A winter day in Tennessee, fond thoughts of Montana

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There’s been a bit of winter in Tennessee in early January 2018 and my university has been closed for two days due to three inches of snow (that’s no misprint). Days like this one lead me to reflection of my jaunt across Big Sky Country in the cold of February to the warmth of mid-May 1984. I had spent 2 months at my cubbyhole in the basement of the Montana Historical Society, shown below, and I was ready I

thought to hit the road. Wonders of all sorts I would find and here are just a few of the special (admittedly perhaps not spectacular to outsiders) places I encountered.

Just up the tracks from the opening image at the southern tip of Beaverhead County was the Hotel Metlen in Dillon. A grad student recently asked me about it, having come across it while trolling the internet. It sounds like a fleabag the student remarked–I probably didn’t help when I recalled staying there for 10 bucks in 1984. But what a great Second Empire-styled railroad hotel!

It had upgraded during my last visit in 2012–still classy in a dumpy way, if that makes any sense.

On the opposite end of the state, at Thompson Falls, was another favorite lodging spot, a classic 1950s motor lodge, the Falls Motel. Spiffy now but still Mom and Pop and so far away from the chain experience of today.

But as regulars of this blog know, I didn’t care where I stayed as long as beef, booze, and pie were nearby. Real rules for the road. The beef could range from the juicy roadside burgers from Polson (the b/w image) to the great huge steaks at Willow Creek (the yellow tinted roadhouse).

And speaking of roadhouses Wise River Club from 1984 above is still going strong and as friendly as ever. While the owners keep changing at Big Timber–the sign still

chops away and the beer is still cold. That is what you need on the road.

Wait! Pie matters too, represented by the Wagon Wheel in Drummond, above. Southerners do brag about pie, and I believed in that regional myth, until I traveled Montana. I swear that there are most great pie places in a single Montana County (say, Cascade) than all of Tennessee. On cold days I still think of a Montana cup of coffee (always strong) and a piece of grit pie. In 1984 I just needed that one afternoon stop to push on for a few more hours of driving and documenting the captivating landscape of the Big Sky Country.

Lake McDonald and its boats

Flathead Co GNP Lake McDonald

The second week of January 2018 was one of both good and bad news for historic preservation in the Big Sky Country.  First came the good news out of the State Historic Preservation Office in Helena about the National Register of Historic Places listing of two more Lake McDonald boats at Glacier National Park.  The DeSmet, shown above, has long been my favorite.  It has navigated the calm waves of the lake since 1930.  Designed and built by John Swanson of Kalispell, the boat became an important way that the increasing numbers of automobile visitors to Glacier could experience the lake and it helped make the Lake McDonald Lodge a stronger resort experience.  Quite an amazing piece of craftsmanship from Swanson, and so few of his creations remain today.  And as the photo above documents, the boat visually complements the setting–a reminder that the human presence is so small and insignificant compared to the majesty of the mountains.

Flathead Co Whitefish Main street FLW 5

The bad news also came from Northwest Montana:  the demolition of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish.  Now there is no way in Montana to have a direct experience with a work from America’s best known and greatest architect. I have spoken about the preservation needs of this architectural jewel earlier in this blog–and like the loss of the Mercantile Building in Missoula last year, development pressures lacked the patience, and the vision, to see anything but a possible empty lot, where a modern “historic” take–the fake past in other words–could stand.

Flathead Co Whitefish Main street 28

Such an attitude in Whitefish is doubly disappointing because in the 35 years I have visited this great mountain railroad town, the real history continues to disappear in favor of a fake, quasi-western feel past, as above. Call this progress if you will but in reality it is just another step into the abyss where Whitefish will longer be distinctive but just a place, like hundreds of others, trying to create a sense of identity and capture again what they once had.

Butte’s World Museum of Mining: A forgotten jewel

Established in 1963, Butte’s World Museum of Mining is both a historic site and a historic building zoo. It preserves and interprets the Orphan Girl Mine while it also re-creates a fanciful Hell Roarin’ Gulch, with the townscape filled with both moved historic buildings and modern interpretations of the mining camp that existed in Butte in the late 19th century.

Butte WMM Orphan Girl mine work crew

The Orphan Mine historic site is the best single place in Montana to explore the gritty reality of deep-shaft mining in the Treasure State.

Butte WMM Orphan Girl Mine 4

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 14

The metal cages that the mines used to go down into the mines still give me the chills–the sacrifices these men made for their families and community is impressive.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 1The Hell Roaring’ Gulch part of the museum is in stark contrast to the mid-20th century engineered, technological landscape of the Orphan Girl Mine.  It interprets the mining camp days of Butte from the late 1860s into the 1880s before the corporations stepped in and reshaped the totality of the copper mining industry and built environment of Butte.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 4

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 3

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Like many building zoos of the highway era (the museum is easily accessed from the interstate), the recreated town emphasizes the ethnic diversity of the mining camp as well as some of the stereotypes of the era.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 9

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 10

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 9

But the exhibit buildings also have several strong points, especially in their collections, such as the “union hall” (you do worry about the long-term conservation of the valuable

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch Union Hallartifacts and banners shown in this photo); the store, which displays common items sought by the miners and their families; and various offices that show the business of

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 5mapping the mines, registering claims, and assaying the metals .

