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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Help with the new state historic preservation plan!

My colleague Mark Baumler of the Montana Historical Society has asked for our help. Here is his message

Friends and colleagues,

Help us celebrate and identify historic places that matter across the state! Share your favorite photo with us of an historic place in Montana that is meaningful to you. Your photo may be featured on the Montana State Historic Preservation Office website and included in our update to the Montana Historic Preservation Plan 2018-2022. Learn how to submit a photo to us at mhs.mt.gov/Shpo/About/MTtimetraveler 

It’s easy! Let’s show everyone what a special heritage we have to preserve here in Montana!

 I love the Babcock Theatre in Billings (above) and the Elk Bar sign (below) from Chinook. What are your favs?

Gold Creek and Pioneer: bypassed landmarks

Gold Creek overview from school

When I began my fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, there was one spot I was particularly eager to visit:  Gold Creek and Pioneer on the west side of Powell County.  Granville Stuart and Conrad Kohrs both loomed large in the history of Montana; they were associated, respectively, with the two mines.  Stuart was been among the party who first struck gold there in 1858; Kohrs later owned the Pioneer mines.  Plus the two mining areas were counted among the state’s earliest.  Then one winter in 1982 traveling along Interstate Highway I-90 I had looked to the west and saw the faded wooden signs marking what they called the first gold strike in Montana–one of 1858 even before the Mullan Road had been blazed through the area.  Not far away was

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another nondescript sign–this one about the last spike of the Northern Pacific Railroad–it too was visible from the interstate. I had to know more.

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Gold Creek store and post office, 1984.

What I found was not much, at least anything much that could become part of public interpretation.  The folks at the general store and post office, where exterior signs proudly noted that it began in 1866, told me that the granite marker for the Gold Creek strike was on private property–well maintained but something no one was interested in doing more with.  The last spike for the Northern Pacific Railroad was a similar story. Once that spot was all in the national news.  Now it was a place on the railroad right-of-way and Burlington Northern wasn’t interested in visitors being on such a heavily traveled section.

Tailings at Pioneer, Powell Co

The road west of Gold Creek led into the later placer mining of the Pioneer Mining District (established 1866)–with the high mounds of tailings coming from much later efforts to dredge every bit of precious metal from the property.

Pioneer tailings, Powell CoRanchers had taken bits of older buildings from Pioneer and incorporated them into later structures between the mining district and Gold Creek.  Pioneer as a ghost town barely existed then and little marks its past except for the scars of mining.

Log barn E of Pioneer, Powell Co 2

Old buildings grafted into barn, E of Pioneer, Powell Co

Gold Creek, Powell Co

Gold Creek has existed since the dawn of Montana Territory but it has rarely caught a break–its monument about mining is landlocked on private property.  The interpretive markers about the Northern Pacific’s last spike are on the interstate at the Gold Creek Rest Area.  Much of what is there today dates to its last “boom” when the Milwaukee Road built through here c. 1908, but as regular readers of this blog know, the success of the Milwaukee and short lived and by 1980 it was bankrupt. Today little is left except the roadbed, as is the case, almost, in Gold Creek.

MR corridor, Gold Creek, Powell Co

I say almost because the Milwaukee Road located one of its electric transmission buildings in the middle of Gold Creek, along the electrified line. Abandoned when I surveyed the town in 1984, the building has been restored and put back into business.

MR power plant, Gold Creek, Powell Co

Milwaukee Road Electric Station facing the Northern Pacific line.

Two community institutions still shape Gold Creek. On the “far” end of town is the St. Mary’s Mission Catholic Church, built c. 1910, with its original Gothic design still intact.

Catholic Church, Gold Creek, Powell Co 1But the most important community institution (yes, the Dinner Bell Restaurant out on the interstate exit is important but it is a new business) is the Gold Creek School, a rather remarkable building in that residents took two standard homestead era one-room schools and connected them by way of a low roof “hyphen” between the front doors.

Gold Creek school, Powell CoAdaptation and survival–the story of many buildings at Gold Creek and Pioneer.  Historical markers are scarce there but the history in the landscape can still be read and explored.

 

Adaptive Reuse and Montana’s Depots

When I carried out the 1984-1985 survey of Montana as part of the state historic preservation planning process, one resource was at the forefront of my mind–railroad passenger stations.  Not only had recent scholarship by John Hudson and John Stilgoe brought new interest to the topic, there had been the recent bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road, and the end of passenger service in large parts of the state, except along the Hi-Line of the old Great Northern Railway (where Amtrak still runs today.)

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The mid-20th century standardized design for Great Northern stations at Chester on US 2.

Some of the passenger stations in the major cities had already been converted into new uses, such as restaurants, offices, and various downtown commercial uses. The lovely turn of the twentieth century stations for the Great Northern (left) and the Milwaukee Road (right) in Great Falls showed how the location of the buildings, plus their

architectural quality and the amount of available space made them perfect candidates for adaptive reuse.  While the tenants have changed over the past 30 plus years, both buildings still serve as heritage anchors for the city. While success marked early adaptive reuse projects in Great Falls and Missoula, for instance, it was slow to come to Montana’s largest city–the neoclassical styled Northern Pacific depot was abandoned and

Billings 2006 002deteriorating in the mid-1980s but a determined effort to save the building and use it as an anchor for the Montana Avenue historic district has proven to be a great success in the 21st century.

In the 1984-1985 I documented hundreds of railroad depots across Big Sky Country.  From 2012-2015 I noted how many had disappeared–an opportunity to preserve heritage and put a well-located substantial building for the building back to work had been wasted.  But I also came away with a deep appreciation of just how many types of new lives train stations could have.

