Big Timber’s Historic Sweet Grass County High School: 2018 Update

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As part of my May 2018 trip to Montana, I stopped in Big Timber to see if anything was left of the historic Sweet Grass County High School of 1905.  When I first viewed the large two-story building that rests on a full basement story in the early 1980s, I thought here was a classic statement of public architecture–a building that in its size, style, and purpose matched the ambitions of Big Timber on the eve of the homesteading boom to come.  But in 2014, when I took the photograph above, I thought that the school’s days were numbered–how do you find a new purpose for a building this large in a town this small?  What were the adaptive reuse possibilities?  It was clear that without a new purpose, the historic high school would not survive for much longer.

 

MT Big Timber School 2018 2Then in October 2017, someone set a fire that almost totally destroyed the school building.  When I pulled into Big Timber the following May, I expected to see a parking lot or at least an empty lot (the local Episcopal Church had purchased the property).  The damaged building was still there, however, giving me one final chance to take an image, one that now represents dreams dashed, and yet another historic building gone from the Montana landscape.

Helena’s Historic Cemeteries: Home of Peace Cemetery (1867)

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As discussed at several places in this blog, I have given careful consideration to the historic cemeteries of Montana in the fieldwork of 2012-2016.  When the initial survey for the state historic preservation plan took place in 1984 to 1985, cemeteries rarely registered with anyone–the professionals were not looking that way nor were communities.  That is no longer the case in historic preservation–cemeteries are an increasing area of interest.

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Home of Peace was established in 1867 and the cast iron fence around its boundaries dates to that time.  The earliest identified grave marker is 1873 but the Hebrew Benevolent Society (or Association), which established the cemetery originally, believes that Home of Peace includes burials from the 1860s.  The beautiful arched gateway to the cemetery dates c. 1910, the same time that the cottonwoods were planted and most of the existing ornamental plants in the cemetery were added.  Most of the burials are arranged in family groups, outlined by low stone or concrete walls.  Some are individuals, or couples.  A few are non-Jewish since at one time the association, which still owns the cemetery, allowed for their burials.

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IMG_4309The date of most markers are from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.  Mostly made of granite and sandstone, with some marble as well, the grave markers reflect Victorian styles and Classical influences.  Herman Gans’ marker from 1901, seen below, is a mixture of both.

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The cemetery contains several veterans markers in the standardized tablet design provided by the War Department and later the Veterans Administration. The grouping in the forefront, below, identifies two veterans from the Spanish-American War of 1898.

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In the mid-1970s the association transferred some of its land for the construction of Capitol High School, which now almost surrounds the cemetery, which had once stood faraway from the center of Helena’s population.

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IMG_4312The looming presence of the school grounds is a worry for future preservation of the cemetery–could it be possibly overlooked, ignored, and abandoned?   One online resource about the cemetery remarks that there are more Jews buried in the cemetery than live in Helena today.  But this sacred place is a powerful reminder of the contributions of the Jewish community to Helena’s growth and permanence.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery should be valued as one of the city’s oldest and most significant historic properties.

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Stevensville’s Fort Owen: 2018 Update

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Fort Owen is one of Montana’s most significant historic places—where interaction between American traders and Native Americans date before the Civil War—and it is one of my favorite places, for both its layered history and the beauty of its location. I rarely pass on an opportunity to see how this little place is hanging on in a rapidly suburbanizing part of the state.

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From my visit in May 2018, the news is still good.  All of Ravalli County is growing like gangbusters (we knew that the recent four-lane US Highway 93 would have that type of impact), but the fort retains a strong sense of place.

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The buildings and structures are well maintained, aided immeasurably by the neighboring ranch family who constantly keeps an eye on the place.

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The interior of the fort building is solid enough and conveys in its material and design a mid-19th century feel.  What needs help, though, are the exhibit panels. They are what I encountered in the mid 1980s, meaning that new research is not reflected in the content nor are they as graphically compelling as, for example, the exhibits at First Nation outside of Great Falls.

