The Milwaukee Road, the last transcontinental railroad to crisscross Montana, enters eastern Montana at the town of Baker, established in 1908, which served as an important rail center for the company with the full name of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific. When I visited Baker in 1984 i noted that many of its buildings dated from the homesteading era although there was a clear second layer of development died to the region’s oil boom of the late 1960s and 1970s. In A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986) I noted “Baker’s railroad corridor is still largely intact, and the spatial arrangement created by its Milwaukee depot and the neighboring Baker Hotel, an imposing brick building dating to 1916, symbolizes the railroad’s importance to the town.”
Today the hotel, the tracks, and the huge grain elevators along the railroad corridor remain, and the elevators still visually dominate the surrounding mostly one-or two-story built environment. But the depot is gone, leaving a hole in the town’s historic fabric.
Buildings and railroad tracks were not the only legacy of the Milwaukee in Baker–there was the large lake the company developed to provide water for its trains in a largely parched region. The Baker Lake, 30 years ago, was undergoing another improvement project, part of the town’s generation-long effort to turn a forgotten corporate remnant into a community asset. The company built the lake c. 1908 but soon found that the water was too salty–it corroded the equipment. And so the lake sat, until the 1950s when the Baker’s Woman Club began an effort to convince the railroad to transfer the lake to local
government. County leaders became convinced that yes, Baker needed a community recreation asset, and eventually the land was transferred into the public use, and Baker Lake by the end of the century was an unique asset in southeastern Montana, and a center for recreation and special events.
The lake is not the only contribution of the Woman’s Club. it also was central in creating, staffing, and maintaining a public library, and the contemporary-designed library from 1970 remains but also has been enlarged since 1984.
Indeed, I noted the recent construction of the 1970s in Baker, like the new county courthouse/city administration building where I held a public meeting, but I didn’t really process the layer of modernism in the town, a reflection of its growth from 1950 to 1970, when the population grew from 1,772 to 2,584. The new joint administration building, designed by the Billings firm of Johnson Graham Associates, remains an impressive piece of contemporary design. Architects Willard Johnson and Orval Graham had established the firm in 1967. The Baker project established a connection between the firm and county that continued into the present: the new grandstand at the Fallon County Fairgrounds is also a JGA design, from 2011.
Historic schools are other important contributions to the town’s built environment. Above is the Washington School, built in 1927. It is a brick Classical Revival statement of the town’s insistence for permanence in the face of the homesteading bust. When I last visited in 2013, the school was undergoing rehabilitation to become an office building. On the other side of town stood a more modern design, the Longfellow School, built in 1968 during the height of the population boom in Baker. Its low, rectangular mass was modern school design at its best, although since my 1984 visit the casement windows have been covered so central heat and air could be installed.
The second building in Baker listed in the National Register was the only one designated in 1984, and it was the pride and joy of the community: the old county courthouse converted into the O’Fallon Museum. Here was not only the historical exhibits typical of the area but also installations about the region’s prehistoric past and moved buildings to host special
collections but also to interpret the homesteading past. I will always remember my public meeting in Baker, for the obvious pride residents had in the museum but also for the comment that they could not wait to show me “our really old stuff,” such as a 1916 homestead. Coming from my training at Colonial Williamsburg, considering places from 1916 as really old was a notion that took some getting used to, but of course in the context of settlement and development of southeastern Montana, it made perfect sense.
Today I would even join into the call for the “really old stuff”–like the Lake Theatre of 1918. It certainly deserves a place in the National Register as so few classic movie theaters remain in this part of the state. The same could be said for this classic c. 1960 drive-in,
good measure I would even dare say that it’s time to assess the significance of the oil wells and facilities along Montana Highway 7 as you enter or leave Baker. The discovery of oil and its development in the 1960s and 1970s certainly was the major economic story of the town and county in the second half of the 20th century.
In 2015 Baker has retreated from that c. 1960-1970 boom. Population peaked at 2584 in 1970. It remained just a hundred or so under that in 1980, but changes in demand, technology and the bankruptcy of the Milwaukee meant that Baker in the last 30 years has lost residents, in 2010 down to 1741, about the same number as in 1950. Yet I like that the lake had been restored, and it remained a vibrant part of the town, that new banks and new renovations were part of the town, and indeed, that an old car dealership and garage was now the very good Three Garages Bar. Historic preservation can play a larger role in Baker’s future just as it did during Baker’s boom in the past.