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.

IMG_6913

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.

IMG_6916

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.

IMG_6918

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.

IMG_6910

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.

IMG_6921

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.

IMG_6927

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

IMG_6929

IMG_6931

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.

IMG_6904

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.

IMG_6906

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.

IMG_6943

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.

IMG_6944

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.

IMG_6945

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.

IMG_6967

IMG_6963

IMG_6966

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.

IMG_6974

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

IMG_6975

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.

IMG_6985

Moving and Saving Historic Buildings in the Montana Plains

Created with GIMP

Vananda School, northern Rosebud County. I took this image during the preservation work of 1984.

When I met with residents in Rosebud County in 1984, few places in the county captivated me more than Vananda, one of the county’s Milwaukee Road towns along U.S. Highway 12.  Vananda in 1984 had a few scattered buildings and structures, but two landmarks, a small one-story Classical Revival bank, and the three-story Vananda school. The school in particular spoke to the hopes of the settlers who flooded into the region after the Milwaukee came through in 1907-1908.  In 1917, when Louis Wahl, a Forsyth contractor, built the bank, Vananda like many other homestead towns thought a bright future awaited.  But when the bust came in the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression in the 1930s, people disappeared from here even quicker than they had arrived.

In the years since, I have stopped at Vananda several times, seeing if the buildings still stood as silent sentinels to the homesteading past. The school and the bank survived

Vananda Bank-School Rosebud Co. MT

My favorite image of Vananda, taken in 1998.

the 1990s.  In fact, the Montana State Historic Preservation Office had listed the Vananda historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, part of a countywide effort to designate local landmarks at that time.

IMG_0130

Vananda historic district, 2013

When I next visited Vananda in 2013, fifteen years had passed.  Imagine my disappointment in finding only the school, and it was looking even more worse for the wear.  This was the same year that the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Montana’s rural schools as one of its most threatened properties in the nation.  One can hope that that designation will eventually bring help and preservation to the school.

IMG_0128

What had happened to the bank?  I found out about 17 miles later when I came into Forsyth, and stopped at something new, at the town’s most prominent crossroads, at Main and 10th Avenue.  It was the Vananda State Bank, moved to that location in 2002-2003.

IMG_6984

The abandoned building was now an insurance building, and an important contributor to town’s historic environment, especially since its corner lot was further enlivened by a mural of the Yellowstone River, “Autumn on the Yellowstone,” by local artist Bob Watts, who has several different murals located throughout town. No. moving the bank to Forsyth and restoring it there, rather than Vananda, is not historic preservation in its purest form.  But it is preservation nonetheless in my opinion.  The historic marker in front of the building tells its story, and there is an active heritage tourism infrastructure in Forsyth, with multiple historic districts, a recently expanded county museum, and a Historic Forsyth walking/driving tour you can download from the Internet.  The bank and the story of Vananda remain active contributors to Rosebud County, fulfilling some of that promise first proclaimed in 1917.

The Yellowstone’s Rosebud County Courthouse

IMG_6961

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.

IMG_6949

IMG_6950

IMG_6956

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.

IMG_6957

IMG_6958

IMG_6959

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.

IMG_6954

IMG_6953

IMG_6952

IMG_6951

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.

Rosebud Co CH Forsyth 14 - Version 2

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.

IMG_7007

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.

Rosebud Battlefield 035

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.

IMG_7077

IMG_5982

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.

IMG_7011Another community institution, Riverside Park, received a new ballpark, fearing beautiful stone masonry, known now as Connors Stadium, in 1940.  This New Deal project was just one of many across Montana in the late 1930s and 1940s, designed to improve public recreation and school athletics.

IMG_7018

IMG_7020

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.

IMG_7015

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.

IMG_7074

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.

IMG_7105

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.

IMG_7009

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.

IMG_7063

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.

IMG_7025

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.

IMG_7060

IMG_7061

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.

IMG_7053

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.

IMG_7035

IMG_7080

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.