Small-town Montana: 35 Years Ago

BA40C123-2091-4C10-B2FF-91072816A954The new year will mark 35 years since I began my systematic exploration of Montana for the state historic preservation office.  I am using that loose anniversary (actually I started in Toole County in February) as an excuse to share some of my favorite images from a time that seems like yesterday but certainly belongs to another era. The image of a winter morning in McCabe in the northeast corner of Montana is still perhaps my favorite of all.  The idea of a town being merely a handful of unadorned buildings fascinated me, and the primacy of the post office also struck me.

EC800707-BDBD-40EC-A3A3-DBEB918A67D1The imprint of the metropolitan corridor of great railroad corporations crossing the northern plains with their trains speeding between Seattle and St Paul never left my memory— as four decades of my graduate students will sadly attest. The image of Hoagland in northern Blaine County recorded what happened to the spur lines of the main corridors by the end of the century. The image below of Joplin along US Highway 2 is what I always think of when someone mentions the Hi-Line.

1975D293-C467-450A-B0D4-8122F5F66F79Small-town Montana is also defined by its local bars and taverns, as I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog.  Swede’s Place in Drummond just said a lot to me in 1984. But I wasn’t sure which door to use— the one between the glass block windows did the trick.

C808D840-B507-49A2-A3E0-79239C8B0605Some places I considered small town landmarks have disappeared in the last third of a century.  The Antler Hotel and bar in Melstone on US Highway 12 is one I still miss.

D801E41B-7955-482D-9ACB-D760810DFEE3Rural schools were everywhere even though some had been abandoned for a generation.  The Boston Coulee School still had its New Deal privy. The New Deal also built the modernist styled Shawmut School. I haven’t been that way in awhile—I wonder if it still serves that tiny town.

C78B440C-A573-465A-9CF2-114D5518C3503E0BE5B1-0313-4445-A8F6-18A2B6D0DE92The towns defined only by their community centers also fascinated me.  Loring was bigger than Eden for what that’s worth but these comparatively substantial and obviously valued buildings told me that community meant something perhaps more profound in the Montana plains.

85EABA98-E1B6-4D7A-BCE1-6A2FF3C0F5F75561C665-42CC-4BC6-AB4A-656586479BD8I will always remember Saco fondly for the town tour that residents gave me—it ranged from an old homesteader hotel (no longer there) to a Sears Roebuck kit bungalow, which is still a family home in Saco although Sears Roebuck has largely closed up shop.

8C42D13E-2D57-40A3-8086-8D9A403B4FDBE070E089-F5B8-4846-9424-72757F302496These images are merely a beginning of my reconsideration of what I saw, heard and experienced 35 years ago but I know they represent places that still bring meaning to me today.

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Montana State Capitol: update

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In 1982, two years before I began my survey of all 56 counties for the state historic preservation office, I took on a very meaningful and fun assignment—developing an interpretive tour of the recently restored Montana State Capitol.  Jim Mc Donald’s firm in Missoula had developed a comprehensive study nd they and the many partners and contractors restored the grand spaces of this turn of the twentieth century building.

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Designed by the firm of Bell and Kent, the Capitol is a jaw-dropping public space, which spoke of the state’s dreams and ambitions at its beginning. No matter how jaded you might be about politics and politicians today just a walk through the corridors of grandeur, and power, of the Capitol will remind you that democracy does matter and we the people continue down the demanding path of making ourselves rise up to democracy’s promise.

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Plus the 1982 project was just a great learning experience. I worked most closely with Jennifer Jeffries Thompson, then the education curator at the Montana Historical Society, plus it became a way to meet and learn from the SHPO staff then, led by Marcella Sherry, and the architect Lon Johnson and architectural historian Pat Bick.  Governor Ted  Schwinden and his staff were great and I always appreciated the interest shown by Senate Republican leader (and future governor) Stan Stephens.  Senator Stephens always wanted me to lead his groups through the building, but I never knew if that was because he thought I had something to say or that everyone always liked to hear me say it, with my southern accent echoing in the chambers and hallways.

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I learned so much because the Capitol was full of magnificent western art depicting pivitol moments in state history, as understood by state leaders one hundred years ago.  Everyone (my celebrities included actors Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall) wanted to see Charles M. Russell’s depiction of the Lewis and Clark expedition at Ross’s Hole in the House chamber.  My favorites however were the series of historical paintings by Edgar Paxton in the legislative lounge and office area.

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Paxson’s portrayal of Sacajawea showing the way at Three Forks—artistic license acknowledged—was always a favorite teaching opportunity for in a painting of 100 years ago Paxton depicted a reality—the presence and importance of a Native American woman and an African American slave, York—at a time when historians of the west had difficulty even acknowledging their existence in history.

I also liked the scope of Paxton’s narrative and the prominence of the Native American stor..u even to the surrender of Chief Joseph, which would have been fairly recent history when Paxton carried out his work.