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Turning iconic buildings into community museums is a time-honored tradition, as you can find at the magnificent Northern Pacific station at Livingston, shown above.  A handful of Montana communities have followed that tradition–I am especially glad that people in Harlowton and Wheatland County banded together to preserve the

IMG_9725.JPGMilwaukee Road depot there, since Harlowtown was such an important place in the railroad’s history as an electric line.

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But there are so many other uses–as they know in Lewistown.  Already in the mid-1980s investors in Lewistown had turned the old Milwaukee Road station, shown above, into a hotel and conference center, the Yogo Inn.  When I visited Lewistown in 2013 the Yogo was undergoing a facelift after 30 years as a commercial business. The town’s other

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historic depot, a substantial brick building (above) from the Great Northern Railway, was a gas station, convenience mart, office building, and store, all in one.

 

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Deer Lodge MT 2006 002

Deer Lodge is blessed with both of its historic depots.  The Milwaukee Road depot has become a church while the Northern Pacific depot became the Powell County Senior Citizens Center.  Indeed, converting such a community landmark into a community center is popular in other Montana towns, such as the National Register-listed passenger station shown below in Kevin, Toole County, near the border with Canada.

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One of the most encouraging trends of this century is how many families have turned depots into their homes–you can’t beat the location and the long, horizontal nature of the often-found combination depot (passenger station and luggage warehouse in same building) means that these dwellings have much in common with the later Ranch-style houses of the 1950s and 1960s.

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A former Great Northern depot in Windham.

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A Milwaukee Road depot turned into a home in Rosebud County.

But in my work from 2012-15 I found more and more examples of how local entrepreneurs have turned these historic buildings into businesses–from a very simple, direct conversion from depot to warehouse in Grassrange to the use of the Milwaukee Road depot in Roundup as the local electric company office.

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As these last examples attest–old buildings can still serve communities, economically and gracefully.  Not all historic preservation means the creation of a museum–that is the best course in only a few cases.  But well-built and maintained historic buildings can be almost anything else–the enduring lesson of adaptive reuse

To those who built a state, and made history

Sad news came out of the state capitol last week when budget cuts gave the Montana Historical Society no choice but to announce that its uber talented staff just don’t have the funding to travel to the hundreds of important places across the state, to gather stories, preserve historic buildings, conserve invaluable documents and photographs, and to celebrate with communities both large and small the history, traditions, and people that made Montana the special place it is.

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It’s unfortunate when a state steps back from its past and thinks its future is better without it.  When I look for those who built the state, the deep past is where I start, and the leaps forward in how Montana’s tribes are documenting and interpreting their history to their terms and needs, one of the most important developments in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 plus years.

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Then there are the properties that link the peoples of Montana and their sense of themselves and their past–cemeteries large and small across the state, where veterans are commemorated and families celebrated.

IMG_7537Fort Kipp Cemetery, above, is one of those place, nestled on the river bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  On a larger scale but still intimate, personal, and compelling is the city cemetery of Red Lodge, hundreds of miles away. Here surrounded by the mountains

are graves from the early Finnish residents who came to work at the coal mines and build a community. Some are of a traditional design, immediately translated from the old country.  Others–like the cast iron family marker shown above–are as mainstream as American industry could make it at the turn of the twentieth century:  a prefabricated marker cast somewhere back east but with Finnish lettering, speaking to those who also came over in c.1900 to build a new land.

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The Finnish imprint on the landscape of Carbon County has been eclipsed by generations of growth since the early 1900s, but as the 2016 Road Show of the Montana Preservation Alliance demonstrated, buildings large and small are still part of the landscape.  With a few acres of land outside of Red Lodge, Finnish settlers and their descendants have maintained a place of community–the Kavela–which remains vibrant some 100 years later.  At this place of ethnic identity and celebration, you almost feel like an intruder–that you have stepped inside a sacred circle as an outsider.  But families go out of their way to make you feel welcome, through fellowship, good food, and stories of past and present.  The Kavela naturally features one of the most traditional Finnish community buildings–the sauna, built of concrete in the 1920s.  Speak of tradition, ethnic pride, and assimilation–a concrete sauna might say it all.

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Indeed what you can find in the Finnish landscape of Carbon County is repeated countless times across Big Sky Country, just in different languages and with different forms.  It is why you get off the interstates and travel the backroads, the dirt roads, for

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the markers of the nations that built our nation can be almost anywhere. It might be of the many ethnicities who mined the copper of Butte, or the African American railroad

workers and other average citizens who established permanent institutions such as the Bethel Union AME Church in Great Falls, pictured below.

Cascade Co Union Bethel AME Church NR 1

Stonemasons from Croatia are credited with many of the architecturally striking stone buildings in Lewistown, shown below, whereas if you stop and explore the state capital

Fergus Co Lewistown masonic temple downtown commercial HD 13 - Version 2

of Helena, you can see where  Irish Americans banded together to fund some of the state’s most iconic structures, from the majestic Catholic Cathedral that overlooks the city and the commanding statue of General Thomas Meagher in front of the State Capitol.

From the Meagher statue it is only a few steps to the east to the doors of the Montana Historical Society.  Its operating hours are fewer but you will find an institution not just of the past but of the future for like the land itself, the society, its collections, and dedicated staff are the keepers of the things and words that remain from those who built the state.  The idea that Montana can stride into the 21st century without the Montana Historical Society is folly, defined.

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