidney Sugars Inc. took over the plant in 2002 and sugar beets by the thousands of tons are still processed here. The second key institution that speaks to the primacy of agriculture in Richland County is the USDA’s Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory, located just north of town. USDA established the center in the 1950s; the current complex dates to 2002, following a reorganization of its program two years earlier. One section of the unit stays focused on the center’s original program to support agriculture in the Lower Yellowstone project through research to enhance the productivity and profitability of dry land irrigated farming. The laboratory’s second focus studies how to better maintain weed and pest control through biological solutions rather than an over-reliance on chemicals.
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The Richland County Courthouse, which was undergoing a massive renovation when I visited a year ago, spoke to the hopes and dreams of Sidney in the early 20th century. This neoclassical monument stood above all buildings in the town–save for the grain elevators. Another important building was the post office, a New Deal era project of Colonial Revival design that featured one of the handful of Montana post office murals, a depiction of the Yellowstone River landscape before the railroads and irrigation project by J. K. Ralston. This building since 1984 had been converted into county offices.
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The 1930s also added two new buildings that have served the town’s youth ever since. Most prominent was the Sidney High School, now middle school, completed in the mid-1930s. A second was the log-construction Boy Scout Lodge, finished in 1932.
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The town also retains several examples of 1920s domestic architecture, speaking to the impact of the sugar beet industry on its fortunes. Despite the on-going oil boom, these historic homes confer a bit of stability to a rapidly expanding area.
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When I visited in 1984 the town proudly hosted a lecture about the state preservation plan at its brand new MonDak Heritage Center. The museum’s creators and leaders spoke with pride about how their history nor town would not disappear–the center was among the most impressive Eastern Montana history institutions of the time.
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Little had changed over the past 30 years when I visited in 2013. The center had an over-flowing library and archives. Its art exhibits still celebrated J. K. Ralston. And its history exhibits still followed the model, set earlier by the Montana Historical Society in Helena in the 1970s, of a recreated frontier town, with period rooms, businesses, churches, and homesteading shacks.
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The MonDak Heritage Center was a comfortable step back into time–not only for the persistence of museum interpretation from 30 years ago but also from the realization that despite the rapid change all around them, some in Sidney still retained that earlier sense of self, of ranchers making do and building a community out of the demanding environment of the Lower Yellowstone.

The Lower Yellowstone Project

Irrigation ditch at Intake, MT

Irrigation ditch at Intake, MT


Established by the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the U.S. Reclamation Service moved early to transform the northern plains of Montana. The Lower Yelllowstone Project dates to 1904-1905, and the diversion dam and ditch established at Intake, north of Glendive, the seat of Dawson County, is the best single place to see the engineered landscape of the U.S. Reclamation Service.
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The dam, shown above, diverts water from the Yellowstone River into the big ditch, see below, which in turns waters thousands of acres of ranches in Dawson and Richland counties.
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Intake itself was initially a town of promise, as the two historic elevators suggest, but the spur line built from the Northern Pacific Railway at Glendive north to Sidney. But there is nothing left there now but the recreation area on the Yellowstone River.
Intake elevators

Intake elevators

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A much more successful story happened to the north at the town of Savage in Richland County. Here you cannot escape the ditch as it winds through the town. But residents also have established their own local museum about their community and the irrigation project, centered on the historic Breezy Flats school.
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Savage still has its high school, built by the New Deal in Art Deco style in the late 1930s, and new churches speak to recent growth. Like other Richland County towns, rapid growth as exploration of the Williston Basin could transform this little town that the railroad and federal irrigation projects built. That time has not arrived here yet–but at Sidney the county seat, the transformation is well underway. That story is next.
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Football field at Savage