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The Senate Chamber taught other stories, from the process of voting and government to the story of the three Georgians who left the South in the midst of the Civil War to find riches in Last Chance Gulch, now Helena, and on to the massive Sioux and Cheyenne victory over George Armstrong Custer’s Calvary at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

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While I had stopped in at the Capitol several times in the last decade, I did not really explore. My trip this summer found many more history lessons throughout the building.

The statue of the Mansfields were an effective complement to the earlier statues for Wilbur F. Sanders  and Jeanette Rankin, which had booth stood in the Capitol when I worked there in 1882 and 1983. I also really like the bronze bell added in honor of the state’s centennial.  Both the Mansfields and the bell allow you to take visitors into Montana’s late twentieth century history.

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Then the women history murals, titled Women Build Montana, are just delightful, and inspiring.  Installed in 2015 the murals by Hadley Ferguson add new layers of history and meaning to the grand old Capitol. Of course there is much more to the art and architecture of the State Capitol than what I have highlighted here. The Montana Historical Society maintains an excellent website that gives you all of the details you would ever need. But I hope that you do will visit the Capitol if you haven’t recently.  Some 36 years after I first discovered its history, art, and architecture it still has many lessons to teach.

The Power Building, Lewistown: Update

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The two-story, cut-stone Power Mercantile Company building in Lewistown is a foundational business for the town, and for central Montana.  T. C. Power was a very significant pioneer entrepreneur in Montana, and this stone building, built by Croatian immigrants to Lewistown in 1901, served his mercantile and ranching interests in the area.  Standing in the heart of the downtown historic district, across the street from the mammoth classical styled First National Bank, the Power building has served Lewistown in many ways over the last 100 years, but when I visited last in 2013, the Reids department store had closed and the building was up for lease.

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This week’s Great Falls Tribune, however, had the exciting news that the American Prairie Reserve, which already had acquired Power’s famous PN Ranch at the confluence of the Judith and Missouri rivers, had purchased the Power Mercantile Company Building to serve as its future National Discovery Center, a downtown visitor center/museum.  This adaptive reuse project will spur heritage tourism, recreational tourism, and economic development in Lewistown, linking the town and beautiful landscapes to the north along the Missouri River.

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I applaud Lewistown for the vision of having preserved this historic mercantile building until the right time for a new use, and new generations of service to the city.  This story, compared to what happened in another Montana city to the west, is yet another demonstration of how Montanans can build new futures from the built environment of their distinguished past.

 

Roundup Montana: A town with a plan and on the move

One of the most exciting results of my recent work on the historic landscape of Montana is how many residents contact me with developments–both good and bad but mostly good–as they use their past and historic built environments to build new futures for their families and community.  Such an update just arrived last week from Roundup, the seat of Musselshell County.

roundup schoolA resident reported on the towns decision to join the Main Street program and how a community partnership effort had been formed to guide the process, assuring me that the wonderful historic Roundup school would find a new future as a multi-purpose and use facility.  That update has spurred me to share more images from this distinctive Montana town that I have enjoyed visiting for over 30 years.

Roundup stem of TAs I discussed in my earlier large posting on Roundup, it is both a railroad town on the historic mainline of the Milwaukee Road and a highway town, with a four-lane Main Street defining the commercial district. It is less than a hour’s drive north of Billings, Montana’s largest urban area.  But nestled at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S. 87, Roundup is a totally different world from booming Billings.

Roundup lodgeRoundup store  You see the difference if how false frame stores and lodge buildings from the first years of the town’s beginnings still stand, and how the commercial district is pockmarked with more stately early 20th century brick commercial blocks, whether two stories high or a mere one-story. Yet the architectural details tell you the community had ambitions.  It

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was just that hard times came in the 1920s and stayed awhile, despite the best efforts of New Deal reformers who helped to fund the county’s magnificent Art Deco-inspired Musselshell County Courthouse at the end of the depression decade,

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The bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road in the early 1980s did not help recovery, and it was soon after that I found myself in Roundup for the first time in 1984.

roundup elevatorI found a place then, and still today, that was proud of its past and of its community.  I visited and spoke at the county museum, which was housed in the old Catholic school and included one of county’s first homestead cabins moved to the school grounds. The nearby town park and fairgrounds (covered in an earlier post) helped to highlight just how beautiful the Musselshell River valley was at Roundup.

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Community pride was evident in the well-kept homes of the downtown neighborhood, and I have already posted on the architecturally important modernist Catholic church.

roundup jailThen the public buildings–the school, the courthouse, and even the classically tinged county jail shown above–added to the town’s impressive heritage assets. Of course some buildings I ignored in the 1980s but find compelling today–like in the riverstone lined posts of the modernist Wells Fargo Bank, and the effective and efficient look of city hall.

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Yes when you take a close look at Roundup–the possibilities are there, as the new community partnership effort proves.  I can’t help but encourage this grassroots effort.  Good job Roundup, and I will be there soon enough to grab a float at the A&W and explore how a community moves forward with their impressive past as a foundation.