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 21In my first post about the World Museum of Mining, I addressed this valuable collection of a historic mine, several historic buildings, and thousands of historic artifacts briefly.  Properties like the impressive log construction of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, shown below,  are invaluable. The World Museum of Mining deserved more attention, and it deserves the attention of any serious heritage tourist to Montana.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch

 

Back from the Ashes: Club Moderne in Anaconda

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The story of historic preservation is always a story of highs and lows, of achievements and losses.  I cannot think of any greater achievement in 2017 than the reopening of the Club Moderne in Anaconda. Montana architect Fred Willson designed this Art Moderne-styled jewel in the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s–life was always tough in the copper smelter town of Anaconda but particularly tough then.  The bar found its community, and a community institution it has always been, from the first time I visited it in the 1980s, see below, to when I returned to visit and photograph the building in

Club Moderne Anaconda Deer Lodge Co. MT

2012. Between those 30 years, patrons might have changed, and poker machines might be stuck everywhere but it was undoubtedly a neighborhood institution, always, for me, a place to talk about history and community with those who lived nearby.

Club moderne interior

The fire that came suddenly in October did not injure anyone–thankfully–but it left an immediate mark on the community soul–would once again Anaconda lose a place that might not be very important to others but was vital to the residents and their sense of identity and place.

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Despite the damage and the immediate media stories that the bar had been destroyed, the walls remained standing, and the spirit of the owners and the patrons remained resolute–here was a place that not only mattered but that was worth the effort and the funds to restore, reopen, and resume its service to the community.

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No it is not the same place it was before the fall 2016 fire. But it is still worthy of listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and it is ready to serve the community for now and into the future.  Quite a save indeed for the town of Anaconda and determined owners.

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So in this time of holiday festivities, lift a glass or two or three to the folks in Anaconda for what they achieved in never giving up and giving a second life to a landmark that deserves every bit of attention it gets. Cheers, and happy holidays!

Grain Elevators in the Northern Plains of Montana

Toole Co Kevin elevators

Kevin, Montana

When I began my explorations of Montana’s Big Sky Country in the early 1980s one structure particularly captivated me–the grain elevator.  Certainly I had encountered these in the east, but in Montana, particularly in the high country of eastern Montana, the looming presence of grain elevators marked settlements both past and present. The elevators might be old and abandoned, like the one above at Kevin in Toole County or concrete and vibrant like the sets below from Glasgow.

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But wherever they were located, they spoke of the promise of the homesteading generation and the very different reality of modern corporate agriculture of the second half of the 20th century into the 21st century.  Thus, this post does not promise much analysis–I have tackled the topic in other posts–but it does include some of my favorite images of Montana elevators from my field study of 2012-2015.

Hill Co Laredo elevators

Laredo, Hill County.

Chouteau Co Highwood elevators

Highwood, Cascade County.

Liberty Co Joplin elevators 1

An elevator canyon in Joplin.

Daniels Co Madoc elevators

Made, Daniels County.

Sheridan Co Reserve 13 elevators

Reserve, Sheridan County.

Chouteau Co MT 80 Square Butte elevator 1

Perhaps my favorite image–Square Butte elevators just before a hail storm.

Daniels Co Whitetail elevators Soo Line corridor

Whitetail on the Soo Line Corridor near the Canadian border.

Judith Basin Co Windham elevators corridor  - Version 2

Windham, Judith Basin County

Roads Less Traveled in Beaverhead County

Both Beaverhead River bridges, old US 91 S of BarrettsBeaverhead County Montana is huge–in its area it is bigger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and is roughly the size of Connecticut.  Within these vast boundaries in the southwest corner of Montana, less than 10,000 people live, as counted in the 2010 census.  As this blog has previously documented, in a land of such vastness, transportation means a lot–and federal highways and the railroad are crucial corridors to understand the settlement history of Beaverhead County.

Blacktail Deer Cr Rd 2This post takes another look at the roads less traveled in Beaverhead County, such as Blacktail Creek Road in the county’s southern end.  The road leads back into lakes and spectacular scenery framed by the Rocky Mountains.

Blacktail Deer Cr Rd 3

Blacktail Deer Cr Rd 4But along the road you find historic buildings left behind as remnants of ranches now lost, or combined into even larger spreads in the hopes of making it all pay some day.

7125 Blacktail Deer Cr Rd

 

Birch Creek Road as it winds in and out of Beaverhead National Forest is more populated with the remnants of the past since it is nestled within the mountains where there was always the promise of mineral riches.

