Dillon’s public buildings

IMG_3276Dillon is not a large county seat but here you find public buildings from the first third of the 20th century that document the town’s past aspirations to grow into a large, prosperous western city.  It is a pattern found in several Montana towns–impressive public buildings designed to prove to outsiders, and perhaps mostly to themselves, that a new town out in the wilds of Montana could evolve into a prosperous, settled place like those county seats of government back east.

The public library dates to 1901-1902, constructed with funds provided by the Carnegie Library building program of steel magnate Andew Carnegie.  This late example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture came from architect Charles S. Haire, who would become one of the state’s most significant early 20th century designers.

The library reflected the town’s taste for the Romanesque, first expressed in the grand arched entrance of the Beaverhead County Courthouse (1889-1890), designed by architect Sidney Smith. The central clock tower was an instant landmark for the fledging railroad town in 1890–it remains that way today.

IMG_3236The Dillon City Hall also belongs to those turn-of-the-20th century public landmarks but it is a bit more of a blending of Victorian and Classical styling for a multi-purpose building that was city hall, police headquarters, and the fire station all rolled into one.


The most imposing Classical Revival public structure in Dillon is also the smallest:  the public water fountain, located between the railroad depot and the Dingley Block.

Dillon, post office, c. 1940, NRA New Deal era post office introduced a restrained version of Colonial Revival style to Dillon’s downtown. The central entrance gave no hint to the marvel inside, one of the


IMG_3262state’s six post office murals, commissioned and executed between 1937 and 1942.  The Dillon work is titled “News from the States” painted by Elizabeth Lochrie in 1938. It is a rarity among the murals executed across the country in those years because it directly addressed the mail and communication in early Beaverhead County.  Ironically, few of the post office murals actually took the mail as a central theme.

Dillon P.O. Mural NR 1The New Deal also introduced a public modernism to Dillon through the Art Deco styling of the Beaverhead County High School, a building still in use today as the county high school.

Dillon, Beaverhead Co HS

IMG_3227A generation later, modernism again was the theme for the Dillon Middle School and Elementary school–with the low one-story profile suggestive of the contemporary style then the rage for both public and commercial buildings in the 1950s-60s, into the 1970s.

Dillon Middle School

Dillon elementary school 1

Dillon elementary schoolThe contemporary style also made its mark on other public buildings, from the mid-century county office building to the much more recent neo-Rustic style of the Beaverhead National Forest headquarters.

county offices, Dillon

Dillon, Beaverhead Ntl Forest headquarters

The Beaverhead County Fairgrounds is the largest public landscape in Dillon, a sprawling complex of exhibition buildings, grandstand, and rodeo arena located on the outskirts of town along the railroad line.

But throughout town there are other reminders of identity, culture, and history.  Dillon is energized through its public sculpture, be it the cowboys in front of the Chamber of Commerce office or the Veterans Memorial Park on the northern outskirts.




Dillon: Union Pacific Railroad Town

West Yellowstone and Dillon are Montana’s best examples of railroad towns developed by the Union Pacific.  Dillon is the oldest, established as the company’s spur line, the Utah and Northern, pushed north from the main line and headed into the rich mining country of Silver Bow County and environs.  Not only is the historic Union Pacific depot–part of the railroad’s Oregon Short Line–extant, and used as a county museum and theater, so too is the symmetrical town plan of the early 1880s, with the town’s primary commercial blocks facing the tracks.

Beaverhead County Museum Dillon 9This birds-eye view of the town is at the Beaverhead County Museum at the railroad depot.  It shows the symmetrical plan well, with two-story commercial blocks facing the tracks and depot, which was then just a frame building.  To the opposite side of the tracks with more laborer cottages and one outstanding landmark, the Second Empire-style Hotel Metlen.  The Metlen, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remains today, one

IMG_3183of the state’s best examples of a railroad hotel.  I recognized the building as such in the 1984 state historic preservation plan and my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, included the image below of the hotel.

Hotel Metlen, Dillon (p84 54-35) This three-story hotel served not only tourists but especially traveling businessmen–called drummers because they were out “drumming up” business for their companies.  The interior has received some restoration work in the last 30 years but little has changed in the facade, as they two images, one from 1990 and the other from 2012, indicate.

The same can be said for the ornate cast-iron Victorian-styled cornices on the commercial buildings directly across from the depot.  First is a black and white image, c. 1990: note the middle cornice.  The next image, from 2012, shows that the details have been lost in the last 30 years although most of the cornice is intact.

Beaverhead Co Dillon streetscape 1988

Dillon cornice detail

The Dingley and Morse Block from 1888–seen in the historic image of the town at the museum above–has been well preserved and is a significant example of how cast-iron facades defined the look of businesses in Montana’s late 19th century railroad era.


