Nashua, Montana: stories of a railroad and a man

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Nashua is the eastern most town of Valley County, Montana, located where Porcupine Creek empties into the Milk River.  Its history mirrors those of many towns along the Hi-Line:  it too began as a Manitoba Road town in 1888-1889. The tall grain elevators that still dominate the townscape, as they did in 1984, document the days when the rails carried everything as does the moved and repurposed Great Northern Railway depot, not a Senior Citizens Center.

Elevators along Great Northern line, 1984

Elevators along Great Northern line, 1984

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Nashua is also a gateway along U.S. Highway 2 to the region’s New Deal era history, especially the construction of Fort Peck Dam and Reservoir.  As an eastern gateway to the dam, Nashua reached its peak population of over 900 in 1940 as the project neared completion.  Today less than 300 make Nashua home.  One key New Deal survivor–the 1935 school (with later additions)–is home to the Porcupines, and serves still as a community center.

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Another building in Nashua, the Civic Center, also looked New Deal in its origins, indeed similar in shape (but not materials) to the WPA-constructed civic center in Glasgow.  But in finding out the history of this building, I also found the story of a man and family who shaped Nashua in the post-World War II era.

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Victor Dostert (1886-1961) is a Montana small town example of a “civic capitalist,” a topic that I explored at length in my book Capitalism on the Frontier (1993).  He came and homesteaded south of the town along the Milk River during the boom of the 1910s but when the bust came in the 1920s Dostert, his wife Anna, and their three sons stayed, making their mark with construction projects (from a theater to the Catholic Church) and taking advantage of the thousands of construction workers passing through by building and operating Vick’s Bar in 1935.

Vick's Bar and Bowling Lane is at the center of the Nashua business district

Vick’s Bar and Bowling Lane is at the center of the Nashua business district

Then in 1957 the family added a adjacent Bowling Alley–and both institutions were still going when I visited in 2013.  The Civic Center, however, was Dostert’s crowning civic achievement.  He designed the building and had it constructed during his period as Nashua mayor (1945-1951).  It housed a movie theater as well as provided community meeting space. And as a community gathering point it anchors the adjacent Lion’s Park and is busy throughout the year, an anchor of identity for the dwindling population of eastern Valley County.

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Dinosaurs on the Roadside

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One of the most fun discoveries I made along the U.S. Highway 2 roadside in Valley County was the Buck Samuelson “zoo” just west of Glasgow.  No dinosaurs hunting mountain sheep roamed the high plains when I traveled this region in 1984, and again in 1988, but they are there now, thanks to this self-taught sculptor.

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Samuelson began adding the sculptures to the roadside in the early to mid-1990s, just as the region’s latest dinosaur touring craze took off.  Now there is a small zoo of creatures overlooking the road, and railroad tracks, adding a bit of whimsy, but also a strong dose of patriotism to the mix.  Who still thinks that roadside art–so famous in stretches of U.S. 2 to the east in North Dakota and Minnesota–is not a Hi-Line tradition?

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Glasgow on the Hi-Line

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Glasgow, the seat of Valley County, has a rich small-town urban landscape, among the best along the Hi-Line of U.S. Highway 2.  Although businesses and population has struggled since I spent time there during my 1984 fieldwork (the population dropped from 4,455 in 1980 to 3,250 in 2010), the town retained an edge of vibrancy and vigor.

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Many of the patterns shaping life in the northern reaches in Montana are still on display within Glasgow, starting with the original impact of the Manitoba Road, then Great Northern Railway.  The combination passenger station continues to serve travelers, who if they wish to step off the train will find a classic strip of bars and cafes facing the depot.

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The railroad corridor has deeply imprinted the town, with giant elevators dominating the skyline while even the highway as it dips under the tracks by means of the New Deal-era underpass pays tribute to the true “right-of-way” through Glasgow.

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So too has the federal government left a deep imprint on the town, from the irrigation projects of the U.S. Reclamation Service to the construction of Fort Peck Dam in the 1930s and then the Glasgow Air Force Base in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Glasgow Post Office and Federal Courthouse lies at the heart of downtown, reflecting in its blocky massiveness and Art Deco styling the federal presence.

