Garfield County: the forgotten land of eastern Montana

IMG_0310Before I began crisscrossing over Montana in 1984 for the state historic preservation plan, I sought out ideas and locales from friends, colleagues, and others knowledgeable about the state’s history and built environment.  No one could offer anything about Garfield County, which I found surprising because the county was huge in size, and located smack in the middle of eastern Montana, with major north-south and east-west state highways crossing at Jordan, the county seat.  I knew the population was sparse–just over 1600 in 1980, making it one of the least densely populated places in the lower 48, and the least densely populated place in Montana.

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But as you rolled into the county via Montana 200–which became a favorite route of mine by the time I was done with the survey in 1985–I just knew there had to be something here, especially at Jordan, the county seat, numbering about 485 people in the early 1980s but now just 340 plus residents in the 2010s.

Jordan, mid-1980s

Main Street, Jordan, mid-1980s

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Main Street, Jordan, 2013

Despite the drop in population over 30 years, Jordan had not remained frozen in time–as I sorta expected to find–but rather changes were everywhere.  Traffic signals were at the crossroads of MT 200 and Main Street; Main Street had been paved.  The historic high school dormitory (1936) for Garfield County–a property type of the early 20th century that absolutely fascinated me, that kids came and stayed the week in town for school due to the distances otherwise they would have to travel daily–was still there, but shuttered.

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Both times I had visited Jordan in the 1980s, students thought it weird that I found their “dump” to be interesting, and historic:  but it was, and still is:  creating community, even temporary, in the far-flung reaches of the northern plains was important to the New Dealers who helped to fund the dorm in 1936.  This building should be on the National Register of Historic Places; Garfield County has no National Register buildings, just one historic site, the Hornaday camp, associated with the Smithsonian’s study of the “last” buffalo in the late 19th century.

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The historic high school adjacent to the dormitory, another New Deal building from 1936, still stood too, but it had been renovated and remodeled, keeping its general shape and simple classical entrance but little else from its 1980s look; across the street was a new annex and gym.  There was also a shiny new elementary school but that did not mean that the old Jordan Elementary from 1930 was gone:  in 2013 last touches were underway to turn it into the town’s library.

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In 2013, the biggest change to my eyes was the courthouse.  In 1984 I was captivated by this tiny, frame courthouse, that looked more like a mid-20th century tract home than a county’s primary public building.  Indeed, I circled through the town a bit more than

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needed:  the old courthouse was no more, lost in a c. 1998 fire.  The new county courthouse was a red brick building, the former 1960s county-owned, modernist-styled hospital, perhaps the biggest change I encountered in Jordan.

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The new Main Street bars were also a surprising but welcome change. Ranchers and Hell Creek bars speak to images and realities of Garfield County.

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Another change was the growth of the local heritage offerings, from the Veterans Memorial park, kiosk, and sculpture to the Garfield County museum in Jordan–the old schoolhouse making it easy to locate along the road–and various reminders to passerby’s, like the mural on the town’s old service station/auto dealership, that the county had been a major location of dinosaur finds in the late 20th century.

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The old schoolhouse at the museum is also a reminder that one-room schools still operate in Garfield County.  When I came through in 1984, the county school superintendent encouraged me to visit them, but also warned me that some were on basically roads cut into the ground, and if there was rain, never go that way, unless I wanted to stay awhile.

Some things don't change in Garfield County.

Some things don’t change in Garfield County.

But one-room schools along MT Highway 200 are easily located, at Sand Springs, and then at Big Dry.  In 1984 I was shocked at the persistence of such tiny buildings across the region; their persistence 30 years later say much about commitment to a land many have left and forgotten. Past ways and smallness of life in the biggest of countries still shape Garfield County, Montana.

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Hardin and Montana’s Modernist Traditions

The National Register-listed Burlington Route depot  is now the chamber of commerce office.

The National Register-listed Burlington Route depot is now the chamber of commerce office.

Hardin is different than so much of eastern Montana It was created along the Burlington Route–a railroad line that entered the state in the early 20th century and headed north to Billings–and not the three dominant lines of the region:  the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, and the Milwaukee Road.  Its town plan is different: streets radiate out from the depot, the centerpiece of the design, although tradition soon overruled design:  businesses soon adapted the plan into the standard T-town look that you find throughout the region.

