New Deal Transformations: A Hot Springs in Phillips County, Montana

 

 In 1922 the Bowdoin Oil and Gas Company was drilling on land about 4 miles north of U.S. Highway 2 and the tracks on the Great Northern Railway, on the high benchlands north of the Milk River. They struck not oil but “a flow of warm sulphur water,” estimated at 24,000 barrels per day. The oilmen didn’t need a hot spring and moved on. But local citizens in Phillips County thought long and hard about harnessing that natural resource, which was just east of the Nelson Reservoir of the Milk River Irrigation Project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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By the mid-1920s local residents, led by the Malta Commercial Club, developed a plan–known as the “Malta Plan,” that involved the federal purchase of submarginal land in order to enhance conservation and also to gather greatly scattered ranchers into central locations in order to address land erosion and settlement patterns. As summarized by Bernie Alt and Glenn Mueller in their “Evolution of the National Grasslands”:  “The gist of the plan was that the Federal Government would take options to buy or buy outright land from farmers and ranches who could not continue to operate as in the past because of low prices, drought, erosion of land, and other reasons.  Any of the individuals who desired would then be resettled in the Milk River Valley.”  The Malta Plan became the proverbial first step towards not only the later Resettlement Administration (1935-37) but its successor the Farm Security Administration and then the National Grasslands. Re-purchase and then re-seeding in grass of abandoned homestead land was the big picture, and Phillips County was front and center in this national experiment from the 1930s on.

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But this story focuses on what changing federal land policy meant for one place in the county–Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs–that is now being re-energized and restored by determined property owners. When I visited the hot springs in 1984, I did not consider it much of a place. The buildings needed work; everything looked dated, worn. I did not dig deeper–and just assumed that there was not much a story here. Matters looked maybe even worse when I visited in 2013–the place was closed, abandoned, and seemed to have little hope. Local residents told me great stories of the springs’ best days. Those seemed to be gone forever.

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Then I noticed a small hipped roof open-structure which was certainly there in 1984–but my eyes had not been trained by viewing hundreds of New Deal-era structures to notice it. Here was existing truth in the ground that spoke strongly to the larger story of the New Deal transformation of Montana’s plains.

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The structure covered Public Water Reserve No. 141, federally established in 1931 by executive order from President Herbert Hoover to protect the hot springs. In 1932, the federal government transferred the well to the Saco Post #79 of the American Legion for development of recreation uses. By the mid-1930s, the American Legion Health Pool was open, and the tradition of the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs was underway. The New Deal guidebook for Montana encouraged visitors to go to the Health Pool for its recreational and “curative” waters and the Legion sold postcards like the one below.

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In the second half of the 20th century, the American Legion transferred the property to private owners, who expanded operations and launched the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs, so named for a sacred rock that stood down on U.S. Highway 2.

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What happened to the well? It is still there, with bronze markers explaining how this spot is part of the Resettlement Administration’s Land Utilization program–what became known as the Malta Subsistence Homesteads project centered around Wagner between Malta and Dodson. When I traveled Montana in 1984, I did not give enough attention to federal law, water rights, and the impact of the Reclamation Bureau.  You cannot miss the impact as you travel U.S. 2 between Chinook and Saco.

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Blaine County spawned the landmark Supreme Court decision on federal water rights of Winters v U.S. (1908). Phillips County spawned the first federal resettlement project and the “Malta Plan.” Historian Joseph Kinsey Howard in 1946 remarked: “So many federal agencies have had their ambitious fingers in the Malta pie that few even among project officials can be quite sure of all of them.”

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Today there is little but the transformed landscape itself to mark how these two rural places shaped national law. The next period of the hot springs’ history is being written right now. Michelle Lefdahl Simpson (a Phillips County native) and her husband Dennis are restoring the place–a process you can follow on the Facebook page for Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs. Michelle Simpson told the Phillips County News in May 2014: “When I was little and we would head to the Sleeping Buffalo, we would travel the approximately 20 miles from Whitewater on the gravel roads,” Michelle said. “I would be sitting in the back seat with my siblings waiting to see that big blue slide come out of literally nowhere and all I could think about was getting my wrist band on and racing up to the top. For me, it was as if our parents took us to Disney-land or something.”  Here’s to the Simpsons for stepping forward to reclaim a forgotten 20th century Montana landmark.

