Montana’s Golden Valley–County, that is

MR line in Musselshell Valley (p84 25-30)

Abandoned Milwaukee Road corridor along U.S. Highway 12, Golden Valley County, MT, 1984

Golden Valley County, Montana, established with much local fanfare and excitement in 1920, was one of the last counties created in Montana.  Today, with just over 1100 residents, it remains one of the county’s smallest in population.  Yet, like other places along U.S. Highway 12, it has been a favorite jaunt of mine since 1982.  The highway connects with Montana 3, which roughly parallels an old stagecoach route, and Highway 3 going south takes you directly to downtown Billings.  Thus, beginning with my many projects with the Western Heritage Center in Billings in 1982, I quickly found out that taking U.S. 12 between Helena and Billings not only cut off miles from the journey but was always more scenic and more interesting due to the remnants of roadside architecture and bits of the Milwaukee Road corridor that followed the Musselshell River in this county.

Golden Valley Co, near Cushman (p84 27-9)

U.S. 12 and Milwaukee Road routes along Musselshell River, Cushman, MT, 1984

As you leave Billings and head north of Montana 3, this state road intersects with U.S. 12 at Lavina, one of the county’s two incorporated towns, and a place that has held steady in population since 1980 (probably due to its location and proximity to Billings).  The Adams Hotel, built in 1908 with a year of the railroad’s arrival, struck me immediately–a huge two-story Colonial Revival style building–in 1984 in the middle of nowhere.  But the Adams,

Adams Hotel, Lavina, Golden Valley Co (26-26)

listed in the National Register of Historic Places, spoke to the town founders’ hopes for the future–and the need for a large hotel for all of the traveling businessmen, and homesteaders, the Milwaukee planned to attract to the area.  As the image above shows, in 1984 the Adams needed a friend–someone who would take on a huge frame building and find a new life for it.  In the next decade that friend came and the Adams came back to life, as the 2006 digital image below shows.

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The next decade has not been so kind.  Owners have placed a clock in the cornice, eliminating the original dating of the building, plus brass lanterns have appeared on the second floor and it needs painting and repairs.  But the building is still open, and in use, and those are huge steps toward compared to 30 years ago.

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The town’s general store, Slayton Mercantile, which is also on the National Register, is doing better, and has become one of my frequent stops in the region.  This two-story brick commercial building also spoke to town’s hope for a bright future in the second decade of the 20th century.  Travelers along the road, and the town’s steady population, keep it in business today.

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2007

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2007

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2013

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2013

The historic two-story with full basement yellow brick Lavina Public School is not on the National Register but this early 20th century building is another key landmark.  Its exterior architectural features speak to the restrained styles of public architecture often found in the region. Another community landmark is the joint United Methodist and Lutheran church of Lavina–the two congregations share this Gothic-styled early 20th century building to sustain it and themselves as viable congregations.

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The fate of beautiful rural churches is not a happy story throughout the northern plains, but Golden Valley County has done better than many.  Another of its early 20th century churches, the Lutheran Church at Barber, needed help in the early 1980s when I first surveyed it.  Local residents in the last 30 years restored the building, opening it for services, and listed it in the National Register.  The original open bell tower has been covered and a handicap ramp for attendees have been added–steps that have helped to keep the building part of the county’s otherwise disappearing historic landscape.

Grace Lutheran Church, Barber NR (p84 27-29)

Barber Community Church, Golden Valley County, MT, 1984

Ryegate is the county seat and an important crossroads for ranchers and travelers.  Its population too has remained relatively steady since the end of the Milwaukee Road in 1980–273 then and 245 in 2010.  It was never a big place, with the largest population coming in 1920 when the county began, 405 residents.  The historic grain elevators

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speak to the importance of the railroad, and highway, while the landmark Ryegate Bar has served thirsty locals and travelers for decades.  Today it is most famous for its annual testicle festival–a new tradition launched since the survey of 1984-1985.

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Two buildings from the county’s beginnings are a one-story brick Classical style bank building, which like so many in the region closed its doors during the homesteader bust and the Great Depression, and the Golden Valley County Courthouse, appropriately the town’s most imposing building.