From the depot, looking northwest, the Hotel Becker, also in the National Register, is the town's most recognized landmark from its first decade of development.

From the depot, looking northwest, the Hotel Becker, also in the National Register, is the town’s most recognized landmark from its first decade of development.

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To the northeast of the depot, the street soon took on the look of an alley as owners adapted the plan to the preferred T-town look of a proper “Main Street.”

Hardin is also different because like its huge neighbor to the north, Billings, Hardin’s demographic story is not one of a boom in the early twentieth century followed by decades of declining population.  When I first visited in the early 1980s, the town’s population had grown by one thousand since the 1950s, and it has even grown a couple of hundred more since then, rather than the story so often documented in this blog of rather steep declines in eastern Montana towns from 1980 to 2010.  Hardin even weathered the closing, and now slow demolition, of its industrial mainstay, the Holly Sugar Refinery, which dominated the skyline and local industry from its opening in 1937 to its closing in the early 1970s.

The refinery, shown here in 2013, is  just east of the town proper and has served as a major landmark for travelers on I-94.

The refinery, shown here in 2013, is just east of the town proper and has served as a major landmark for travelers on I-94.

The opening of the refinery in the Depression decade also coincided with yet another trend that makes Hardin different:  its impressive collection of modernist designs, which started with the magnificent Big Horn County Courthouse.

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The courthouse was constructed between 1937 and 1938 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) effort; J. G. Link of Billings was the architect, as the firm was for so many New Deal projects in the region.  The courthouse is the state’s most successful blending of regional materials with standard WPA Modern design.  South of Hardin is the Big Horn Canyon, a beautiful deep gorge that frames the river.  The striking stonework of the courthouse came from a quarry near Fort Smith and linked the modern courthouse to the local landscape.

Over the next two generations, and into the present, the town has continued to grace its built environment with interesting examples of modern design.  Some naturally reflect the Art Deco styling of the courthouse.  The entrance to the Community Bowling Alley is very mid-century Deco, and other commercial buildings have a hint here and there of Deco styling, especially in the use of a band of glass block windows on the historic Gay Block.

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What really is really impressive in Hardin are several buildings from Montana’s contemporary era of the 1950s and 1960s, first in commercial buildings and storefronts, especially the metal-clad and International style-influenced Zelka Machine Shop.

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Two congregations also caught the modernist favor.  The Methodist built a rectangular brick International styled-influenced sanctuary while the Congregationalists added an almost Saarinen-esque design to the townscape.

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Nor did residents ignore domestic architecture styles, either in the past, as attested by this Prairie-style dwelling, or in the present, as in the recent Neo-Prairie style addition to the formerly classical-styled town library.

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Perhaps the best comes last in the dramatic lines and stone aesthetic of the First Interstate Bank Drive-In Bank, located between the town’s commercial artery and its residential district, or the slashed up quonset-hut vernacular of a car wash located on the outskirts of town.  Whatever look you like of Montana modernism, Hardin has something that touches on that design aesthetic.

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The Yellowstone’s Treasure County: Small Place, Big History

IMG_6911Treasure County dates to 1919, one of the last counties created in the Yellowstone Valley.  Among the smallest counties in size, it has just over 700 residents, a drop of over 200 since my visit in 1984.  But the county has some of the most evocative buildings in the state, starting with the Yucca Theatre, built in 1931 by brothers David and Jim Manning, who wanted to give their community a spark, a glimmer of hope in the increasing hard times of the depression.  David Manning had liked the Spanish Mission style when he had traveled in the Southwest, and he thought, why not for Hysham, since the town was near the spot on the Yellowstone River where Manuel Lisa had established one of the valley’s earliest trading posts.

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Despite the brothers’ best intentions, the theatre struggled as the town and county dwindled in population, but David was devoted to it and transformed it into his home, a convenient landmark, it would turn out, for his political career.  Manning was elected to the Montana legislature in 1932, and he was still serving in the House when I worked at the State Capitol from 1982-1983.  He told me about his theatre, and urged me to go and enjoy his town, and stay at the house, if needed.

