A Return to Fort Peck

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For sheer scale and audacity nothing in Montana built environment rivals the transformations wrought on the Missouri River and the peoples who for centuries had taken nourishment from it than the construction of Fort Peck Dam, spillway, powerhouse, reservoir, and a new federally inspired town from the 1930s to the early 1940s.

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The mammoth size of the entire complex was just as jaw-dropping to me as it had been to the New Dealers and most Americans in the 1930s.  That same spillway, for instance, had been the subject of the famous first cover of Life Magazine by Margaret Bourne-White in 1936.

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When she visited in 1936 the town of Fort Peck housed thousands but once the job was over, the town quickly diminished and when you take an overview of Fort Peck, the town, today it seems like a mere bump in what is otherwise an overpowering engineering achievement.

Valley Co Fort Peck

Coming from a state that had headquartered another New Deal era transformation of the landscape–the even larger Tennessee Valley Authority project–I understood a good bit of what Fort Peck meant as I started my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.  A good thing I knew a little because outside of a Montana Historic Highway marker and a tour of the power plant there was little in the way of public interpretation at Fort Peck thirty years ago.

IMG_8115First came efforts to better interpret the Corps of Discovery and their travels through this section of the Missouri River 15-20 years ago. The theme was Lewis & Clark in the Missouri River Country, but by the 2010s the region’s demanding weather had taken its toll on the installation.

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IMG_8003At the lake’s edge are additional markers encouraging visitors to imagine the time before the lake when the Big Dry River often meant exactly what it said–the reservoir keeps it full now.

IMG_8024New interpretive markers combine with a well-defined pull-off to encourage travelers to stop and think about the loss of life that occurred in building the dam.  Many of the massive infrastructure projects of the New Deal have similarly sad stories to tell–but few of them do.

IMG_8025You can explore the landscape with the assistance of the highway markers to a far greater degree than in the past.  Even if today it is difficult to “see” the transformation brought about by the massive earthen dam, there are informative markers to help you.

The new visitor center at the Fort Peck powerhouses takes the site’s public interpretation to a new level.  Just reading the landscape is difficult; it is challenging to grasp the fact that tens of

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workers and families were here in the worst of the Great Depression years and it is impossible to imagine this challenging landscape as once lush with thick vegetation and dinosaurs.

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Through fossils, recreations, artwork, historic photographs, recreated buildings, and scores of artifacts, the new interpretive center and museum does its job well.  Not only are the complications of the New Deal project spelled out–perhaps a bit too heavy on that score, I mean where else do you see what the “Alphabet Agencies” actually meant–but you get an understanding of worlds lost in the name of 20th century progress.

Is everything covered?  Far from it–too much in the new public interpretations focuses on 1800 to 1940, and not how Fort Peck has the harbinger of the Cold War-era Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin reject that totally transformed the river and its historic communities.  Nor is there enough exploration into the deep time of the Native Americans and what the transformation of the river and the valley meant and still means to the residents of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  There’s still work to be done to adequately convey the lasting transformation that came to this section of Montana in the mid-1930s.

Canyon Ferry and the transformation of the Missouri River Valley

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Canyon Ferry Lake is the third largest in Montana.  A good part of it lies just east of Helena, the state capitol, while the bulk of the lake stretches southward into Broadwater County.  Living in Helena during the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan survey, and often driving U.S. 287/12 which parallels the lake, you would think that the lake and its history would have played a major role in that initial plan.  Such was not the case–rarely did I or anyone else give it much of a thought.  Canyon Ferry Lake in 1984 was just 30 years old–it was not “historic.”

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But its historic impact can’t be ignored.  As part of the massive federal plan to conquer the Missouri River, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944 was justified by wartime conditions–it would create new sources of hydroelectric power–but actual construction did not get underway until the later 1940s and 1950s.  Historians have studied the act’s disastrous impact on Native American tribal lands in the west, and the environmental consequences of building some 50 dams on the Missouri and its various tributaries.

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For Lewis and Clark County and Broadwater County, you can see the relationship between the dammed Missouri and irrigation, as shown above along Montana Highway 284, and you can find remnants of how the project displaced towns, landmarks, and people along the length of the river. No longer was the Missouri the river that the Corps of Discovery had traversed at the beginning of the 19th century.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic NR 1St. Joseph Catholic Church, perched now on a barren bluff facing the lake, was moved about 2.5 miles east to its present location in 1954.  Originally near the river in what was then known as the Canton Valley settlement, the church building is one of the state’s oldest, dating to 1874-1875 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The proud Gothic styled church is the remnant of one of the valley’s earliest settlements.

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Not far from the church is another remnant of the early 20th century settlement boom during the early 20th century homesteading era after the creation of the county in 1897.  Located along Montana Highway 284 this one-room school is typical of the type found throughout the state from 100 years ago, as adaptive by communities and school boards with the small gable-end extension creating storage space and a barrier between the cold winds of the outside and the inside of the classroom itself.