Football field at Savage

The Yellowstone and Missouri Confluence

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In the Montana survey work of 1984, there were few places I was more excited about visiting than the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, on the border between North Dakota and Richland County, Montana. I had been working with the Western Heritage Center of Billings for a year on an exhibit, “Yellowstone: River of Life,” that would finally (to my mind) begin to refocus attention on the largely ignored history of the Yellowstone Valley. The story had many beginning points, but certainly where the Yellowstone emptied into the Missouri was one of the most important. This area had long been a Native American landmark. For the early Canadian and American traders, it was a crucial crossroads for the northern plains fur trade. The American Fur Company established Fort Union as its largest post in the region–and the site of the fort was still there, but little else, as the images above from 1984 indicate. Paul Hedren of the National Park Service promised me there was more to come–that the post would be rebuilt and its significant story told.
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When I returned to this spot in 1988, I found that Paul’s promise had already met with success. The Bourgeoise House–the post headquarters and residence of the fort’s administrator (or Bourgeoise) had been rebuilt, finally suggesting the commanding size of the fort. The stockade and the rest of the site awaited a similar reconstruction.
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Twenty-five years later, I returned to Fort Union and explored a fully rebuilt site that finally was starting to receive the visitor count it always deserved: due to the Williston Basin oil boom. Williston, North Dakota, was gaining population as never before, and significant numbers of new residents were also reshaping Sidney, the seat of Richland County.
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The reconstructed fort included a strong physical presence for the Native Americans who were the crucial economic actors for the post’s success. Without the reciprocity in relations and trade between the northern plains peoples and the American traders, the post would not have survived nor prospered.
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More could be done with the size and massing of this Palladian inspired classical styled dwelling–actually a rather late example of this architectural style but somehow a sensible design considering how the post was really on the far edge of the American empire. It would be decades later, after the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1980s, that a dwelling with such architectural pretension would appear in the Yellowstone country.
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More could be said with additional reconstructed spaces and exhibits about the fur traders’ on Native Americans in the fur trade era from 1830 to 1868, but the fort as it exists in 2013 certainly conveys more to the public than the displays I found in 1984. Few places in the yellowstone Valley had changed more than Fort Union between 1984 and 2014.
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Fracking Roosevelt County: The Boom Seeps into the Montana Hi-Line

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The 21st century boom in the Williston Basin has significantly reshaped western North Dakota, and as that region “fills up,” the boom has spread into far eastern Montana, especially along the Hi-Line corridor of U.S. Highway 2 and the historic Great Northern Railway. The photo above is along U.S. 2 on the outskirts of the tiny town of Bainville, the first place of any size you encounter as you travel west along the highway, or railroad, into Roosevelt County.
Bainville, Roosevelt Co (p84 11-14)
When I visited Bainville in early 1984 I recorded a town in decline. True, its 1950s modernist passenger depot was still there, but there had been a steady drop in population for decades. Thirty years later, the remnants of that decline were still there: abandoned brick neoclassical-styled bank; an elevator complex on the verge of collapse.
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But signs of new growth were there as well in 2013. The recently opened public school was one thing while the large man camp then under construction just east of the town was another–and a project that really concerned local residents since the camp’s population would be larger than the town itself.
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The next town west on the Hi-Line is Culbertson, where the impact of the Williston Basin was even more noticeable. A modern school complex had replaced one that dated to the New Deal. Indeed the New Deal’s once profound impact on Culbertson–a public office building and armory–had been eclipsed not only by the modern school but also a new county office building all shiny and bright.
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The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT


New county office building in Culbertson

New county office building in Culbertson


The man camps were already taking available land, even becoming a village in itself between the town’s historic cemetery and the railroad tracks. To capture the burial site of Civil War veteran Marcus A. Denney of the 6th Minnesota Infantry in the foreground and the man camp in the background by the elevators creates a snapshot, literally, of the periods of change in Culbertson over 150 years.
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Truckers and workers flying along U.S. Highway 2 in past decades would have spied the metal sculptures of Lewis and Clark near the local museum–but these iconic figures are no longer what immediately captures your eyes as you speed along the corridor.
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What you notice is everyone lined up for that human fuel that powers the commute between man camp and tracking well: the Frackin’ Java coffee stand. A true sign of the times along the eastern gateway of U.S. 2 in Montana.
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Sheridan County: a forgotten railroad landscape

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In the past posts I revisited the two Daniels County towns at the “end of the line” of a spur line constructed by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1910s as a way of countering the push into northeastern Montana by the Soo Line at the same time. These attempts at railroad expansion and town building took root during the homesteading boom of that decade. Now with depots gone and residents drifting away, the old railroad corridor as it stretches from Opheim on the west end to its junction with the main line at Bainville, takes on the appearance of a ghost line, attested by the image above from Homestead and the one below from Reserve,both in Sheridan County.
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At the rough mid-point of this spur line lies Plentywood–rather forsaken spot I thought in 1984 but a town now actually facing too much growth, too fast as the need for residences and space for the thousands of Bakken oil field workers seeps into northeast Montana. In 2013, the impact on Plentywood and Medicine Lake to the south was apparent as this just opened man camp at Medicine Lake shows.
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Plentywood was of considerable interest to me because once the initial homestead boom turned to disaster in Sheridan County by the time of the Great Depression, there was a local movement to create a communist party. This story was known in 1984 but now we have full accounting due to the research of Sheridan County native Verlaine Stoner McDonald in her book The Red Corner (2010).
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Plentywood has a classic T-plan town, with its depot and huge grain elevators defining what was the head of the town–and then a long “stem” of the T, where first came the commercial district, then a residential district, and finally at the “bottom” of the T: the county courthouse.