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Ryegate also has its acknowledged historic sites:  a town project in 1976 marked the area’s association with Chief Joseph’s 1877 trek across eastern Montana while on the

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town’s eastern border the Sims-Garfield Ranch, a rambling assortment of vernacular-styled log and stone outbuildings and two vernacular style residences is the only town property listed in the National Register. Nestled between U.S. Highway 12 and the rocky bluffs of the Musselshell River, it is evocative of the county’s roots as a ranching landscape, a place of work and pride that survives today.

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Roundup, Montana: 19th Century Trail Crossroads and 20th Century Railroad Town

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Roundup, the seat of Musselshell County, has long been one of my favorite Montana county seats.  The old 19th century cattle trails are one important defining feature of the eastern Montana landscape; another are the railroad lines that crossed the region.  Here at Roundup, a north-south cattle trail crosses the east-west railroad line,  creating a town environment rich in history.

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Locals gathered at the town’s several good historic bars–the Arcade being my favorite–are rich in tales of the chaos and fun of early September 1989 when cowboys and pretend cowboys gathered in mass to recreate the “Great Montana Cattle Drive.”  A monument to that crazy day stands next to Roundup’s outstanding New Deal-era courthouse.  Another sign to that time is much more lonely, on Main Street, the old historic route of the trail (now part of U.S. Highway 87). Are you supposed to stand there for a selfie if you rode in ’89?

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Arcade Bar, Roundup, a real Montana classic

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There are so many Stockman Bars in Montana. The one is Roundup has these two great Art Deco-like windows.

The coming of the Milwaukee Road in 1906-1907 created a new look to Roundup.  Like many Milwaukee towns in Montana, it has a T-plan, with the route of the tracks (the rails

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I was glad to see this light industrial adaptive reuse of the Milwaukee depot–it was abandoned in 1985 and could have been demolished.

have been removed since c. 1985) and the location of the depot forming the top part of the T while the stem of the T is the route of U. S. 87 as it stretches to the north.

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U.S. 87 N (Main Street), Roundup

Earlier posts have discussed the town’s contribution to Montana modernism, St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, and the superb Musselshell County Fairgrounds, one of my favorite in the state (and a public property eligible for the National Register IMHO). Roundup has two National Register properties–its two historic schools.  The St. Benedict Catholic School (c. 1920), designed by Roundup’s own John Grant, is now the Musselshell Valley Museum.

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The town’s historic public school, but in two major sections in 1911 and 1913, was designed by the Billings architectural firm of Link and Haire.   It is an impressive landmark, built from stone taken from the bluffs of the Musselshell River Valley, and one maintained with pride by the community.

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Many historic buildings from the early 20th century line Main Street–naturally many one-story buildings but also commercial blocks of style and substance.  There is also a lot of homes that would contribute to a residential historic district.  Roundup has lost population like almost all eastern Montana towns since 1980 but not by such a severe amount–just over 200 in the last 30 years.  Thus, the town’s historic buildings remain in use and in fairly good condition.

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The historic schools in Roundup have been a great start for heritage efforts in Roundup but this quick overview shows that more can be done, to document and preserve this pivotal place in the Musselshell Valley.

Musselshell school and the Musselshell Valley

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Traveling west of U.S. 12 along the Musselshell River Valley, I eagerly sought out the town of Musselshell, assuming that the 30 years since my last visit had not been kind to the small country town.  I hope that the iconic 1913 school–a gleaming yellow brick landmark–was still there.  It had survived, as the photo above attests, although students no longer attend classes there.  Musselshell School closed as an education institution over 10 years ago, but a group of determined community-minded residents formed the Friends of Musselshell School and saved the building, turning it into community center for the western end of the county.  When I visited in 2013–new work to the building was evident, including newly installed windows, courtesy of a $10,000 grant from PPL Montana Community Fund.

Handel store, c. 1912, and Musselshell overview

Handel store, c. 1912, and Musselshell overview

Musselshell prospered in its first decade of existence, after the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, and has been in decline, really, ever since.  But it retains both the historic high school and elementary school (which is now headquarters for the volunteer fire department), along with early 20th century churches, community institutions for a vanishing population.

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Community Bible Church, Musselshell

Vanishing as well is the story told by the area’s mid-20th century irrigation project, the Delphia-Melstone Canals, built in 1950 and 1953 by the State of Montana.  The diversion dam at Musselshell was the project’s largest at 182 feet.

