A return to Cleveland

A delightful story in the Great Falls Tribune this week told of a trip in Blaine County, traveling south from Chinook to the Bear Paws Battlefield and onto the almost ghost towns of Cleveland, Lloyd, and Warrick in Chouteau County.  In my 2013 survey I went along part of this route and it brought back fond memories.  I posted a few images from Cleveland in an earlier post about the Bear’s Paw National Battlefield and its improvements in interpretation in the last 30 years.  Today I will merely post a few additional images from Cleveland–yes, Cleveland, Montana–and my travels from six years ago.

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The Tribune writers are certainly correct–it really is a beautiful drive, passing historic ranches, early 20th century abandoned log homes like the one above, and various buttes and outcroppings punctuating the landscape.  I actually made the drive hoping that the Cleveland Bar would be open, and I could grab a brew and a burger.

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Alas, it was shut down, but still there, and its crossroads on Peoples Creek Road was still the primary mail delivery spot for the scattered ranches of the county’s southern end.

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Across the intersection of Cleveland Road and Peoples Creek Road was the community school, with its teacher dwelling.  I always think how interesting but also how challenging it would be to teach and live at the same place. Should these types of buildings, located in rural communities across the northern plains, be better recognized for their unique contributions to American education and culture?

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But of course the real attraction to Cleveland was the stories I heard in Montana in the 1980s about the Cleveland rodeo, and sure enough the rodeo grounds were a mere stones throw from the back of the bar.

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IMG_8349Another traveler has posted a wonderful montage of the July 4, 2011 rodeo at Cleveland–truly a community affair.  I wish that one day soon I can return when the chutes and corral are teeming with livestock and ranch families from miles around gather for an annual event, whose origins stretches back to the early settlement of Blaine County.

 

Harlem on the Hi-Line

 

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Whenever travelers or residents for that matter talk about Hi-Line towns, Havre, Shelby, Glasgow, Wolf Point always enter the conversation. Some places, inexplicably to my mind, never do: Harlem is a case in point.

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A gateway to the Fort Belknap Reservation, Harlem is one of the early Great Northern Railway towns, dating to 1889, and was established to serve as a commercial center on the northern border of the reservation.When the homesteading boom swept through the Hi-Line during the early 20th century, Harlem quickly expanded and most of the historic buildings found there today date between 1910 and 1940.

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What struck me powerfully when I visited in 2013, compared to my last visit in 1984, was dual themes of growth and decline. The Aaniiih Nadoka College, established in 1884, had left its initial spartan quarters on the edge of the reservation into new modern-styled buildings, that still reflected the spirit of earlier vernacular styled buildings.

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The 30-year growth of the college certainly underscored new opportunities as the flashy facade of the Ft Belknap Casino, facing U.S. Highway 2, showed a new revenue source. Standardized designs for federal housing also indicated the growth of a large neighborhood just south of the U.S. 2 and Montana 66 junction.

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The theme of decline, however, marked the historic business district of Harlem. When I visited in 1984, Harlem had over 1000 residents–now that number is close to 800. Classic roadside gas stations, even at prominent corners, had closed.

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The Art Deco-ish Brekke Block (1941) only had a few going businesses; the early 20th century commercial block at Central and Main streets had even fewer signs of life. The Grand Theatre no longer showed movies. The imposing classical facade of the old state bank had broken windows and decaying architectural details.  These historic buildings retain their potential to impress, and could be heritage assets in multiple ways.  They need attention before it is too late.

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While life and commerce enlivened the railroad and highway corridor, the downtown had a shuttered, tired look. But pride was there too. The Harlem Centennial Park, established in 1987, featured an memorial to the thirteen airmen who lost their lives when Air Force cargo planes collided north of town in 1992. The dedication and commitment to raise the funds and build such an appropriate monument impresses–and for travelers like me, I had no idea that this terrible air accident took place, and was glad that Harlem understood its obligation to the airmen and to history to record the event, permanently, with the memorial.  It was one of several surprises I encountered during my visit to Blaine County in 2013.

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St Paul’s Catholic Mission, Hays, MT

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St. Paul’s Mission, Hays, March 1984

A basic goal of the 1984 survey of Montana was to have a greater understanding of the built environment of Montana’s Indian Reservations, especially those in northern central and eastern Montana, which had little acknowledgement from historic preservationists and architectural historians.  For me in 1984, that trek began when I came to Hays, in the Fort Belknap Reservation,  south and east of Chinook.  As the photo above suggests, I arrived on a cold winter afternoon, and was immediately awed by the simple yet direct beauty of the stone St. Paul’s Mission.  Built in 1898, this Gothic style building replaced earlier log buildings used by the Jesuits as they worked with Gros Ventre and Assinniboine Indians, who owned the reservation, to establish the community of Hays.