Montana’s Malta: More Travels along the Hi-Line

Phillips County is one of my favorite places along the Hi-Line. The Milk River Valley is beautiful; the high plains at Loring and Whitewater are lonesome yet compelling. Empty I guess is how many would describe the county as just over 4250 people live there–in a county of 5,212 square miles.

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Loring Hall in 1984

But the diversity of the landscape is memorable. The southern tip of the county is the gateway to the Charles M. Russell National Monument, truly one of the great national parks that few people know about but home to some of most overwhelming views of the Missouri River. North of the Missouri are the southern end of the Little Rocky Mountains and the old mining towns of Zortman and Sandusky.

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Abandoned cabins at Zortman, 2013

I have already written about the two Hi-Line towns on the west end (Dodson) and the east end (Saco). Now it is Malta’s turn. When I visited there in 1984 little did I know that Malta was at its population peak.

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The 1980 census counted 2,367 residents–never had the town had that many people, and judging from the last three decades, that number is never returning: the population is now under 2,000. The 1980 as a peak population decade–not common among Hi-Line towns, but that wasn’t all that set Malta apart from what I encountered east or west.

Vibrant community institutions anchored the town. The neoclassical Phillips County Courthouse (1921) served as the foundation for the east end residential neighborhood. Designed by Great Falls architect Frank E. Bossout, the red brick courthouse reflects a more restrained expression of the popular classical revival movement, especially compared to Bossout’s earlier more flamboyant Beaux-Arts design for the Hill County Courthouse (c. 1914) in Havre. (I wish they would remove the vines–not good for the bricks.)

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Nearby was the Carnegie Library, which had been recently converted to serve as a county museum. In 1984 the community was quite proud of the place, recently (1980) listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Now the museum has moved to new quarters, the Phillips County/ Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, on U.S. Highway 2, where dinosaurs are the primary attraction moreso than local history after a major nationally-noted dinosaur discovery happened in the county in 2000. Yet the town has preserved a notable local house, the Victorian-style H.G. Robinson House (1898), nearby the new museum and there in a domestic setting the town’s early history and settlement is interpreted. The new highway historical/cultural institutions are improvements–but have come at a real cost: a crumbling Carnegie Library, the town’s only National Register-listed property that needs help, now.

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Another community institution was the Woman’s Club of the late 1930s, a Rustic-style building that has been discussed earlier in the blog, as part of the institutions that spoke to women’s history that I missed and could not “see” in 1984. But it was also one of three major New Deal buildings that missed–the others being the two-story brick WPA-constructed City Hall and the massive brick “Old Gym” that once served the high school.

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Malta also had its share of schools and churches, although again I did not “see” in 1984 the beauty of the contemporary-styled St. Mary’s Catholic Church from c. 1960.

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Malta’s business district is the classic T-town type of design found all along the Great Northern line. It too had its anchors: massive grain elevators and grain storage bins, along with the Arts and Crafts styled Great Northern passenger depot, defined the top of the “T”.

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Once you took the New Deal-era underpass to go under the tracks, there was the neoclassical First State Bank introducing the “stem” of the T and several blocks of businesses: two movie theaters (both closed now unfortunately) and an Art Deco-styled auto dealership being particularly notable buildings.

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Although it was in rough shape Malta also had its railroad/highway park (Trafton Park) on the north side of U.S. 2, where the original U.S. Highway 2 passed using a steel Parker through truss bridge to cross the Milk River.

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Nearby was a railroad bridge allowing Great Northern passenger trains to do the same.

