Grain elevators and the Hi-Line–it seems that you cannot think of one without the other. If the Cottonwood church (previous post) was a human sentinel on the northern plains, the tall, stark, unadorned elevators are part of the corporate landmarks of the region. Here is where the intersection between the long hours of toil for Hi-Line farmers met the business reality of the railroad, and of the great grain wholesalers of the midwest. The elevators were early 20th century signs of progress; today they are often the only remaining markers of a town that has been long ago abandoned, hopes and dreams forgotten.
The Hi-Line is populated with scattered buildings and places that speak of the high hopes, and broken dreams of the homesteading era. One of the most compelling places I found in 1984 was at Cottonwood. Here was an abandoned church, dedicated with a flourish in 1924 judging from a historic photo in the 1976 county history. In 1984 the building was like a sentinel, standing alone on the high plains, of what people thought they could accomplish in a demanding, stark landscape. Will this building still remain today?–I find out in late May when I will be working in Hill County.
The foodie revolution is impacting heritage tourism in a big way in Tennessee. In southwest Montana last spring I found, to my great pleasure, many heritage cafes and restaurants still humming along, such as this 1930s counter at Gamer’s in Butte. But no doubt there are many more national chains in the state than before. Finding the heritage businesses of the Hi-Line and seeing how they made it through the last 30 years will be one of the fun patterns to explore starting May 23.
Another pattern I look forward to exploring along US Highway 2 this summer are the many town signs that greet you or lure you off the highway into the small towns along the corridor. The penguin at Cut Bank plays into the older tradition of the town being mentioned in national weather news as having the “low tonight is in Cut Bank, Montana” since its old air base there meant that its temperature got out into the larger news feeds of the wire services. It stands at the fork of old US 2, which passed through the heart of town between the courthouse and Great Northern depot, and a later “bypass” US 2. Few signs along the Hi-Line are so catchy as the Cut Bank penguin–but to the east in North Dakota and Minnesota are numerous giant signs–from buffalos to Paul Bunyon–so well discussed years ago by Karal Ann Marling.
On the Hi-Line fieldwork next month, another major theme will be Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Trail, since the Bear’s Paw battlefield is in the region. Certainly the new visitor center and the outstanding Nez Perce-centered exhibit at Big Hole were unexpected surprises. You wish all battlefields were interpreted in such “whole story” ways. Last Memorial Day weekend it was cold and windy at Big Hole, an appropriate setting for such a somber and sad place.
One of the major goals of my work is to document, and then interpret, change in the state’s built environment. Here is the Daniels County Courthouse in Scobey from 1984. It was then a false front frame building that met community needs but even then it seemed a relic of the early homesteading boom in northeast Montana. The new 21st century oil boom is reshaping this region, at some towns, rather quickly. What has happened to the courthouse, and to Scobey? I will know in a little over a month.
In late May I will be returning to one of the New Deal’s most famous projects, the mammoth Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River. But the New Deal left an imprint of the public landscape all over the state. Here is the community hall at Avon, a beautiful log building that still carries out its original function. Note the concrete pillars for the log columns–they spell out “1941”.