Plentywood's T-town plan, looking from the courthouse

Plentywood’s T-town plan, looking from the courthouse


This arrangement of space spoke to the railroad’s concern for safety and efficiency: T-plans moved traffic and pedestrians off of the tracks. But when the Works Progress Administration built the understated WPA Modern-styled courthouse in 1937, placing it at the end of the town, you also had a classic statement of where power lay in these plains country towns. The railroad stood at the head; at the end of the town was the seat for local politics.
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In 1984 another interesting arrangement of space I noted in Plentywood was how three different banks stood on three of the four corners of the town’s most prominent crossroads, where Montana Highway 16 crossed the main street. The banks are still there with the stone-work of the historic Adolph Riba bank (built by Henry and John Hill from the village of Raymond to the north), making it a prominent landmark.
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The impact of the regional oil boom on the public landscape is most evident in new schools and the new library, attached to the historic courthouse, changes I didn’t expect to find in a town that had lost 700 residents from the 2400 or so who lived there in 1984.
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I was especially pleased to see the town’s historic movie theater, the Orpheum, which stands adjacent to the “top” of the T, still doing well. It was rare to find a small town movie theater in 1984, even less common today. Plentywood today is more than the historic center point of a neglected railroad corridor; it lies in the center of the changes coming to the region out of the 21st century oil boom of the northern plains.
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Flaxville’s disappearing act

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A generation after its first settlement in 1913-1914, over 500 people lived in Flaxville, a Great Northern spur line town in Daniels County. When I visited in 1984, I found a declining railroad town, very common in the region, but I also liked how an old one-story brick bank still served the town’s 142 residents as a post office. Adaptive reuse at its best.
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Almost 30 years later the post office remained but one-half of the residents had gone. The census taker in 2010 counted 71 people in Flaxville. Despite the disappearing numbers, Flaxville has many worthy landmarks beyond the historic bank. Let’s start with the R-Y Bar, one of the few reminders in all of Montana of a historic trail that once connected Regina, Saskatchewan, to Miles City, far to the south.
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Then there is the Flaxville school, actually a marvel of contemporary design that you would never expect to find in such an out-of-the-way place. Once again we find Montana modernism is not just in the cities.
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The Barn, once a movie theater now a community theater and center, is a true rarity–a vernacular design for a popular culture purpose that seems almost crazily out of place. Its size speaks to time when whole towns gathered in one place for the movies. Its empty marquee today records a much more unpleasant truth: the
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reality of what happens when everyone begins to leave: the lights do go out. Yet the remaining local Catholic and Lutheran churches also speak loudly, to the quiet determination of those who remain here in Daniels County.
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Naturally the grain elevators remain as sentinels overlooking Flaxville but few other commercial enterprises are open. The starkness of the town’s cemetery records both the past and future of this tiny place in Montana’s northern plains.
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Building Zoos on the Northern Plains

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Building zoos are among the most interesting parts of the western historical landscape. At an isolated outpost on the northern plains like Scobey, Montana, these deliberate creations of history, identity, and memory tell residents, much more so than tourists (who come by in dwindling numbers), that once there were people, vitality, and interest here, and what happened in the past could happen again in the future.

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They also are demonstrations of the challenges of early days when tiny homestead shacks were home, and families stood in stark contrast to the seemingly endless flat prairie. As such building zoos are also marks of achievement, that the settlements of today show that the pioneers’ sacrifice was not in vein.

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The Daniels County Museum in Scobey is one of my favorite building zoos due to its fascinating array of buildings plus the obvious care that the facility has received over the decades. When I encountered it in 1984 frankly I was amazed. Here were large buildings moved to a spot in the middle of nowhere. They did “they” hope to achieve? Of course “they” were what they were doing–and they told their story with the same verve shown by the original owners of the Rex Theater, a false front in log rustic style for a land that had so few trees.

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Then were were the multiple churches marking a diversity of faiths from St. Michaels Ukranian Greek Orthodox Church, St. Thomas Catholic Church, and the more stylish in an Arts and Crafts way All Saints Episcopal Church. All were from the second decade of the 20th century when the homesteading boom across Daniels County was at its height.

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A building zoo is not really a building zoo unless it has moved mercantile buildings, which, in turn, are full of artifacts of the past. The Daniels County Museum has excellent examples of the early 20th century commercial aesthetic of the northern plains–a look not different than that of any western instant town of the era between the Civil War and World War I.

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When I visited this place in 1984 the museum proper was in an old quonset hunt, and it was more of a community attic than anything else.

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But in the 21st century, the community has invested in a new museum/community hall where new exhibits were being installed as I visited. The Daniels County Museum is one of the region’s most compelling heritage institutions, and despite the population decline in this corner of Montana, the museum volunteers look forward into the future.
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