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Finding new uses for old landmarks: lessons from Red Lodge

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In my Montana travels over the last two years, one of the most interesting, and potentially impactful, projects I encountered was in Red Lodge, where the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation is leading efforts to revitalize the historic Roosevelt School. When, earlier in the decade, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced its interest in the one-room and rural schools of the Treasure State, I worried somewhat that the larger historic schools in small towns and county seats might be forgotten.  Red Lodge showed me that was not the case.

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I attended a historic preservation conference there in the summer of 2016, where the Montana Preservation Alliance used the school’s historic gymnasium as the conference hall–a simple yet very effective conversion.  Gyms had always been community gathering spots, for basketball obviously but also for all sorts of events.  There is always a comfortable feel to these spaces.

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My surprise came when we toured the building.  I thought that due to the name Roosevelt, that the school had been yet another of the dozens of schools constructed in Montana during the “New Deal” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the depression decade of the 1930s.  Wrong–it was a 1921 building, named for former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the champion of national parks and the open rugged west that Red Lodge was very much part of.  Charles Suiter was the architect.  He had twenty plus years earlier worked with the much more famous Montana architect John Paulsen as the contractor for the landmark Montana Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman.

So, the overall context for the school was different from what I had gathered in the past.  Here was an early 1920s community statement by Red Lodge leaders–the homestead boom had already busted, and tough times were just ahead for Montanans but the community then felt it was time for a modern building, with well-lit interiors and well-placed blackboards that did not glare in the sunlight.  And throughout the building there

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Roosevelt school red lodge 2were so many intact details from the time of construction–built-in storage spaces, private restroom stalls, when hallway clocks ticking down the minutes in a day–the place was like a time capsule.

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And then there was the third floor masterpiece, the combination library and performance hall.  Classical pilasters framed the stage and added touches of class and seriousness to the space.  Here was a public building that spoke to community ambitions but also community pride.

roosevelt school, red lodge 5Intimate spaces, classroom spaces, grand public spaces.  The Roosevelt School meant too much to be left to the wrecking ball, and the progress the community foundation is making there is reassuring:  once again smart, effective adaptive reuse can turn a building in a sustainable heritage asset for the town. It’s worth checking out, and supporting.  And it is next door to one of the state’s amazing throwback 1960s roadside

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experience, The Yodeler Motel, built in 1964.  Step back in time but also look at the heritage-infused future of Red Lodge:  a worthwhile stop indeed.

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Helena”s Odd Fellows Cemetery

MT Lewis and Clark County Helena Odd Fellows Cemetery 4Standing quietly next to Forestvale Cemetery is Helena’s Odd Fellows Cemetery, formed in 1895 when several local lodges banded together to create a cemetery for its members.  Most visitors to Forestvale probably think of this cemetery as just an extension of Forestvale but it is very much its own place, with ornamental plantings and an understated arc-plan to its arrangement of graves.

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MT Lewis and Clark County Helena Odd Fellows Cemetery 2Compared to Forestvale, there are only a handful of aesthetically imposing grave markers, although I found the sole piece of cemetery furniture, the stone bench above, to be a compelling reminder of the reflective and commemorative purpose of the cemetery.

MT Lewis and Clark County Helena Odd Fellows CemeteryOne large stone monument, erected in the 1927 by the Rebekah lodges (for female members) of the town, marks the burial lot for IOOF members who died in Helena’s Odd Fellows Home, a building that is not extant.  The memorial is a reminder of the types of social services that fraternal lodges provided their members, and how fraternal lodges shaped so much of Helena’s social and civic life in the late 19th and early twentieth century.  Helena’s Odd Fellows Cemetery is a significant yet overlooked contributor to the town’s and county’s historic built environment.

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Rialto Theater, Bozeman: success!

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As I traveled the Big Sky Country in the first half of this decade and revisited its many historic places and landscapes, one place I worried about was the Rialto Theater in Bozeman.  In the early 1984, when I was carrying out the statewide survey for the state historic preservation plan, residents and officials in Bozeman proudly showed off one of the city’s first significant preservation renovations.  The Rialto, which was once a 1908 post office from the town’s homesteading boom transformed into a movie theater in 1924, was renovated and updated in 1982.  That successful project, we all thought in the early 1980s, proved the power of historic preservation.  Then I heard twenty years later, in 2005, that the theater closed.  I visited Bozeman in 2006 and looked at the shuttered building but everyone then thought the reopening was just around the corner.  I was surprised, and concerned, in 2014 when I returned to Bozeman, and found the theater still closed, but a campaign to save it was underway (see the image above).

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I am happy to report that the campaign proved successful.  When I returned yet again to Bozeman in May 2018, the theater had reopened earlier in the year.  The return of its flashy Art Deco-influenced marquee adds immeasurably to the architecture of downtown Bozeman and its many events help to keep the city’s downtown vibe going strong.  Once again, the Rialto is showing residents and visitors how historic preservation makes a difference in one of Montana’s most rapidly changing places.