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The Yucca Theatre was the first building listed in the National Register in Treasure County and it serves once again as a theatre but also a historic site. Local sculptor Bob Schulze has added statues of Lewis and Clark, along with Sacajawea and Pomp, and a saber-tooth tiger, wooly mammoth and a white buffalo to boot.  Across the street, in an old storefront, is the county museum, another addition to Hysham’s heritage tourism offerings since my 1984 visit.

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Rep. Manning also recommended a stop at the Brunswick Bar, and I am glad he did–this is a great place with great Montana bar food.  The bar has been in business since the 1950s, at least, and the building stands at the location of the original county courthouse.

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And speaking of the courthouse, it is a sparkling “contemporary style” building of the 1950s, an important contribution to Montana modernism.  Many have commented on unique treatment of the exterior, with a map of the county serving as the primary design motif.  The building, as you might expect, has changed little since its opening in 1955.

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But there’s another Hysham contribution to Montana modernism:  the Treasure County High School Gym–an Art Moderne styled building from the New Deal era right on old U.S. 10 as it passed through town.

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But this is not the National Register-listed New Deal gym in Treasure County, that is at the hamlet of Sanders, where the WPA built the Sanders School Gymnasium and Community Hall in 1940.  This is not Montana Modernism but Montana Rustic, a design from the Billings architectural firm of J.G. Link. It is one of my favorite New Deal buildings in all of

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New Dealers believed that children needed recreation, and built hundreds of gyms and sports field across the state.  They also believed that devastated, declining rural communities needed spaces–like this community hall–where they could gather for local sports, social events, funerals, and elections.  But the Rustic style in this part of the Yellowstone Valley–not really fitting, the style would have made much more sense in the mountainous western half of Montana.

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At Sanders, the public school has been gone for decades.  But in the northern part of Treasure County, far, really from everywhere is the Rancher School, perhaps the oldest pubic building in the county since its 1910 construction date means that the school predates the actual creation of Treasure County.  Here is a classic early 20th century school–protected still by barb wire and used periodically for community events.  When the National Trust of Historic Preservation placed Montana’s rural schools on its endangered list, everyone had buildings just like the Rancher School in mind.

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Kudos to everyone who has contributed to keeping this building standing as a symbol of communities long gone but not forgotten, not as long as rural landmarks like all of the historic buildings in Treasure County continue to serve owners and residents.

Forsyth’s historic districts

Forsyth, the seat of Rosebud County, has used historic preservation effectively as one of many community assets to guide its economic sustainability over the last 30 years.  When I first visited there in 1984, the community had already started to grapple with the impact of the coal mining far south at Decker.  The passing of coal trains defined much of rhythms of traffic and life back then.  But even 30 years ago, residents were determined to keep their identity and to celebrate their heritage, despite being drawn into a different world.  That was impressive–and from 1986 to 1990, they put their commitment into physical terms by listing many properties in the National Register of Historic Places.

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You really haven’t been to Forsyth unless you take in a movie at the Roxy Theater (1930) and an after-movie libation at the Lariat Bar

Earlier posts talked about such key heritage institutions as the Rosebud County Courthouse, the adjacent Rosebud County Museum, the Howdy (Commercial) Hotel, and then the adaptive reuse of the Vananda State Bank as new landmark business.  Forsyth also has a downtown commercial historic district, which includes both the hotel, bank, the Roxy Theater shown above, but additional classic Montana two-story commercial buildings, with their understated Victorian or classical cornices.

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The Masonic Temple, designed by Miles City architect Byrnjulf Rivenes in 1911, served the community in many ways during its formative years, including the town library.  The Blue Front rooming house came in 1912 and served as home for Northern Pacific railroad employees for many years–today it is a remarkably intact example of that type of single-man housing from 100 years ago.

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Residents also have designated a historic district of their homes and churches that developed in the early 20th century.  It is an impressive array of buildings, from the c. 1920 First Presbyterian Church, a Gothic Revival design by Howard Van Doren Shaw of Chicago in partnership with McIver and Cohagen of Billings, to the brilliant Craftsman-style of the McQuistion House (1914) built by Louis Wahl of Forsyth for ranchers Joshua and Grace McQuistion as their “town” home.  Then there is the 1897 Queen Anne-style house moved to its Forsyth lot by ranchers Robert and Dora Lane in 1909.  The Lanes moved on but the house has stayed, becoming over 100 years a real cornerstone to the historic neighborhood.

