When I next returned to Miles City in March 1984, I found a town much interested in the promise of historic preservation. At that time, the town and Custer County as a whole only had three properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places: Fort Keogh, a steam laundry building (since demolished), and the city waterworks along the Yellowstone river.
This local landmark, which had been converted into the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center, came out of Miles City’s golden decade of the 1910s when the town boomed following the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, the railroad’s decision to turn the town into a division point, and the potential of new business brought about by the arrival of thousands of homesteaders either on the Milwaukee line or the earlier Northern Pacific Railroad, which had done so much to establish and develop the town from 1882 forward.
The public meeting for the preservation plan took place at the waterworks, organized by the director of the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center (now known as Waterworks Art Museum). It was a lively and interested crowd, like me concerned about the fate of Fort Keogh and its rapidly disappearing historic buildings and what still remained in town of its railroad era of 1882 to 1932.
The fort property had been accidentally preserved for decades, ever since its conversion into an agricultural experiment station in the 1920s. But preserving what had been left was not a priority of the agricultural reformers (who, to be fair, were never awash in funding).
In 1984, one officer quarters still remained on the property, in poor repair. It has been moved a few miles down the highway and restored at the Range Riders Museum.
One historic c. 1920 mess hall, from the fort’s remount era, also remains, and is the post’s most noticeable landmark. But one brick water wagon shed from 1883 still exists (it was converted into a truck garage in the 1930s) as well as another New Deal building, a massive horse barn from 1934.
The group that night at the waterworks emphasized that they knew more needed to be done, and over the next generation, town residents have done impressive work, especially considering that the town’s population has been in decline, from about 9600 in 1980 to 8400 in 2010. The arts center no doubt showed significant leadership: how a historic building could be converted into new community uses. But one ringleader also introduced himself to me that evening–Dave Rivenes. Dave and Ella Rivenes were community institutions as owners/operators of the local television station, representing the smallest television market in the entire United States.
As soon as the meeting was over, Dave convinced me to come to his house, and go on the air, discussing for the local audience what had happened that night. He and Ella then put me on the morning show. Not having any experience before with live television, I hope that I sounded somewhat with it–it was a surreal experience. But the pride in the town and the appreciation for the past that I gained from Dave and Ella Rivenes left a lasting mark. I came to understand that when residents embrace their past, and you help them in that quest, good things for history and preservation can happen. That is apparent in what Miles City has accomplished in historic preservation over the last 30 years–the subject of my next several posts.