Drive-In Time in Montana

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 100 US 87 roadside drive-in

June means it is drive-in time in Big Sky Country.  The next three months are not only when most visitors come to Montana.  It is the time when Montanans get out and travel to festivals, rodeos, and their own family vacations.  In my years of traveling and documenting historic places in Montana, I have not forgotten the drive-in restaurant and its role in the roadside landscape of the state.  I paid some attention to this property type during the original work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985.  Most drive-ins (and here I am focusing on independent operators not fast food chains) dated between 1950 and 1970 and the best examples were located along stretches of early federal highways.  When I returned in 2012-2016 to revisit the state’s historic landscape, scholarship told me to be on the look for drive-ins of all sorts and shapes.  Some already had shuttered–like Zandy’s in Great Falls–but others were still vibrant, and great places for road food.  The following are some of my favorites:

Bonanza Freeze, 1947, Montana St, Butte, roadside

Bonanza Freeze in Butte is a walk-up and drive–thru.  Gotta love the plate glass wall.

The Dizzy Diner in Terry, on the historic Yellowstone Trail, is a drive-thru and has a few places inside–with traffic on old U.S. 10 being diverted to the interstate, it survives as a local town restaurant–true for several other places in Montana.

Fallon Co Baker US 12 drive-in roadside

The Big K in Baker is along U.S. Highway 12–it too works as a walk-up–in southeast Montana.

Pondera Co Conrad Main Drive-InThe Main Drive-In in Conrad is located on the historic federal hi way (U.S. 91) and still draws in customers despite competition from chains and the diversion of most traffic to Interstate Highway I-15.

Daniels Co Scobey 2 roadsideAt Scobey, Shu Mei’s Kitchen converted an earlier drive-in into a family restaurant on Montana Highway 13 in northeast Montana.

Gallatin Co Three Forks drive-in

This former drive-in at the forks of the Yellowstone Trail in Three Forks has been converted to a coffee shop.

Roosevelt Co Poplar The Peculator roadside

But my favorite coffee drive-in, by far, is the Percolator, in Poplar along U.S. Highway 2 in northeast Montana.

Dawson Co Glendive roadside Frosty In and Out

Frosty’s In and Out is another classic drive-in along the historic Yellowstone Trail, this time in Glendive.

Fergus Co Lewistown drive-in roadside US 191 1It’s not surprising that Lewistown, in the middle of the state faraway from the interstate system, has several still operating roadside establishments from the mid-20th century, such as the Wagon Wheel Drive-In (above–and being a southerner I loved the sign that bragged “we have MT Dew”) and the Dash Inn (below), which opened in 1952.

Fergus co Lewistown Wagon Wheel Drive In 1952 roadside

The next three may well be my favorites of all of the different drive-ins.  Ford’s Drive-In in Great Falls is so eye-catching with its Art Deco-influenced design and neon.  Burgerville in Polson is just, well, eye-catching with all of its signs and towers–how could you ever miss it along U.S. Highway 93?

Then there is Matt’s Drive-In in Butte.  This place was awarded the prestigious 2016 America’s Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation.  The foundation’s press release stated:  “The whitewashed cottage with sky-blue trim opened in 1930 as a drive-in.  The staff still deliver some meals curbside to this day, and they remain cheerful curators of community, working the soda-fountain counter in a room lined with midcentury-style wood paneling.  The food does the roadside genre proud.”  Yes, indeed.  And you haven’t been to Montana if you have not tried a nut burger from Matt’s.  Always add a shake and onion rings here too.

Matt's Drive In, 2339 Placer, roadside

Matt's Drive In detail 3, roadside

Veterans Memorials Across Montana

Meagher Co White Sulpher Springs Mayn Cemetery 8 - Version 2On this Memorial Day 2017 it is appropriate to celebrate the many memorials created by Montanans to recognize and commemorate the citizen soldiers who have served the armed forces of the United States.  I am not adding much commentary because the memorials, both large and small, speak powerfully for themselves, and reflect the best of our values as a nation.

