The Big Sky’s Bowling Alleys

Hill Co Rudyard 1 bar bowling

The Bar and Bowling Alley, Rudyard

During the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan I gave little thought to mid-20th century recreational buildings.  Parks were on my mind, as well as my colleagues at the State Historic Preservation Office, but everyday, plain Jane architecture buildings for bowling and roller skating–not so much.  I didn’t even give much attention to public swimming pools, even though I knew that they were often a large component of New Deal building projects.

The photo above from Rudyard, a small railroad town along the Hi-Line in Hill County, tells you why I “missed” on these buildings 30 years ago.  Nothing National Register-quality there–or not?  When you think of the National Register criteria and the themes of recreation and social history such community gathering spots take on added significance, which extends well beyond the architecture.

Community Bowl 2 BH County HardinCommunity Center Bowl in Hardin, Big Horn County, is a wonderful recreational space, with its bays defined by c. 1960 styled “picture windows” framed in glass blocks.  The owners have refurbished the lanes two years ago–this institution still has years left in it.

Chouteau Co Ft Benton Front St 13 Jack's Bar bowling

Another great mid-20th century building is Jack’s Bar and Lanes–one historic building in Fort Benton that doesn’t get much attention that way I bet.  Gotta love the dual glass block entrances with neon signs. Since my visit in 2013 the owners have added a flat metal awning over the dual entrances–a poor choice in my humble opinion.  But don’t let that keep you from going insider–where a “see them dead” zoo of hunting trophies awaits.

Lincoln Co Troy bowling lanesFrom the southeast corner of the state to its northwest corner–the Trojan Lanes (so named for the school mascot) in Troy, Montana.  Here you find the type of alley that is common throughout the small towns of Big Sky Country.  Not only do you have a recreational center but you often have the best family restaurant in town.  That’s the

Powder River Co Broadus 18 bowlingcase where at Troy’s Trojan as well as–returning to the southeast corner–the Powder River Lanes in Broadus.  This tiny county seat has lost several of its classic cafes from the 1980s–the Montana Bar and Cafe on the opposite side of the town square being my favorite in 1984–but Powder River Lanes makes up for it.

Lake Co Ronan bowling theaterI am sorta partial to the small-town lanes, like the Lucky Strike above in Ronan, Lake County.  Located next door to “Entertainer Theatre,” this corner of the town is clearly its center for pop culture experience.

Whitehall bowling and barAnother fav–admittedly in a beat-up turn of the 20th century building–is Roper Lanes and Lounge in Whitehall, Jefferson county, in the southwest corner of the state. Gotta love the painted sign over the entrance–emojis before they were called emojis.

Copper Bowl, E. Park, Anaconda roadside

Cedar Park Bowling Lanes, N side

Anaconda might be the small town bowling champ in Montana, with two excellent alleys, the Copper Bowl, from the mid-20th century and the more recent Cedar Park Lanes.  The alleys are located on the edge of town, between the business district and smelter–a great location to keep the bowling tradition alive.  Copper Bowl can also boast of the state’s best bowling sign–along Montana 1 and U.S. 10A, the Pintlar Route, a good place to catch commercial, roadside architecture.  If this bit of flash doesn’t catch your attention, you staring too much at the road in front.

Copper Bowl sign, E. Park, Anaconda roadside

These images do not capture all of the alleys across the big Sky–but they are enough to remind us that the bowling tradition is alive and kicking, and worthy of a closer look.


Down the Powder River to Broadus


When I was able to carve some extra fieldwork in my limited time in Montana in 2013, there were two places in particular I was eager to revisit, both in the state’s far southeast corner. Broadus, the seat of Powder River County, and Ekalaka, the seat of Carter County, were tiny places in 1984.  Yet both made me very more than welcome in my work for the state historic preservation plan.


My 1984 public meeting on the historic preservation plan took place at what was then the new Powder River County Courthouse, a real point of pride, obviously, for all of the residents.  Built in 1978 from designs by Harrison G. Fagg and Associates, the building is 1970s modernism at its best: low profile, earth-tone brick, at one with its setting but also with a functional modern interior where all of the work of county government could take place.  That night, the residents’ passion and interest in the past were intense.  They couldn’t wait, they said, to show me the oldest homestead house in the county, from 1916. I have recounted that story many times since:  it all depends on the context when you think of how “old” a property may be.  In the Powder River County context, it made sense: the county itself wasn’t formed until 1919.

Cross Ranch, Powder River Co

Another property I visited in 1984 following the public meeting was the Cross Ranch, and took the photo above of its overall setting.  At that time the county had no properties listed in the National Register:  the Cross Ranch Headquarters, with its distinctive hipped roof, would be the first, in 1996.


Broadus itself has several properties that are also National Register worthy.  Although the population decline has been steep, from 712 in 1980 to merely 468 in 2010, I found its distinctive town square plan intact.  Town squares are common in the south and midwest but not so much in Montana since so many county seats are either mining towns, that grew quickly and haphazardly, or railroad towns with their familiar symmetrical plan or T-plan design.  My favorite landmark is the historic Montana Bar and Cafe, which is now the Montana Casino and Bar–the wild game collection is still there but like most historic bars across the state the pings of gambling machines now dominate the interiors as bar owners do what they can for income as rural populations continue to decrease.


For a place under 500 people, in a county of just over 1100 residents, Broadus provides a range of outlets for recreation and entertainment besides the public school, from the county museum for visitors, the local library, a bowling alley, and a small movie theater.





The most important, and historic, community institution–again in addition to the public schools–is Cottonwood Park, where the annual Powder River County Rodeo takes place.




The Let ‘Er Buck Rodeo is one of the region’s best, and makes the town come alive every summer.  Fairgrounds are so important in the rural west:  community gatherings matter to those who are scattered across this vast landscape.

IMG_0179North of Broadus on Montana Highway 59 is another landmark of community, but one quite rare to find in today’s west.  The Coalwood Ladies Aid Society was established in 1915; it still meets in the historic Coalwood School, c. 1945.  Women’s organizations like the Coalwood Ladies Aid served not only as a support group but also community builders for rural places across the region.


Broadus was, and is, a place where the past matters and residents still embrace their way of life and special place in the Montana landscape.