The Yellowstone’s Rosebud County Courthouse

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The Rosebud County Courthouse in Forsyth is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Rosebud County encompasses a huge swath of eastern Montana, with its upper reaches touching the Musselshell River in central Montana and extending south almost to the Wyoming border.  A good bit of the Tongue River winds through the county and the name comes from Rosebud Creek, which empties into the Yellowstone at the town of Rosebud.

The county seat of Forsyth is a Northern Pacific Railroad town from 1881.  For its first generation, it was a rather minor place stuck as it was between Miles City to the east and Billings to the west: there is no census data for Forsyth before 1900.  But in the early 1900s, two developments changed Forsyth’s fate:  the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, which cut a new path through the county north of the Yellowstone before turning northwest at Forsyth, and then the homestead boom of the 1910s, which county leaders wanted to take advantage of to change their fortunes.

The business district is based on a symmetrical plan, facing the tracks.

The business district is based on a symmetrical plan, facing the tracks.

Forsyth leaders already understood the need to have an impressive business district facing the railroad tracks.  But they also wanted to show anyone that Forsyth was ready for a stop, and visit, and you could live somewhat classy in a stylish well-appointed hotel. The Howdy Hotel (1903-1906) is a rare surviving small-town “booster” hotel, built to impress traveling businessmen that Forsyth was a place of promise.  Designed by the Billings firm of Link and Haire, the building’s classic Renaissance Revival look was impressive for a small Montana town.

Hiram Marcyes was the owner-operator of this early Forsyth landmark.

Hiram Marcyes was the owner-operator of this early Forsyth landmark.

About five years after the opening of the hotel, local leaders decided that the time was right–and the recent boom had no foreseeable end–to maximize on the promise of their little town and build another landmark facing the tracks.  Construction of a new Rosebud County Courthouse, designed in grand Classical Revival fashion by the firm of Link and Haire of Billings, began in 1912 and was opened, after a dispute over cost over-runs, in 1914.

Link and Haire's original rendering of the courthouse is displayed at the Rosebud County Museum.

Link and Haire’s original rendering of the courthouse is displayed at the Rosebud County Museum.

This courthouse is a marvel for a small town, and speaks so strongly to local boosterism during the homesteader boom of the 1910s.  Little has changed since original construction, except that a separate jury room for women was turned into a law library in the 1930s, and of course there has been updates to lighting and technology since then.

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The courtroom features two historical murals, interpreting two events seen as crucial underpinnings of the American system of justice:  Moses bringing the Ten Commandments and the signing of Magna Carta.

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Then, in the upper Rotunda lobby outside the courtroom, are four symbolic depictions of themes such as Obedience, Reverence, Defense of Libery, and Justice.  Of the four Justice has been my favorite since faintly, in the background, is the Rosebud County Courthouse itself.

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The Rosebud County Courthouse was a remarkable building, and when in 1984 I spoke to the community about preservation and local landmarks at the adjacent Rosebud County Museum we discussed how its recognition would be a good place to start anew a local heritage effort.  When I visited then the county had only one property listed in the National Register, the Rosebud County Deaconess Hospital, a very worthy Colonial Revival style building dating to the late 1910s and representing the local reaction to the great flu epidemic of 1918.

Deaconess Hospital, Forsyth, MT, 1919-20, by McIver, Cohagen, and Marshall of Billings.  McIver, 30 years later, would design the VA hospital at Miles City.

Deaconess Hospital, Forsyth, MT, 1919-20, by McIver, Cohagen, and Marshall of Billings. McIver, 30 years later, would design the VA hospital at Miles City.

In 1986, the county would have its second building, the Rosebud County Courthouse, and today the two public buildings still ennoble the town’s architecture and remind anyone passing by of the hopes and sense of community found among eastern Montana town builders in the early 20th century.

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Miles City: Bust and Recovery, 1925-1960

IMG_7005The thirty years between 1925 and 1955 were among the worst of times for residents of Miles City, but these were years where the town created and gained new institutions that would serve them well for the rest of the century. Population growth stalled, then sharply declined.  1930 census counted 7,175, a drop of over 750 from 1920.  And the number only ticked up slightly during the 1930s, gaining less than 150 new residents.

