The Yellowstone River, along with the parallel tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, divides Stillwater County, with the south side of the county more mountainous but with the rich Stillwater River Valley coming out of the mountains to meet the Yellowstone at Columbus, the county seat. Let’s talk about two towns along the river valley that were once down but now more vibrant than 30 years ago due to the population growth in the southern end of the county.
Absorkee began in the mid-1890s after another taking of lands from the Crow Reservation. The Oliver Hovda house, a Classical Revival-styled residence on the main artery of Woodard Street, dates to c. 1900 and was built by local carpenter Jacob Wagner. Listed in the National Register, the big yellow house, as it is known locally, remains the town’s primary domestic architecture landmark.
Just steps away are an array of masonry commercial buildings, not finished to the degree that you find north in Columbus but still substantial buildings from c. 1910-1920 that reflect the determination of town boosters to show permanence and seriousness in this small country town. The 5 Spot is the town’s iconic bar, just as welcoming in 2014 as it had been in 1984.
The town’s school is its pride and joy (I apologize for the distance images with fences but school was in session when I visited in May). Among the historic school buildings is a 1903 two-room section, see below, and then what is known as the Cobblestone School, a more modern building constructed in 1921 with river cobblestones as the primary exterior wall treatment. W. R. Plew, an engineer at Montana State University, promoted good rural school designed and is credited with this striking building.
Historic churches also define Absorkee’s built environment, no more so than the historic Emmanuel Lutheran Church, with its soaring Gothic steeple but also its modern c. 1970 concrete block screen, an unusual but effective combination of styles and materials.
Further south along the Stillwater River is Fishtail, a place that in 1984 I noticed more for its sleepy general store (c. 1900) but now a town that is much more alive with residents and visitors. The re-energized store, who got new owners in 2000, is a large part of that as is the general boom in recreational opportunities and offerings in the Fishtail to Nye section of the Stillwater River Valley.
The rustic-styled front to the Community Hall speaks to the permanent residents while the sprawling Cowboy Bar attracts visitors and locals. The south side of Stillwater County may be cut off from the mainstream of Montana life since the railroad and interstate are north of the Yellowstone River, but in the last 30 years its sense of itself has grown and is embodied by the care shown many of its community landmarks.