Montana Highway 141 cuts north from Avon On U. S. Highway 12 to halfway between the towns of Ovando and Lincoln on Montana Highway 200. Its is high mountains prairie travel at its best, although the height of ranching along this route disappeared a while back. About 12-13 miles north of Avon you cross into the Nevada Creek drainage, which has long watered the land, enhanced after the New Deal added the Nevada Creek earthen dam that created Nevada Creek Reservoir in 1938.
Along the east banks of the lake are remnants of the Fitzgerald Ranch, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I highlighted the property in my book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986). Jimmy Isbel established the property in 1872,
building a log cabin. But he did little to develop it and c. 1885 he sold it to J.F. Fitzpatrick. His family patented his homesteading claim in 1890 and in the next decade, they built a two-story log home, a wooden-frame barn, and other outbuildings before adding a Queen Anne-influenced frame wing to the house, totally transforming the look of the ranch.
Thirty years ago, this significant collection of vernacular buildings were in good condition, but the years since have been hard on the property, and the complex now needs serious preservation attention. The loss of the roof on the log barn, and the general poor condition of the roofs of the outbuildings are major concerns.
Between the Fitzgerald Ranch and Helmville is the Barger Ranch, also from the late 19th century judging from the more polished example of Queen Anne style in the ranch house. It is living proof that not all of the Nevada Creek ranches have passed away. The Nevada Creek Water Users Association at Helmville still operates to distribute the invaluable water from the reservoir. Helmville was another topic in my 1986 book. Throughout the Nevada Creek drainage, you could help but be impressed with the log construction, and the various types of notching used for the buildings. Helmville had a particular interesting grouping of wood frame and log buildings, which were highlighted by a 1984 photograph in the book. That exact view could not be replicated 30 years later but several of the old buildings still stood.
Helmville has a good bit of continuity. Along with the row of buildings on Montana 271 there is a turn of the 20th century gable-front cottage and a two-story lodge building that has been turned into a garage.
There was also a good bit of change: new post office and community center, new Catholic church building, and the school has been significantly expanded, although someone thought enough of the past to keep the old historic school bell cupola.
Helmville had changed little, however, compared to Ovando, the next village to the northwest. Ovando is on Montana Highway 200, north of the Nevada Creek drainage, past the 1960s era Blackfoot Waterfowl Production Area, and along the Blackfoot River.
Trixie’s was the same fun dive that I always recalled, but the village’s historic buildings had been restored, looking good. Business appeared to be brisk. A new community church has been opened, and a major interpretive place for the “Lewis Minus Clark” expedition had been installed. Kudos to both the U.S. Forest Service and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail for allowing a bit of humor in this marker.
The school had also expanded from its New Deal core of the 1930s, courtesy of the Works Progress Administration. But the most noticeable change was the town’s street signs–first the fact that a small place had street signs but then the nostalgic backpacker theme of these cast iron marvels.
Ovando is a good location on the Blackfoot River for sportsmen, anglers, and hikers headed into the Bob Marshall Wilderness–its recent change demonstrates the influence on those groups on the 21st century Montana landscape.
Dr. West: I am an aerial photographer, and flew over Nevada Lake last week. Low water revealed a foundation in the mud flats on the east side of the reservoir. I can send you a photo if you like. I’d be very interested in knowing what that building may have been, and when the reservoir was flooded. Very sincerely,
Thanks. I would like to see it but sad to hear that the water is that low. I am assuming it’s not part of the Fitzgerald ranch but could be.