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

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.

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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.

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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Big Hole National Battlefield: A Second Look

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 9

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.

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield

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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Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 1

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.

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 2

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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.

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 30

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.

 

Helena’s downtowns

img_0964Helena, the capitol city of Montana, was where I made my home from 1981 to 1985, and served as my base for travels far and wide across the state during my work for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office’s preservation plan in 1984-1985.  I started the project at the 1950s modernist Montana Historical Society building next door to the state capitol.

I ended the project at a far different environment, one of Helena’s downtown historic buildings, just off from Last Chance Gulch.

masonic-hall-helenaHelena then was a small town but a big urban environment, and I used to enjoy exploring its two sided urban landscape:  the 1970s “Last Chance Mall” where planners and designers closed the street for a few blocks and inserted a pedestrian mall, thinking that a “walking mall” experience would keep businesses downtown, and then the rest of the downtown before urban planners decided to change it into something it never was.

Don’t misread me–I spent many, many hours in the town’s Last Chance Mall, and at first I thought it quite brilliant, because as the historian I liked the fact that the walking experience was distracted by various interpretive pieces, depicting cattle drives, placer mining, and early 20th century urban life.

But soon enough I was like long-time residents–the sculptural and interpretive elements were nice enough for tourists–it was the surrounding historic brick environments that proved much more fascinating, and lasting.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-026The impetus behind the urban renewal of the 1970s was not only federal dollars through the Model Cities program but also federal presence.  Officials wished to anchor the new Last Chance Gulch Urban Renewal project with a Park Avenue section that

 

began at the intersection of Last Chance Gulch and Broadway and then stretched back to new modernist-styled city library and a flashy Federal Building, moving the federal presence from where it had stood for most of the century–on a hill overlooking the gulch

helena library plaza

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in an Italian Renaissance-styled landmark designed by federal architect James Knox Taylor and constructed in 1904.  That building would become a new city-county municipal building, still with a downtown post office.

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 047 federal building post officeThe pedestrian mall on its west side ends at the imposing Richardsonian Romanesque styled T.C. Power Block, one of my favorite commercial buildings not just in Helena but in all of Montana.

Once you crossed the street, you found yet another downtown–not more historic but more architecturally diverse and without as many 1970s improvements.  The gulch is the dominant corridor,  with two lanes of traffic, parked cars, and all of the traffic bustle you expected in a historic downtown.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-043This downtown has several architectural landmarks, as you see below with the Art Deco-styled First National Bank building, and then a short block away, a magnificent statement of power and influence, the Montana Club, designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert.

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Gilbert would gain his greatest fame later in his career for the designs of the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.  The Montana Club (1903-1905) comes from the first part of Gilbert’s career, where he pursued multiple design inspirations, from the Richardsonian to the Gothic to the stylish Arts and Crafts approach then described as Mission style.

Certainly this part of downtown has changed over the last 30 years, be it from recent, and quite necessary, preservation work at the Montana Club to jazzy new facades added to commercial blocks along the way.

A whole different world, one of the 21st century, beckons when you walk through the Hill park, with its controversial fountain founded by a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and reach the park’s intersection with Neill Avenue.

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-049Once you cross Neill Avenue, you enter a new downtown of 21st century Helena, created by the demolition of the historic Great Northern Railway passenger station in the 1990s and the construction of a new Federal Reserve Bank.  Here suddenly was a new downtown

2011 MT Lewis and Clark County 078 federal reserve bankanchor, similar to that of the 1977 Federal Building on the opposite end of Last Chance Gulch.  And the name given to this?  the Great Northern Center, where not only the

 

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-073Federal Reserve lived but also a huge new Federal Courthouse, the Paul G. Hatfield Courthouse (2001-2002), a neoclassical monument of a scale that Helena had not seen since the construction of the State Capitol more than a century earlier, along with its more

2011-mt-lewis-and-clark-county-071modern styled neighbor, the Senator Max Baucus Federal Building.  In less than 40 years, the federal presence not only moved from one end of the gulch to another, it had become much larger and architecturally distinct.

All that remained from the Helena I recalled from 1985 was the Moorish Revival Civic Center, a building unique in an architectural style but one that still serves as community gathering spot for the arts and music.  Here I experienced the Johnny Cash Show in the early 1980s, among other concerts and events. Downtown Helena now has four layers, and the surrounding neighborhoods had changed too–as we shall explore in future posts.

 

 

 

 

 

The east side of Glacier

HPIM0036.JPGAll of Glacier National Park is spectacular, frankly, but as you reach Logan Pass and consider the historic architecture on the east side of the park, often the landscape itself overpowers the man-made environment, be it the modernist visitor center at Logan Pass, above to the left of center of the image, or the Many Glacier Hotel on the north end of the park, below. The manmade is insignificant compared to the grandeur of the mountains.

