Grain Elevators in the Northern Plains of Montana

Toole Co Kevin elevators

Kevin, Montana

When I began my explorations of Montana’s Big Sky Country in the early 1980s one structure particularly captivated me–the grain elevator.  Certainly I had encountered these in the east, but in Montana, particularly in the high country of eastern Montana, the looming presence of grain elevators marked settlements both past and present. The elevators might be old and abandoned, like the one above at Kevin in Toole County or concrete and vibrant like the sets below from Glasgow.


But wherever they were located, they spoke of the promise of the homesteading generation and the very different reality of modern corporate agriculture of the second half of the 20th century into the 21st century.  Thus, this post does not promise much analysis–I have tackled the topic in other posts–but it does include some of my favorite images of Montana elevators from my field study of 2012-2015.

Hill Co Laredo elevators

Laredo, Hill County.

Chouteau Co Highwood elevators

Highwood, Cascade County.

Liberty Co Joplin elevators 1

An elevator canyon in Joplin.

Daniels Co Madoc elevators

Made, Daniels County.

Sheridan Co Reserve 13 elevators

Reserve, Sheridan County.

Chouteau Co MT 80 Square Butte elevator 1

Perhaps my favorite image–Square Butte elevators just before a hail storm.

Daniels Co Whitetail elevators Soo Line corridor

Whitetail on the Soo Line Corridor near the Canadian border.

Judith Basin Co Windham elevators corridor  - Version 2

Windham, Judith Basin County

The High Prairie of Stillwater County

IMG_5914Stillwater County is one of the most beautiful spots in all of the Yellowstone Valley.   The parallel routes of the Yelllowstone River, the c. 1882 corridor of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the c. 1920 route of old U.S. Highway 10 and the modern marvel of Interstate I-90, shown above, define the county’s historic landscape for most residents, and travelers.

IMG_5894But running directly north from the county seat of Columbus  is a two-lane Montana highway that takes you to a totally different landscape, that of the high prairie of thousands of acres of wheat fields.  The road ends about 20 or so miles away at the town of Rapelje, a promising trade center when it was first established as a railroad branch in 1913


during the homesteading boom but now one of the region’s small country towns, defined by its school, its church, its cafe, and its grain elevators.  Its set of four early 20th century elevators, standing as sentinels of settlement but also as just man-made landmarks in a vast landscape of seemingly nothingness, is a remarkable statement of the built environment of Montana’s homesteading era.

IMG_5900Businesses are few and far between–the handful of local residents and scattered ranch families take their business to Columbus, or a bit farther to Laurel and Billings.  There is still a town cafe–the Stockman Cafe–which is run as a volunteer cooperative for those passing through.  The past few summers a June bike race has become a popular fund-raiser for the cafe.

IMG_5907The town has retained two public buildings–its post office and its school, the pride of the community, which was built in 1920 and has since been renovated and expanded with a new wing to the rear of the historic building.  The school is home to the Rapelje Rockets.

IMG_5903With less than 100 residents in Rapelje, the school educates ranch kids living throughout the county’s high prairie, a role similar to the local post office, which despite threats last decade to close many of the state’s rural post offices, still serves this farming community.

IMG_5898The loss of population means that Rapelje has just two primary sacred places:  the Gothic-styled community church, built during the initial decade of settlement, and the town

IMG_5901cemetery, which is located south of the village on a rise that overlooks the open prairie in all four directions.  Of course, as Rapelje fades into the past, the cemetery grows in its number of headstones–a sign of what limits the future holds for this high prairie town.

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Chouteau County’s Plains Country Towns


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.


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


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.
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.

Reedpoint, Stillwater County, Montana


Reedpoint, a tiny Yellowstone Valley town located between Columbus to the east and Big Timber to the west, typically never makes the news, except when a forest fire sweeps near the town boundary, as was the case a few years ago, or when it is Labor Day Weekend and the state’s big newspapers arrive, along with thousands of others, for the tongue-in-cheek “Great Sheep Drive” through the town’s main street.


But the Great Sheep Drive, which has now been around for a generation, is more than what keeps Reedpoint on the map, and surviving.  The Reedpoint Community Club, established in 1979, keeps the community together and looks for opportunity.  Historic buildings such as the ones above and below have been remodeled or renovated for new uses, reflecting the railroad’s town greatest prosperity in the early 20th century.


The local dive bar comes alive on weekend, when anglers come in greater numbers to fish along the Yellowstone.  Its ramshackle appearance is new “Old West” at its best.


The Reedpoint School–a photo of the older historic building is featured here–remains a key to the town’s survival and its future.  With somewhere south of 200 residents, good schools are a must or the sinews of the place come apart.

IMG_1217So too are community institutions important.  The local library is small but still there, a place of valued interaction between young and old.