Garfield Co Jordan war memorial

One of my favorite new veterans memorials is in Jordan, one of Montana’s smallest county seats, where memorial statuary and plaques with names of those who served stand proudly in the heart of the town.

Lake Co Arlee school memorial 2Another compelling new memorial, at least it was installed after my historic preservation plan survey of 1984-1985, are these granite slabs, framed by the mountains, at Arlee.

Dillon war memorial 1

Dillon war memorial 3Dillon had significantly expanded its earlier veterans memorial (on the left) along the federal highway into an impressive new city park, the Southwest Montana Veterans Memorial.

Ennis Veterans Memorial (New Deal?)Even with the many changes in Ennis, the town has maintained its Veterans Memorial Park as a beautiful public park.

Flathead Co Kalispell veterans memorial

Another change was in Kalispell where the town had significantly expanded an earlier veterans memorial into one of the state’s most impressive monuments, located at the historic start of town on the grounds of the railroad depot.

Another city park with a veterans memorial theme is in Lewistown, where the nuclear missile tells you the role that central Montana still plays in our national defense.

Vets Memorial, US 93, HamiltonHamilton’s veterans memorial along U.S. Highway 93 will be a landmark for generations.

Blaine Co Harlem air pilot memorial 1992

There are many more that could be included in this overview but for today I will end with another “new” memorial, at Harlem along U.S. Highway 2.  This somber memorial is to a nearby plane crash in 1992 that claimed the lives of thirteen airmen: an event that shook this tiny town, and now will be forever remembered.

Blaine Co Harlem air pilot memorial detail

 

 

Motels across Big Sky Country

Big Timber roadside motelIn the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, the impact of lodging chains in Montana was pretty limited to the larger towns, and gateways to the national parks.  Many what I called “mom and pop” motels, largely from the pre-interstate highway era of the 1940s and 1950s, still operated.  I was working with the state employee lodging rate of $24 a night (remember it was 1984!) and I found that the per diem eliminated the chains and I was left with the local establishments.  During those months of intense travel I came to respect and really like the Moms and Pops.  Several of the places I stayed in 1984-1985 are long gone–but ones like the Lazy J Motel in Big Timber remain.  In this post I am merely sharing a range of historic motels from across Big Sky Country.

ohaire signI began the fieldwork in February 1984 and the first stop was a public meeting at the Toole County Courthouse in Shelby.  My first overnight was just as memorable–for good reasons–at the O’Haire Manor Motel.  Its huge neon sign on the town’s main street, which was U.S. Highway 2, could not be missed, and actually the sign replaced a building that once stood along the commercial district, knocking it down so travelers would have a clear shot to the motel itself.

Toole Co Shelby OHaire Motel

Motels along U.S. Highway 2 often had the grand statement to catch attention of those traveling at 80 miles a hour down the highway.  Galata, which billed itself as a gateway to the Whitlash port of entry on the Canadian border to the north, had the tallest cowboy in the region to greet visitors.

Toole Co Galata roadsideCut Bank’s Glacier Gateway, on the other hand, reminded visitors that it was that “coldest place” in the United States that they had heard about in weather forecasts.

The Circle Inn Motel outside of Havre on U.S. Highway 2 reflected the classic design of separate duplexes–cabins–for guests while the gleaming white horse statue reminded them, if they needed the prod, that they were in the wild west.

Hill Co Havre roadside

Similar mid-20th century motels are found along Montana’s historic federal highways.  Some, like the La Hood Motel, are now forgotten as the highway, once known as the Yellowstone Trail and then U.S. Highway 10, has been relegated to secondary use.

LaHood motel, Montana 2 roadsideAnother example from the old Yellowstone Trail and U.S. Highway 10 is the Shade Tree Inn Motel in Forsyth–although coal and railroad workers help somewhat to keep it going in the 21st century.