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Indeed, that is a theme found throughout town. Despite the coal industry that rumbles in the southern end of the county, Forsyth still holds on, and shows pride in, its ranching past.  No better emblem can be found than the modern front to the Forsyth high school.

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Like the vast majority of eastern Montana towns I visited in 2013, Forsyth has lost population from 1980.  Then over 2500 lived there; in 2010 the census takers counted over 1700 residents.  But unlike many, Forsyth is not beat up, abandoned, forgotten, depressing.  The murals by Bob Watts, discussed in an earlier post, are part of the

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answer.  Local stubbornness is another.  But pride in community as expressed through the town’s many historic preservation projects is another.  Forsyth has figured out how to gain a future through an appreciation of the past.  Let’s hope others follow their lead.

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The Yellowstone’s Rosebud County Courthouse

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The Rosebud County Courthouse in Forsyth is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Rosebud County encompasses a huge swath of eastern Montana, with its upper reaches touching the Musselshell River in central Montana and extending south almost to the Wyoming border.  A good bit of the Tongue River winds through the county and the name comes from Rosebud Creek, which empties into the Yellowstone at the town of Rosebud.

The county seat of Forsyth is a Northern Pacific Railroad town from 1881.  For its first generation, it was a rather minor place stuck as it was between Miles City to the east and Billings to the west: there is no census data for Forsyth before 1900.  But in the early 1900s, two developments changed Forsyth’s fate:  the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, which cut a new path through the county north of the Yellowstone before turning northwest at Forsyth, and then the homestead boom of the 1910s, which county leaders wanted to take advantage of to change their fortunes.

The business district is based on a symmetrical plan, facing the tracks.

The business district is based on a symmetrical plan, facing the tracks.

Forsyth leaders already understood the need to have an impressive business district facing the railroad tracks.  But they also wanted to show anyone that Forsyth was ready for a stop, and visit, and you could live somewhat classy in a stylish well-appointed hotel. The Howdy Hotel (1903-1906) is a rare surviving small-town “booster” hotel, built to impress traveling businessmen that Forsyth was a place of promise.  Designed by the Billings firm of Link and Haire, the building’s classic Renaissance Revival look was impressive for a small Montana town.

Hiram Marcyes was the owner-operator of this early Forsyth landmark.

Hiram Marcyes was the owner-operator of this early Forsyth landmark.

About five years after the opening of the hotel, local leaders decided that the time was right–and the recent boom had no foreseeable end–to maximize on the promise of their little town and build another landmark facing the tracks.  Construction of a new Rosebud County Courthouse, designed in grand Classical Revival fashion by the firm of Link and Haire of Billings, began in 1912 and was opened, after a dispute over cost over-runs, in 1914.

Link and Haire's original rendering of the courthouse is displayed at the Rosebud County Museum.

Link and Haire’s original rendering of the courthouse is displayed at the Rosebud County Museum.

This courthouse is a marvel for a small town, and speaks so strongly to local boosterism during the homesteader boom of the 1910s.  Little has changed since original construction, except that a separate jury room for women was turned into a law library in the 1930s, and of course there has been updates to lighting and technology since then.

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The courtroom features two historical murals, interpreting two events seen as crucial underpinnings of the American system of justice:  Moses bringing the Ten Commandments and the signing of Magna Carta.

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Then, in the upper Rotunda lobby outside the courtroom, are four symbolic depictions of themes such as Obedience, Reverence, Defense of Libery, and Justice.  Of the four Justice has been my favorite since faintly, in the background, is the Rosebud County Courthouse itself.

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The Rosebud County Courthouse was a remarkable building, and when in 1984 I spoke to the community about preservation and local landmarks at the adjacent Rosebud County Museum we discussed how its recognition would be a good place to start anew a local heritage effort.  When I visited then the county had only one property listed in the National Register, the Rosebud County Deaconess Hospital, a very worthy Colonial Revival style building dating to the late 1910s and representing the local reaction to the great flu epidemic of 1918.

Deaconess Hospital, Forsyth, MT, 1919-20, by McIver, Cohagen, and Marshall of Billings.  McIver, 30 years later, would design the VA hospital at Miles City.

