More Landmarks from Sweet Grass County

IMG_6338Big Timber and Sweet Grass County, in the heart of Montana’s Yellowstone Valley, create an imposing built environment set in a beautiful county, framed by mountains and defined by historic river corridors and later transportation routes. In the last post, I focused on Big Timber, its public spaces, its town plan, and the properties there already listed in the National Register.  Today I want to focus on other just as worthy historic properties found both in town and in the county.

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Let’s start with landmarks from the New Deal era.  The town city hall/ fire hall is recognized but just southwest of Big Timber is the Mountain View Cemetery, which received a new stone gate, cemetery office, and other landscaping improvements from the WPA in the late 1930s.  It is a splendid small town historic cemetery, with its majestic setting providing a proper dignity to those town founds, and generations of later residents, buried there.

IMG_6310The beautiful stone masonry of the cemetery reflected a vernacular theme already noted in the Sweet Grass County Courthouse and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.  But the smart use of stone throughout the town’s residential district is a significant design theme, from the magnificent Lutheran Church above to numerous examples of early 20th century homes.

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IMG_6321Indeed, community institutions could be another important theme to explore in the built environment of Sweet Grass County.  In addition to the town’s churches, schools, courthouse, and New Deal-era public park, downtown Big Timber still has a thriving bowling alley, the American Legion Hall,  and the active Civic CenterIMG_6294 IMG_6293

IMG_6302Certainly community landmarks are a useful way to think about Melville, once an important trade town at the north end of the county on U.S. Highway 191.  The town now lies just west of the realigned highway but it is worth a brief detour, if for no other reason than one of the state’s great rural churches, the Melville Lutheran Church.

Melville Lutheran Church, Sweetgrass Co (38-7)

When I encountered this gable-front vernacular Gothic church in March 1984, its unadorned beauty framed by the Crazy Mountains was a take-your-breath away experience.  I featured the church in my A Travelers Companion to Montana History book on page 121, and noted the congregation, established in 1885, had built the church in 1914.  It has weathered the subsequent 100 years well, as the image below shows.  The stewardship of the congregation in maintaining the building, when so many other rural churches have closed in the last 30 years, is to be congratulated.

IMG_6243But Melville has more than the church–its rural school is still there, and probably as old as the church, serving as public space within the shadows of the Crazy Mountains.

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Finally, back in the center of the county, let’s close with the Yellowstone River.  Now at a public access site just north of Big Timber and just west of U.S. 191 is a Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail site that interprets the expedition’s experience at this spot in 1806.

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IMG_6255This beautiful spot sums up the special quality of Sweet Grass County–a beautiful natural landscape that has been shaped in expected, and unexpected, ways by 200 years of history.

Chouteau County’s Plains Country Towns

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Thirty years ago geographer John Hudson wrote a series of articles and a book on the topic of “plains country towns,” addressing the landscape patterns he found among the railroad-established towns of the northern plains.  Ever since Hudson’s concept of plains country towns has influenced how I look at the Montana’s small towns.  Even in such river counties as Chouteau County where the Missouri River trade base of Fort Benton has dominated the county’s economy and population since the mid-19th century, you can still find the unmistakeable imprint of the railroad and the grain elevators that mark the presence of a town.

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Earlier in this blog I have discussed Square Butte (above) and Geraldine.  Today I want to review two other small towns, Highwood and Carter.  Highwood is the largest, counting

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just about 175 people in the last census.  Like most plains country towns, it has steadily lost population in the last 50 years.  In fact this weekend’s Great Falls Tribune discussed how the Highwood High School was going to forge a co-op for sports with Geraldine so both schools could continue to have basketball, volley ball and 7-man football, played at this tiny field in Highwood.

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The Highwood School is no doubt the pride and center of this community, a place not often found by travelers nestled as it is in a gulch formed by Highwood Creek along Montana Highway 228.  It began in the 1880s as cattle country but with the coming of the railroad in the 1910s t became an outlet for grains, as its set of tall elevators makes apparent.  A small one-story false front building for the 1912 Highwood Mercantile Company also remains to mark the town’s railroad years.

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Carter has one-third the population of Highwood–only about 50 people in the 2010 census–but is better known to travelers due to its location along U.S. Highway 87 between Great Falls and Fort Benton.  The Rocking K Bar is the roadside landmark but travelers

IMG_9334should turn south and drive down into Carter proper since the town, despite its tiny number of residents, still has many of the community institutions that defined a proper plains country town of 100 years ago.

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First, there is the still operating Carter Elementary School, probably the one institution that keeps the town alive–when country towns lose their school soon everything else goes too.

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Next comes the tracks, railroad depot, and the grain elevators–while not public institutions they do give the community commercial lifeblood, and as long as the trains roll by there remains an economic reason for Carter to exist.

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The depot has been moved from its original location paralleling the tracks, but this early 20th century standardized designed combination depot for the Great Northern Railway still stands–there were hundreds across the state in my survey of 1984-1985 and one of the more disturbing trends of the new survey of 2013-2015 is how many Great Northern depots are gone, eliminating from the landscape they once dominated.

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Faith too has remained in Carter, with the persistence of the town’s small vernacular styled gable-front little white Methodist church, although in its first generation several congregations had been established here.

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Carter also still has its Community Hall–an institution across the northern plains that defined hope and persistence in the years following the homesteading bust of the 1920s.
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Community halls too were more numerous in 1984-1985 than today–the building in Carter is a significant community link between past and present.

IMG_9330Finally there is the federal presence–marked by a concrete block post office from the last decades of the 20th century.  The threat a few years ago to close hundreds of rural post offices across the region brought new, and necessary, addition to role of post offices as modern community landmarks for plains country towns.

Admittedly, Carter is a place that hundreds roar pass daily as they drive U.S. Highway 87. But with its extant school, depot, brace of elevators, church, community hall, and post office, Carter is a valuable physical document of the plains country towns that once populated eastern Montana, serving as important way stations along the metropolitan corridors of rails and sidings that crisscrossed the west.

Coffee Creek: More than a Romance Novel

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Coffee Creek, Montana, located on the high plains of northeastern Fergus County, is undoubtedly best known today as the backdrop for a series of Harlequin romance novels. The setting and the starkness of the landscape is probably not what you envision in a romance novel but it does convey the reality of what Coffee Creek was, and is, today.

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Coffee Creek was a railroad town, established in the same year as many of its neighbors, in 1913.  Unlike Denton to the east or Stanford to the south, Coffee Creek never grew beyond its booster beginnings.  Like the others it had a state bank, a post office, school, churches.  Today the post office remains–one of the best rural historic post offices of the region–but most everything else is closed.  The church is a well-kept example of early

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20th century vernacular Gothic design, but it no longer holds regularly scheduled services. It remains a community landmark.

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Another community landmark is the building above, which I believe is a Community Hall from the 1920s or 1930s.  Throughout rural Montana in the 1920s a movement began to build structures where the homesteaders who stayed could gather and have events, play basketball, or dance the night away.  New Deal agencies in the 1930s built many more, like the one this blog has already recorded in Sanders, Montana.  This building in Coffee Creek reminds me of the Sanders community hall–hopefully someone reading this blog can add details about it.

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The volunteer fire hall, like the post office, is one community institution still in service to local residents and surrounding ranches as is the town cemetery, perched to the north, high on a hill overlooking the town, Highway 81, and ranches as far as you can see.

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As the buildings of Coffee Creek fade away, here the cemetery will record the names of those who staked out this place as their home, while those who return to pay their respects will keep the memories of this disappearing place alive for as long as they remember to return.