Forsyth Rosebud Co 5Just a block west of another historic section of U.S. Highway 10 in Deer Lodge is the Downtowner Motel, with its sloping roof and extended rafters representing the best in “contemporary” style from the 1960s. This place too was clean, cheap, and well located for a day of walking the town back in 1984.

Downtowner Motel, Deer Lodge

Other motels have carried on, in a diminished role, dependent more on workers needing temporary quarters than on travelers.  In Malta, on U.S. Highway 2, I expected easy to acquire and cheap lodging at the Maltana Motel–a favorite of mine from the 1980s–but even though the town was over 200 miles from Williston, North Dakota, demands for its rooms had risen with the oil boom of the early 2010s.

Phillips Co Malta Maltana Motel roadside

The Country Side Inn Motel in Harlowton once buzzed with travelers along either U.S. Highway 12 or U.S. Highway 191 but as interstate routes have become so dominant, these motels have struggled to attract customers.

Wheatland Co Harlowton motel US 12 roadsideNot only have the changes in traffic patterns been important, the present generation’s preference for chain motels–and the proliferation of chains across the state–have shaped the future of the mid-20th century motel.  A good example is the challenges facing the continuation of the Cherry Hill Motel in Polson, located along U.S. Highway 93.  Here was a favorite spot in 1984–near a killer drive-in–a bit out of the noise of the town, and sorta fun surroundings with a great view of Flathead Lake.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 4

Lake Co Polson motel roadsideThe place was up for sale in 2015–and the internet today tells me that it is “permanently closed.”  I hope it can find a new owner and is still there when I next return to Polson but with the general boom in the Flathead Lake region, one assumes its days are numbered.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 1The bear might be hugging the tree but does anyone else care enough–or want this type of lodging, complete with the “picture window” of the 1950s and 1960s, in the comfort obsessed 21st century?

I began this brief overview with the first place I stayed during the 1984-1985 fieldwork, and I will close with the last place I stayed as I finished the new statewide survey in May 2016:  the Yodeler Inn in Red Lodge.  Built in 1964 this wonder chalet-style property is listed in the National Register–of course in 1984 I never gave a thought about the motel as National Register worthy, I just loved the location, and thought it was cool.

It is still that–good rooms, great lobby, and a self-proclaimed “groovy” place.  To the north of the historic downtown are all of the chains you might want–stay there if you must, and leave the Yodeler Motel to me!

Doughboys across Montana

The First World War impacted Montana in both large and small ways.  The demand for metals drove production at Butte’s mines to record levels–thousands of men joined the Armed Services; too many of them never returned.  It was to their memory, and to commemorate victory in the world war, that Montana communities and families turned to monuments and memorials in the months and years after the United States joined the allies in 1917, one hundred years ago.

Davis, WW1, Valley Cemetery, Mullan Road, Granite CoPaul E. Davis’ gravemarker at Valley Cemetery, along the historic Mullan Road, in Powell County is an early example of the WWI doughboy bronzed and rooted in Montana soil.  The plaque says “America Over the Top,” a reference to the courage it took to jump out of the trenches and charge the enemy but also a reference to how the world war literally put America in a new position of world leadership.

The memorial at the front and to the side of the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula is probably the best known First World War memorial.  The American Legion chapter sponsored this monument to the dozens from the county who died in the war in 1927.

Missoula Co Missoula WWI monument 3

An earlier monument was built south of Missoula in Hamilton, the seat of Ravalli County, in 1921.  It remains in front of the historic courthouse, which is now a museum.  Here the doughboy stands in salute to his fellow soldiers as he stands on a rocky base. The Service Star Legion sponsored the monument.

1921 WWI memorial at historic courthouse, Hamilton

WWI monument text, historic courthouse, Hamilton

My favorite doughboy monument is in Fort Benton, as the bronze soldiers raises a fist in defiance.  Unlike the other two, it is not located in front of the county courthouse, but is in a city park facing the Missouri River.  Fort Benton is a place where the stories of the early 19th century are told everywhere.  I like the monument because it reminds us that Montana communities, even its oldest, do have a 20th century history–one that was significant and is worth remembering.

