An end of the century trip to Central Montana

The vast majority of my effort to document and think about the historic landscapes of Montana lie with two time periods, 1984-85 and 2012-16. But in between those two focused periods, other projects at the Western Heritage Center in Billings brought me back to the Big Sky Country. Almost always I found a way to carve out a couple of additional days to get away from the museum and study the many layers of history, and change, in the landscape by taking black and white images as I had in 1984-85. One such trip came in 1999, at the end of the 20th century.

In Billings itself I marveled at the changes that historic preservation was bringing to the Minnesota Avenue district. The creation of an “Internet cafe” (remember those?) in the McCormick Block was a guaranteed stop.

But my real goal was to jet up highways 191 and 80 to end up in Fort Benton. Along the way I had to stop at Moore, one of my favorite Central Montana railroad towns, and home to a evocative set of grain elevators.

Then a stop for lunch at the Geraldine bar and the recently restored Geraldine depot, along a historic spur of the Milwaukee Road. I have always loved a stop in this plains country town and this day was especially memorable as residents showed off what they had accomplished in the restoration. Another historic preservation plus!

Then it was Fort Benton, a National jewel seemingly only appreciated by locals, who faced an often overwhelming task for preserving and finding sustainable new uses for the riverfront buildings.

It was exciting to see the recent goal that the community eagerly discussed in 1984–rebuilding the historic fort.

A new era for public interpretation of the northern fur trade would soon open in the new century: what a change from 1984.

I beat a quick retreat back to the south, following the old Manitoba Road route along the Missouri and US Highway 87 and back via highway 89 to the Yellowstone Valley. I had to pay a quick tribute to Big Timber, and grab a brew at the Big Timber

Bar. The long Main Street in Big Timber was obviously changing–new residents and new businesses. Little did I know how much change would come in the new century.

One last detour came on the drive to see if the absolutely spectacular stone craftsmanship of the Absarokee school remained in place–it did, and still does.

My work in Tennessee had really focused in the late 1990s on historic schools: few matched the distinctive design of Absarokee. I had to see it again.

Like most trips in the 1990s to Billings I ended up in Laurel–I always felt this railroad town had a bigger part in the history of Yellowstone County than

generally accepted. The photos I took in 1999 are now striking– had any place in the valley changed more than Laurel in the 21st century?

Geraldine: A Milwaukee Road Town that made it

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My last post looked at the disappearing towns of the Milwaukee Road in central Montana’s Meagher County.  Those themes of a railroad, town creation, and abandonment were constant in several posts as I traced the imprint  of the Milwaukee on Montana’s landscape in the 20th century.  However, not all central Montana plains towns tied to the Milwaukee Road have disappeared–Geraldine in Chouteau County is one of those exceptions.

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Milwaukee Road depot at Geraldine, c. 1998

Geraldine was established c. 1913 along a major spur line of the Milwaukee Road that connected its division point at Harlowtown to the much larger railroad transportation center of Great Falls to the north.  Due to the richness of the high plains agriculture of southern Chouteau County–the land south of the Missouri River–and the commitment of its citizens, Geraldine has remained generally solid through the decades.  According to census records, the town has never topped 400 residents, 375 being the largest number of residents, and now, according to the 2010 count, there are only about 100 less, a little over 260 residents.  Losing what amounts to 25-30% of the population over the 100 years sounds like a disappearing town, true, but in an eastern Montana perspective, it is not.  As this blog has documented at many places, too many plains country towns have lost 50% or more of their population in just the last 30 years.

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In the 1984-85 historic preservation survey, Geraldine impressed me for several reasons.  First was the dominating presence of the grain elevators, as seen above and with the first photo in this blog.  I had grown accustomed to Milwaukee Road towns where the corporate standardized design for the combination depot–a building that joined both freight and passenger operations–dominated the railroad corridor.  Here the elevators punctuate the skyline and loom over the town itself–the railroad created the need for them, certainly, but by the end of the 20th century the elevators were still viable businesses while the depot had become a local museum and community center.

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Then there was the town plan.  Milwaukee Road country towns were “T-plan” towns where the tracks, depot, and elevators defined the top of the T while the town’s business district formed the stem of the T.  Geraldine was a bit different, a tilted T-plan town, where the top

IMG_8818of the T, due to the railroad’s approach was slanted, giving Geraldine, compared to other Milwaukee towns, an off-kilter look.  Geraldine also still had business, although the number of independent places had diminished since 1984-1985.  Two key institutions today are

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the local state bank, a Classical Revival-styled two-story building from c. 1914 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the First National Bank of Geraldine.  Unlike scores of other local institutions in the 1920s and 1930s, the Geraldine bank did not close its doors and continues to serve ranchers and town residents today.  It is a rock from Geraldine’s past that surely helps to define its future.  The same can be said for the

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Geraldine school–home of the Tigers.  This local school has several different building periods, as this image of its facade indicates, but maintaining a school district is vital to the town–plains country towns that lose their schools soon become abandoned places.

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Geraldine touches upon many key theme of eastern Montana history–in subtle yet significant ways.  It even lightly touches on another theme of this blog–Montana Modernism.  No one was much looking at the contemporary styled buildings of the late 1950s and 1960s in 1984-1985.  I was no exception.  But in the 21st century, we want to document those buildings and appreciate how the new architecture expressed the hopes of the post World War II generation.  Geraldine’s contribution is its United Methodist

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Church, with its particularly notable tall concrete bell tower, mixing a bit of tradition with the new look of the postwar generation.

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Geraldine of course has a classic western watering hole–Rusty’s Bar and Grill, completed with its front glass block windows.  It is highly recommended–not much on the outside admittedly but a full community experience on the inside.  Historic depot and bank, modern-styled church, unique town plan, and great bar:  more than enough reasons to come to Geraldine, not once but whenever travels take you between Great Falls and the Musselshell River Valley.