Dillon, cast-iron storefronts, Montana St

This brief look at Dillon as a railroad town is just the beginning of our exploration of this southwest Montana county seat.  Today Dillon is known as the home of the Patagonia outlet–certainly a key business development here in the 21st century.  But the town’s

IMG_3518built environment has many stories to tell.

Country Towns in Beaverhead County, Part II

Jackson MT, MT 278Jackson, Montana, is another favorite place of mine in Beaverhead County.  Located on Montana Highway 278, far away from any neighborhoods, the town dates to the 1880s, as

Jackson Mercantile, MT 278, L&C sign on sidethis area of the Big Hole Valley opened up to ranching. Its name came from Anton Jackson, the first postmaster; the town still has a historic post office building even though its

population barely tops 50.  That is enough, once kids from surrounding ranches are added, to support the Jackson elementary school–a key to the town’s survival over the years.

Jackson School, MT 278Jackson grows significantly during the winter, as it is an increasingly popular winter get-away destination, centered on the historic Jackson Hot Springs, which had been upgraded and significantly expanded since my last visit in 1984.

Jackson MT Hot SpringsBut my real reason to tout the wonders of Jackson, Montana, lie with a simple but rather unique adaptive reuse project.  A turn of the 20th century church building has been converted into a hat manufacturer business, the Buffalo Gal Hat Shop–and I like hats!

IMG_2995Grant is another ranching town along a Montana secondary highway, this time Montana Highway 324.  Like Jackson, it too has enough year-round residents and children from nearby ranches to support a school, a tiny modernist style building while an older early 20th century school building has become a community center.

Grant only attracts the more hardy traveler, mostly hunters.  The Horse Prairie Stage Stop is combination restaurant, bar, and hotel–a throwback to isolated outposts of the late 19th century where exhausted travelers would bunk for a night.

Grant bar and lodgeBack when I visited in 1984, Monte Elliott (only the third owner of the property he claimed) showed off his recent improvements made within the context of a business location that dated to the Civil War era.  The lodge still keeps records from those early days that they share with interested visitors.  In the 21st century, new owner Jason Vose additionally upgraded the facilities,  but kept the business’s pride in its past as he further expanded its offerings to hunters and travelers.

IMG_3499Far to the north along Montana Highway 43 is the Big Horn River Canyon, a spectacular but little known landscape within the state.  Certainly anglers and hunters visited here, but the two towns along the river in this northern end of Beaverhead County are tiny places, best known perhaps for their bars as any thing else.


Certainly that is the case at Dewey, where the Dewey Bar attracts all sorts of patrons, even the four-legged kind.  The early 20th century false-front general store that still operated in 1984 is now closed, but the town has protected two log barns that still front Montana Highway 43.

Wise River still has four primary components that can characterize a isolated western town:  a post office, a school, a bar/cafe, and a community center.  It is also the location for one of the ranger stations of the Beaverhead National Forest.

The station has a new modernist style administrative building but it also retains its early twentieth century work buildings and ranger residence, a Bungalow design out of logs.

The forest service station has provided Wise River with a degree of stability over the decades, aided by the town’s tiny post office and its early 20th century public school.


IMG_2967Just as important as a town anchor is the Wise River Community Center, which began in the gable-front frame building as the Wise River Woman’s Club but has expanded over the last 30 years into the larger building you find today.

Wise River Woman's Club with extension

But to my eye the most important institution, especially for a traveler like me, is one of the state’s most interesting bits of roadside architecture, the Wise River Club.  I have already written about this building, from my 1984 travels.

Wise River Beaverhead Co. MTThe liveliness of that 1984 exterior–note the mini-totem pole, the log benches, wagon wheels, and yes the many antlers defining the front wall–is muted in today’s building.

IMG_1660But the place is still there, serving locals and travelers, and a good number of the antlers now grace the main room of the bar.

IMG_0549Wise River, unlike Dewey but similar to Jackson, has been able to keep its historic general store in business.  The post office moved out in the 1990s to the new separate building but the flag pole remains outside to mark how this building also served both private and public functions.

Wise River Mercantile, Wise RiverThe country towns of Beaverhead County help to landmark the agricultural history of this place, and how such a huge county as this one could still nurture tiny urban oases.  Next I will leave the rural landscape and look at Beayerhead’s one true urban landscape–the county seat of Dillon.

Country Towns of Beaverhead County, Part One

Monida from MT 508, 2

Monida, at the Idaho-Montana border, on Interstate I-15.

