Great Falls’s Northern Montana State Fairgrounds

Too often we think that New Deal agencies always built in rustic style–that is what you find at the national parks, the often iconic log structures from the Civilian Conservation Corps.  But just as common—just not recognized as such–were modernist designs.  I close this month’s look at historic fairgrounds with one of the state’s best groupings of modernist buildings from the historic Northern Montana State Fairgrounds (now Expo Park) in Great Falls.  

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The Works Progress Administration added these buildings in 1937.  The Mercantile Building is Art Deco design at its best–linear, hard edged, and projecting elevations.  It spoke to the modern age of machinery and technology and new tools for farmers both on the ranch and in the home.

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Compare that to the Fine Arts Building with its sweeping curvilinear facade and projecting entrance, almost like an automobile grille from the 1930s.  The design laid claim to urban sophistication and trendy design–an appropriate statement for the “fine arts” to say in Great Falls.

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The Administration Building blends both Art Deco and Moderne elements into a classic International Style statement of domestic architecture.  ExpoPark is to be congratulated for its stewardship of these three buildings.  They are not typical of fairgrounds found throughout the northern counties–and differ markedly from the WPA designs for the Musselshell County Fairgrounds in Roundup, for instance.  But the three buildings speak to Great Falls’ context as a city within the plains, dependent in so many ways on the agriculture that surrounded it but still an oasis of urban life in the Depression era.

 

 

Twin Bridges’ Madison County Fairgrounds

This August, I have introduced several historic fairgrounds from the Hi-Line counties and eastern Montana to emphasize the historical importance of this community gathering spots.  I want to close this look at Montana fairgrounds with two of the best known–at Twin Bridges and in Great Falls.

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The Montana Historical Society has placed interpretive tablets across the state at many National Register of Historic Places properties.  For a quick overview of Madison County Fairgrounds, I am including the text of its marker:

“Early Twin Bridges offered few public gathering places, and so these fifty acres, once part of the Lott and Seidensticker homesteads, were developed as “The Park” in 1887. A “harvest home barbecue” was held that year, and two years later the event had blossomed into the first annual county fair. Early fairs were privately run and later partially supported by the county. Then, as now, the fair gave ranchers and farmers a chance to show their best produce and livestock while promoting local pride and friendly rivalry. In 1928, a depressed economy curtailed the event and in 1930 Madison County purchased the fairground property. The economy worsened during the Great Depression until 1934, when more than half Madison County’s workforce was unemployed. In 1935, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) approved funding assistance for the rebuilding of the unused fairground. Construction began in 1936, putting a great number of unemployed residents back to work.”

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“WPA engineer C. D. Paxton drew the plans and Tosten Stenberg, well known for his log structures in Yellowstone Park, directed construction. Local foreman Fred Sommers was brought out of retirement with a special waiver from Washington to supervise the project. Lodgepole pine, fir logs, and other building materials were gathered locally and prepared by workers on site. When the project was completed in 1937, seven masterfully crafted new buildings and one remodeled 1890s structure lent new significance to the traditional fairground. Today the collection of buildings is architecturally significant for its fine design as well as historically important for its WPA construction using entirely local materials and labor.”

The interior spaces of these buildings remain awesome public spaces, and were in use for a local auction the day I visited in May 2012.

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The fairgrounds also includes a memorial and interpretive markers about Sacajawea and the Lewis and Clark Expedition that were installed in honor of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2033-2006.

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The Hi-Line’s Marias Fairgrounds in Shelby

The Marias Fairgrounds, host to a four-county fair every July, is located on the southside of U.S. Highway 2 on the eastern edge of Shelby, the county seat of Toole County.  The fairgrounds are also immediately south of the Great Northern Railway line.  The fair dates to c. 1941, and the fairgrounds has a blend of mid-century buildings with new facilities.

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Livestock barns and stalls dominate the fairgrounds, as you would expect in this region.  

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Two buildings are particularly noticeable from the highway.  The false front of the Mercantile Building recalls the earliest frame structures built along the railroad line in Shelby.