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Somehow Musselshell has been able to hang on to its tiny false-front post office, a reminder of the community’s persistence along a railroad that has disappeared and a highway that receives so few travelers today.

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The Milwaukee Road Heads into the Musselshell Valley

As the Milwaukee Road left the Yellowstone Valley at Forsyth and struck northwest toward the Musselshell River valley, it created one of Montana’s most classic prairie railroad towns, Ingomar, established in 1908.  The hamlet, with 25 or so residents today, compared to perhaps the 100 who lived around there in 1980 has several historic buildings that document its quick twentieth century rise, and just as quick fall in the 1920s and 1930s depression years.

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Jersey Lily Bar, Ingomar, 1984

In the 1984 survey of Montana, Ingomar really just had one reason to stop:  the Jersey Lilly Bar, owned and managed by Bill Seward, who had done so since 1984.  That spring Seward and I became good friends.  Few people stopped there in February and March and since I was in the region, I found ways to stop in. do coffee (strong, hot, always ready) and have whatever Bill was thinking of cooking.  He was proud of his beans, and liked sliced red potatoes when he had them.  Seward added the faux western wood porch to a 1914 bank building:  he said that the tourists liked it, that it made the otherwise Classical Revival bank look “Old West.”  Until Seward’s death in 1995, I found reasons to visit Ingomar three other times, in a way just to make sure that both Seward and the bar was still going on.  Since the construction of the interstate highway to the south had so killed traffic along U.S. Highway 12, you wondered when the bar would close.

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This former homestead-era bank building, the Wiley, Clark, and Greening Bank, opened in 1914 and closed as a bank seven years later.  In 1933, the height of the Depression, it re-opened as the Oasis Bar (it certainly was that along U.S. 12) and it became the Jersey Lilly Bar in 1948.  Almost seven decades later, it is a well-known landmark on the highway, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

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Adjoining the bar, and accessible only through the bar, is another National Register building, the Bookman General Store, constructed as really an act of faith in 1921, replacing an earlier store that had burned.  The prospects for Ingomar was not so rosy by that time but the Bookman family stayed the course–lost the store for two years from 1933-1935–but reacquired it and kept it open to 1943.

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A third Ingomar landmark on the National Register is the public school, which evolved from  a one-room in 1913 to the rambling building you see today, constructed by Neils Hanson of Melstone in 1915.  When I surveyed Ingomar in 1984, the school still operated but closed for good in 1992.  It was converted into a “biscuit and bunk” later that decade.

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Another important historic building is the Milwaukee Road “combination-style” depot, where the passenger and freight service was combined into one building.  Many of these have disappeared along the line since its closure, and too many have disappeared or have been moved since my survey work of 1984-1985.  Ingomar has its depot, converted into a private residence along the now-gone tracks in the 1990s.

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Other historic properties exist, perhaps waiting new futures.  The rodeo grounds stay in use while the Riechers Brothers general merchandise and machinery store building remains standing.  Other structures are barely hanging on.

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As travel dwindles and population disappears, you worry about the future of Ingomar.  Their signs and their heritage assets beckon visitors daily but will enough even come by to make a difference?

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Melstone, just west of where the Milwaukee Road crossed the Musselshell River and entered its valley, is another worrisome case.  Its population has dropped to under 100–almost 150 lost since my visit in 1984.  But it still has its school, which is very much the town’s central institution and point of pride.

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Melstone has lost its signature building, the 1912 Antlers Hotel, located on the town’s most prominent corner between its main street, that leads to the school, and the intersection with U.S. Highway 12.

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Antlers Hotel, Melstone, 1984

The location of the Antlers Hotel is now a grassy spot.

The location of the Antlers Hotel is now a grassy spot.

Melstone has a hardware/general store along with Jakes Garage on the highway and the Melstone Bar and Cafe, another classic roadside stop along u.S. 12.

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Ingomar and Melstone–I understand to most eyes they are dumps, not worth a look–but in my fieldwork they are interesting and valuable, physical signs of the 20th century determination to make rural settlements work, and despite their losses, they are still here some 100 years later.

Winnett and Petroleum County

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West of Jordan, crossing the Musselshell River, on Montana 200 is Petroleum County, the last county to be created in Montana in 1925. Its county seat, Winnett, was never big–even at the height of the Cat Creek oil strike the town numbered only 500 residents. It now has 188 in 2010–a slight decrease of twenty from when I first visited in 1984.

