Eureka!! It’s a Lincoln County Town

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Nestled within the Tobacco Valley of northern Lincoln County is the town of Eureka, which serves as a northern gateway into Montana along U.S. Highway 93.  I first encountered the town in 1982, as I returned from a jaunt into Alberta, and immediately thought here is a classic linear town plan, a landscape created by a spur line of the Great Northern Railway.

Flathead Co Eureka streetscapeAs I would come to find out, on two return trips here in 1984, the town was much more than that, it was a true bordertown between two nations and two cultures.  The two trips came about from, first, a question about a public building’s eligibility for the National Register, and, second, the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, where such obvious landmarks as the National Hotel and Eureka passenger depot were noted.  Thirty

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Flathead Co Eureka GN depot 2years later I was pleased to see the National Hotel in much better condition but dismayed to see the Great Northern passenger station–a classic example of its early 20th century standardized designs–is far worse condition that it had been in 1984.

Flathead Co Eureka GN depotOtherwise, Eureka has done an impressive job of holding together its historic core of downtown one and two-story commercial buildings.  In 1995, owners had the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, built in 1907, placed in the National Register.  Walking the town, however, you see the potential of a historic district of this turn of the 20th century place.

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Oh yeah, what about that second reason for two trips in 1984?  That would be the Eureka Community Hall, one of the last public buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration in Montana in 1942.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 2Located on a hill perched over the town, the building was obviously a landmark–but in 1984 it also was just 42 years old, and that meant it needed to have exceptional significance to the local community to merit listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  Eureka had been a logging community, and the depression hit hard.  The new building not only reflected community pride but also local craftsmanship, and it became a

img_8239foundation for community resurgence in the decades to come.  The building was listed in 1985, and was the first to have my name attached to it, working with Sally Steward of the local historical society.  But credit has to go to Pat Bick and especially Marcella Sherfy of the State Historic Preservation Office for urging me to take it on, and to guide me through the maze of the National Register process. Today, it has experienced an adaptive reuse and serves as a rustic log furniture store.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 4During those visits in 1984 I also held a public meeting in Eureka for the state historic preservation plan, where I learned about the Tobacco Valley Historical Society and its efforts to preserve buildings destined for the chopping block through its museum village on the southern edge of town. Here the community gathered the Great Northern depot (1903) of Rexford, the same town’s 1926 Catholic Church, the Mt. Roberts lookout tower, the Fewkes Store, and a U.S. Forest Service big Creek Cabin from 1926.

But thirty years later I found new public interpretation not just in the museum village but in the town itself, as Eureka introduced visitors to its history and setting and also told its

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border story of such fascinating people as Joseph Peltier, who built the first dwelling at the town site in 1891, and especially the cross-border entrepreneur Sophie Morigeau, who was trading in the area as early as 1863.

The Peltier log dwellings came within a year of each other, 1891 and 1892, and their size, finish, and log notching speak to the region’s rapid development.  His 1891 low pitched roof, v-notched cabin is typical, throughout the mountain west, of first homes–quickly constructed shelter.  The second house, with its hewn log exterior and crafted corner notching speaks to permanence.  The settler was here to stay in 1892.

Eureka has held its population steady over 30 years, just a few families over 1,000 residents, a sizable achievement considering the change in both railroading and logging over that time.  I think community pride and identity has to be contributors, because you see it everywhere, and I will close with two last examples.  The town’s library and nearby veterans park, and then the magnificent Art Deco-influenced high school–yet another New Deal era contribution to this special gateway town.

 

 

 

Building Zoos on the Northern Plains

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Building zoos are among the most interesting parts of the western historical landscape. At an isolated outpost on the northern plains like Scobey, Montana, these deliberate creations of history, identity, and memory tell residents, much more so than tourists (who come by in dwindling numbers), that once there were people, vitality, and interest here, and what happened in the past could happen again in the future.

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They also are demonstrations of the challenges of early days when tiny homestead shacks were home, and families stood in stark contrast to the seemingly endless flat prairie. As such building zoos are also marks of achievement, that the settlements of today show that the pioneers’ sacrifice was not in vein.