I worry about the historic Occidental grain elevator.  For 30 plus years I have roared past this place going to and from Billings, but the elevator was a landmark.  Not only did it link


the homesteaders of 100 years ago to the railroad, it also linked whatever grains from this part of the valley to that worldwide market accessed by the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railway.  Some years ago the old depot was moved off


the tracks and found a new life in town.  That conversion is not so easy with an elevator.  When this tall landmark goes so too does a key part of Reedpoint’s history, and yet another link to its origins as a Northern Pacific railroad town.

Great Northern Towns in west Hill County, Montana

In my 1984 fieldwork, Havre was a base for quite a bit of travel along the Hi-Line.  One of the most compelling landscapes, and among my favorites for the state, were the little towns, regularly spaced about every eight miles, west of Havre.


At the time, my understanding of this landscape was heavily influenced by recent works by the American Studies scholar John Stilgoe (Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene) and the historical geographer John Hudson (a series of articles that culminated in the book Plains Country Towns.) Stilgoe reminded me that railroads in the late 19th century not only defined towns and urban design but impacted American culture in how small, tiny spaces became part of urban, metropolitan life through the steel tracks.  Hudson explain why towns existed every six to seven miles or so throughout the plains (these were often single track lines so trains needed places to pull over for passing, and places where water and fuel could be acquired as necessary).  Hudson explained differences between railroad division points, where shops and offices would be located, and “country towns,” where typically a combination depot carried out all of the railroad’s corporate functions.


This arrangement of space, and the ennobling of railroad culture in larger towns, was exactly what I saw in Havre and Hill County.  Ever since 1984, this has been among my favorite places in Montana.  In a posting last year I discussed the “disappearing depots” along the Hi-Line, focusing on west Hill County.  I want to revisit those same places today, with a deeper view on what was there in 1984 and what you find today.


Inverness, established c. 1909, was the first place I stopped but spent little time there because already in 1984 its Great Northern depot was gone.  But in 2013, I was looking for beyond the Stilgoe-Hudson way of understanding plains country towns.  Inverness in 2010 had 55 residents, but still held several early settlement landmarks, such as its early 20th century elevators along the railroad, a National Register-quality c. 1920 store/gas station, and two large two-story frame blocks–the historic Inverness Hotel (most recently Inverness Supper Club) dates to the second decade of the 20th century.


The Sacred Heart Catholic Church dates to the town’s beginnings, but a brick school from 1931 with 1952 additions closed in the early 21st century.


Inverness’s c. 1960 post office is a great example of stone-faced standardized design that the postal service used in small towns across the nation in that decade. It was one of the offices threatened with closure in 2011.


Rudyard, established 1909, was the largest of the west Hill County towns, about 500 people in 1980 but now with only 258 residents according to the 2010 census.  Its prominence in the second half of the 20th century is reflected in two buildings:  the tall concrete grain elevators along the railroad and the contemporary-styled Wells Fargo bank building on the prominent town corner facing the tracks and Reed Street.

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Thirty years ago, as the construction of a modern bank building attests, several stores and the Hi-Line Theater were hubs of activity; today most businesses are closed.



Museums now abound–with the moved depot forming a small building zoo while an early 20th century stone building has become an auto museum.



Rudyard also has one of the highway’s most famous town signs–boasting of a population now greatly diminished but the old sorehead remains–at the Sorehead Cafe in the heart of the four block long commercial district.



One hundred years ago, Hingham (1910) seemed to be the town that would make it. From the railroad corridor several blocks of commercial businesses were filled in the next decade.


There was a town square featuring a city park in the midst of it all.


Here the town’s Commercial Club hosted the Hi-Line Fair, which “presented farmers and ranchers with an opportunity to exhibit their grain and livestock and to exchange ideas with people from other points along the Hi-Line.”


While the buildings, outside of the brick neo-classical brick bank (1913-14), were frame, town boosters were confident these were only the initial businesses. But the second decade of the 20th century proved to be the town’s high point, and frame buildings still define local businesses.


In 1930 they defined the town with a large, handsome two-story brick school at its south end (near U.S. 2, a recognition of the highway’s importance in getting students to and from Hingham).


The Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church is a modernist landmark, and one of the most architecturally important buildings of the Hi-Line, part of the Great Falls diocese effort to improve and modernize its churches in the mid-20th century.  A much earlier frame Methodist Church remains, and has most recently served as a community chapel.

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The boosters of Gildford also had high hopes in 1910 and the homesteading boom brought a full fledged town into existence by 1915-16.



Image Elevators in 1985

The boom decade is marked by the extant Gildford State Bank (1914), which also served as the town’s post office when I first visited in 1984.  The town also had an early industry, the Mundy Flour Mill.


Kremlin acknowledges its distinct name with its highway town sign.


Settlement began in 1909, with a plat from land agent K.C. Farley, focused on the Great Northern section house, later replaced by a standardized depot, all of which is gone from the railroad corridor today.



The WPA built a new high school in 1938, which remains a central landmark for the community, a symbol of the future, and a good way to end this posting.

