To those who built a state, and made history

Sad news came out of the state capitol last week when budget cuts gave the Montana Historical Society no choice but to announce that its uber talented staff just don’t have the funding to travel to the hundreds of important places across the state, to gather stories, preserve historic buildings, conserve invaluable documents and photographs, and to celebrate with communities both large and small the history, traditions, and people that made Montana the special place it is.

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It’s unfortunate when a state steps back from its past and thinks its future is better without it.  When I look for those who built the state, the deep past is where I start, and the leaps forward in how Montana’s tribes are documenting and interpreting their history to their terms and needs, one of the most important developments in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 plus years.

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Then there are the properties that link the peoples of Montana and their sense of themselves and their past–cemeteries large and small across the state, where veterans are commemorated and families celebrated.

IMG_7537Fort Kipp Cemetery, above, is one of those place, nestled on the river bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  On a larger scale but still intimate, personal, and compelling is the city cemetery of Red Lodge, hundreds of miles away. Here surrounded by the mountains

are graves from the early Finnish residents who came to work at the coal mines and build a community. Some are of a traditional design, immediately translated from the old country.  Others–like the cast iron family marker shown above–are as mainstream as American industry could make it at the turn of the twentieth century:  a prefabricated marker cast somewhere back east but with Finnish lettering, speaking to those who also came over in c.1900 to build a new land.

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The Finnish imprint on the landscape of Carbon County has been eclipsed by generations of growth since the early 1900s, but as the 2016 Road Show of the Montana Preservation Alliance demonstrated, buildings large and small are still part of the landscape.  With a few acres of land outside of Red Lodge, Finnish settlers and their descendants have maintained a place of community–the Kavela–which remains vibrant some 100 years later.  At this place of ethnic identity and celebration, you almost feel like an intruder–that you have stepped inside a sacred circle as an outsider.  But families go out of their way to make you feel welcome, through fellowship, good food, and stories of past and present.  The Kavela naturally features one of the most traditional Finnish community buildings–the sauna, built of concrete in the 1920s.  Speak of tradition, ethnic pride, and assimilation–a concrete sauna might say it all.

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Indeed what you can find in the Finnish landscape of Carbon County is repeated countless times across Big Sky Country, just in different languages and with different forms.  It is why you get off the interstates and travel the backroads, the dirt roads, for

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the markers of the nations that built our nation can be almost anywhere. It might be of the many ethnicities who mined the copper of Butte, or the African American railroad

workers and other average citizens who established permanent institutions such as the Bethel Union AME Church in Great Falls, pictured below.

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Stonemasons from Croatia are credited with many of the architecturally striking stone buildings in Lewistown, shown below, whereas if you stop and explore the state capital

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of Helena, you can see where  Irish Americans banded together to fund some of the state’s most iconic structures, from the majestic Catholic Cathedral that overlooks the city and the commanding statue of General Thomas Meagher in front of the State Capitol.

From the Meagher statue it is only a few steps to the east to the doors of the Montana Historical Society.  Its operating hours are fewer but you will find an institution not just of the past but of the future for like the land itself, the society, its collections, and dedicated staff are the keepers of the things and words that remain from those who built the state.  The idea that Montana can stride into the 21st century without the Montana Historical Society is folly, defined.

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Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Poplar, Montana

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

If you arrived in Poplar, Montana, via train, as tens of thousands did 100 years ago, you saw little that made this place seem different than dozens of other northern plains towns.  Grain elevators dominated the skyline; almost as imposing were multi-story hotels–not luxury lodgings but a place to literally land for newly arrived homesteaders or “drummers,” salesmen traveling the line trying to drum up business for industries located in faraway metropolitan centers.

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Gateway Hotel, Poplar MT

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Poplar Hotel, Poplar MT

 

 

 

 

 

But if you move north away from the tracks and toward the modern-day U.S. Highway 2, a different, distinct world is found, in the historic buildings of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  Near the Montana Highway Historical Marker telling the reservation’s story is a historic jail building from the late 19th century–the town’s most identifiable historic landmark in my 1984 work and today.

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Next to the jail was a new arts and crafts shop, aimed at travelers along U.S. Highway 2, part of a significantly expanded presence for the Fort Peck Community College.

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Indeed, the new college buildings are among the most attractive institutional buildings that you can find along the eastern end of U.S. Highway 2 in Montana.  Their bold colors and dramatic placement along the highway demonstrates the importance of education for the future of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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North of the new buildings are many historic buildings associated with the reservation’s development in the early 20th century.  Some are abandoned and in poor repair but most are in use, still serving the tribes in the 21st century.

This building was a museum in 1984; now that activity has moved to the highway, better to attract visitors

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No doubt as to my favorite new building in Poplar in 2013:  The Perculator.  Not only a classing roadside building, but they also made great coffee–perfect for a long day of fieldwork in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Wolf Point on the Hi-Line

Great Northern corridor along U.S. in Roosevelt County

Great Northern Railway corridor along U.S. 2 in Roosevelt County

When I encountered the northern prairie of Roosevelt County in 1984, it was difficult to tear your eyes from the omnipresent tracks of the Great Northern Railway.  The trains roared past regularly, and the tracks defined space and town location throughout this stretch of U.S. Highway 2.  So when I arrived in Wolf Point, the seat of Roosevelt County, I immediately looked for the depot, and came away disappointed.  Here, for northeast Montana, was a large town: certainly I would

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt  County

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt County

find more than the standard-issue Great Northern design.  It was different but nothing as I expected.  No grand architectural statement–rather a modernist building with little ornament or aesthetics to it, except here was what the railroad had become in the second half of the 20th century–a functional transportation system not the town builder and landmark of the turn of the century.

IMG_7737 But as I explored the town in 1984, and visited it again in 2013, I found several places worth considering in this small county seat of 2621 in 2010.  First was the impact of the New Deal.  Roosevelt County–named for TR not FDR–received one of the most striking modernist courthouses in the state, courtesy of the Work Projects Administration.

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Encountering such a gleaming landmark of the federal imprint on the region startled me, but also started me looking much more carefully at the impact of federal projects on the region, a research interest that culminated in an essay titled “The New Deal Landscape of the Northern Plains” for the Great Plains Quarterly.

Wolf Point, like almost every Hi-Line town, had suffered from population decline.  The town’s heyday came in 1960 with a population of 3585, which had dropped by 500 by 1980, and another 400 since then.  Yet Main Street was alive, not dead, but dilapidated with later day “improvements” marring historic commercial facades.

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Yet the town retained its historic movie theater, and had recently expanded a local history museum that has a remarkable array of objects.  Wolf Point in the 2010 census was about 1/2 Native American in population; the most impressive building added to the town since 1984 was the Fort Peck Community College.

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Wolf Point also had hoped to become the final landing spot for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.  It was a worthy contender not just for its open plains, but the Wolf Point Rodeo is among the state’s oldest, and the historic fairgrounds continue to host the “Wild Horse Stampede” every summer.

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Smack in the middle of U.S. 2 is another monument to the Montana Cowboy, and a symbol of the hopes that the Hall of Fame would land in Wolf Point.  This bronze statue titled Homage was executed by Floyd DeWitt and given to the town by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

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To travelers along U.S. 2 Wolf Point may be considered as one or two blinks and that it is, but the history here is deeper, and strongly felt.  Yes it has the rails and the elevators to define the horizontal and the vertical but its landmarks continue to say:  we’re here and we matter.

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