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Montana State Parks are jewels, but even the most sparkling jewel needs polishing every now and then.  It is time to give that new look and due justice to Fort Owen.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln’s TeePee Burner and new vistas in a national forest

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As I carried out my new exploration and documentation of the Montana historic landscape from 2012 to 2016, there were new developments underway that I missed as I moved from one region to another during those years.  The creation of Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild within a section of the national forest at Lincoln happened after I had revisited Lincoln–so I did not visit this exciting new sculpture park until May 2018.  The park’s mission is to celebrate “the rich environmental and cultural heritage of the Blackfoot Valley through contemporary art practice.”  Moving the TeePee Burner, which had stood for decades outside of the town between the Blackfoot River and Montana Highway 200, was the appropriate first step.  This large metal structure once burned wood refuse from the Delaney and Sons sawmill–now it is the centerpiece of creative space set within the national forest just off of the highway.

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The Gateway of Change (2014) by Jorn Ronnau of Denmark serves as an effective transition from the TeePee Burner to the other installations in the sculpture park.  Casey Schachner’s Stringer (2017), below, is a great pine fan, recalling in its strength and lift the industrial works of the past.

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My favorite installation in 2018 was the Picture Frame by Jaakko Frame of Finland, a massive interpretation of how we take nature and frame it constantly in our mind’s eye, or in our camera lens!

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Another favorite was what seemed to be a trench, but is named the East West Passage (2015) by its creators, Mark Jacobs and Sam Clayton of the UK.  The “walkable” structure creates a below-grade passage, giving a sense of direction in what can otherwise be a directionless landscape.

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Tyler Nansen’s Bat Beacons (2016) at first glance seems redundant–why have pine poles installed in a pine forest?  But Nansen wants to “encourage the preservation of bat habitats in Montana,” by creating possible roosts for bats with the black bat boxes at the top of each pole.

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Frankly everything you encounter as you walk through this special landscape is interesting, if not thought provoking.  And the artists are international, just as in the past the people who carved out the forests, dug the mines, and created towns came from across the globe.  What an appropriate representation of the people who made the Blackfoot River Valley a distinctive place. In my earlier posts I have discussed how the

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U. S. Forest Service really upped its game in public interpretation at historic sites from my fieldwork in the mid-1980s to the new survey of the mid-2010s.  Blackfoot Pathways takes the interpretive experience in new and worthwhile directions, acknowledging the industrial past of the forests but also identifying new paths for the future.

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Butte’s Dumas Hotel needs help!

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The Dumas Hotel was the location of the last operating brothel in Montana.  The brothel closed in 1981, the same year I arrived in the Big Sky Country.  During the historic preservation survey of 1984-1985 the state preservation office knew the history of the Dumas, and it was part of the Butte National Historic Landmark district.  But its future was largely unknown–could it be a museum?

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When I revisited the Dumas in 2006 it seemed well on its way to being a tourist attraction, not a historic site where the issue of prostitution in Butte could be interpreted fully and fairly.  Then in 2012 the future seemed different; new owners were taking the needed restoration seriously.  Then in the middle of this decade one of my MTSU M.A. students, Veronica Sales, took on the topic of the Dumas as her thesis, creating a solid context for future renovation and a more robust and accurate interpretation.

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But the unexpected death of the hotel’s owner, Michael Piche, in early 2018 has put that promise to the test.  Piche was only 34.  Who could replace his energy? Renovation stopped in its tracks.

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The place was disheveled when I visited in May. The family had just reopened the place and openly wondered what would and could happen next.  Let’s hope the future involves

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a comprehensive restoration and a “whole story” interpretive program.  The sex trade in the American West is an uncomfortable but necessary story and the Dumas has plenty of evocative spaces, like the bare room above, that address the reality of the business.

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Progress has been made from 2012 to 2018.  But this historic place needs our help–and a similar effort needs to take place for the brick Blue Range of “cribs” that is located across the street.  The preservation of the Dumas Hotel is important as the best intact

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example of a northern Rockies brothel.  The preservation of this building and what is left of Butte’s historic red light district need to be a concern for many who want to tell the whole story of the copper mining era in Butte.

