Miles City: Bust and Recovery, 1925-1960

IMG_7005The thirty years between 1925 and 1955 were among the worst of times for residents of Miles City, but these were years where the town created and gained new institutions that would serve them well for the rest of the century. Population growth stalled, then sharply declined.  1930 census counted 7,175, a drop of over 750 from 1920.  And the number only ticked up slightly during the 1930s, gaining less than 150 new residents.

IMG_7007

In the late 1920s, stockgrowers worked with local boosters to establish the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, and over the next twenty years, they added new buildings and features to transform the place into a historic district that showcases what fairgrounds mean to rural Montana communities. Stockgrowers also met with local railroad officials to devise a plan to reinvigorate the grazing lands south of Miles City, properties that had been overgrazed since there were no restrictions on grazing on public lands.  The group established a concept that called for formal leasing of public lands for grazing in return for private investment and better conservation practices.  Congress agreed that the concept was worth an experiment and in 1928 it established by law the Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing District. As Depression stalked the land in the early 1930s, Congress took the Custer County experiment and transformed it into a national law that impacted the entire West:  the Taylor Grazing Act.

Rosebud Battlefield 035

The Taylor Grazing Act combined with other New Deal agricultural programs to call for the slaughter of thousands of cattle and horses in the region.  That, combined with the end of the open range, devastated the cowboy culture that had so defined Custer County and left everyone in a funk.

At least one bright spot lit up Main Street.  In 1936 the Montana Theatre, a splendid Art Deco building, opened, and the movies provided one important escape from the hard times.

IMG_7077

IMG_5982

Postcard of Range Riders Museum c. 1960

Another local reaction came in 1939 when residents met and celebrated the cowboys who came in the early years of settlement and created the culture that everyone hated to see pass.  A year later they gathered in Miles City again and decided to raise money for a “cowboy’s memorial building,” which when completed in 1942 became the Range Riders Museum. As a history of the museum concludes, the building “serves two other principal purposes: A meeting place for cowboys and a headquarters for the annual reunion. The members were satisfied that it was a fitting memorial to an industry in which the raising and furnishing of livestock needed to be preserved for future generations.”

Range Riders Museum, 2013

Range Riders Museum, 2013

The museum has steadily expanded ever since, with the addition of new exhibition space and adding other historic buildings from the county to the property.

IMG_7011Another community institution, Riverside Park, received a new ballpark, fearing beautiful stone masonry, known now as Connors Stadium, in 1940.  This New Deal project was just one of many across Montana in the late 1930s and 1940s, designed to improve public recreation and school athletics.

IMG_7018

IMG_7020

New Deal support also combined with local funding to create the Pumping Station Park at the nearby city waterworks plant.  Custer County now had re-energized public spaces.

IMG_7015

Northeast of Miles City, and north of the Yellowstone River, federal agencies created a huge reformed landscape, the Kinsey Flats project (1938-1941), which was a double-layered landscape of the New Deal. Here, federal Resettlement Administration officials relocated formerly displaced ranchers—many of whom the New Deal had dislocated earlier in the decade during its massive purchase of marginal lands throughout the region—to a new planned community north of Miles City. One of the officials involved with both projects, David G. Rivenes of Miles City, recalled: “I know what a terrible experience it was for folks from Fallon County, East Custer County, and Prairie County, to pull up stakes, leave their life-long friends and relatives, the land that some had even homesteaded—and move into strange surroundings and convert to irrigation farming.”

Federal funding also bettered educational opportunities.  The National Youth Administration supported not only the high school but also expanding its offerings to create the Custer County Junior College.  During World War II, federal funding supported civil pilot training at the college, which at that time held its classes at the high school.  In 1957, it moved classes to the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

In 1966 the college changed its name to Miles Community College and began the process of relocating to its present campus, near the VA hospital complex.  The first junior college in the region continues to shape Miles City today.

Miles Community College

Miles Community College, c. 1967

These different public institutions played a crucial role in Miles City’s decade of recovery from 1945 to 1960 as population grew to 9243 in 1950 and almost 10,000 by 1960.  Federal funding was important but local support was critical.  County government, for example, added a Art Deco Modern courthouse, designed by the firm of J.G. Link of Billings, in 1948-1949.

IMG_7074

Then residents and local governments pooled resources to donate almost $30,00 to purchase prime east side property to attract the construction of a modern Veterans Administration hospital. Groundbreaking took place in October 1948 and the hospital admitted its first patients on August 1, 1951.

