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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The Yellowstone’s Treasure County: Small Place, Big History

IMG_6911Treasure County dates to 1919, one of the last counties created in the Yellowstone Valley.  Among the smallest counties in size, it has just over 700 residents, a drop of over 200 since my visit in 1984.  But the county has some of the most evocative buildings in the state, starting with the Yucca Theatre, built in 1931 by brothers David and Jim Manning, who wanted to give their community a spark, a glimmer of hope in the increasing hard times of the depression.  David Manning had liked the Spanish Mission style when he had traveled in the Southwest, and he thought, why not for Hysham, since the town was near the spot on the Yellowstone River where Manuel Lisa had established one of the valley’s earliest trading posts.

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Despite the brothers’ best intentions, the theatre struggled as the town and county dwindled in population, but David was devoted to it and transformed it into his home, a convenient landmark, it would turn out, for his political career.  Manning was elected to the Montana legislature in 1932, and he was still serving in the House when I worked at the State Capitol from 1982-1983.  He told me about his theatre, and urged me to go and enjoy his town, and stay at the house, if needed.

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The Yucca Theatre was the first building listed in the National Register in Treasure County and it serves once again as a theatre but also a historic site. Local sculptor Bob Schulze has added statues of Lewis and Clark, along with Sacajawea and Pomp, and a saber-tooth tiger, wooly mammoth and a white buffalo to boot.  Across the street, in an old storefront, is the county museum, another addition to Hysham’s heritage tourism offerings since my 1984 visit.

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Rep. Manning also recommended a stop at the Brunswick Bar, and I am glad he did–this is a great place with great Montana bar food.  The bar has been in business since the 1950s, at least, and the building stands at the location of the original county courthouse.

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And speaking of the courthouse, it is a sparkling “contemporary style” building of the 1950s, an important contribution to Montana modernism.  Many have commented on unique treatment of the exterior, with a map of the county serving as the primary design motif.  The building, as you might expect, has changed little since its opening in 1955.

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But there’s another Hysham contribution to Montana modernism:  the Treasure County High School Gym–an Art Moderne styled building from the New Deal era right on old U.S. 10 as it passed through town.

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But this is not the National Register-listed New Deal gym in Treasure County, that is at the hamlet of Sanders, where the WPA built the Sanders School Gymnasium and Community Hall in 1940.  This is not Montana Modernism but Montana Rustic, a design from the Billings architectural firm of J.G. Link. It is one of my favorite New Deal buildings in all of

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New Dealers believed that children needed recreation, and built hundreds of gyms and sports field across the state.  They also believed that devastated, declining rural communities needed spaces–like this community hall–where they could gather for local sports, social events, funerals, and elections.  But the Rustic style in this part of the Yellowstone Valley–not really fitting, the style would have made much more sense in the mountainous western half of Montana.

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At Sanders, the public school has been gone for decades.  But in the northern part of Treasure County, far, really from everywhere is the Rancher School, perhaps the oldest pubic building in the county since its 1910 construction date means that the school predates the actual creation of Treasure County.  Here is a classic early 20th century school–protected still by barb wire and used periodically for community events.  When the National Trust of Historic Preservation placed Montana’s rural schools on its endangered list, everyone had buildings just like the Rancher School in mind.

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Kudos to everyone who has contributed to keeping this building standing as a symbol of communities long gone but not forgotten, not as long as rural landmarks like all of the historic buildings in Treasure County continue to serve owners and residents.

Forsyth’s historic districts

Forsyth, the seat of Rosebud County, has used historic preservation effectively as one of many community assets to guide its economic sustainability over the last 30 years.  When I first visited there in 1984, the community had already started to grapple with the impact of the coal mining far south at Decker.  The passing of coal trains defined much of rhythms of traffic and life back then.  But even 30 years ago, residents were determined to keep their identity and to celebrate their heritage, despite being drawn into a different world.  That was impressive–and from 1986 to 1990, they put their commitment into physical terms by listing many properties in the National Register of Historic Places.

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You really haven’t been to Forsyth unless you take in a movie at the Roxy Theater (1930) and an after-movie libation at the Lariat Bar

Earlier posts talked about such key heritage institutions as the Rosebud County Courthouse, the adjacent Rosebud County Museum, the Howdy (Commercial) Hotel, and then the adaptive reuse of the Vananda State Bank as new landmark business.  Forsyth also has a downtown commercial historic district, which includes both the hotel, bank, the Roxy Theater shown above, but additional classic Montana two-story commercial buildings, with their understated Victorian or classical cornices.

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The Masonic Temple, designed by Miles City architect Byrnjulf Rivenes in 1911, served the community in many ways during its formative years, including the town library.  The Blue Front rooming house came in 1912 and served as home for Northern Pacific railroad employees for many years–today it is a remarkably intact example of that type of single-man housing from 100 years ago.

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Residents also have designated a historic district of their homes and churches that developed in the early 20th century.  It is an impressive array of buildings, from the c. 1920 First Presbyterian Church, a Gothic Revival design by Howard Van Doren Shaw of Chicago in partnership with McIver and Cohagen of Billings, to the brilliant Craftsman-style of the McQuistion House (1914) built by Louis Wahl of Forsyth for ranchers Joshua and Grace McQuistion as their “town” home.  Then there is the 1897 Queen Anne-style house moved to its Forsyth lot by ranchers Robert and Dora Lane in 1909.  The Lanes moved on but the house has stayed, becoming over 100 years a real cornerstone to the historic neighborhood.

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Indeed, that is a theme found throughout town. Despite the coal industry that rumbles in the southern end of the county, Forsyth still holds on, and shows pride in, its ranching past.  No better emblem can be found than the modern front to the Forsyth high school.

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Like the vast majority of eastern Montana towns I visited in 2013, Forsyth has lost population from 1980.  Then over 2500 lived there; in 2010 the census takers counted over 1700 residents.  But unlike many, Forsyth is not beat up, abandoned, forgotten, depressing.  The murals by Bob Watts, discussed in an earlier post, are part of the

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answer.  Local stubbornness is another.  But pride in community as expressed through the town’s many historic preservation projects is another.  Forsyth has figured out how to gain a future through an appreciation of the past.  Let’s hope others follow their lead.

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