Country towns of Beaverhead County–wait,  you cry out: isn’t every town in Beaverhead County a country town?  Well yes, since Dillon, the county seat, has a single stop light, you can say that.  But Dillon is very much an urban oasis compared to the county’s tiny villages and towns scattered all about Beaverhead’s 5,572 square miles, making it the largest county in Montana.

IMG_3387Let’s start this theme with the railroad/ federal highway towns.  Monida, at the state border with Idaho, is a good place to start, first established as a place on the Utah and Northern Railroad line as it moved north toward the mines at Butte in 1881.  Monica had a second life as a highway stop on the old U.S. Highway 91 that paralleled the tracks, as evident in the old garages left behind.

The next town north on the corridor created by the railroad/highway/interstate is Lima, IMG_3369which possesses a Montana welcome center and rest stop.  That’s important because at this stop you also can find one of the state’s mid-20th century examples of a tourist welcome center, which has been moved to this stop and then interpreted as part of the state’s evolving roadside architecture.

Lima is a classic symmetrical-plan railroad town, the plan favored by the engineers of the Utah and Northern as the railroad moved into Montana.  The west side of the tracks, where the two-lane U.S. Highway 91 passed, was the primary commercial district, with several brick and frame two-story buildings ranging from the 1880s to the 1910s.

Lima west of tracks Peat Hotel and bar

Lima west of tracks 2 Peat Hotel and bar

The east side, opposite old U.S. Highway 91, was a secondary area; the Lima Historical Society is trying to keep an old 1880s building intact for the 21st century.

The town’s comparative vitality is shown by its metal Butler Building-like municipal building, and historic churches, ranging from a early 20th century shingle style to a 1960s contemporary style Gothic church of the Latter Day Saints.

The town’s pride naturally is its school, which developed from the early 20th century two-story brick schoolhouse to become the town’s center of community.

Lima school

Eight miles to the north is a very different historic schoolhouse, the one-story brick Dell school (1903), which had been converted into a wonderful cafe when I stopped in 1984.  It is still a great place–if you don’t stop here for pie or a caramel roll (or both), you goofed.


The Calf-A is not the only place worth a look at Dell, a tiny railroad town along the historic Utah and Northern line, with the Tendroy Mountains in the background.  Dell still has its UPRR line at Dell

post office, within its one store, its community hall, and a good steakhouse dive, the false-front Stockyard Inn.  But most importantly, for an understanding of the impact of World

War II on Montana, Dell has an air-strip, which still contains its 1940s B-17 Radar base, complete with storehouse–marked by the orange band around the building–and radar tower.  Kate Hampton of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office in 2012 told me to be of the lookout for these properties.  Once found throughout Montana, and part of the guidance system sending planes northward, many have disappeared over the years.  Let’s hope the installation at Dell remains for sometime to come.

B-17 base landscape, Dell

There are no more towns between Dell and Dillon but about halfway there is the Clark Canyon Reservoir, part of the reshaping of the northwest landscape by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the 1960s.  The bureau in 1961-1964 built the earthen dam and created the

reservoir, which inundated the small railroad town of Armstead, and led to the re-routing of U.S. Highway 91 (now incorporated into the interstate at this point).

Clark Canyon Reservoir, reclamationThe reclamation project, which stored water for irrigation, also covered the site of Camp Fortunate, a very important place within the larger narrative of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and its relationships and negotiations with the Shoshone Indians.  An early


effort to mark and interpret the site came from the Daughters of the American Revolution, who not surprisingly focused on the Sacajawea story.  Reclamation officials added other markers after the construction of the dam and reservoir.

In this century the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail has added yet another layer of public interpretation in its attempt to tell the whole story of the expedition and its complicated relations with the Native Americans of the region.

North of Dillon along the old route of U.S. Highway 91 and overlooking the corridor of the Utah and Northern Railroad is another significant Lewis and Clark site, known as Clark’s Lookout, which was opened to the public during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial of the early 21st century.

The lookout is one of the exciting historic sites that have been established in Montana in the 30 years since my initial survey for the state historic preservation plan.  Not only does the property interpret an important moment in the expedition’s history–from this vantage point William Clark tried to understand the countryside before him and the best direction to take–it also allows visitors to literally walk in his footsteps and imagine the same perspective.

Of course what Clark viewed, and what you might see, are vastly different–the tracks of the Utah and Northern, then route of old U.S. 91 are right up front, while the town of Dillon creeps northward toward the lookout.


Our last stop for part one of Beaverhead’s country towns is Glen, a village best accessed by old U. S. Highway 91.  A tiny post office marks the old town. Not far away are two historic IMG_3164

North of Glen you cross the river along old U.S. Highway 91 and encounter a great steel tress bridge, a reminder of the nature of travel along the federal highways of the mid-20th century.