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Malta, Great Northern Bridge over Milk River, 1984

The town also had its own rodeo grounds, tucked away next to a historic livery stable at the corner of N 2nd Street and N 2nd Avenue. The Maltana Motel–even in 1984 it struck me as a classic 1950s motor court–was the place to stay then, and now. It is one of the few survivors of the “Mom and Pop” roadside abodes I enjoyed in 1984 along the Hi-Line.

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Malta has many potential National Register listings–as the many photos here suggest. And all of these heritage assets could be a valuable foundation for new visions and investment. The community is keeping the buildings in use and in general decent repair. But you worry about the future–if the town’s recent trend of population decline continues.

Milk River Project Towns: Dobson, Vandalia, and Tampico

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The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project is one of its largest and most significant in Montana; it was one of the agency’s first five projects carried out under the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. I have already briefly mentioned the project in regards to Fresno Dam outside of Havre. Now let’s consider the project and its impact on three much smaller villages: Dobson in Phillips County and Vandalia and Tampico in Valley County. All three were once major stops along U.S. 2, but a later re-routing of the highway bypassed Tampico and Vandalia, and not much is left decades later but the canals and ditches of this massive irrigation system.

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Original U.S. 2 route between Vandalia and Tampico (to right is Great Northern roadbed)

The Bureau launched the Milk River Project in the first decade of the 20th century but due to disputes over who controlled the water (the Winters case) along with international negotiations with Canada since the Milk River basin passes through both nations, serious construction did not begin until the century’s second decade. The project area encompassed 120,000 acres, with 219 miles of canals, and hundreds more of secondary laterals and ditches. The water begins at Lake Shelburne at Glacier National Park, flows through the St. Mary Canal to the Milk River where then water is stored at Fresno Reservoir outside of Havre and then at the Nelson Reservoir between Malta and Saco.

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Dobson developed as a major base for the Bureau. Nearby here was a major diversion dam, and bureau officials established a regional headquarters at Dobson in the 1910s.

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This impact of the federal agency is still reflected in the impressive two-story brick high school, the magnificent Phillips County Fairgrounds (discussed earlier in this blog), and the fact that such a small town has impressed contemporary styled churches from the 1950s. I was very impressed with the quality of the town’s built environment, considering its size, when I visited here in 1984.

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But in the mid-1990s the Bureau left Dobson for a more centralized regional office in Billings, hundreds of miles to the south. Dobson’s emptiness was shocking in 2013–even the iconic (and once very good) Cowboy Bar had shuttered its doors.

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Dobson now is entering the same fate suffered by its neighbors to the east, Vandalia and Tampico. Although trains still rumble by on the former Great Northern route, these two towns lost their highway connection when U.S. was re-routed to the north. Ever since they are slowly ebbing away. Vandalia was another location of a Bureau diversion dam on the river along with a historic steel bridge from 1911. The dam remains but the bridge is gone.

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In 1984 I loved the historic Vandalia school (1912) and had a good conversation with folks there–the school was closed but now it was a post office and still very much a community center, competing with the bar next door. Now both businesses are closed.

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Tampico lays just south of both a major canal and the railroad tracks. A scattering of buildings marks its existence.

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The water still flows through the Milk River project but the towns it once nurtured are becoming fainter with each passing year. But it is not without promise:  later we will visit the Nelson Reservoir and what is happening at Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs.  Next is Malta, the seat of Phillips County.

Harlem on the Hi-Line

 

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Whenever travelers or residents for that matter talk about Hi-Line towns, Havre, Shelby, Glasgow, Wolf Point always enter the conversation. Some places, inexplicably to my mind, never do: Harlem is a case in point.

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A gateway to the Fort Belknap Reservation, Harlem is one of the early Great Northern Railway towns, dating to 1889, and was established to serve as a commercial center on the northern border of the reservation.When the homesteading boom swept through the Hi-Line during the early 20th century, Harlem quickly expanded and most of the historic buildings found there today date between 1910 and 1940.

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What struck me powerfully when I visited in 2013, compared to my last visit in 1984, was dual themes of growth and decline. The Aaniiih Nadoka College, established in 1884, had left its initial spartan quarters on the edge of the reservation into new modern-styled buildings, that still reflected the spirit of earlier vernacular styled buildings.