HPIM0028.JPGThe reverse is true at East Glacier, where the mammoth Glacier Park Lodge competes with the surrounding environment.  The massive log hotel was the brainchild of Louis Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railway, who wished for a building that could mirror the earlier 1905 Forestry Hall for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.  Hill had the vision but architect Samuel L. Bartlett of St. Paul, Minnesota, carried the vision into an architectural plan.

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The lodge is impressive however you consider it and it served as a trend setter for the image that Hill wished to give visitors to his newly designated national park.

The huge main lobby, grounded in imported Douglas firs from the Pacific Northwest, brings the loftiness of the park to the interior of the hotel.

The lodge proved popular with train travelers and additions came as early as 1914-1915, with further expansions due to the demand from automobile travelers on U.S. 2.

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2011-mt-glacier-park-and-communities-083But the long landscaped walkway from the Glacier Park Lodge to the Great Northern passenger station, also themed in Rustic style, let everyone know who was in charge–the railroad, whose influence created the national park and then built the facilities that defined the look of the park for the next 100 years.

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2011 MT Glacier Park and communities 067 East Glacier GN depot

And the trains continue to arrive throughout the summer, bringing tourists to this iconic mountain National Historic Landmark.

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The Hot Springs of Sanders County

Lake Co Hot Springs 32Hot Springs, off from Montana Highway 28 on the eastern edge of Sanders County, was a place that received little attention in the survey work of 1984-1985.  Everyone knew it was there, and that hot springs had been in operation trying to lure automobile travelers since the 1920s–but at that time, that was too new.  The focus was elsewhere, especially on the late 19th century resorts like Chico Hot Springs (believe or not, Chico was not on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984). This section of what is now the reservation of the Consolidated Salish and Kootenai Tribes was opened to homesteaders in 1910 and first settlement came soon thereafter.  The development of the hot springs as an attraction began within a generation.

IMG_7888Due to the 21st century fascination from historic preservationists for the modern movement of the mid-20th century, however, Hot Springs is now squarely on the map as a fascinating example of a tourist destination at the height of the automobile age from the 1930s to 1960s.

Lake Co Hot Springs Symes Hotel NR 1

Lake Co Hot Springs Symes Hotel NR 4

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Symes Hotel and hot springs takes you back to the era of the Great Depression.  Fred Symes acquired the family property and opened the Mission-style hotel in 1930.  It has changed somewhat over the decades, but not much.  The narrow hallways of the baths, with their single tubs ready for a soak, are still in operation.

What the Symes did for Hot Springs was to make it a destination, and to give a vernacular Mission-style look to other buildings from that decade such as the old movie theater below and other storefronts on the town’s main street.

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Lake Co Hot Springs 26Not everything fit into this mold, naturally.  There remains a representative set of gable-front shotgun-form “cabins” that housed visitors staying for several days and various one-story buildings served both visitors and year-round residents.

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Then a few years after World War II the tribe decided to invest in the town through the creation of the modernist landmark known as the Camas Hot Springs, truly a bit of the International style on the high prairie of western Montana.

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From a photo in the lobby of the Symes Hotel.

This venture initially was successful and led to a population boom in the 1950s and 1960s but then as the interstates were built and the 1970s recession impacted travel choices, the Camas struggled and closed c. 1980.  For the last 30 years this grand modernist design has been slowly melting away.

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Lake Co Hot Springs 17The loss would be significant because few mid-20th century buildings in Montana, especially rural Montana, are so expressive of the modernist ethos, with the flat roofs, the long, low wings and the prominent chimney as a design element.  Then there are the round steel stilts on which the building rests.

Lake Co Hot Springs 19As this mural suggests, today Hot Springs embraces its deep past as a place of sacred meaning to the Consolidated Salish and Kootenai.  And it continues to try to find a way to attract visitors as a 21st century, non-traditional hot springs resort.

 

Anaconda’s recreational culture

In the first half of the 20th century, Anaconda gained its reputation as a hard-working town, whether you toiled at the smelter, the pottery works, the railroad, or any of the many small businesses and shops across the city. With that hard work came the need

Washoe Theaterfor places to rest, relax, and enjoy the precious hours away from the workplace.  So much has changed in Anaconda since the closing of the smelter in the early 1980s–but the town’s distinctive places for recreation and relaxation remain, a big part of the reason Anaconda is one of my favorite places in Montana.