Chouteau Co Ft Benton Front St WWI monument

The Big Sky’s Bowling Alleys

Hill Co Rudyard 1 bar bowling

The Bar and Bowling Alley, Rudyard

During the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan I gave little thought to mid-20th century recreational buildings.  Parks were on my mind, as well as my colleagues at the State Historic Preservation Office, but everyday, plain Jane architecture buildings for bowling and roller skating–not so much.  I didn’t even give much attention to public swimming pools, even though I knew that they were often a large component of New Deal building projects.

The photo above from Rudyard, a small railroad town along the Hi-Line in Hill County, tells you why I “missed” on these buildings 30 years ago.  Nothing National Register-quality there–or not?  When you think of the National Register criteria and the themes of recreation and social history such community gathering spots take on added significance, which extends well beyond the architecture.

Community Bowl 2 BH County HardinCommunity Center Bowl in Hardin, Big Horn County, is a wonderful recreational space, with its bays defined by c. 1960 styled “picture windows” framed in glass blocks.  The owners have refurbished the lanes two years ago–this institution still has years left in it.

Chouteau Co Ft Benton Front St 13 Jack's Bar bowling

Another great mid-20th century building is Jack’s Bar and Lanes–one historic building in Fort Benton that doesn’t get much attention that way I bet.  Gotta love the dual glass block entrances with neon signs. Since my visit in 2013 the owners have added a flat metal awning over the dual entrances–a poor choice in my humble opinion.  But don’t let that keep you from going insider–where a “see them dead” zoo of hunting trophies awaits.

Lincoln Co Troy bowling lanesFrom the southeast corner of the state to its northwest corner–the Trojan Lanes (so named for the school mascot) in Troy, Montana.  Here you find the type of alley that is common throughout the small towns of Big Sky Country.  Not only do you have a recreational center but you often have the best family restaurant in town.  That’s the

Powder River Co Broadus 18 bowlingcase where at Troy’s Trojan as well as–returning to the southeast corner–the Powder River Lanes in Broadus.  This tiny county seat has lost several of its classic cafes from the 1980s–the Montana Bar and Cafe on the opposite side of the town square being my favorite in 1984–but Powder River Lanes makes up for it.

Lake Co Ronan bowling theaterI am sorta partial to the small-town lanes, like the Lucky Strike above in Ronan, Lake County.  Located next door to “Entertainer Theatre,” this corner of the town is clearly its center for pop culture experience.

Whitehall bowling and barAnother fav–admittedly in a beat-up turn of the 20th century building–is Roper Lanes and Lounge in Whitehall, Jefferson county, in the southwest corner of the state. Gotta love the painted sign over the entrance–emojis before they were called emojis.

Copper Bowl, E. Park, Anaconda roadside

Cedar Park Bowling Lanes, N side

Anaconda might be the small town bowling champ in Montana, with two excellent alleys, the Copper Bowl, from the mid-20th century and the more recent Cedar Park Lanes.  The alleys are located on the edge of town, between the business district and smelter–a great location to keep the bowling tradition alive.  Copper Bowl can also boast of the state’s best bowling sign–along Montana 1 and U.S. 10A, the Pintlar Route, a good place to catch commercial, roadside architecture.  If this bit of flash doesn’t catch your attention, you staring too much at the road in front.

Copper Bowl sign, E. Park, Anaconda roadside

These images do not capture all of the alleys across the big Sky–but they are enough to remind us that the bowling tradition is alive and kicking, and worthy of a closer look.

 

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

Valley Co Fort Peck Dam Reservoir 18

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.

Valley Co Fort Peck Dam Reservoir 20

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.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic ditch

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.

Broadwater Co St Joseph Catholic 6

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.

Broadwater Co MT 284 school

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.

Lewis & Clark Co Canyon Ferry USBR 3 - Version 2

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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