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In the late 1920s, stockgrowers worked with local boosters to establish the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, and over the next twenty years, they added new buildings and features to transform the place into a historic district that showcases what fairgrounds mean to rural Montana communities. Stockgrowers also met with local railroad officials to devise a plan to reinvigorate the grazing lands south of Miles City, properties that had been overgrazed since there were no restrictions on grazing on public lands.  The group established a concept that called for formal leasing of public lands for grazing in return for private investment and better conservation practices.  Congress agreed that the concept was worth an experiment and in 1928 it established by law the Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing District. As Depression stalked the land in the early 1930s, Congress took the Custer County experiment and transformed it into a national law that impacted the entire West:  the Taylor Grazing Act.

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The Taylor Grazing Act combined with other New Deal agricultural programs to call for the slaughter of thousands of cattle and horses in the region.  That, combined with the end of the open range, devastated the cowboy culture that had so defined Custer County and left everyone in a funk.

At least one bright spot lit up Main Street.  In 1936 the Montana Theatre, a splendid Art Deco building, opened, and the movies provided one important escape from the hard times.

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Postcard of Range Riders Museum c. 1960

Another local reaction came in 1939 when residents met and celebrated the cowboys who came in the early years of settlement and created the culture that everyone hated to see pass.  A year later they gathered in Miles City again and decided to raise money for a “cowboy’s memorial building,” which when completed in 1942 became the Range Riders Museum. As a history of the museum concludes, the building “serves two other principal purposes: A meeting place for cowboys and a headquarters for the annual reunion. The members were satisfied that it was a fitting memorial to an industry in which the raising and furnishing of livestock needed to be preserved for future generations.”

Range Riders Museum, 2013

Range Riders Museum, 2013

The museum has steadily expanded ever since, with the addition of new exhibition space and adding other historic buildings from the county to the property.

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New Deal support also combined with local funding to create the Pumping Station Park at the nearby city waterworks plant.  Custer County now had re-energized public spaces.

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Northeast of Miles City, and north of the Yellowstone River, federal agencies created a huge reformed landscape, the Kinsey Flats project (1938-1941), which was a double-layered landscape of the New Deal. Here, federal Resettlement Administration officials relocated formerly displaced ranchers—many of whom the New Deal had dislocated earlier in the decade during its massive purchase of marginal lands throughout the region—to a new planned community north of Miles City. One of the officials involved with both projects, David G. Rivenes of Miles City, recalled: “I know what a terrible experience it was for folks from Fallon County, East Custer County, and Prairie County, to pull up stakes, leave their life-long friends and relatives, the land that some had even homesteaded—and move into strange surroundings and convert to irrigation farming.”

Federal funding also bettered educational opportunities.  The National Youth Administration supported not only the high school but also expanding its offerings to create the Custer County Junior College.  During World War II, federal funding supported civil pilot training at the college, which at that time held its classes at the high school.  In 1957, it moved classes to the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

In 1966 the college changed its name to Miles Community College and began the process of relocating to its present campus, near the VA hospital complex.  The first junior college in the region continues to shape Miles City today.

Miles Community College

Miles Community College, c. 1967

These different public institutions played a crucial role in Miles City’s decade of recovery from 1945 to 1960 as population grew to 9243 in 1950 and almost 10,000 by 1960.  Federal funding was important but local support was critical.  County government, for example, added a Art Deco Modern courthouse, designed by the firm of J.G. Link of Billings, in 1948-1949.

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Then residents and local governments pooled resources to donate almost $30,00 to purchase prime east side property to attract the construction of a modern Veterans Administration hospital. Groundbreaking took place in October 1948 and the hospital admitted its first patients on August 1, 1951.

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The architect was Great Falls native, Angus V. McIver, working in collaboration with Cushing and Terrell of Billings.  McIver had been a prominent architect in Great Falls and Billings for a generation, along with a distinguished career with the military and other federal agencies.  Shortly after receiving this commission, McIver was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

As contractors were building the 100-bed hospital, local ranchers and civic leaders launched, in 1950, the annual Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, one of the premier cultural events in eastern Montana every May.  The sale uses both the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, the Range Riders Museum, and Riverside Park–among other venues–to pay homage to the city’s cowboy roots but also the persistence of stockraising in this region.

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Miles City’s Boom, 1907-1925

The Renaissance Revival-styled U.S. Post Office, designed by Oscar Wenderoth, opened in 1916 during the height of the region's homesteading boom.

The Renaissance Revival-styled U.S. Post Office, designed by Oscar Wenderoth, opened in 1916 during the height of the region’s homesteading boom.