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The Daniels County Museum in Scobey is one of my favorite building zoos due to its fascinating array of buildings plus the obvious care that the facility has received over the decades. When I encountered it in 1984 frankly I was amazed. Here were large buildings moved to a spot in the middle of nowhere. They did “they” hope to achieve? Of course “they” were what they were doing–and they told their story with the same verve shown by the original owners of the Rex Theater, a false front in log rustic style for a land that had so few trees.

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Then were were the multiple churches marking a diversity of faiths from St. Michaels Ukranian Greek Orthodox Church, St. Thomas Catholic Church, and the more stylish in an Arts and Crafts way All Saints Episcopal Church. All were from the second decade of the 20th century when the homesteading boom across Daniels County was at its height.

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A building zoo is not really a building zoo unless it has moved mercantile buildings, which, in turn, are full of artifacts of the past. The Daniels County Museum has excellent examples of the early 20th century commercial aesthetic of the northern plains–a look not different than that of any western instant town of the era between the Civil War and World War I.

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When I visited this place in 1984 the museum proper was in an old quonset hunt, and it was more of a community attic than anything else.

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But in the 21st century, the community has invested in a new museum/community hall where new exhibits were being installed as I visited. The Daniels County Museum is one of the region’s most compelling heritage institutions, and despite the population decline in this corner of Montana, the museum volunteers look forward into the future.
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Discovering the “Montinental Divide”: Circle

Circle, the county seat of McCone County and an important crossroads in eastern Montana, is another of the towns along the “Montinental Divide.”  It is also one of my favorite places in the region.  I first encountered the dusty streets of Circle 29 years ago, when I spent a night at the Gladstone Hotel.  This two-story frame building, built in the 1910s to serve businessmen and new residents who were flocking to the region by hundreds, even thousands during the decade’s homesteading boom, was a rarity in 1984. Many Eastern 

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Montana towns had long ago lost their homesteading boom-era hotels or boarding houses.  Circle still had theirs, and one that literally creaked of history as you walked its hallways.  Clearly the Gladstone, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is now closed–and awaiting a new future.  Perhaps the expanding oil boom will convince someone to revitalize the property, which occupies one of the town’s four central corners, and give it new life.

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Another reason I liked Circle was its museum, and especially its director back in 1984 the rather legendary Orville Quick.  Orville had a passion for his community and its history that I

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had never encountered before, and have rarely encountered since.  The museum combined

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a rather eclectic collection of local items, memorializing the homesteading era, with the region’s preference for building museums, starting with the town’s former Northern Pacific Railroad passenger station.

The museum has expanded significantly since my last visit in 1988.  Recognizing that Circle is an important crossroads for heritage tourists traveling the region’s backroads, it has multiple interpretive kiosks identifying important places and key themes.

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And to one side of the museum and behind the kiosks is a set of sculptures interpreting the deep, deep past when dinosaurs roamed this land.

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Of course there is much more to Circle than an aging hotel and a fascinating local museum. The McCone County Courthouse (1949), designed by the architectural firm J. G. Link of Billings, is a late New Deal Moderne styled building, seemingly more at home, architecturally, in the 1930s than with the Cold War era.

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Across the street is the town’s Carnegie Library, still a vital community institution.  Good watering holes abound–across from the Gladstone Hotel is my favorite from 1984, the Corner Bar.

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The McCone County Fairgrounds hosts one of the region’s best rodeos every summer and then out at the airport is yet another rare historic property–the military’s 1940s radar and radio substations that once could be found at small airports throughout the state, helping to guide planes to the more important base at Cut Bank.  Kate Hampton of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office asked me in 2012 to keep my eyes out for these resources and, while it is more difficult just to drive into airport property today than in the past, the Circle location seems to be another of these properties that help to tell the state’s World War II story.

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Mr. Hagermann’s “montinental divide” is a fascinating concept, and if it leads you to Circle–have fun.  Great town:  here you see only some of the highlights.