The Hi-Line’s African American Legacy

The new preservation poster from the Montana State Historic Preservation office features Great Falls’ Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the city’s many National Register landmarks.  As the poster emphasizes, this Gothic Revival brick sanctuary has long served as a community and cultural center for African Americans in the region, and state.

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Union Bethel AME Church, Great Falls, 2013

The poster also reminded me of a property and story from Havre that I explored in May.  Many times people assume that African American heritage is always a big city story–of course Great Falls had an iconic black church but you won’t find those elsewhere except like in Butte with the Shaffers Chapel AME church below.Image

But the African American presence, as proven in the recent research on the state’s black built environment by Patty Dean, can be found throughout Montana.  In Havre, at Dean’s urging, I located the historic African Methodist Episcopal Church of Havre sanctuary (c. 1916), now home of the New Hope Apostolic Church, which is located just a short walking distance from the historic corridor and machine shops of the Great Northern Railway.  

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Montana writer Lillie Hall Hollingshead (born in Canada 1898, died 1986–buried in Havre’s Highland Cemetery) wrote about the church in her memoir, Life As It Was (c. 1975). The first trustees were Thomas Allsup, William Jackson, C. A. Abernathy, and Charles Lawson, with Jackson as president and Abernathy as secretary.  Its pastor was the Rev. W.B. Williams, who also pastored Union Bethel AME Church in Great Falls.

Hollingsworth’s narrative reminds us how important churches were as places of identity and sanctuary for African Americans in Jim Crow America.  She writes:  “The Havre church served the spiritual needs of not only Great Northern railways employees, but the Negroes who had to lay over in Havre between trains.  How happy our Negro neighbors from the South must have been to have a place where they could sing, pray, and praise the Lord as they wished.”  

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints purchased the property in 1947 and in 1969 it passed to the United Pentecostal Church, which is how the building is identified in the 1976 bicentennial publication, Grit, Guts and Gusto: A History of Hill County.  Kudos to the residents of Havre and Hill County for keeping this institution and its story alive in the 21st century.  The unassuming building is an important reminder of the depth and diversity of Montana history.

 

Three Schools in Madison County: Three Preservation Solutions

Madison County, Montana, is perhaps best known as one of the key locations for the 1992 film, “The River Runs Through It.” Certainly the county has earned its trout fishing haven reputation, and its growth as one of the Montana gateways into Yellowstone National Park has been noteworthy in the last 30 years.

The county is also home to various rural schools.  Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Montana’s rural schools on the national map last week by naming the schools among the nation’s most endangered historic properties, let’s take a look at just three schools from Madison County and explore why they have survived into the 21st century.

The magnificent Classical Revival school at Pony, designed by Butte architect H.M. Patterson and built for just over $10,000 in 1902, is perhaps the best known historic school.  It lies at the center of the Pony historic district, a set of resources that span the town’s creation as a mining camp in the early territorial period to its affluence as a mining town in the early 20th century.  

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With its hillside location dominating the town’s landscape, the building is a point of pride for those who remain, a true community landmark.  The preservation strategy was traditional–the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places; it is maintained as a community shrine.  

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The money generator for upkeep and repairs is the adjacent school gym (c. 1920), a really splendid community center that reflects the early impact of the national recreation and fitness movement (what many of us remember as P.E. classes) in small town America.

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The residents of Pony established a Homecoming Club over fifty years ago, to organize and sponsor community events in the summer to keep the stories and memories of the town alive; the preservation of key buildings are the physical underpinning of their heritage preservation.

The fate of the Norris school–a typical 1920s community-plan school building–lies in its adaptive reuse, as a cafe near the junction of two key roads, Montana 84 to Bozeman and US 287 to West Yellowstone.  This one-story brick building was the first Montana school-to-cafe that I ever visited in 1981; then the conversion was relatively new, and somewhat startling.  But almost every account you read on Montana rural schools emphasize how they served as community centers.  For any of us who travel rural Montana today we know that the crossroads cafes and bars still serve as important community centers.

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The final, and best, preservation solution is the one that we often pass by, or forget about:  keep it as a school.  Although certainly altered and added to, the school at Harrison, where you turn to go up into the mountains at Pony, is still a vibrant contributor to the county–and not much else is vibrant in Harrison. 

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Harrison is among the decreasing number of elementary to high schools in the region–here generations are raised from the beginning to young adults and the place is ablaze with activity and community pride.  Sure, the school is no pristine architectural monument.  So?  Its value as a cultural heart of a rural community outweighs aesthetics. But it is among the best examples of why our rural schools matter in the connected world of the 21st century:  they maintain a dose of reality and community for our ultra-modern times.