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St. Paul’s Mission, summer 1988

When the Jesuits arrived in this country they were struck by its beauty.  Father Frederick Eberschweiler said in 1886:

“The cattle country with grazing land: the best I ever saw. Timber: that whole mountain range is thickly covered from the bottom to the top of the mountains. Water: seven beautiful creeks, running into the Milk River, clear as crystal, sweet as honey. Cultivating land: at all the creeks, but especially at “Peoples Creek”; at least 15 miles long remaining near the mountains is a deep, wide valley of the best garden-land, enough to make the whole tribe here very rich and happy.”

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Peoples Creek is at the heart of Hays, and this land remains cattle country as the two overviews above suggest.  Hays is small but tight-knit, proud of its school (and its basketball), and friendly.  When I first visited in 1984, Fr. McMeel visited with me for a long time.  

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He considered himself a newcomer too (he arrived in 1978 from Alaska and became pastor in 1979) so we shared a bit about how a southerner and a westerner could meet at such a sacred place. He insisted that I call him Father Barney. He was clearly devoted to the mission, and its community.    

His devotion is memorialized in a historical marker on the drive to the mission church, which is still in great shape, obviously benefiting from careful stewardship over the decades.  I visited on Memorial Day weekend, where the church was the backdrop for a ceremony in honor of the generations of Ft Belknap residents who had served their people and their country.

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Another architectural beauty at Hays is the shrine, Our Lady of the Rockies, built in 1931 by Father Feusi and Tom Flack, a German stonecarver.  Another Gothic style building, reflecting a church from Feusi’s native Switzerland, the chapel is used for memorial services every May.

Hays is only a small yet significant part of the Ft Belknap Reservation–next we move north to Harlem and return to our explorations along the Montana Hi-Line.

 

The Chief Joseph Battleground in Blaine County

 

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In 1984 I was very eager to see the Chief Joseph Battleground, as many historians and residents called it 30 years ago.  Here in 1877 Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army, which had pursued Joseph and his followers across most of Montana, starting in Beaverhead County in the southeast corner, extending as far east along the Yellowstone as present-day Laurel, and then striking north for the Canadian border.  They made it as far as this wind-swept prairie 15 miles south of Chinook.

In 1984, on a cold winter morning, the site was spectacular and I gave a tip of my hat to the local residents who had made the effort to preserve the site–and acquire enough land that you could gain a strong sense of place, and of destiny.  The level of interpretation at the battleground was disappointing.  There was a mounted bust of Chief Joseph (not full-sized; it looked lost on the vastness of the space) which has since been moved.  There were metal plaques noting Chief Joseph’s surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles, erected by the DAR and the citizens of Blaine County in 1929 and by Congress in 1930. And most recently, a 1966 marker to C. R. Noyes, the local 

 

 

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rancher who had played the key role in saving the battleground.  There was not much else to explain the significance of the Nez Perce campaign nor what happened there in the fall of 1877.  When I next visited in 1988, the story was the same.

In 1989 the National Park Service designated the Chief Joseph Battleground as a National Historic Landmark–the first step in a new future for the park.  Then it became a key property in the Nez Perce Historical Park, which has units from Idaho to Montana.  New interpretive trails and interpretive markers are the most recent additions, telling a much broader story than the old metal markers were capable of doing.  

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The experience today is far different than 1984.  There is still no visitor center–the new one at Big Hole Battlefield in Beaverhead County is superb however–and the Blaine County Museum in Chinook still carries that burden of interpreting the story.  But there is truth in the landscape now, as never before.  The trails, markers, and landscape combine to create a deeper understanding of why the Nez Perce stopped here, why it was difficult to escape the U.S. army, and what that trek and all of those stories might mean today.

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The two layers of interpretation–that of the early 20th century and that of the 21st century–co-exist within a special place.  Here is one preservation success in the last 30 years that deserves to be better known.

A bit farther down the road is Cleveland.  In my time in Montana, it hosted one of the most famous (or was it infamous) local rodeos around.  Its bar/cafe/post office spoke still to the first part of the 20th century.  People there in 1984 were friendly, and it was a good place that I looked forward to revisiting.  But the doors were shuttered in Cleveland.  The corrals were still there, sorta.   And there was no Cleveland Bar.  Wish I could have been here one more time before it went away.