Hamilton’s Daly Mansion: A New Interior and New Interpretive Directions

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The story of the Daly Mansion from a shuttered family owned property in 1984-1985 to a fully realized historic house museum 30 years later also reflects well my timeline of engagement with the historic landscapes of the Big Sky Country.  It was a time capsule in the mid-1980s–a house starting to come apart but full of family furniture, papers, and countless treasures.  When the house was saved but the interior furnishings sold at auction, it seemed like a permanent separation.

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My first post on this blog in 2013 about the Daly Mansion and its restoration lauded the determination of the local non-profit to finish the exterior renovation and repairs, and to have the place open to the public on a regular basis.  It was and is an impressive achievement in a time when so-called experts say the era of historic house museums is over. But it was very much an exterior tour–when I visited six years ago, photographs were not allowed, not so much to protect items but because so much remained to be done. The place just did not have a historic “lived in” look.

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In the last five years, the Daly Mansion board and its many local supporters have finished the job.  Key pieces of family furniture, like the settee above and much of the dining room below, have returned, due in large part to purchases and commitments made at the original auction in the 1980s but many objects coming back to the house due to the persistence of board members and the willingness of auction buyers to return items now that 30 years have passed.

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The result is a house museum that depicts well the life of a wealthy family on their version of the 20th century country estate, and now with an appropriate focus on Margaret Daly, who selected the architectural style, purchased many of the furnishings, and kept the estate forefront in Montana luxury for four decades (Marcus Daly died in 1900, before the Colonial Revival conversion of the original house; Margaret lived until 1941).  Margaret Daly’s bedroom furniture had long been in the collections of the University of Montana Library–they are now in their rightful place in the Daly Mansion.

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The lushness, and personality, of Margaret Daly’s private quarters is now the norm across the house, from the first floor parlor to the second floor setting room.

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Even the third floor ballroom, once an evocative but largely empty space, is now used to display and interpret the rather amazing clothing collections of the museum.

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Certainly the words of one visitor during my May 2018 ring true:  “they were rich but had little taste” in the decorative arts.  But for Margaret Daly her Riverside estate was not a showplace as much as a place to escape for the summer.  The hodge-lodge of trendy but individually undistinguished furniture and objects suited that purpose just fine.

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The Daly Mansion is at a new place–a preservation and restoration project that had stretched out for thirty years.  But now the interior story, especially the focus on Margaret Daly, steps up to center stage.  The meaning of Riverside and the Bitter Root Stock Farm is still waiting for a full exploration and analysis.

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Anaconda’s Club Moderne: May 2018 Update

In my brief trip to Montana in May 2018, I had the opportunity to visit several iconic places that had undergone changes since my field visit earlier in the decade.  One such place was Anaconda’s Club Moderne, one of Montana’s most outstanding Art Moderne-styled landmarks of the 1930s.

The tavern had caught fire in 2016 and at first everyone thought all was lost.  But the owners and the community responded quickly, the Club reopened in 2017, as I reported in a blog in late 2017.

To my eye, the place certainly looked the same from the exterior, with the new paint job even sprucing up the colorful sign, which had been an early historic replacement of the original more austere lettering.

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The interior had naturally changed the most since the fire caught into the roof and had burned out the roof, taking quite a bit of the original decorative material, but surprisingly enough was left to tell me that I was still in the old bar.

I really thought the restoration of the lounge had succeeded–the large open space with its distinctive bar remained, but again some modernization had taken place, with the touch of the phoenix rising along one interior wall being most appropriate.

My conclusion: the Club Moderne is still a very valuable historic landmark, and the restoration undertaken by the owners and supported by the community is impressive. What is striking to me as well is that two neighboring communities, Deer Lodge to the north and Anaconda, had both in this decade rescued historic community landmarks, Deer Lodge with its Rialto Theatre and Anaconda with the Club Moderne. Historic Preservation is alive and doing well in southwestern Montana.