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Just as important, the building tells the federal side of the local story through the New Deal mural, “Montana Progress,” by artist Forest Hill that adorns the lobby.  It is one of the state’s six extant New Deal post office murals. Here the coming era of progress–symbolized by railroads, irrigation (the sugar beet factory), Fort Peck Dam and electric power–supplants cowboys, Indians, and the rural landscape itself.

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Another landmark featured in the mural is the Glasgow Civic Center, part of the larger effort to create community institutions in the face of the often overwhelming sense of change and despair during the Great Depression.  The Civic Center still serves as a town anchor, an important part of Glasgow’s public landscape.

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The federal imprint left a decided modernist turn to the townscape, although preservation efforts in the last generation have kept earlier classical or revival-inspired buildings part of the town, such as the Goodkind Block, the First National Bank, and especially the Rundle Building, which may be the town’s most distinctive architectural statement from its initial settlement and development era.

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The highway corridor shows the modernism of the 1950s most graphically through restaurants, bank buildings, and signs designed to grab the attention of all those who entered.

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Glasgow’s built environment tells the story of how federal programs, from irrigation to New Deal to the Cold War, could leave marks still apparent in the 21st century.

 

 

Fort Peck’s Transformation of Valley County, part 2

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For many visitors to Fort Peck, the grand, mammoth concrete spillway (which is actually in McCone County) is the takeaway lesson of this nationally significant New Deal project.  Photos in Life magazine made this place famous, and its modernist design was lauded not only in the United States but overseas as well.  When he visited the construction site in 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted:  “people talk about the Fort Peck Dam as the fulfillment of a dream.  It is only a small percentage of the whole dream covering all of the important watersheds of the Nation.”

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Fort Peck Village, constructed for officials of the project, visitors, and workmen, is on a wholly different scale.  One and two-story buildings, a general Arts and Crafts aesthetic with Colonial Revival buildings thrown in for good measure, curvilinear streets, open public spaces:  an attempt in general to establish a 1930s suburb feeling among the key administration buildings of the project.

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Historian Fred Quivik has written insightfully about the townsite, its development, and the changes it has experienced since, especially the expansion of the 1950s and the addition ranch-style houses and a contemporary-design school.

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Fort Peck Village provided respite and recreation for administrators and workers.  The village’s most impressive legacy–and one of the most important buildings of New Deal Montana, is the Fort Peck Theatre.

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Nothing in Montana matches its Arts and Crafts-infused Swiss Chalet styling.  Details abound on both the exterior as well as the interior.

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In 1984 I marveled at the building.  My colleagues at the Montana SHPO, especially Lon Johnson, had prepared me for it by sharing images and stories.  But nothing quite matches being in the space, as then experiencing a stage show as I did in 2013.

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The theatre, the town, and the colossi of the dam, reservoir, spillway, and powerhouses create a landscape like none other in the northern plains and one of the nation’s most powerful statements of the New Deal landscape.

Fort Peck Dam and the Transformation of Valley County, part 1

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The southern end of Valley County has forever transformed by the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, Powerhouse, and Reservoir during the New Deal of the late 1930s.  The huge construction project, building an earthen-filled dam across the river near an old fur trading post, employed tens of thousands of Depression-era workers and left a permanent federal imprint in the lake, the huge, iconic concrete spillway, and the village of Fort Peck.

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The massiveness of the project–reflecting the boundless ambition and optimism alike of government planners, engineers, and workmen–is difficult to grasp.  As you drive across

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the top of the dam, the high vantage point of the Montana plains is spectacular, and a reminder of just how radically the dam changed the Missouri River Country.  An interpretive kiosk–in need of repair and refreshening–tells of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and what it found and learned.  But as soon as you turn to the east, it is not a open, wild landscape, but one dominated by the soaring towers of the power plant turbines, two concrete and steel obelisks to the 1930s ability to transform, and that decade’s faith in hydroelectric power.

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The Corps of Engineers has recently opened a full interpretive center, not only about the dam’s construction but of the environment and wildlife of the region.  But the story of the federal imprint is most graphically portrayed in the village of Fort Peck, built for the key administrators and officials of the project as well as important guests in the 1930s. We will look at that story next.

 

 

Valley County’s St. Marie: The Federal Imprint, part 2

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A month ago, I explored the important of the U.S. Reclamation Service (now Bureau of Reclamation) on the middle of Valley County through its Milk River project, and paid particular attention to now largely forgotten towns such as Vandalia.  irrigation to make the arid prairie bloom was crucial to the county’s history.  But now let’s jump ahead and look at when the federal government literally just saw the county as a spot on a continental map–the perfect location high near the Canadian border to locate a major Air Force base.  