Petroleum County Courthouse, mid-1980s

Petroleum County Courthouse, mid-1980s


In 1928, county officials moved the courthouse into the town’s one substantial business block, a beautiful locally quarried stone building from the town’s beginnings in 1918. The courthouse is now the county’s one listed property in the National Register of Historic Places.
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Another public building is the 1960s post office–I noted it in the 1984 because of the use of a stone veneer on the front of the building, different than many other standardized designs found in the region. That building is
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still there, now as then, an important community gathering place, changed only by the growth of landscaping around it in the last 30 years.
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There is only a single historic grain elevator left in Winnett, but it has two bars, one a converted gas station, the other the iconic Winnett Bar, one of the most famed in the region, especially for its steaks. If you only need one reason to visit Winnett, this is the one.
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While there, you also can take in a bit of Montana modernism, in the A-frame First Baptist Church, which the town’s “W” overlooks from the bluffs above. Other earlier classic vernacular designs, such as false front stores await new futures.
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The future in Winnett and Petroleum County is naturally given a physical space by its schools–the most substantial buildings constructed here in the second half of the 20th century. with less than 500 residents in 210, the county’s future seems to be non-existent but the schools say otherwise.
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Garfield County: the forgotten land of eastern Montana

IMG_0310Before I began crisscrossing over Montana in 1984 for the state historic preservation plan, I sought out ideas and locales from friends, colleagues, and others knowledgeable about the state’s history and built environment.  No one could offer anything about Garfield County, which I found surprising because the county was huge in size, and located smack in the middle of eastern Montana, with major north-south and east-west state highways crossing at Jordan, the county seat.  I knew the population was sparse–just over 1600 in 1980, making it one of the least densely populated places in the lower 48, and the least densely populated place in Montana.

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But as you rolled into the county via Montana 200–which became a favorite route of mine by the time I was done with the survey in 1985–I just knew there had to be something here, especially at Jordan, the county seat, numbering about 485 people in the early 1980s but now just 340 plus residents in the 2010s.

Jordan, mid-1980s

Main Street, Jordan, mid-1980s

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Main Street, Jordan, 2013

Despite the drop in population over 30 years, Jordan had not remained frozen in time–as I sorta expected to find–but rather changes were everywhere.  Traffic signals were at the crossroads of MT 200 and Main Street; Main Street had been paved.  The historic high school dormitory (1936) for Garfield County–a property type of the early 20th century that absolutely fascinated me, that kids came and stayed the week in town for school due to the distances otherwise they would have to travel daily–was still there, but shuttered.

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Both times I had visited Jordan in the 1980s, students thought it weird that I found their “dump” to be interesting, and historic:  but it was, and still is:  creating community, even temporary, in the far-flung reaches of the northern plains was important to the New Dealers who helped to fund the dorm in 1936.  This building should be on the National Register of Historic Places; Garfield County has no National Register buildings, just one historic site, the Hornaday camp, associated with the Smithsonian’s study of the “last” buffalo in the late 19th century.

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The historic high school adjacent to the dormitory, another New Deal building from 1936, still stood too, but it had been renovated and remodeled, keeping its general shape and simple classical entrance but little else from its 1980s look; across the street was a new annex and gym.  There was also a shiny new elementary school but that did not mean that the old Jordan Elementary from 1930 was gone:  in 2013 last touches were underway to turn it into the town’s library.

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In 2013, the biggest change to my eyes was the courthouse.  In 1984 I was captivated by this tiny, frame courthouse, that looked more like a mid-20th century tract home than a county’s primary public building.  Indeed, I circled through the town a bit more than

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needed:  the old courthouse was no more, lost in a c. 1998 fire.  The new county courthouse was a red brick building, the former 1960s county-owned, modernist-styled hospital, perhaps the biggest change I encountered in Jordan.

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The new Main Street bars were also a surprising but welcome change. Ranchers and Hell Creek bars speak to images and realities of Garfield County.

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Another change was the growth of the local heritage offerings, from the Veterans Memorial park, kiosk, and sculpture to the Garfield County museum in Jordan–the old schoolhouse making it easy to locate along the road–and various reminders to passerby’s, like the mural on the town’s old service station/auto dealership, that the county had been a major location of dinosaur finds in the late 20th century.