IMG_7105

The architect was Great Falls native, Angus V. McIver, working in collaboration with Cushing and Terrell of Billings.  McIver had been a prominent architect in Great Falls and Billings for a generation, along with a distinguished career with the military and other federal agencies.  Shortly after receiving this commission, McIver was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

As contractors were building the 100-bed hospital, local ranchers and civic leaders launched, in 1950, the annual Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, one of the premier cultural events in eastern Montana every May.  The sale uses both the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, the Range Riders Museum, and Riverside Park–among other venues–to pay homage to the city’s cowboy roots but also the persistence of stockraising in this region.

IMG_7009

Miles City’s Boom, 1907-1925

The Renaissance Revival-styled U.S. Post Office, designed by Oscar Wenderoth, opened in 1916 during the height of the region's homesteading boom.

The Renaissance Revival-styled U.S. Post Office, designed by Oscar Wenderoth, opened in 1916 during the height of the region’s homesteading boom.

Following the construction of the Milwaukee Road and its various shops, roundhouse, and offices, Miles City entered a boom period unlike any other in the town’s history.  The boom lasted for just under 20 years, ending soon after the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed its new passenger depot in 1924.  In between the arrival of the Milwaukee, and the opening of the new Northern Pacific depot, an array of new middle-class homes, churches, new public elementary and high schools, and businesses gave the city its early twentieth century “look” still prized today and protected by three historic districts.

IMG_7063

Washington School, Miles City

Census records tell us a mere 1,938 people lived in Miles City in 1900, but by 1910 that number had jumped to 4,697 and ten years later, 1920, almost 8,000 people lived there.  Hemmed in by the Yellowstone River and the mainline of the Northern Pacific, the town spread to the east, along Main Street, and then north into the new neighborhoods associated with the Milwaukee Road developments.

The East Main Historic District has a number of architecturally distinctive buildings from the 1910.  The Horton House (1911) is an excellent example of the “American Four-Square” house designed by Miles City architect Brynjulf Rivenes.  The two-story house is now a bed and breakfast business.  You don’t typically equate eastern Montana towns with the latest in domestic architecture styles, but the Love House (1916) is an excellent Montana example of the Prairie style, first created by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and here executed in a design from George Wageley. Another example of the Prairie style from that same decade is the Pope House, built by Thomas Horton.

Horton House Bed and Breakfast, Miles City

Horton House Bed and Breakfast, Miles City

Love House, Miles City

Love House, Miles City

Pope House, Miles City

Pope House, Miles City

Just off of East Main Street is the Wibaux Park neighborhood, centered around a public space donated by cattleman Pierre Wibaux in 1915.  Here the dwellings included bungalows, Colonial Revival cottages, and an impressive example of Tudor Revival style.

Wibaux Park, Miles City

Wibaux Park, Miles City

Tudor Revival style house facing Wibaux Park, Miles City.

Tudor Revival style house facing Wibaux Park, Miles City.

Congregations also built large, architecturally distinctive church buildings to serve their growing congregations.  The Methodists added a Gothic Revival style building, designed by Woodruff and McGulpin, in 1912.  The Presbyterians added their own Gothic edifice two years later, a mammoth building designed by Brynjulf Rivenes that stood between the downtown commercial district and the new residential areas.  The Catholics added a new Sacred Heart church in 1924, adding to the contributions started by the Ursulines at the first of the century.

Methodist Church, Miles City

Methodist Church, Miles City

First Presbyterian, entrance, Miles City

First Presbyterian, entrance, Miles City

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Miles City

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Miles City

New public schools–with the buildings still in use today–completed the process of urban growth between 1907 and 1925.  The Custer County High School, finished in 1922, became a centerpiece not only of Miles City but the the county as a whole.  Here was a modern facility that gave local students opportunities their parents never had. The boom had been magnificent but as drought and homesteading failures multiplified across eastern Montana by the mid-1920s, residents were learning that the bust would be transformative too.  We will look at the era of bust and recovery next.

Custer County High School, 1922

Custer County High School, 1922

Miles City as a Two-Railroad Town

Northern Pacific Railway depot, c. 1924, Miles City.  It has been listed in the National Register but it needs a preservation hero.

Northern Pacific Railway depot, c. 1924, Miles City. It has been listed in the National Register but it needs a preservation hero.

Miles City has a distinct look and feel due to how historic transportation links have impacted the town. First, certainly, was the Yellowstone River and Tongue River: as discussed in previous posts the military positioned itself here in 1876 because it is where the Tongue River met the Yellowstone. By the end of that decade a rough wagon road connected this place to other early towns along the Yellowstone. Then in 1881-1882 came the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Soon Main Street boasted new two and three-story brick buildings to signify its arrival as a key transportation crossroads for the northern plains cattle industry.

