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 

Image

 

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.

Image

 

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

Image

 

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

Image

 

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.

Image

 

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.

Image

 

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.

Image

 

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.

Image

 

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.

Image

 

Image

 

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.

Gladstone Hotel: A threatened landmark in Circle, Montana

Image

 

Circle, Montana, is an isolated place in the big scheme of the western landscape.  It is not close to any interstate nor is it served by any federal highways.  It is at a key Eastern Montana crossroads, that of state highways 13 and 200.  The seat of government for McCone County, the place has been an important trade and agricultural crossroads since the early 20th century.  It was at that time that the two-story frame Gladstone Hotel was constructed–as a place of first residence for homesteaders coming into the region and later for highways travelers in the automobile age.

Image

When I traveled the state in 1984 for the preservation plan, folks at the State Historic Preservation Office–Marcella Sherfy, Lon Johnson, and Pat Bick particularly–were eager to see what I thought about this recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places.  They knew that it was already a rare yet fascinating relic of the early homesteading era.

The day and evening in Circle were memorable.  Orville Quick, the head of the local museum and a heritage treasure in his own right, arranged everything, managing even to get a decent crowd there for my evening remarks, even though Circle was playing in the regional basketball tournament in Miles City at the same time.  The Gladstone was just as memorable–creaky, yes, quaint, yes, but quiet except for a truck or two roaring through the town.

I wasn’t surprised just disappointed at its condition today.  Certainly it is among the state’s threatened National Register landmarks.  Anytime a business is closed, the lack of use is not good for its preservation.  The solutions for a building of this size in an age of standardized lodging and marketing are daunting–where can the money come from to adequate conserve the building but yet recoup the investment when relatively few travelers come this way.  But to lose this c. 1910s building, and the role it played in giving the early town a semblance and symbol of permanence and prosperity would truly be a loss for understanding and documenting the homesteading experience of the northern plains.