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Ranch, Birch Cr Rd, outside of USFS boundary

Sheep Creek homestead, Birch Cr RdBirch Creek Road was shaped by the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as the Corps carried out multiple projects in the national forest.  This road has a logical destination–the historic Birch Creek C.C.C. Camp, which has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The University of Montana Western uses the property for outdoor education and as a conference center that is certainly away from everything.

Birch Creek CCC NR 12

There is another historic destination waiting for the intrepid traveler willing to take Canyon Creek Road in the northern end of the county.  Although at places harrowing for this easterner, the road is among my favorite in Big Sky Country–for the views, the sense of isolation, and the history found along its route.

Canyon Creek Road

Canyon Creek Road 9

 

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The destination is the spectacular collection of Canyon Creek Kilns, previously discussed in the blog, which fed the smelter and mining operations at Glendale.  The kilns are worth the time and perhaps worry it takes to drive along Canyon Creek Road.

Canyon Creek Kilns

In such a mammoth county, these three roads are a mere sampling of the routes less traveled but well worth the journey in Beaverhead County, Montana.

Canyon Creek Rd 2

Canyon Creek Road, Beaverhead County, Montana.

Montana’s Murals: Creating Identity, Telling Stories in Big Sky Country

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural homesteaders

A week ago a colleague from Tennessee told me of returning to Cut Bank–a family place that she had not been to in decades–and we talked of what a great, classic town it is, and how the town uses blank walls to tell their own story to the hordes of tourists who pass through on U.S. Highway 2 on their way to Glacier National Park. The homesteader-theme mural is just one of the several that enliven the streets and instruct those who wish to stop, look, think.

 

Montana’s art and history have always been closely linked as even those in the first generation of settlement commissioned artists, Charles M. Russell and Edgar Paxson, to paint historical murals for the new state capitol building in Helena.  Then came the public art commissions of the New Deal era, such as the work of J. K. Raulston (below),

Richland Co Sidney Ralston mural now at Mondak HCwhich once hung in the Richland County Courthouse in Sidney (and now displayed at the Mondak Heritage Center in Sidney) and the numerous murals that graced new post offices and federal buildings across Montana, the one below from Dillon demonstrates

Dillon P.O. Mural NR 1that the arts program of the 1930s stretched across Montana, from Sidney to Dillon.

helena muralWhen I lived in Helena in the first half of the 1980s, of course I noticed murals, such as one above on the state’s important women’s history on Last Chance Gulch, which itself had various installations of interpretive sculpture to tell the story of a place that had been so “renewed” as to lose all meaning.

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 033 sculpture

In my second shot at documenting the historic landscape of Montana, in the first half of this decade, I couldn’t help but notice how many places used murals to tell their story, or to hint about what mattered to those who traveled by–they truly were everywhere.  On the walls of cafe/bars like at Melrose:

Melrose bar, murals, US 91

Or they could be at old service stations at once important crossroads, like at Jordan:

Garfield Co Jordan gas station MT 200 deco dinosaur mural

Scenes of landscape and animals–the wild side of Montana are common:

Lincoln Co Libby mural 5

A grizzly at Libby, Montana.

Powder River Co Broadus  buffalo mural 25

A bison at the Western Chick Cafe in Broadus.

But many tell a story, perhaps no more elaborately than in Columbia Falls, where the historic Masonic Lodge is wrapped in a mural that links the town to its logging beginnings to the establishment of the town and merchants.

Flathead Co Columbia Falls muralAnother northwestern Montana town–the gateway town of Eureka on U.S. Highway 89. uses a mural to set the scene of a quiet, peaceful place no matter the season:

Flathead Co Eureka mural

Whereas at Troy–another gateway town at the western edge of Montana on U.S. Highway 2–the town name itself is emblazoned on a building–you can’t miss it.

Lincoln Co Troy mural

Many towns highlight their history with murals.  The one in Townsend (below), on U.S. Highway 12, reminds me of a common heritage-centered art piece found everywhere–a quilt with each square representing a different community or place name.

Townsend mural US 12

Others are more pointed in their message.  A lone tractor in a field stands out in Chester, the seat of Liberty County:

Liberty Co Chester tractor mural

Wilsall, on U.S. 89 north of Livingston, tells a rather elaborate story–of days when the town was vibrant and its railroad as an important link between the region and the state.

Park Co US 89 wilsall mural

In Fairview, at the North Dakota border, a mural depicts the historic Noyly bridge, an engineering marvel that sits now out of town, forgotten excepts by locals.

Richland Co Fairview 5 Noyly bridge mural

Butte perhaps has the most effective set of public art to tell its story–where there was so little 30 years ago there are interpretive settings throughout the town of past glory days and key events, topped by a monumental mural in the heart of Uptown.

As a trend in public interpretation, I love the generation of new public art in Montana as much as admire the art of the New Deal era that adorns and emboldens our post offices.  All of these creative expressions (the mural below is from Deer Lodge) remind anyone that the past is always present in the Big Sky Country.

New Deal mural, Deer Lodge MT post office.jpg