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These vernacular buildings and landscapes compare starkly with what the U.S. Corps of Engineers built at Canyon Ferry in the 1950s.  It is a Colonial Revival styled federal village–an architectural choice wildly out of step with regional traditions, and a reminder to anyone that here was the federal government, in the midst of the Cold War, placing its imprint on the land.

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In 1984-1985 I ignored this new public landscape of a school, administrative building, work buildings, and village.  Thirty years later, of course I see Canyon Ferry as a very distinct historic district, symbolic of the entire Pick-Sloan project and a significant example of an architectural aesthetic from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

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The Canyon Ferry headquarters of the mid-1950s is not listed in the National Register but it could be–an evocative grouping of buildings that helps to document that 60 years we were assured and more than a bit arrogant in our power and mastery of technology.  We were convinced hat as we controlled the world, we could also control nature.

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Montana’s Community Gymnasiums

The state basketball tournaments have been all of the talk in Montana newspapers and communities over the last three weeks, and in places like Belt, in Cascade County, they are celebrating state championships this March morning.

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Gyms were not on my mind particularly when I carried out the 1984-1985 historic preservation plan survey for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, but even then I picked up on some of the community gyms created by the WPA during the New Deal, such as the one in Virginia City, an unassuming building if there ever was one, and then

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VA City WPA gym, community center

the tiny log construction gym for Sanders, a tiny community in Treasure County, seen below.  Both the Virginia City and the Sanders gyms are listed in the National Register of

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Historic Places, but the state has dozens of other worthy community gyms, that are very much at the center of recreational, sports, and social life in these towns and counties. Some await new fates and new futures, such as the gyms in Pony, Madison County, also on

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the National Register, and the more architecturally distinct Craftsman-styled community gym built for Whitehall in Jefferson County.

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Others date to mid-century and their more modern styles reflect their function–the half-barrels roofs–but they also dominate the one buildings around them, such as the high school gym in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, seen below.

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Then there is the frankly spectacular modern-style gym of Twin Bridges, in the state’s southwest corner, with its sweeping overhanging roof.

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But wherever you encounter community gyms, you can tell from their location and maintenance, these are buildings of local pride and achievement, and places necessary to community life when so much else is scattered and disconnected.

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Gymnasium in Circle, McCone County.

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Powell County High School Gym, Deer Lodge.

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High School Gym, Polson, Lake County.

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The “Old Gym” in Malta, Phillips County

Communities across Montana are clearly proud of their gyms, and even when new ones come along, they find new uses for the stately buildings, like the conversion of the old gymnasium below, located in Boulder, into a fine arts theater, which is just one example of this type of adaptive reuse project in the state.

Gym facade, Jefferson County high school, Boulder

Here’s to new futures, grounded in meaningful pasts, for these community, and often times architectural, landmarks across the Big Sky Country. As a group, they are powerful reminders of the importance of community spaces in the counties, both urban and rural, of Montana.

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Art Deco styled gymnasium, Kalispell, Flathead County

 

 

Glendive: Landmarks Old and New

img_7257In the early posts of this exploration of Montana’s historic landscape I spoke of the transformation that I encountered when I revisited Glendive, the seat of Dawson County, for the first time in about 25 years, of how local preservation efforts had kept most of the town’s railroad era landscapes alive while leading to the revitalization of its amazing number of historic residences from 1900 to 1950.

Dawson Co Glendive Merrill Ave NR district city hallLet’s now turn our attention to public landmarks, old and more recent, that also deserve notice, starting with the magnificent Classical Revival-styled City Hall, one of the anchors of the Merrill Avenue historic district, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Built in 1914, this all-in-one municipal building is an impressive architectural

Dawson Co Glendive Merrill Ave NR district city hallstatement by the second generation of Glendale’s leaders that the town would grow and prosper during the homesteading boom of the first two decades of the 20th century.  The architect was Brynjulf Rivenes of Miles City.  His firm had so many commissions coming from eastern Montana and Yellowstone Valley patrons that by this time Rivenes operated offices in both Glendive and Miles City.

img_7268Rivenes had earlier marked Glendive’s new emerging townscape with his Gothic design for the First Methodist Church, in 1909.  Fifteen years later, he added another landmark church design with the Romanesque styled Sacred Heart Catholic Church (1924-1925).

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The grand circular entrance window depicted the story of the sacred heart of Jesus.  Bishop Mathias Lenihan dedicated the window in 1925. The tan brick of the building came from Hebron, North Dakota.