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Chinook and the Sugar Refinery

The last post ended with a rather pastoral image of the Utah-Idaho sugar refinery in Chinook with promises to add a few comments on how the town changed after the refinery.  Let’s begin with a dose of reality–the image of a stack looming over the prairie is compelling but misleading.  The WPA Guide to Montana tells us that the factory began in 1925, was the state’s fourth largest by the late 1930s, and that the “shacks” of Mexican and Filipino workers crowded around the factory.  Other sources record how at this same time

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other communities down river complained of the foul discharge of the company directly into the Milk River.  The lesson here:  later day architectural photos can sometimes obscure rather reflect historical reality.

Within Chinook, there are many reminders of the prosperity brought by beet farming and the refinery.  The town has an interesting array of 1920s and 1930s domestic architecture, from the revival craze to the modernism of the International style.

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Business owners also took the new styles of the Jazz Age–like Art Deco–and added facades that gave a new look to their stores.

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After the impact of New Deal modern design in the new Chinook High School in the 1930s, Chinook embraced post-World War II modernism, such as the expansion of the high school in the 1950s, a dazzling International style National Guard facility out near the Image 

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sugar refinery, and a new International Harvester dealership, part of the architectural legacy of industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

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The sugar refinery brought a new era to Blaine County and it gave Chinook a two-sided look:  one, a railroad town along U.S. 2, and two, a modern plains town that emerged agriculture and industry in the mid-20th century.

Back on the Hi-Line at Chinook: a town that got it

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Chinook, the seat of Blaine County, has long been among my favorite Hi-Line towns.  Certainly there is the Elk Bar, with its cowgirl in the champagne glass neon sign,–is there a better bar sign in the Big Sky Country?  But then Chinook is most definitely a railroad town of Great Northern vintage.  Then it is part of U.S. highway corridor, and I loved staying at what was then a Mom and Pop Bear’s Paw motor lodge on the west side of town in 1984.  And it is irrigation country, and the impact of the federal Milk River Project in the early 20th century.  Railroads, highways, irrigation, bars–throw in that the town is also the gateway to the Bear’s Paw National Battlefield and the end of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail:  little wonder I stayed there for 3 days in 1984 exploring a wide swath of the region.

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This post is subtitled “a town that got it” for the simple reason that when I visited in 1984, outside of the battlefield (which was little more than preserved ground with a few early 20th century markers not the more fully interpreted landscape you find today) and the local museum (which was since grown considerably) the words “historic preservation” were new, and somewhat foreign.  Nothing was happening–30 years later however you can see a range of preservation work, along with some exciting adaptive reuse projects.  Chinook treasures its past and sees it as an asset for the present, and future.

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A U.S. 2 service station converted into a great ice cream stop in Chinook

What didn’t I “see” in 1984:  the New Deal imprint on the town.  Frankly put, the Chinook High School is one of my favorite New Deal buildings in the state–perhaps its slick International modernism made it hard to grasp 30 years ago but today its powerful statement of 1930s aesthetics can’t be missed.

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That’s not all the New Deal left the town–it also energized public buildings with a new City Hall and an annex to the county courthouse, both somewhat subdued architectural statements.

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I did a better job of understanding the transportation corridors and how they impacted Chinook.  Most prominent to my mind was a three-story brick hotel, serving both railroad passengers and newly arriving homesteaders.  In 1984 it looked as if only minor changes had occurred since first construction-it still looks that way 30 years later with a few more windows filled-in, and general hard times apparent.

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The Great Northern depot was another focus of my work but somehow I missed a great 1920s gas station that has been restored and converted into new uses by a local financial institution–it is now on the National Register of Historic Places and good example of how the roadside architecture of the 1920s can find new uses in the 21st century.

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Another big miss was the Sugar Refinery–especially considering the role that Chinook played in the Milk River project, both in its origins, the nationally significant case of Winters v. United States at the turn of the century (see Beth LaDow’s epic study The Medicine Line (2001), and then the impact of this major federal project from 1911 to the present.  Not to mention that the high school nicknameImage

was the Sugarbeaters, surely one of the GREAT names in high school sports.

You cross a major ditch on the way to the refinery, on the outskirts of town.  A good bit of the property remains, with the tall stack speaking strongly to the merger of homestead and factory on the northern plains.  The refinery began an new era in the town’s history–a theme worth exploring in the next post.

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