Following the construction of the Milwaukee Road and its various shops, roundhouse, and offices, Miles City entered a boom period unlike any other in the town’s history.  The boom lasted for just under 20 years, ending soon after the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed its new passenger depot in 1924.  In between the arrival of the Milwaukee, and the opening of the new Northern Pacific depot, an array of new middle-class homes, churches, new public elementary and high schools, and businesses gave the city its early twentieth century “look” still prized today and protected by three historic districts.

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Washington School, Miles City

Census records tell us a mere 1,938 people lived in Miles City in 1900, but by 1910 that number had jumped to 4,697 and ten years later, 1920, almost 8,000 people lived there.  Hemmed in by the Yellowstone River and the mainline of the Northern Pacific, the town spread to the east, along Main Street, and then north into the new neighborhoods associated with the Milwaukee Road developments.

The East Main Historic District has a number of architecturally distinctive buildings from the 1910.  The Horton House (1911) is an excellent example of the “American Four-Square” house designed by Miles City architect Brynjulf Rivenes.  The two-story house is now a bed and breakfast business.  You don’t typically equate eastern Montana towns with the latest in domestic architecture styles, but the Love House (1916) is an excellent Montana example of the Prairie style, first created by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and here executed in a design from George Wageley. Another example of the Prairie style from that same decade is the Pope House, built by Thomas Horton.

Horton House Bed and Breakfast, Miles City

Horton House Bed and Breakfast, Miles City

Love House, Miles City

Love House, Miles City

Pope House, Miles City

Pope House, Miles City

Just off of East Main Street is the Wibaux Park neighborhood, centered around a public space donated by cattleman Pierre Wibaux in 1915.  Here the dwellings included bungalows, Colonial Revival cottages, and an impressive example of Tudor Revival style.

Wibaux Park, Miles City

Wibaux Park, Miles City

Tudor Revival style house facing Wibaux Park, Miles City.

Tudor Revival style house facing Wibaux Park, Miles City.

Congregations also built large, architecturally distinctive church buildings to serve their growing congregations.  The Methodists added a Gothic Revival style building, designed by Woodruff and McGulpin, in 1912.  The Presbyterians added their own Gothic edifice two years later, a mammoth building designed by Brynjulf Rivenes that stood between the downtown commercial district and the new residential areas.  The Catholics added a new Sacred Heart church in 1924, adding to the contributions started by the Ursulines at the first of the century.

Methodist Church, Miles City

Methodist Church, Miles City

First Presbyterian, entrance, Miles City

First Presbyterian, entrance, Miles City

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Miles City

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Miles City

New public schools–with the buildings still in use today–completed the process of urban growth between 1907 and 1925.  The Custer County High School, finished in 1922, became a centerpiece not only of Miles City but the the county as a whole.  Here was a modern facility that gave local students opportunities their parents never had. The boom had been magnificent but as drought and homesteading failures multiplified across eastern Montana by the mid-1920s, residents were learning that the bust would be transformative too.  We will look at the era of bust and recovery next.

Custer County High School, 1922

Custer County High School, 1922

Miles City as a Two-Railroad Town

Northern Pacific Railway depot, c. 1924, Miles City.  It has been listed in the National Register but it needs a preservation hero.

Northern Pacific Railway depot, c. 1924, Miles City. It has been listed in the National Register but it needs a preservation hero.

Miles City has a distinct look and feel due to how historic transportation links have impacted the town. First, certainly, was the Yellowstone River and Tongue River: as discussed in previous posts the military positioned itself here in 1876 because it is where the Tongue River met the Yellowstone. By the end of that decade a rough wagon road connected this place to other early towns along the Yellowstone. Then in 1881-1882 came the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Soon Main Street boasted new two and three-story brick buildings to signify its arrival as a key transportation crossroads for the northern plains cattle industry.

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Historic stockyards remain a prominent landmark on the west side of Miles City.

Historic stockyards remain a prominent landmark on the west side of Miles City.

The early arrival and commercial dominance of the Northern Pacific left a lasting mark on Miles City.  Main Street, which is listed as a National Register historic district, was the town’s primary commercial artery until the late 20th century.  But so much of the historic built environment you find in Miles City today is due, in large part, to the impact of the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad–better known as the Milwaukee Road–in 1907.