IMG_7025

Historic stockyards remain a prominent landmark on the west side of Miles City.

Historic stockyards remain a prominent landmark on the west side of Miles City.

The early arrival and commercial dominance of the Northern Pacific left a lasting mark on Miles City.  Main Street, which is listed as a National Register historic district, was the town’s primary commercial artery until the late 20th century.  But so much of the historic built environment you find in Miles City today is due, in large part, to the impact of the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad–better known as the Milwaukee Road–in 1907.

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

The Milwaukee Road was the last transcontinental to stretch across Montana. It came into eastern Montana at Baker and angled sharply to the northwest, heading to the Yellowstone Valley, sharing the valley landscape with the dominant Northern Pacific, and typically building its tracks north of those of the Northern Pacific between Terry and Forsyth, where the Milwaukee left the Yellowstone and headed into central Montana.

Milwaukee Road corridor in Miles City

Milwaukee Road corridor in Miles City

The Milwaukee made Miles City its primary division point for eastern Montana, locating offices, machine shops, and a roundhouse in an entirely new section of the town, northeast of Main Street.  Several of the historic buildings associated with the Milwaukee remain, although there have been many lost buildings in the last 30 years.  One remnant, quite unkempt in 2013 but still in use, was the Milwaukee Park,

Remnants of the Milwaukee Road works, Miles City, 2013

Remnants of the Milwaukee Road works, Miles City, 2013

a parcel of land located between the railroad shops and adjacent working-class neighborhoods.  The park is now a recreation area and playground and provides one of the best ways to look at these historic railroad buildings today.

IMG_7060

IMG_7061

The Milwaukee Road combined with the homesteading boom of the 1910s to spur new construction and investment as nothing else had, either before or since.  Some of the new landmarks were unassuming, such as the Wool Warehouse, built just west of the depot, and now converted into a successful Arts and Antiques business.

IMG_7053

Many others were much more purposeful statements of growth, and the promise of prosperity.  The 1914 City Hall, which is listed in the National Register, gave Miles City not only modern civic space but made an architectural statement that the town was no longer just a cow-puncher’s place.

IMG_7040Downtown received new buildings, and an architectural upgrade, with such imposing edifices as the Professional Building (c. 1910) and the Masonic Temple.

IMG_7035

IMG_7080

The arrival of the Milwaukee Road, and the thousands of homesteaders in the following decade, charted a new course for Miles City, evident in the new facades of Main Street but perhaps best shown in the new neighborhoods, churches, and schools that redefined the city in the 1910s and into the 1920s.  Those places will be our next post.

Miles City: The Yellowstone’s Forgotten Jewel

IMG_5968

When I first visited Miles City more than 30 years ago I came to find out more about this first white settlement place in the Yellowstone Valley, where the U.S. Army established its Tongue River Cantonment in 1876 and then, after the battles at Rosebud and the Little Bighorn that same year, it established Fort Keogh, named in honor of Myles Keogh, one of the soldiers who died at Little Bighorn.  I had a small travel grant from the American Association of state and Local History to support this research–the beginnings of the eventual Capitalism on the Frontier book of 1993, so I spent time in the local library–part of which was a classical-styled Carnegie Library, with a rather garish yet functional extension from the 1970s covering up the original building’s facade.

IMG_7076

I spent time that evening at another landmark, the Montana Bar, part of an early 1900s building that is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  The bar was not only full of friendly, helpful types.  It also had one of the most amazing intact tavern interiors I had yet encountered in Montana.

IMG_7045

Here, in these dark-stained wood booths, the decorative pressed tin ceiling, the magnificent back bar, and all of the stuffed animal heads seemed to be the real West that was being forgotten and covered over in the more urban, more populated western half of Montana where I lived.

IMG_1328

IMG_1329

IMG_1326

IMG_1325

Miles City especially seemed a throw-back when, across the street, was the biggest, most splashy bar sign I had yet seen in Montana: that of the Ranger Rider Bar.

Miles City Custer Co

That evening I never considered meander through the streets out to the chain motels out by the interstate highway.  I just walked across the street to the Olive Hotel, a historic downtown hotel from the railroad era; the build just stood a few blocks away from the Northern Pacific Railroad depot and faced Main Street, what was for many decades u.S. Highway 10, the primary east-west link in Montana.

IMG_7024

For many visitors no doubt, a day and night in Miles City would be more than enough–that was certainly the reaction back in Helena.  But that early 1983 visit would be just one of many over the years since as I have carefully explored the city’s many layers, ones far deeper and more significant than the real West image the town still carries proudly.  Next comes my real introduction to Miles City during the preservation plan travel of 1984, and my meeting with the Rivenes family.