2011 MT Deer Lodge County Anaconda 017Let’s start with the magnificent Art Deco marvel of the Washoe Theater. Designed in 1930 by B. Marcus Priteca but not finished and opened until 1936, the theater has stayed in operation ever since.  It is remarkably intact, especially when owners refused to follow the multi-screen craze of the 1970s and kept the lobby and massive screen

intact.  It was a favorite jaunt in the 1980s to go to Anaconda, take in a movie at the Washoe and then cocktails at the Club Moderne. The interior design is attributed to Hollywood designer Nat Smythe.

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Anaconda Washoe Theater screenA drink after the movie: still happens with regularity in Anaconda, due to the plethora of neighborhood bars, from the Anaconda Bar to the Thompson Bar. The range of sizes and styling speaks to the different experiences offered by these properties.

The Locker Room Bar has a classic Art Deco look with its green glass and glass block entrance while the JFK Bar documents its date of construction while the rock veneer on concrete is undeniably a favorite construction technique of the 1960s.

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If not the bars, then you could retreat to your fraternal lodge or veterans group.  Fraternal lodges were everywhere once in Anaconda and several historic ones still survive.  The Croatian Hall, unassuming in its size and ornament, is one of the most interesting lodges on the east side, in the old “Goosetown” working-class part of Anaconda.  Sam Premenko established the club in Anaconda’s early years.

IMG_1554The Elks Club in the heart of downtown is a totally different statement, with its sleek 1960s modernist facade over an earlier turn of the century Victorian styled brick building reflecting a more prosperous and larger membership.

American Legion hall, 3rd and CedarWith its glass block entrances and windows, the American Legion lodge seems like another lounge, but the American Eagle mural says otherwise.

The Copper Bowl is a wonderful mid-20th century reminder of both the raw material that fueled Anaconda.  From the highway sign–a great piece of roadside architecture itself–you can see the slag piles from the smelter.  Bowling, so popular once, is disappearing across the country, except in Anaconda, where two different set of lanes remained in business–at least in 2012.

Cedar Park Bowling Lanes, N sideIf not bowling, why not read a book.  At least that was the motivation behind Progressive reformers and their initiative to create “free” (meaning no membership fees) public libraries at the turn of the 20th century.  Anaconda has one of the state’s earliest and most architecturally distinctive libraries in the Hearst Free Library.

Funded by Phoebe Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst), the library reflected a Renaissance Revival style in red brick designed by San Francisco architect F. S. Van Trees.  It opened in 1898 and served as an inspiring public space, part library, part public meeting space, part art museum.

IMG_1511Another Progressive-era institution is Washoe Park, established by the copper company and home to the first fish hatchery in the state.  Washoe Park was a place for outdoor recreation, with ball fields, picnic areas, and amusement attractions.  It also was home for the town’s baseball field and its historic grandstands and refreshment

center still serve those who come to see.  The Anaconda Copper Company had the diamond and grandstand built c. 1949 and the first teams to play were organized by the city’s different fraternal lodges.  Besides the classic look of the grandstand nearby

is the refreshment/ recreation center, a building in the Rustic style, an architectural type associated with parks of all sorts in the first half of the 20th century.

IMG_1517New renovations at the park have been underway, improving trails, the hatchery, and the outdoor experience plus adding public interpretation at appropriate places.  The park is being re-energized but respect still shown its early elements, such as the historic Alexander Glover cabin, built c. 1865 and identified as the oldest residence in Anaconda, which was moved into the park as an interpretive site, early, c. 1920.

IMG_1523Another outdoor recreational space that has been receiving renovation is the historic Mitchell Stadium complex, a New Deal project of the Works Progress Administration from 1938-1939.  The stadium, designed to give the high school modern facilities for football and track and field, is quite the place, retaining so much of its original understated Art Deco styling.

Mitchell Stadium, 1938-9 from Mt CarmelUnlike Washoe Park, here was a new public space, in keeping with the New Dealers’ faith in recreation and community, that was not a creation of the copper company for adult workers but for high school athletes.

It also is a property that I totally overlooked in the 1984-85 survey.  True it was not 50 years old then but it was a WPA project that deserved close scrutiny as part of the larger federal effort to improve high school education and public spaces.

Mitchell Stadium, through fence

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Certainly one of the most interesting conversions of industrial landscape into recreation landscape–on a whole another scale from the rails to trails movement–is how the grounds of the original smelter site at Anaconda have been transformed into a modern golf course. Rare is the opportunity to play a round but also walk around and consider public interpretation of a blasted out mining property.

IMG_1507But even on the links of this innovative adaptive reuse project you cannot escape the overwhelming presence of the copper company stack, and mounds of devastation it left behind.  Here is an appropriate view that sums up the company influence on the distinctive place of Anaconda.