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

The Milwaukee Road was the last transcontinental to stretch across Montana. It came into eastern Montana at Baker and angled sharply to the northwest, heading to the Yellowstone Valley, sharing the valley landscape with the dominant Northern Pacific, and typically building its tracks north of those of the Northern Pacific between Terry and Forsyth, where the Milwaukee left the Yellowstone and headed into central Montana.

Milwaukee Road corridor in Miles City

Milwaukee Road corridor in Miles City

The Milwaukee made Miles City its primary division point for eastern Montana, locating offices, machine shops, and a roundhouse in an entirely new section of the town, northeast of Main Street.  Several of the historic buildings associated with the Milwaukee remain, although there have been many lost buildings in the last 30 years.  One remnant, quite unkempt in 2013 but still in use, was the Milwaukee Park,

Remnants of the Milwaukee Road works, Miles City, 2013

Remnants of the Milwaukee Road works, Miles City, 2013

a parcel of land located between the railroad shops and adjacent working-class neighborhoods.  The park is now a recreation area and playground and provides one of the best ways to look at these historic railroad buildings today.

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The Milwaukee Road combined with the homesteading boom of the 1910s to spur new construction and investment as nothing else had, either before or since.  Some of the new landmarks were unassuming, such as the Wool Warehouse, built just west of the depot, and now converted into a successful Arts and Antiques business.

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Many others were much more purposeful statements of growth, and the promise of prosperity.  The 1914 City Hall, which is listed in the National Register, gave Miles City not only modern civic space but made an architectural statement that the town was no longer just a cow-puncher’s place.

IMG_7040Downtown received new buildings, and an architectural upgrade, with such imposing edifices as the Professional Building (c. 1910) and the Masonic Temple.

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The arrival of the Milwaukee Road, and the thousands of homesteaders in the following decade, charted a new course for Miles City, evident in the new facades of Main Street but perhaps best shown in the new neighborhoods, churches, and schools that redefined the city in the 1910s and into the 1920s.  Those places will be our next post.

Miles City’s first steps in preservation, 1984

When I next returned to Miles City in March 1984, I found a town much interested in the promise of historic preservation.  At that time, the town and Custer County as a whole only had three properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places:  Fort Keogh, a steam laundry building (since demolished), and the city waterworks along the Yellowstone river.

Miles City Water Treatment Plant, c. 1911

Miles City Water Treatment Plant, c. 1911

This local landmark, which had been converted into the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center, came out of Miles City’s golden decade of the 1910s when the town boomed following the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, the railroad’s decision to turn the town into a division point, and the potential of new business brought about by the arrival of thousands of homesteaders either on the Milwaukee line or the earlier Northern Pacific Railroad, which had done so much to establish and develop the town from 1882 forward.

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The Pumping Station park at the waterworks dates to 1939, another public project of the New Deal which did so much to transform the town and county.

The public meeting for the preservation plan took place at the waterworks, organized by the director of the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center (now known as Waterworks Art Museum).  It was a lively and interested crowd, like me concerned about the fate of Fort Keogh and its rapidly disappearing historic buildings and what still remained in town of its railroad era of 1882 to 1932.

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The fort property had been accidentally preserved for decades, ever since its conversion into an agricultural experiment station in the 1920s.  But preserving what had been left was not a priority of the agricultural reformers (who, to be fair, were never awash in funding).

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The tall metal flag pole marks the old parade grounds at Fort Keogh.

In 1984, one officer quarters still remained on the property, in poor repair.  It has been moved a few miles down the highway and restored at the Range Riders Museum.

Photo taken from Range Riders Museum website

Photo taken from Range Riders Museum website

One historic c. 1920 mess hall, from the fort’s remount era, also remains, and is the post’s most noticeable landmark.  But one brick water wagon shed from 1883 still exists (it was converted into a truck garage in the 1930s) as well as another New Deal building, a massive horse barn from 1934.

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The mess hall, c. 1920, at Fort Keogh

The group that night at the waterworks emphasized that they knew more needed to be done, and over the next generation, town residents have done impressive work, especially considering that the town’s population has been in decline, from about 9600 in 1980 to 8400 in 2010.  The arts center no doubt showed significant leadership:  how a historic building could be converted into new community uses.  But one ringleader also introduced himself to me that evening–Dave Rivenes.  Dave and Ella Rivenes were community institutions as owners/operators of the local television station, representing the smallest television market in the entire United States.

