Traveling south along Montana-Dakota border on Montana Highway 7, Ekalaka appears as an oasis of settlement, as it lies almost hidden away along Russell Creek. The seat of Carter County, the town is perhaps best known for the Carter County Museum, a solid institution of natural and local history. Since I had last visited 25 years earlier the museum facility had grown substantially–while the town had slipped to just over 300 residents, according to the 2010 census.
The museum is best known for its dinosaur collections but it also has rich local history collections, and features one of the county’s homesteading era schools moved to the grounds. Central School operated from 1920 to 1947.
So much of what you find in Ekalaka dates to that same time period. The state established Carter County in 1917 and three years later the present-day Carter County Courthouse was opened for business. Wwhen I visited in 2013 this three-story frame building with a Colonial Revival-styled cupola was undergoing renovation. It stands at the heart of the
town, creating a large public space that is shared by the county’s two demographic extremes, represented by the elementary school and a more recent county nursing home.
The physical fabric of Ekalaka’s main street was much the same as it had been in 1984, but now there were more shuttered buildings. Community landmarks included the combination town library and Masonic Lodge building from the first half of the 20th century and the new post office from the first decade of the 21st century.
Deb’s Coffee Shop, the Guest House, and the Mainstreet grocery are still-going concerns while the most obvious commercial landmark–the old Eagles Lodge building–is home to the Ekalaka Eagle, one of the oldest small-town newspapers in the state, almost as old as the town itself.
Carter County in 2013 did not have a property listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the Eagle Building appears to meet the register criteria, but you could also consider the whole commercial area as a historic district for how it still reflects a rural county seat of the 20th century.
Other historic properties abound in Carter County, from the Medicine Rocks north of Ekalaka to Camp Needmore–an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp–south of town in the Custer National Forest. More on those landmarks in later posts. I am still not finished exploring Montana’s southeastern corner.