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The 30-year growth of the college certainly underscored new opportunities as the flashy facade of the Ft Belknap Casino, facing U.S. Highway 2, showed a new revenue source. Standardized designs for federal housing also indicated the growth of a large neighborhood just south of the U.S. 2 and Montana 66 junction.

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The theme of decline, however, marked the historic business district of Harlem. When I visited in 1984, Harlem had over 1000 residents–now that number is close to 800. Classic roadside gas stations, even at prominent corners, had closed.

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The Art Deco-ish Brekke Block (1941) only had a few going businesses; the early 20th century commercial block at Central and Main streets had even fewer signs of life. The Grand Theatre no longer showed movies. The imposing classical facade of the old state bank had broken windows and decaying architectural details.  These historic buildings retain their potential to impress, and could be heritage assets in multiple ways.  They need attention before it is too late.

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While life and commerce enlivened the railroad and highway corridor, the downtown had a shuttered, tired look. But pride was there too. The Harlem Centennial Park, established in 1987, featured an memorial to the thirteen airmen who lost their lives when Air Force cargo planes collided north of town in 1992. The dedication and commitment to raise the funds and build such an appropriate monument impresses–and for travelers like me, I had no idea that this terrible air accident took place, and was glad that Harlem understood its obligation to the airmen and to history to record the event, permanently, with the memorial.  It was one of several surprises I encountered during my visit to Blaine County in 2013.

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St Paul’s Catholic Mission, Hays, MT

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St. Paul’s Mission, Hays, March 1984

A basic goal of the 1984 survey of Montana was to have a greater understanding of the built environment of Montana’s Indian Reservations, especially those in northern central and eastern Montana, which had little acknowledgement from historic preservationists and architectural historians.  For me in 1984, that trek began when I came to Hays, in the Fort Belknap Reservation,  south and east of Chinook.  As the photo above suggests, I arrived on a cold winter afternoon, and was immediately awed by the simple yet direct beauty of the stone St. Paul’s Mission.  Built in 1898, this Gothic style building replaced earlier log buildings used by the Jesuits as they worked with Gros Ventre and Assinniboine Indians, who owned the reservation, to establish the community of Hays.

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St. Paul’s Mission, summer 1988

When the Jesuits arrived in this country they were struck by its beauty.  Father Frederick Eberschweiler said in 1886:

“The cattle country with grazing land: the best I ever saw. Timber: that whole mountain range is thickly covered from the bottom to the top of the mountains. Water: seven beautiful creeks, running into the Milk River, clear as crystal, sweet as honey. Cultivating land: at all the creeks, but especially at “Peoples Creek”; at least 15 miles long remaining near the mountains is a deep, wide valley of the best garden-land, enough to make the whole tribe here very rich and happy.”

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Peoples Creek is at the heart of Hays, and this land remains cattle country as the two overviews above suggest.  Hays is small but tight-knit, proud of its school (and its basketball), and friendly.  When I first visited in 1984, Fr. McMeel visited with me for a long time.  

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He considered himself a newcomer too (he arrived in 1978 from Alaska and became pastor in 1979) so we shared a bit about how a southerner and a westerner could meet at such a sacred place. He insisted that I call him Father Barney. He was clearly devoted to the mission, and its community.    

His devotion is memorialized in a historical marker on the drive to the mission church, which is still in great shape, obviously benefiting from careful stewardship over the decades.  I visited on Memorial Day weekend, where the church was the backdrop for a ceremony in honor of the generations of Ft Belknap residents who had served their people and their country.

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Another architectural beauty at Hays is the shrine, Our Lady of the Rockies, built in 1931 by Father Feusi and Tom Flack, a German stonecarver.  Another Gothic style building, reflecting a church from Feusi’s native Switzerland, the chapel is used for memorial services every May.

Hays is only a small yet significant part of the Ft Belknap Reservation–next we move north to Harlem and return to our explorations along the Montana Hi-Line.

