Red Lodge: Preservation Maybes and Maybe Nots

It’s no secret that I have long admired the towns of the Yellowstone Valley.  Thirty plus years ago, the attitude across much of Montana was dismissive of this region:  I even was told by someone who should have known better that “outside of Custer, there’s really isn’t much history there.”  Not only was their history in spades–chronologically deep, thematically rich–there was this tremendous built environment that I began to explore in 1982, and haven’t stopped since.

Snag Bar (1901) Red Lodge Carbon Co  IMG_5715

Admittedly I take an old school approach to the preservation of this landscape.  Red Lodge has many exemplary preservation achievements but in the 21st century success may be leading to the community losing that edge, admittedly rough edge, that once characterized this region of Montana.  Case in point:  the Snag Bar.  The image on the left is from the 1980s–on the right is an image from this summer.  I was happy that the Snag was still with us–always a cozy watering hole in the past.  But now its entrance spoke to a different audience, and the place had taken on the “Main Street Preservation” look that you can find across the country–and a bit of distinctiveness was gone.



Red Lodge was not tipped into that preservation fantasy land right out of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.” But new infill of modern false-fronts and even a heavy mountain-like Rustic feel doesn’t help, not to mention the northern California wine bar with its set-backs and sidewalk seating.  It is just worrisome.  As is the future of this once grand movie theater,

IMG_5799which has been hanging on, seemingly by a thread, for decades.  The theater has one of the great Classical Revival facades found in the state, full of whimsy and wonderful detail.


IMG_5785   IMG_5783

Its conversion into a garage was kept it alive but a conversion into a new public use:  well it is a huge building, that needs work, and Red Lodge is already blessed with a brilliant historic movie theater, the Roman.  Multiple theaters in the early 20th century made sense: today not so much.


Red Lodge also has gotten it right in its residential historic districts.  The “Hi-Bug” neighborhood–a designation 100 years ago that spoke to the merchant class that lived in the town’s most affluent neighborhood–has made a remarkable recovery in the last 30 years, and looks great as these few images attest.




Throughout town there are similar preservation success stories, ranging from a historic service station (that has a nifty exhibit about Yellowstone tour buses and their preservation lurking inside) and one of my new favorites, the Regis Grocery, now a neighborhood (meaning off the tourists’ beaten path of US 212) cafe worth a stop.


IMG_5804Red Lodge does have challenges–growth that can overwhelm historic character, too many tourism focused businesses–but the changes here over 30 years are impressive achievements, sure signs of how the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act has helped to change the face of Montana.

A second look at Ringling


Ringling, a stop along the Milwaukee Road in northern Meagher County just off U.S. Highway 89, served as the eastern gateway for the railroad’s move west into the Rocky Mountains along its electric line.  From Ringling the Milwaukee passed through the famous Sixteenmile Canyon then crossed the Missouri at Toston and began its ascent in the copper kingdom of Butte.


I had last passed quickly through the village in 2011 and its iconic Milwaukee Road combination depot was weathered but appeared as if it would yet survive for sometime.  Within four years, however, its fate was much more uncertain.  Roof decking is missing–will this now rare survival of the railroad’s corporate stamp on the northern plains survive till the end of the decade?



Brumfield’s Garage is more an example of roadside architecture from the first half of the twentieth century than a building that dates back to the Milwaukee’s heyday.  Its vernacular interpretation of Art Deco styling by means of the four brick pilasters catches the eye–this adaptable property has been many things, and in my past visits has served as a store and as a bar.


Ringling also retains its school–now a residence–another of the remarkable rural frame standardized designed schoolhouses found throughout central Montana. It sits south of the depot, as if the corporate and the public defined the north-south boundaries of the village.


Still overlooking the town, and serving as an important landmark on U.S. Highway 89, is the historic Arts and Crafts-styled St. John’s Catholic Church, to which I have already devoted one post in this blog.  What I was pleased to find in 2015 is that some preservation work was underway–with weatherboards being repaired and replaced.  With a decent roof and a recent paint job, the church is in much better shape than many of its brethren across the region. The continued use of this Montana plains church as a “community church” is the best way to keep it alive in the 21st century even as the rest of Ringling shrinks and disappears from the Meagher County landscape.


Wise River Club, then and now


 In my 1984 travels in northern Beaverhead County, I found few local dives more evocative than the Wise River Club, which stands along Montana Highway 43 near the confluence of the Big Hole and Wise rivers.  I have used this image in the decades since multiple times to illustrate the vernacular of the Montana roadside.  At the Wise River Club, the food, company, and adult beverages were great then, as they were in the spring of 2012, when I repeated my visit.


 The club was still there, and the food remained excellent but certainly the exterior had evolved over the past thirty years.  A new stone veneer–like something out of the mid-20th century–had replaced the rustic log look of 1984.  A portico was there too.  But what you really missed were the racks, wagon wheels, and totem pole of the earlier exterior.  Until you ventured inside.



The racks had moved into the ceiling, throughout the tavern area.  Quiet when I first arrived and everyone stepped back to accommodate the photo.  Residents could still tolerate visitors at the Wise River Club.

Wise River is a village, and like the club, little had changed there in 30 years.  I did document one building that I had unwisely ignored in 1984:  the Wise River Women’s Club, established in 1958. (Once again the so-called “50 year rule” clouded my vision).  The impact of women on community institutions can be found in any diary or book about rural Montana in the 19th and 20th centuries.  But we do not often look for the buildings that embody in a physical sense that impact.  This unadorned frame building is just one of many across the state that deserve much more than a quick look.





Range Riders Bar Sign, Mlles City: 1984 and 2013

Miles City has always been one of my favorite western towns.  Located near the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, the town’s early history and prominence in the Yellowstone Valley remains significant, if understudied.  More attention has been given to the town’s turn of the century transformation, when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railway entered into the Yellowstone Valley and here at Miles City it located shops and a classically styled passenger station to compete with the already established Northern Pacific Railroad.  The town has a bevy of interesting buildings, commercial, public, and domestic, built between 1990 and 1930. The Great Depression hit the town and countryside particularly hard, and the New Deal reacted with numerous projects, particularly the city park that is such a central community element today.

But you most often come to Miles City not for the historic buildings per se but for the cowboy vibe, and the historic bars along Main Street.  The Montana Bar is my favorite–and more on it in a later posting.  But across the street is another time-tested spot, the Range Rider, always eye-catching due to the giant bar sign.  Here is the one from 1984.



At the west end of town on old U.S. 10 is the Range Riders Museum, a mid-twentieth century institution that interprets the region’s western, and particularly its ranching, history.  Don’t know which place took the name Range Riders first.  But both remain in operation, although the Range Rider bar has a new name, perhaps evocative of the 21st century, and has shifted the sign to the adjacent building.  Below is the bar and sign of May 2013–not as overwhelming perhaps, but still evocative of Miles City’s history and culture.