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The Glasgow Air Force Base, activated in 1957, was initially part of the Air Defense Command, a base for interceptors to stop any air attack from the Soviet Union.  By 1960 the base’s mission had expanded to the Strategic Air Command, and the runways lengthened to handle huge B-52 bombers and tankers (like those shown at the beginning of the iconic film Dr. Strangelove).  SAC abandoned the base in 1968–and although the military came back briefly in the mid-1970s and various private companies have tried to invigorate the base ever since, what the Cold War brought in the 1960s has largely turned into a Cold War ghost town.

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Local heritage leaders eagerly showed me what was then known as St. Marie’s Village, and spoke of it as a retirement location for the many airmen that had passed that way twenty years earlier.  Frankly, I wondered why they would come back–certainly the town then looked like a television set for Bewitched or countless other 1960s sitcoms.  

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Rows of ranch-style houses, contemporary, modernist public buildings, modernist styled school buildings, curvilinear roads–it was a California suburb plopped down some 25 plus miles north of Glasgow.  

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The 1980 visions for St. Marie were never achieved–although just over 200 people in 2013 had bought into the idea and and restored to one degree or another the slowly disintegrating homes.  Most impressive to my mind was how respectfully they restored one of the buildings into City Hall–a statement of pride of what a few hundred people could achieve.

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And that is what I found a few ago–a huge place largely abandoned but still with life.  One in fact with some hope since there was new talk of a company buying the decayed place, rescuing homes, and turning it into the shelter for the oilfield workers of the Williston Basin, many miles to the east. Much had been lost in 30 years–how much more will survive the next 30 years?  Will the fate of St. Marie be, in general, the fate of Cold War installations across the West?

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Valley County’s Farming Outposts, and some Lefse

Valley County–another huge Hi-Line county stretching from the border with Canada to the Missouri River–became one of my favorite places to explore in 1984, and then again in 1988. Fort Peck Dam made it a targeted area because I was interested in the New Deal agencies as back then an under-studied part of the national built environment, and because I came from Tennessee. Nowhere else did the New Deal leave such a heavy hand as the series of dams and lakes of the Tennessee Valley Authority. But in its massiveness–Fort Peck on the Missouri River came damn close.

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But let’s start considering Valley County not from its most visited landscape–Fort Peck Dam and Lake–but from its least visited the northern third of the county, where once thousands of homesteaders tried to make their mark but today only hundreds remain to help tell that story still documented by abandoned schools, scarely populated towns, and miles of open prairie. But some places from 1984 were so powerful that linger today, and Glentana School is one of those.

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It was abandoned but had hope in 1984–today it is 30 years into becoming a ruin, perhaps a majestic one at that, of the hopes and dreams of homesteaders at the end of the Great Northern spur line almost 100 years ago.

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Glentana had lost its post office–replaced by a plexiglass and metal postal delivery system one may guess it is called, a sure sign of being forgotten. Not so for its neighbor Richland, where the post office remains open (let’s hope it stays that way).

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But schools turned into homes and community halls are always signs of withering communities–indeed almost every business Richland had in 1984 was now closed.

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Opheim, established in 1911, is the biggest place by far in the northern reaches of Valley County.  It had 85 residents in 2010, down from about 210 in 1984 and more than double that number in 1960, during the years that it served as federal radar base during the Cold War.

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Its population loss is documented not only in the historic town cemetery but also in its abandoned buildings. Yet, compared to other towns, Opheim had more than a sense of life about it, it had a strong sense of place and self, starting with the 1927 school remained vibrant, with a recent addition in place.

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The Mint Bar and Outpost were still in service, and the flag flew proudly over the town, and post office.

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Most importantly, well at least after the school, is Granrud’s Lefse, once a family business that was fairly new in 1984 but that is now a regional institution for its traditional Norwegian lefse–a rolled potato snack that is fairly tremendous, and can be ordered online.

Image Opheim in 2013 is what it was, for so many years now: an outpost of America’s agricultural economy. Ignored and usually forgotten by most–true enough. But to those I have met there over 30 years, it is a place that helps to center life and community in the far northern reaches of Montana. And don’t forget the lefse.

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