 

The Chief Joseph Battleground in Blaine County

 

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In 1984 I was very eager to see the Chief Joseph Battleground, as many historians and residents called it 30 years ago.  Here in 1877 Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army, which had pursued Joseph and his followers across most of Montana, starting in Beaverhead County in the southeast corner, extending as far east along the Yellowstone as present-day Laurel, and then striking north for the Canadian border.  They made it as far as this wind-swept prairie 15 miles south of Chinook.

In 1984, on a cold winter morning, the site was spectacular and I gave a tip of my hat to the local residents who had made the effort to preserve the site–and acquire enough land that you could gain a strong sense of place, and of destiny.  The level of interpretation at the battleground was disappointing.  There was a mounted bust of Chief Joseph (not full-sized; it looked lost on the vastness of the space) which has since been moved.  There were metal plaques noting Chief Joseph’s surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles, erected by the DAR and the citizens of Blaine County in 1929 and by Congress in 1930. And most recently, a 1966 marker to C. R. Noyes, the local 

 

 

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rancher who had played the key role in saving the battleground.  There was not much else to explain the significance of the Nez Perce campaign nor what happened there in the fall of 1877.  When I next visited in 1988, the story was the same.

In 1989 the National Park Service designated the Chief Joseph Battleground as a National Historic Landmark–the first step in a new future for the park.  Then it became a key property in the Nez Perce Historical Park, which has units from Idaho to Montana.  New interpretive trails and interpretive markers are the most recent additions, telling a much broader story than the old metal markers were capable of doing.  

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The experience today is far different than 1984.  There is still no visitor center–the new one at Big Hole Battlefield in Beaverhead County is superb however–and the Blaine County Museum in Chinook still carries that burden of interpreting the story.  But there is truth in the landscape now, as never before.  The trails, markers, and landscape combine to create a deeper understanding of why the Nez Perce stopped here, why it was difficult to escape the U.S. army, and what that trek and all of those stories might mean today.

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The two layers of interpretation–that of the early 20th century and that of the 21st century–co-exist within a special place.  Here is one preservation success in the last 30 years that deserves to be better known.

A bit farther down the road is Cleveland.  In my time in Montana, it hosted one of the most famous (or was it infamous) local rodeos around.  Its bar/cafe/post office spoke still to the first part of the 20th century.  People there in 1984 were friendly, and it was a good place that I looked forward to revisiting.  But the doors were shuttered in Cleveland.  The corrals were still there, sorta.   And there was no Cleveland Bar.  Wish I could have been here one more time before it went away.

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Chinook and the Sugar Refinery

The last post ended with a rather pastoral image of the Utah-Idaho sugar refinery in Chinook with promises to add a few comments on how the town changed after the refinery.  Let’s begin with a dose of reality–the image of a stack looming over the prairie is compelling but misleading.  The WPA Guide to Montana tells us that the factory began in 1925, was the state’s fourth largest by the late 1930s, and that the “shacks” of Mexican and Filipino workers crowded around the factory.  Other sources record how at this same time

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other communities down river complained of the foul discharge of the company directly into the Milk River.  The lesson here:  later day architectural photos can sometimes obscure rather reflect historical reality.

Within Chinook, there are many reminders of the prosperity brought by beet farming and the refinery.  The town has an interesting array of 1920s and 1930s domestic architecture, from the revival craze to the modernism of the International style.

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Business owners also took the new styles of the Jazz Age–like Art Deco–and added facades that gave a new look to their stores.

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After the impact of New Deal modern design in the new Chinook High School in the 1930s, Chinook embraced post-World War II modernism, such as the expansion of the high school in the 1950s, a dazzling International style National Guard facility out near the Image 

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sugar refinery, and a new International Harvester dealership, part of the architectural legacy of industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

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The sugar refinery brought a new era to Blaine County and it gave Chinook a two-sided look:  one, a railroad town along U.S. 2, and two, a modern plains town that emerged agriculture and industry in the mid-20th century.