Miles City Dave and Ella Rivenes

As soon as the meeting was over, Dave convinced me to come to his house, and go on the air, discussing for the local audience what had happened that night.  He and Ella then put me on the morning show.  Not having any experience before with live television, I hope that I sounded somewhat with it–it was a surreal experience.  But the pride in the town and the appreciation for the past that I gained from Dave and Ella Rivenes left a lasting mark.  I came to understand that when residents embrace their past, and you help them in that quest, good things for history and preservation can happen.  That is apparent in what Miles City has accomplished in historic preservation over the last 30 years–the subject of my next several posts.

Miles City: The Yellowstone’s Forgotten Jewel

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When I first visited Miles City more than 30 years ago I came to find out more about this first white settlement place in the Yellowstone Valley, where the U.S. Army established its Tongue River Cantonment in 1876 and then, after the battles at Rosebud and the Little Bighorn that same year, it established Fort Keogh, named in honor of Myles Keogh, one of the soldiers who died at Little Bighorn.  I had a small travel grant from the American Association of state and Local History to support this research–the beginnings of the eventual Capitalism on the Frontier book of 1993, so I spent time in the local library–part of which was a classical-styled Carnegie Library, with a rather garish yet functional extension from the 1970s covering up the original building’s facade.

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I spent time that evening at another landmark, the Montana Bar, part of an early 1900s building that is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  The bar was not only full of friendly, helpful types.  It also had one of the most amazing intact tavern interiors I had yet encountered in Montana.

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Here, in these dark-stained wood booths, the decorative pressed tin ceiling, the magnificent back bar, and all of the stuffed animal heads seemed to be the real West that was being forgotten and covered over in the more urban, more populated western half of Montana where I lived.

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Miles City especially seemed a throw-back when, across the street, was the biggest, most splashy bar sign I had yet seen in Montana: that of the Ranger Rider Bar.

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That evening I never considered meander through the streets out to the chain motels out by the interstate highway.  I just walked across the street to the Olive Hotel, a historic downtown hotel from the railroad era; the build just stood a few blocks away from the Northern Pacific Railroad depot and faced Main Street, what was for many decades u.S. Highway 10, the primary east-west link in Montana.

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For many visitors no doubt, a day and night in Miles City would be more than enough–that was certainly the reaction back in Helena.  But that early 1983 visit would be just one of many over the years since as I have carefully explored the city’s many layers, ones far deeper and more significant than the real West image the town still carries proudly.  Next comes my real introduction to Miles City during the preservation plan travel of 1984, and my meeting with the Rivenes family.

Ekalaka: Montana’s Southeast Corner

IMG_0424Traveling south along Montana-Dakota border on Montana Highway 7, Ekalaka appears as an oasis of settlement, as it lies almost hidden away along Russell Creek.  The seat of Carter County, the town is perhaps best known for the Carter County Museum, a solid institution of natural and local history.  Since I had last visited 25 years earlier the museum facility had grown substantially–while the town had slipped to just over 300 residents, according to the 2010 census.

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The museum is best known for its dinosaur collections but it also has rich local history collections, and features one of the county’s homesteading era schools moved to the grounds. Central School operated from 1920 to 1947.

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So much of what you find in Ekalaka dates to that same time period.  The state established Carter County in 1917 and three years later the present-day Carter County Courthouse was opened for business. Wwhen I visited in 2013 this three-story frame building with a Colonial Revival-styled cupola was undergoing renovation.  It stands at the heart of the

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town, creating a large public space that is shared by the county’s two demographic extremes, represented by the elementary school and a more recent county nursing home.

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The physical fabric of Ekalaka’s main street was much the same as it had been in 1984, but now there were more shuttered buildings.  Community landmarks included the combination town library and Masonic Lodge building from the first half of the 20th century and the new post office from the first decade of the 21st century.

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Deb’s Coffee Shop, the Guest House, and the Mainstreet grocery are still-going concerns while the most obvious commercial landmark–the old Eagles Lodge building–is home to the Ekalaka Eagle, one of the oldest small-town newspapers in the state, almost as old as the town itself.

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Carter County in 2013 did not have a property listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the Eagle Building appears to meet the register criteria, but you could also consider the whole commercial area as a historic district for how it still reflects a rural county seat of the 20th century.

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Other historic properties abound in Carter County, from the Medicine Rocks north of Ekalaka to Camp Needmore–an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp–south of town in the Custer National Forest.  More on those landmarks in later posts.  I am still not finished exploring Montana’s southeastern corner.

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