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Trask Hall (1878): A forgotten Montana historic school

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On a hill overlooking Deer Lodge, the seat of Powell County, is one of Montana’s historic schools, the initial Montana Collegiate Institute (1878) renamed a few years later as Trask Hall by the Presbyterian Church who then managed the school for the next two generations.  In 1921 the local school district took over the building as a public school and still today the historic hall is surrounded by other public schools from more modern times.  It sits silently today almost like a rock of education for this small Montana town.

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But as this close-up of the cupola shows, it too needs assistance to continue its third century of service to the residents of Deer Lodge.  At the same time, the past care of the school and keeping it in place as a public landmark for now over 90 years is a credit to the sense of history and community held by the people of Deer Lodge and Powell County.  Indeed north of Trask Hall is another historic school building, the Powell County High School.  

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This Tudor Gothic influenced building from 1917 reflects the pride of community, and local boosterism, of that decade when the homesteading boom was reshaping rural Montana and Deer Lodge was riding high, since it was served by two railroad lines, the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road.  Now this building is nearing its 100th anniversary and remains in use and in good shape, clearly a 20th century landmark of education and community for this county.

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The adjoining Powell County High School Gym, from the 1930s

For the modernists out there, in fact, Deer Lodge’s public schools also make their mark in 1960s contemporary design with the elementary school on Dixon Street next to Trask Hall.  There is a bit of every type of school design in this county seat.

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Deer Lodge’s traditions of preservation, pride, and maintaining their investments in public education are ones worth evaluating and implementing not just in Montana but across the nation.

 

Rural Schoolhouses in Montana, revisited

The National Trust for Historic Places has named the category of rural schoolhouses of Montana as one of its 11 most endangered places in the United States.  This designation could not have come at a better time for as I traveled extensively in eastern Montana in the second half of May I noted the number of missing schools, or those needing repair.  Let’s trust that this national designation, and publicity, will help free up resources for the adaptive reuse and preservation of these special places.

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Monarch-Neihart School (listed on National Register), Cascade County

Since the National Trust wisely put a spotlight on Montana’s rural schools, I will explore the topic in a series of posts over the next weeks.  Certainly there are many abandoned schools needing help.  Then again many property owners have found new uses for the buildings and still other communities have moved schools into museum settings, or in rare cases preserved them at the original location, and interpret the ways of early 20th century education for those of the 21st century. 

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Dell School, Beaverhead County.  It was converted into a cafe near I-15, which was a great breakfast place in 1984 and remains a great place for just about anything today.

Let me start with a brief essay I prepared for the Summer 1985 issue of Montana: The Magazine of Western History titled “Rural Schoolhouses in Montana.”  At the beginning, I observed: “Rural and small-town schools are important components of the Montana landscape and deserve our special attention.  Whether they are located at county crossroads, along dusty lanes, or in the midst of rural villages, these buildings remind us of how, as children, we once looked at the school as the most imposing structure in our lives, a place of concealed terrors and infinite wonders.  Within the schoolhouse, children of different backgrounds and ages established the shared purpose and neighborliness that are crucial to a rural community’s survival.”

“For a moment, cast aside your romantic attachments to schoolhouses and think about Montana’s schools as historical documents.  These buildings, considered in the aggregate and in the context of the regional landscape, have important things to tell us about our history.”

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Benchland school, 1984

The article highlighted five schools.  The Benchland school in Judith Basin County was a major $5000 investment in 1911 for a just established community but leaders wanted a brick school to show that they were serious and would be there for the long haul.  Benchland hoped to grow as a major village along the Billings and Northern branch line, but prosperity never happened, and the community had too much school for its size.  It was a barn in fair condition in 1984; almost 30 years later it needs help as its roof is nearing collapse.

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Benchland school, 2013

Another school highlighted in the 1985 article was Vananda School in Rosebud County, a village which then was a ghost town along the recently abandoned Milwaukee Road.

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Here was an even more evocative landmark of community dreams from the early 20th century.  The school dates to 1925, with “its tall physical presence on the flat, treeless prairie dominating much of the northern Rosebud County landscape.”  Over the 30 years since I made sure to periodically roar by Vananda as I returned to Billings for flights back to Tennessee.  I did not want to see this landmark of the homesteading era disappear.  As I concluded the 1985 essay:  “As monuments to town boosterism, as records of homesteader mobility, and as social centers, Montana’s schools physically link us to our roots as a community and a culture.”  The Vananda school remains empty today, but it still says much.