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Rivenes also designed various commercial buildings along Merrill Avenue and its prominent side streets as Glendive business boomed from 1900 to the era of the Great Depression.  During the New Deal, the federal government worked with local and state government to improve local infrastructure and irrigation.  It also sponsored the construction of the Colonial Revival-styled Glendive post office, by federal architect Louis A. Simon, in the mid-1930s.

img_7269With recovery and the arrival of more and more automobile traffic from the late 1930s to the 1950s, many of the older buildings received mid-century updates.  The remodels could

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overwhelming, like the glass block windows and brick wall inserts at the Classical Revival styled Masonic Lodge, above, or they could be more effective blending of the early 20th past with the mid-century present as at the Kolstad Jewelry shop, below.

Dawson Co Glendive Kolstad Jewelry decoThe 1950s and 1960s brought many changes to Glendive.  Post World War Ii growth both in the town and the many surrounding ranches led to expansion and remodeling at the historic Glendive Milling Company in 1955.  When the historic districts for Glendive were designated in the late 1980s, preservationists questioned the inclusion of this important industrial/agricultural complex due to the changes of the 1950s.  Viewed today, however, the mill complex is clearly a very significant historic site.

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As passenger traffic on the Northern Pacific Railway slacked, automobile traffic on the Yellowstone Trail (U.S. Highway 10) became more important as the old motel above also attests.  Architectural signs like for the Gust Hauf located at 300 West Bell Street downtown don’t really make sense today but it did in 1965 when travelers were still using U.S. Highway 10 every day.

img_7218More contemporary styled church buildings were also dedicated in the mid-century, such as the classic “contemporary” styling of the Assembly of God building, with classrooms at

img_7292at the front rather than the rear, or the modified A-frame style of the First Congregational Church, which I shared in an earlier post on Glendive.

Dawson Co Glendive Congregational churchGlendive is very much a blending of different 20th century architectural styles, reaching back into the region’s deep, deep past, as at Makoshika State Park, where the visitor

img_7297center/museum is an excellent example of late 20th century modern style–clearly a building of the present but one that complements, not overwhelms, the beauty of the park itself.

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Big Hole National Battlefield: A Second Look

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On this wintery day I return to Big Hole National Battlefield, one of the most solemn and sacred places in Big Sky Country, out of a request from a MTSU graduate student who is trying to come to grips with western battlefields and their interpretation.  In 2013 I posted about the new visitor center museum exhibits at Big Hole, lauding them for taking the “whole story” approach that we have always attempted to take with our work in Tennessee through the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

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The Big Hole Battlefield exhibits, how at least 5 years old, do the whole story approach well, as you can see from the panel above where voices from the past and present give you the “straight talk” of the Nez Perce perspective.

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One of the most telling quotes on how the military viewed the original residents of the northern Rockies is not that of Sherman–damning enough–but the one above by General O.O. Howard, best known in the American South for his determination and leadership of the Freedman’s Bureau and its attempt to secure civil rights for the newly emancipated enslaved of the nation.

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The exhibit panels, together with a new set of exterior interpretive panels scattered across the battlefield, do an excellent job of allowing visitors to explore, reflect, and decide for themselves.  The more comprehensive approach to telling the story is nothing really new.  NPS historian Robert Utley called for it decades ago, and Marc Blackburn recently reviewed efforts across the country in his excellent book, Interpreting American Military History (2016).  For the Big Hole itself, all scholars can benefit from Helen A. Keremedjiev’s ethnographic study of this park and other military sites in Montana in his now decade old master’s thesis at the University of Montana.

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Of course Big Hole Battlefield is now part of a larger thematic effort, the Nez Perce Historical Park, to mark and tell the story of Chief Joseph and his attempt to find a safe haven in land that once the tribe had dominated.  These few images, which, as many of you regular readers know, can be enlarged and viewed intently, only start the exploration–you really have to go to the Big Hole to understand what the events of 1877 meant to the new residents flooding the country and those who had lived and thrived there for centuries.

 

Reserve, Montana: a Sheridan County Railroad Town

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Readers of this blog have been generous, sharing thoughts, and history about the many fascinating places of the Big Sky Country.  Most recently I had an inquiry about a place that even most Montanans do not know about–Reserve, Montana.  When I earlier wrote about railroad towns in Sheridan County I briefly mentioned this place of a couple dozen residents today–and the inquiry has led me back to the images I took in 2012 and wish to share more about this place. The image above shows the town in its entirety–a rather common Great Northern town in the northern plains.

img_7471The town’s grain elevators really are its landmark–the town is along the railroad spur and sits off Montana Highway 16–without the elevators you might not even notice it.

img_7472Agriculture defines the use of the largest buildings of the town, and while it is a tiny place Reserve serves a much larger region of ranches located between Plentywood, the county seat, to the north and Medicine Lake, to the south.

img_7474This larger audience for services in Reserve helps to explain the survival of the Reserve Post Office–so many tiny Montana towns have lost the one federal institution that had been there since the town’s beginning.

img_7475But naturally I will urge you to make a stop, however brief, at the Reserve Bar.  This concrete block building, with its period glass block windows, is a friendly place, and a great way to talk with both residents and surrounding farmers.

Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

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Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.