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The old schoolhouse at the museum is also a reminder that one-room schools still operate in Garfield County.  When I came through in 1984, the county school superintendent encouraged me to visit them, but also warned me that some were on basically roads cut into the ground, and if there was rain, never go that way, unless I wanted to stay awhile.

Some things don't change in Garfield County.

Some things don’t change in Garfield County.

But one-room schools along MT Highway 200 are easily located, at Sand Springs, and then at Big Dry.  In 1984 I was shocked at the persistence of such tiny buildings across the region; their persistence 30 years later say much about commitment to a land many have left and forgotten. Past ways and smallness of life in the biggest of countries still shape Garfield County, Montana.

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Hardin and Montana’s Modernist Traditions

The National Register-listed Burlington Route depot  is now the chamber of commerce office.

The National Register-listed Burlington Route depot is now the chamber of commerce office.

Hardin is different than so much of eastern Montana It was created along the Burlington Route–a railroad line that entered the state in the early 20th century and headed north to Billings–and not the three dominant lines of the region:  the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, and the Milwaukee Road.  Its town plan is different: streets radiate out from the depot, the centerpiece of the design, although tradition soon overruled design:  businesses soon adapted the plan into the standard T-town look that you find throughout the region.

From the depot, looking northwest, the Hotel Becker, also in the National Register, is the town's most recognized landmark from its first decade of development.

From the depot, looking northwest, the Hotel Becker, also in the National Register, is the town’s most recognized landmark from its first decade of development.

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To the northeast of the depot, the street soon took on the look of an alley as owners adapted the plan to the preferred T-town look of a proper “Main Street.”

Hardin is also different because like its huge neighbor to the north, Billings, Hardin’s demographic story is not one of a boom in the early twentieth century followed by decades of declining population.  When I first visited in the early 1980s, the town’s population had grown by one thousand since the 1950s, and it has even grown a couple of hundred more since then, rather than the story so often documented in this blog of rather steep declines in eastern Montana towns from 1980 to 2010.  Hardin even weathered the closing, and now slow demolition, of its industrial mainstay, the Holly Sugar Refinery, which dominated the skyline and local industry from its opening in 1937 to its closing in the early 1970s.

The refinery, shown here in 2013, is  just east of the town proper and has served as a major landmark for travelers on I-94.

The refinery, shown here in 2013, is just east of the town proper and has served as a major landmark for travelers on I-94.

The opening of the refinery in the Depression decade also coincided with yet another trend that makes Hardin different:  its impressive collection of modernist designs, which started with the magnificent Big Horn County Courthouse.

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The courthouse was constructed between 1937 and 1938 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) effort; J. G. Link of Billings was the architect, as the firm was for so many New Deal projects in the region.  The courthouse is the state’s most successful blending of regional materials with standard WPA Modern design.  South of Hardin is the Big Horn Canyon, a beautiful deep gorge that frames the river.  The striking stonework of the courthouse came from a quarry near Fort Smith and linked the modern courthouse to the local landscape.

Over the next two generations, and into the present, the town has continued to grace its built environment with interesting examples of modern design.  Some naturally reflect the Art Deco styling of the courthouse.  The entrance to the Community Bowling Alley is very mid-century Deco, and other commercial buildings have a hint here and there of Deco styling, especially in the use of a band of glass block windows on the historic Gay Block.

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What really is really impressive in Hardin are several buildings from Montana’s contemporary era of the 1950s and 1960s, first in commercial buildings and storefronts, especially the metal-clad and International style-influenced Zelka Machine Shop.

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Two congregations also caught the modernist favor.  The Methodist built a rectangular brick International styled-influenced sanctuary while the Congregationalists added an almost Saarinen-esque design to the townscape.

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Nor did residents ignore domestic architecture styles, either in the past, as attested by this Prairie-style dwelling, or in the present, as in the recent Neo-Prairie style addition to the formerly classical-styled town library.

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Perhaps the best comes last in the dramatic lines and stone aesthetic of the First Interstate Bank Drive-In Bank, located between the town’s commercial artery and its residential district, or the slashed up quonset-hut vernacular of a car wash located on the outskirts of town.  Whatever look you like of Montana modernism, Hardin has something that touches on that design aesthetic.

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