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Gladstone Hotel: A threatened landmark in Circle, Montana

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Circle, Montana, is an isolated place in the big scheme of the western landscape.  It is not close to any interstate nor is it served by any federal highways.  It is at a key Eastern Montana crossroads, that of state highways 13 and 200.  The seat of government for McCone County, the place has been an important trade and agricultural crossroads since the early 20th century.  It was at that time that the two-story frame Gladstone Hotel was constructed–as a place of first residence for homesteaders coming into the region and later for highways travelers in the automobile age.

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When I traveled the state in 1984 for the preservation plan, folks at the State Historic Preservation Office–Marcella Sherfy, Lon Johnson, and Pat Bick particularly–were eager to see what I thought about this recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places.  They knew that it was already a rare yet fascinating relic of the early homesteading era.

The day and evening in Circle were memorable.  Orville Quick, the head of the local museum and a heritage treasure in his own right, arranged everything, managing even to get a decent crowd there for my evening remarks, even though Circle was playing in the regional basketball tournament in Miles City at the same time.  The Gladstone was just as memorable–creaky, yes, quaint, yes, but quiet except for a truck or two roaring through the town.

I wasn’t surprised just disappointed at its condition today.  Certainly it is among the state’s threatened National Register landmarks.  Anytime a business is closed, the lack of use is not good for its preservation.  The solutions for a building of this size in an age of standardized lodging and marketing are daunting–where can the money come from to adequate conserve the building but yet recoup the investment when relatively few travelers come this way.  But to lose this c. 1910s building, and the role it played in giving the early town a semblance and symbol of permanence and prosperity would truly be a loss for understanding and documenting the homesteading experience of the northern plains.

 

 

Modernist Architecture in the Diocese of Great Falls

Bishop William Joseph Condon is a pivotal figure in the history of the Catholic Church of eastern Montana.  As Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls (which became the Diocese of Great Falls and Billings in 1980) in the mid-twentieth century, he presided over the growth of the church in Great Falls and Billings, due to the influx of federal defense dollars and the impact of the petroleum boom.  Bishop Condon also presided over the construction of remarkable new church buildings across the region, from tiny towns like Highnam to rural county seats such as Roundup.  Then there was the construction of the 1950s modernist landmark, the College of Great Falls [now University of Great Falls], which has arguably the state’s most coherent set of c.1960 “contemporary” style buildings.

Over the next few months I will explore the churches associated with the diocese’s expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, giving particular attention to the buildings at  the University of Great Falls.  These compelling resources frankly were not on my radar screen in 1984-1985:  like many others the buildings were too recent, and being devoid of easily classified architectural elements, I ignored them in favor of the historic Gothic and Classical revival church sanctuaries in the region.  But more than a generation later, you can readily appreciate the dignity and the beauty of the churches.  In most cases the congregations have been solid stewards, and the buildings still convey their original design and intent.

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St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, Roundup.

One reason I really like the Roundup church is that it faces, across Main Street (US 87), another modern landmark in eastern Montana:  the New Deal-funded Art Deco-styled Musselshell County Courthouse.  

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My second example for today’s post comes from tiny Hingham, a Great Northern railroad town in Hill County.  In 2010, its population was just over 100 but the town and surrounding ranch families have carefully kept the Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church as a truly 1960s landmark.  I apologize for the dark rainy images, but everyone that day on the Hi-Line rejoiced in the rain, and offered me a place to stay if I returned every May and brought rain.

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Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church, Hingham, Hill County

 

Range Riders Bar Sign, Mlles City: 1984 and 2013

Miles City has always been one of my favorite western towns.  Located near the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, the town’s early history and prominence in the Yellowstone Valley remains significant, if understudied.  More attention has been given to the town’s turn of the century transformation, when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railway entered into the Yellowstone Valley and here at Miles City it located shops and a classically styled passenger station to compete with the already established Northern Pacific Railroad.  The town has a bevy of interesting buildings, commercial, public, and domestic, built between 1990 and 1930. The Great Depression hit the town and countryside particularly hard, and the New Deal reacted with numerous projects, particularly the city park that is such a central community element today.

But you most often come to Miles City not for the historic buildings per se but for the cowboy vibe, and the historic bars along Main Street.  The Montana Bar is my favorite–and more on it in a later posting.  But across the street is another time-tested spot, the Range Rider, always eye-catching due to the giant bar sign.  Here is the one from 1984.

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At the west end of town on old U.S. 10 is the Range Riders Museum, a mid-twentieth century institution that interprets the region’s western, and particularly its ranching, history.  Don’t know which place took the name Range Riders first.  But both remain in operation, although the Range Rider bar has a new name, perhaps evocative of the 21st century, and has shifted the sign to the adjacent building.  Below is the bar and sign of May 2013–not as overwhelming perhaps, but still evocative of Miles City’s history and culture. 

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