A winter day in Tennessee, fond thoughts of Montana

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There’s been a bit of winter in Tennessee in early January 2018 and my university has been closed for two days due to three inches of snow (that’s no misprint). Days like this one lead me to reflection of my jaunt across Big Sky Country in the cold of February to the warmth of mid-May 1984. I had spent 2 months at my cubbyhole in the basement of the Montana Historical Society, shown below, and I was ready I

thought to hit the road. Wonders of all sorts I would find and here are just a few of the special (admittedly perhaps not spectacular to outsiders) places I encountered.

Just up the tracks from the opening image at the southern tip of Beaverhead County was the Hotel Metlen in Dillon. A grad student recently asked me about it, having come across it while trolling the internet. It sounds like a fleabag the student remarked–I probably didn’t help when I recalled staying there for 10 bucks in 1984. But what a great Second Empire-styled railroad hotel!

It had upgraded during my last visit in 2012–still classy in a dumpy way, if that makes any sense.

On the opposite end of the state, at Thompson Falls, was another favorite lodging spot, a classic 1950s motor lodge, the Falls Motel. Spiffy now but still Mom and Pop and so far away from the chain experience of today.

But as regulars of this blog know, I didn’t care where I stayed as long as beef, booze, and pie were nearby. Real rules for the road. The beef could range from the juicy roadside burgers from Polson (the b/w image) to the great huge steaks at Willow Creek (the yellow tinted roadhouse).

And speaking of roadhouses Wise River Club from 1984 above is still going strong and as friendly as ever. While the owners keep changing at Big Timber–the sign still

chops away and the beer is still cold. That is what you need on the road.

Wait! Pie matters too, represented by the Wagon Wheel in Drummond, above. Southerners do brag about pie, and I believed in that regional myth, until I traveled Montana. I swear that there are most great pie places in a single Montana County (say, Cascade) than all of Tennessee. On cold days I still think of a Montana cup of coffee (always strong) and a piece of grit pie. In 1984 I just needed that one afternoon stop to push on for a few more hours of driving and documenting the captivating landscape of the Big Sky Country.

The Pintler Scenic Route at Drummond

Granite Co, Drummond Front StreetDrummond is the north entrance of the Pintler Scenic Route.  The first ranchers settled here in the 1870s but a proper town, designed in symmetrical fashion facing the railroad tracks, was not established until 1883-1884 as the Northern Pacific Railroad built through here following the Clark’s Fork River to Missoula.

Then Drummond experienced a second wave of railroad-induced growth in 1907-1908 as the Milwaukee Road also followed the Clark’s Fork River on its way from Butte to Missoula, an electrified track that many surviving wood poles mark today. Served by both lines, agricultural and ranching production expanded rapidly, especially when combined by the addition of U.S. Highway 10 through the middle of the town in the 1920s.

Granite Co, MR corridor at Drummond

Abandoned Milwaukee Road corridor in Drummond

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The Northern Pacific corridor is still active as part of the Montana Rail Link.

While transportation was readily available, Drummond was surrounded by larger towns so even at its height it rarely topped over 500 residents, meaning that today its historic buildings largely document a typical Montana rural railroad town of the mid-20th century.

Granite Co, Drummond gas station, Front St, meth mural, roadsideThere is a faintly classically influenced two-story brick commercial block, a Masonic Lodge made of concrete block, various bars and cafes, a railroad water tank, and a slightly Art Deco movie theater, which was open in the 1980s but is now closed.

Granite Co, Drummond Front st and sign

Granite Co, Drummond Rough Stock Bar, Front and Main St

IMG_2042Due to the federal highway and the later Interstate I-90 exit built at Drummond, the town even has a good bit of motel roadside architecture from c. 1970 to 1990.

Granite Co, Drummond Sky Motel off Front St roadside

Granite Co, Drummond Motel, Front St, roadsideBetween the Northern Pacific corridor and old U.S. 10 is the town’s most famous contemporary business, its “Used Cow” corrals, and now far away, on the other side of the

Granite Co, Drummond stock yards, Front Sttracks are rodeo grounds named in honor of Frank G. Ramberg and James A. Morse, maintained by the local American Legion chapter.

Granite Co, Drummond fairgrounds and memorial signs

Granite Co, Drummond fairgroundsThe rodeo grounds are not the only cultural properties in Drummond. The Mullan Road monument along the old highway is the oldest landmark.   The local heritage museum is at the New Chicago School (1874), an frame one-story school moved from the Flint River Valley to its location near the interstate and turned into a museum.

Ironically the town’s historic Milwaukee Road passenger depot is extant, but in the 1980s it was moved to the Fort Missoula museum complex in Missoula for its preservation.

HPIM0709.JPGAnother local museum emphasizes contemporary sculpture and painting by Bill Ohrmann.  A latter day “cowboy artist” Ohrmann grew up in the Flint River Valley but by the 12960s he was producing sculpture and painting on a regular basis.  The museum is also a gallery and his works are for sale, although the huge sculptures might not be going anywhere.

As befitting a Montana agricultural town, community life centers on the library and town hall, the historic Methodist and Catholic churches, and especially the Drummond schools, home to the Trojans.

Granite Co, 1st street, Drummond library and community center

When I visited Drummond this decade I was glad to learn that while the population almost bottomed out following the closing of the Milwaukee Road and the general economic gloom of the 1980s, it had started to grow, and now totaled approximately 330 people–still a 20% decline over 30 years. I hope this bounce back is not short lived–Drummond remains a favorite place and a good way to end this overview of the Pintler Scenic Route, Montana Highway 1.