Valley County–another huge Hi-Line county stretching from the border with Canada to the Missouri River–became one of my favorite places to explore in 1984, and then again in 1988. Fort Peck Dam made it a targeted area because I was interested in the New Deal agencies as back then an under-studied part of the national built environment, and because I came from Tennessee. Nowhere else did the New Deal leave such a heavy hand as the series of dams and lakes of the Tennessee Valley Authority. But in its massiveness–Fort Peck on the Missouri River came damn close.
But let’s start considering Valley County not from its most visited landscape–Fort Peck Dam and Lake–but from its least visited the northern third of the county, where once thousands of homesteaders tried to make their mark but today only hundreds remain to help tell that story still documented by abandoned schools, scarely populated towns, and miles of open prairie. But some places from 1984 were so powerful that linger today, and Glentana School is one of those.
It was abandoned but had hope in 1984–today it is 30 years into becoming a ruin, perhaps a majestic one at that, of the hopes and dreams of homesteaders at the end of the Great Northern spur line almost 100 years ago.
Glentana had lost its post office–replaced by a plexiglass and metal postal delivery system one may guess it is called, a sure sign of being forgotten. Not so for its neighbor Richland, where the post office remains open (let’s hope it stays that way).
But schools turned into homes and community halls are always signs of withering communities–indeed almost every business Richland had in 1984 was now closed.
Opheim, established in 1911, is the biggest place by far in the northern reaches of Valley County. It had 85 residents in 2010, down from about 210 in 1984 and more than double that number in 1960, during the years that it served as federal radar base during the Cold War.
Its population loss is documented not only in the historic town cemetery but also in its abandoned buildings. Yet, compared to other towns, Opheim had more than a sense of life about it, it had a strong sense of place and self, starting with the 1927 school remained vibrant, with a recent addition in place.
The Mint Bar and Outpost were still in service, and the flag flew proudly over the town, and post office.
Most importantly, well at least after the school, is Granrud’s Lefse, once a family business that was fairly new in 1984 but that is now a regional institution for its traditional Norwegian lefse–a rolled potato snack that is fairly tremendous, and can be ordered online.
Opheim in 2013 is what it was, for so many years now: an outpost of America’s agricultural economy. Ignored and usually forgotten by most–true enough. But to those I have met there over 30 years, it is a place that helps to center life and community in the far northern reaches of Montana. And don’t forget the lefse.