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Outside of the grandstand, the fairgrounds’s dominant landmark is the two-story with cupola Dunkirk School, which was moved to the fairgrounds to serve as an exhibit building for 4-H and other youth groups, certainly a very appropriate adaptive re-use of this early 20th century historic building.

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Terry’s Prairie County Fairgrounds

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For more than 75 years residents of Prairie County have come every summer to Terry for the annual county fair.  The fairgrounds are located north not only of I-94 but also old U.S. Highway 10 and then even to the north of that, along the abandoned almost disappeared railroad bed of the Milwaukee Road.  The Milwaukee crossed the mainline of the Northern Pacific Railway at Terry, and entrepreneurs tried to create a new commercial corridor facing the Milwaukee tracks, which stood just north of the dominant route of the Northern Pacific.  Those plans never panned out, except for the fairgrounds.  The barns, grandstands, and other buildings developed along the Milwaukee line and there they remain today.

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With its intact setting, the fairgrounds is actually now one of the few fully extant properties along the old Milwaukee line in this part of Montana.  Like in other rural counties, the buildings are nothing spectacular but don’t let their plain, white appearance deceive you:  here is the one of the most important annual community places in the county.

 

The Hi-Line’s Blaine County Fairgrounds, Chinook

Another century-old fair is the Blaine County Fair, held in Chinook.  A quick google search tells us that a county fair took place in Chinook in 1914; the following year fair organizers announced that they hoped to have a large poultry exhibit.  The fairgrounds are visible south of both the Great Northern Railroad tracks and U.S. Highway 2.  Image

The primary entrance, however, is a few blocks off of the Hi-Line as the Bear’s Paws highway skirts the town’s western edge.

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Chinook has over 1200 residents, and the fair today is a large four-day event, attracting thousands.  The fairgrounds largely retains its mid-20th century appearance, and its unadorned white-painted buildings speak strongly to the practicality and functionalism of rural landscapes.

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High Prairie Fair: Daniels County Fairgrounds, Scobey

Established in the mid-century, 1951 according to one source, the Daniels County Fairgrounds now proudly hosts what organizers call the state’s best “family county fair.”  Scobey is a tiny county seat with just over 1000 residents.  But the fair consistently hosts thousands–an 1956 article in Billboard magazine reported 4,000 attendance over 2 nights and three days, a pattern that remains today.  

The grandstand is the focal point of the fairgrounds, and it retains its 1950s look and vibe perfect for a Montana rodeo.

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Adjacent to the rodeo grounds is the Scobey baseball field.  The town takes considerable pride in its early history of professional baseball and the Daniels County Museum has numerous objects and displays about the baseball teams and stars who have played in Scobey.

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Roundup’s Musselshell County Fairgrounds

Located east of the town and nestled between the old route of the Milwaukee Road and the craggy bluffs of Musselshell River is one of the prettiest and oldest locations of a county fairgrounds in Montana.

ImageCrossing of Musselshell River before you arrive at the fairgrounds in Roundup

The Roundup Record-Tribune and Winnett Times of December 10, 1915 proudly proclaimed the value of the fairgrounds to the new county:  the “natural beauty of the site will be an asset to the county for all time,” although the paper’s editor admitted that “considerable work was called for in transforming the grounds from their crude natural state into a grounds adapted for fair purposes.”  Ray E. Bushnell, the county surveyor, was credited with designing the fairgrounds and producing the overall plan for the site’s development.

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During the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration in 1936 undertook a major rebuilding of the fairgrounds and its buildings, given the site largely its appearance of today, until, of course, the impact of the terrible flooding of 2012.  High water inundated the grounds but the county quickly rebuilt and as the images below attest–taken in May 2013–the fairgrounds still retains its historic look, feel, and general vibe.  You also can check out the fair’s Facebook page and keep up with all of the events and developments.

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Livestock barns

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The grandstands, well situated into the bluffs of the river

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