Deaconess Hospital, Forsyth, MT, 1919-20, by McIver, Cohagen, and Marshall of Billings. McIver, 30 years later, would design the VA hospital at Miles City.

In 1986, the county would have its second building, the Rosebud County Courthouse, and today the two public buildings still ennoble the town’s architecture and remind anyone passing by of the hopes and sense of community found among eastern Montana town builders in the early 20th century.

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Miles City: Bust and Recovery, 1925-1960

IMG_7005The thirty years between 1925 and 1955 were among the worst of times for residents of Miles City, but these were years where the town created and gained new institutions that would serve them well for the rest of the century. Population growth stalled, then sharply declined.  1930 census counted 7,175, a drop of over 750 from 1920.  And the number only ticked up slightly during the 1930s, gaining less than 150 new residents.

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In the late 1920s, stockgrowers worked with local boosters to establish the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, and over the next twenty years, they added new buildings and features to transform the place into a historic district that showcases what fairgrounds mean to rural Montana communities. Stockgrowers also met with local railroad officials to devise a plan to reinvigorate the grazing lands south of Miles City, properties that had been overgrazed since there were no restrictions on grazing on public lands.  The group established a concept that called for formal leasing of public lands for grazing in return for private investment and better conservation practices.  Congress agreed that the concept was worth an experiment and in 1928 it established by law the Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing District. As Depression stalked the land in the early 1930s, Congress took the Custer County experiment and transformed it into a national law that impacted the entire West:  the Taylor Grazing Act.

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The Taylor Grazing Act combined with other New Deal agricultural programs to call for the slaughter of thousands of cattle and horses in the region.  That, combined with the end of the open range, devastated the cowboy culture that had so defined Custer County and left everyone in a funk.

At least one bright spot lit up Main Street.  In 1936 the Montana Theatre, a splendid Art Deco building, opened, and the movies provided one important escape from the hard times.

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Postcard of Range Riders Museum c. 1960

Another local reaction came in 1939 when residents met and celebrated the cowboys who came in the early years of settlement and created the culture that everyone hated to see pass.  A year later they gathered in Miles City again and decided to raise money for a “cowboy’s memorial building,” which when completed in 1942 became the Range Riders Museum. As a history of the museum concludes, the building “serves two other principal purposes: A meeting place for cowboys and a headquarters for the annual reunion. The members were satisfied that it was a fitting memorial to an industry in which the raising and furnishing of livestock needed to be preserved for future generations.”

Range Riders Museum, 2013

Range Riders Museum, 2013

The museum has steadily expanded ever since, with the addition of new exhibition space and adding other historic buildings from the county to the property.

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New Deal support also combined with local funding to create the Pumping Station Park at the nearby city waterworks plant.  Custer County now had re-energized public spaces.

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Northeast of Miles City, and north of the Yellowstone River, federal agencies created a huge reformed landscape, the Kinsey Flats project (1938-1941), which was a double-layered landscape of the New Deal. Here, federal Resettlement Administration officials relocated formerly displaced ranchers—many of whom the New Deal had dislocated earlier in the decade during its massive purchase of marginal lands throughout the region—to a new planned community north of Miles City. One of the officials involved with both projects, David G. Rivenes of Miles City, recalled: “I know what a terrible experience it was for folks from Fallon County, East Custer County, and Prairie County, to pull up stakes, leave their life-long friends and relatives, the land that some had even homesteaded—and move into strange surroundings and convert to irrigation farming.”

Federal funding also bettered educational opportunities.  The National Youth Administration supported not only the high school but also expanding its offerings to create the Custer County Junior College.  During World War II, federal funding supported civil pilot training at the college, which at that time held its classes at the high school.  In 1957, it moved classes to the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

In 1966 the college changed its name to Miles Community College and began the process of relocating to its present campus, near the VA hospital complex.  The first junior college in the region continues to shape Miles City today.

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Miles Community College, c. 1967

These different public institutions played a crucial role in Miles City’s decade of recovery from 1945 to 1960 as population grew to 9243 in 1950 and almost 10,000 by 1960.  Federal funding was important but local support was critical.  County government, for example, added a Art Deco Modern courthouse, designed by the firm of J.G. Link of Billings, in 1948-1949.

