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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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


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.


The Yellowstone’s Rosebud County Courthouse


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.




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.




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.





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.

Rosebud Co CH Forsyth 14 - Version 2

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.


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.

Rosebud Battlefield 035

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.



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.

IMG_7011Another community institution, Riverside Park, received a new ballpark, fearing beautiful stone masonry, known now as Connors Stadium, in 1940.  This New Deal project was just one of many across Montana in the late 1930s and 1940s, designed to improve public recreation and school athletics.



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.


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.

Miles Community College

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.


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.


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.


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.





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.


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.


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.


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.

The 1984 Survey 30 Years Later: Toole County

My exploration of Montana’s historic landscape–an experience that has shaped my career and teaching philosophy so deeply–began in earnest 30 years ago this month.  I had been working with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office for several weeks, organizing information already known about the state but also realizing that much was unknown.  That is why the MT SHPO Marcella Sherfy wanted to send someone out of the road–to look, listen, and find what was missing.  In February 1984, the fieldwork began, with the initial focus on the Hi-Line and the first stop, Toole County and the county seat of Shelby.


View of Shelby, looking north, taken from county courthouse, 2013

 The first stop was Shelby, where I also launched my effort to talk about historic places and the preservation planning process with local communities.  We met at the local library/museum which stood next to the courthouse.


Toole County Library, Shelby, MT

I learned two things that February 1984 night in Shelby that shaped my work for the next 3 months:  do the community meetings first–Montanans were intensely engaged with their history and made information and primary sources to share.  Just as important, I learned of their pride in the county courthouse–an architectural statement of Art Deco modernism in the guise of local materials and stone that might not be “technically eligible” for the National Register (at that time it was not yet 50 years old) but that everyone considered the landmark of the city.



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This 1934 building, one of the many Federal Emergency Relief Administration projects that shaped small towns and agricultural landscapes across the state during the Great Depression, looms high over the time, with the overall setting enhanced by the period landscaping and stone veneer steps from the parking area to the front door.



The new courthouse gave the town a new focus, away from the railroad corridor created by the Great Northern Railway, and then the flashy commercial strip of stores and taverns along the adjacent highway corridor of U.S. Highway 2, a route also improved during the New Deal years.






In Shelby, at the first of the 1984 work, I learned of the imprint of the successive waves of the railroad, then highways, and then the New Deal on Montana’s Hi-Line towns.  Those patterns of development would be constants throughout the fieldwork.  But after the stop to Shelby, I was then ready to explore the surrounding rural landscape.  And that will be the next story.



Modernist Architecture in the Diocese of Great Falls

Bishop William Joseph Condon is a pivotal figure in the history of the Catholic Church of eastern Montana.  As Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls (which became the Diocese of Great Falls and Billings in 1980) in the mid-twentieth century, he presided over the growth of the church in Great Falls and Billings, due to the influx of federal defense dollars and the impact of the petroleum boom.  Bishop Condon also presided over the construction of remarkable new church buildings across the region, from tiny towns like Highnam to rural county seats such as Roundup.  Then there was the construction of the 1950s modernist landmark, the College of Great Falls [now University of Great Falls], which has arguably the state’s most coherent set of c.1960 “contemporary” style buildings.

Over the next few months I will explore the churches associated with the diocese’s expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, giving particular attention to the buildings at  the University of Great Falls.  These compelling resources frankly were not on my radar screen in 1984-1985:  like many others the buildings were too recent, and being devoid of easily classified architectural elements, I ignored them in favor of the historic Gothic and Classical revival church sanctuaries in the region.  But more than a generation later, you can readily appreciate the dignity and the beauty of the churches.  In most cases the congregations have been solid stewards, and the buildings still convey their original design and intent.



St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, Roundup.

One reason I really like the Roundup church is that it faces, across Main Street (US 87), another modern landmark in eastern Montana:  the New Deal-funded Art Deco-styled Musselshell County Courthouse.  


My second example for today’s post comes from tiny Hingham, a Great Northern railroad town in Hill County.  In 2010, its population was just over 100 but the town and surrounding ranch families have carefully kept the Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church as a truly 1960s landmark.  I apologize for the dark rainy images, but everyone that day on the Hi-Line rejoiced in the rain, and offered me a place to stay if I returned every May and brought rain.




Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church, Hingham, Hill County


Moccasin School, Judith Basin County, 1984 and 2013

One of the most stunning properties I discovered in my 1984 survey of Montana–stunning perhaps because it was so unexpected–was the Art Deco styled school at Moccasin in Judith Basin County (central Montana).  


Moccasin is a tiny place, tucked away on a federal highway, true, but certainly not ever a major transportation or commercial crossroads.  Yet here was one of the most architecturally striking schools built for a rural community that I have encountered, American West or American South or anyplace in-between.  The white concrete hard-edged exterior spoke of the International style then raging in major cities across the world; the decorative metal insets were Art Deco in its purest form, as applied ornament that gave some life to an otherwise severe facade.  A creature of the homesteading boom of the 1910s, the town suffered from fires that literally snuffed out the promise of the place by 1919. But nearby was the Central Montana Agricultural Station, and from what I can gathered from web sources the school stayed in operation till 1966, with regional educators considering the high school agricultural and vocational education programs at the school to be noteworthy.  

The web, particularly Flickr, has a range of photos taken of the school in more recent years. Here is the one I took in May 2013. Compared to 30 years ago, a tall line of bushes now obscures views of the first story; obviously the building has deteriorated, and now would be considered in poor repair.