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Then residents and local governments pooled resources to donate almost $30,00 to purchase prime east side property to attract the construction of a modern Veterans Administration hospital. Groundbreaking took place in October 1948 and the hospital admitted its first patients on August 1, 1951.

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The architect was Great Falls native, Angus V. McIver, working in collaboration with Cushing and Terrell of Billings.  McIver had been a prominent architect in Great Falls and Billings for a generation, along with a distinguished career with the military and other federal agencies.  Shortly after receiving this commission, McIver was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

As contractors were building the 100-bed hospital, local ranchers and civic leaders launched, in 1950, the annual Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, one of the premier cultural events in eastern Montana every May.  The sale uses both the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, the Range Riders Museum, and Riverside Park–among other venues–to pay homage to the city’s cowboy roots but also the persistence of stockraising in this region.

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Toole county, 1984 and now: Day Two

ImageToole County, second day: As I ventured out from Shelby into Toole County in February 1984 I followed old US Hwy 91 route (surpassed then as now by I-15)  into an early 20th century  oil patch region–the Kevin-Sunburst field–that had been discovered in the 1920s during Montana’s initial oil boom, but had dried up until the 1950s, although limited production remains even today.  In 1984 everyone in Helena thought that I should give the region a look for early resources associated with the oil industry.

Oilmont school had closed already in 1984 but the hipped roof frame building remained as a symbol of the boom days.  Thirty years later, I was surprised to see, the school was still there, barely–the years had not been kind to it. Jerry Funk in his memoir, “Life is an Excellent Adventure,” recalled that “The school plant itself was an ungainly hodge-podge of after-thoughts and additions and mismatched free-standing structures.  Its construction was obviously undertaken, with boom-town gusto and elan, as and when new space was needed, without the constraints of dealing with architects and planners.  The result was perhaps not what one would call pretty, but it was quite serviceable, and certainly memorable.”

ImageBetter stories in 2013 awaited me in Kevin, to the west. Here the historic Kevin depot, which is listed in the National Register, had been moved off the tracks, but it had been converted to a community center and senior citizens center, a very appropriate and successful adaptive reuse.  The town numbers under 200 residents and their commitment to keeping this connection to the town’s railroad roots along this spur line alive and well is commendable.

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Also in Kevin in 1984 a circa 1930 service station caught my eye, with especially the period “Firestone” signs. ImageRather amazingly the building still stands at the town’s prominent corner, although the roof is sagging and its original function is more difficult to discern today.

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Another favorite building in 1984 was the Derrick Bar, a friendly place where the very name spoke to what was happening in Kevin in the mid-20th century. Its miniature derrick sign, on the top of the building, was a beacon; unlike anything else I would see in Montana.

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The bar is still there–still friendly too–but the derrick had come off of the top–although it too was preserved on the side of the building.

Kevin-Oilmont was a section of Toole County that had promised untold wealth in the 1920s and 1930s–and the boom at the Kevin-Sunburst field helps to explain the strong imprint of 1930s modernism in Shelby.

The most important Jazz Age building in Shelby is the visitor center, from 1923.  Listed in the National Register, the building served as the local headquarters for the city’s ambitious attempt to host a world’s heavyweight fight between legendary boxer Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons.  Flush with oil money, town boosters thought the fight would put Shelby on the map, but the projected tens of thousands of spectators never materialized–only 7,000 made it to Shelby–and the event bankrupted the town.

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At the western end of the historic downtown is another National Register landmark, the Rainbow Service Station.  The development of U.S. 2 as the region’s key east-west automobile/truck corridor happened at the same time as the oil boom, and as auto travel to Glacier National Park also was growing in numbers.

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In between these two landmarks grew an impressive collection of commercial buildings, along with some of the best roadside neon in the state. Modernism isn’t confined to the commercial strip.  There are impressive residential designs of International Style and Art Deco from the 1930s.

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And both the New Deal Art Deco high school (now middle school) and the contemporary-styled St. William Catholic School make their own statements of mid-century modern architecture.

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Shelby might be a modern urban oasis on the Hi-Line but as soon as I started to move east of the visitor center along U.S. 2 I discovered that I was entering a very rural, agricultural landscape: more on that later.