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Joplin in Liberty County: A Disappearing Railroad Town


Joplin today has a population hovering around 150, a decline of about 50 since 2000. E. C. Tolley, a real estate locator during the homesteading boom and Joseph E. Rehal, a Syrian-born merchant who made the biggest initial investment, are jointly credited with establishing the town.  In fact, they promoted rival parts of town, which led to uneven and scattered business development.   In a history of Liberty County, Art LaValley recalled: “The Commercial Club was very active in promoting the town of Joplin.  They erected a large, new sign by the railroad crossing, facing the depot so that people getting off the train would see it.  It was a picture of the world and read ‘Biggest Little Town on Earth.’” 


Joplin sign, 1984

 Another contribution of the Commercial Club was the creation of a town square park, complete with bandstand:  the Joplin Community Band was popular throughout the region, until it disbanded in 1937.  Two years later in 1939, famous be-bop jazz artist, saxophonist Charles McPherson was born in Joplin.



 Like most of the Great Northern towns of the decade, Joplin began well as homesteaders came quickly.  By 1913, O.C. Boggs of Joplin wrote a testimonial for his huge Nicholas-Shepard Oil-Gas Tractor:  “we are pulling six 14-inch Oliver Engine Gang Plows in sod.  Our average work is 15 acres per day of ten hours”  The First State Bank of Joplin opened its doors,along with many other mercantile and professional offices.  In 1916 Jensen Brothers and Layton hardware stores went into partnership to take advantage of the agricultural boom.  The drug company came in 1917. Image

 But drought hit this area hard in the late 1910s. In the 1920s the boom had busted, not just because of the agricultural crash.  There was the matter of the Dempsey heavyweight fight in Shelby in 1923.  Losses there impacted the local bank, which closed in 1923 just days after the fight.  The New Deal brought new hope in the mid-1930s when the PWA helped to fund a new brick school and the WPA funded sidewalks.

Image I had not been in Joplin since 1984 when I visited in 2013: many landmarks were missing or closed.  The Great Northern depot was gone completely.  Today there is nothing but the tracks and grain elevators Image

to remind one of the town’s lifeblood. Then the school closed in 2005 and Joplin joined the consolidated school system in Chester.


 One key institution from the homesteading era still shapes community life:  the Joplin Community Hall, where everything takes place:  voting, reunions, funerals, parties, concerts, celebrations, especially in mid-June when the town still hosts an antique car show at the  town park.  Both the hall and town park were developed by Joolin’s Commercial Club–a forerunner to a Chamber of Commerce–in the first decade of settlement. 


It was at the community hall in 2011, that a large crowd gathered to convince federal officials to let them keep another community institutions: the Joplin post office.


 Today along U.S. Highway 2, a bright, shining streamlined moderne town sign has replaced the earlier littlest big town in the world–which remains in the town center, away from the highway as if residents keep the motto to heart but no longer share it with every traveler on the road. 




In 2010 Larry Olson told the Great Falls Tribune that he had “seen a lot of changes in his 72 years living in Joplin. ‘When I was growing up, it was so different,” he said. “Nowadays, everything is closed up. You’ve got a [Lutheran] church and a bar — that’s it.’”

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Toole County, 1984 and Now: to the east along U.S. Highway 2

As soon as you move east of the historic Shelby visitor center on U.S. 2, you encounter the landmarks that physically mark the region’s agricultural character.  On the north side of the highway, immediately adjacent to the tracks are complexes of grain elevators. Here at Shelby there is a tall concrete group of elevators run by CHS–the appearance of concrete elevators always mark a town that has experienced economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century.  Many of the smaller Hi-Line towns have the classic frame elevators of the homesteading era.  Grain elevators thus become a physical barometer of a place’s economic prosperity and development.

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On the south side of the highway in Shelby is the second crucial agricultural institution, the county fairgrounds and rodeo arena.  Livestock is not only important to the economy but maybe even more important to the culture of the region.  The Marias 4 County Fair, held the third week of July, is a regional gathering of no equal.  Thousands attend, and they do so at a fairgrounds with an impressive collection of historic buildings.

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In 1984, I noted this east side of Shelby as I left the town, but my eyes and camera were focused on the small railroad towns that I would next encounter, along with two important historic sites I wanted to document.


Whoop-Up Trail site, U.S. 2, 1984 

The first was the Whoop-Up Trail remnant, a site first documented by state archaeologists in 1968 and among the handful of historic properties then identified in Toole County (another section of the trail near Kevin is listed in the National Register).  In 1984 the location along the highway was well marked, with a series of stones marking the trail and encouraging visitors to go to the property edge and look into the Marias landscape where this historic route between Fort Benton and Fort Whoop-Up in Canada once passed.  

 Image In fact to the south of U.S. 2, a county road still crosses the Marias near the old trail crossing:  it was a somber, beautiful place in 1984. In 2013, the Whoop-Up Trail site is still maintained, put the line of stones to mark the path has either been taken up or covered by growth.  


Across the highway remains another key landmark of the Hi-Line and Central Montana region:  a nuclear missile silo. These military bases are everywhere it seems, and sometimes in the most unlikely places.  By 1984 I had become somewhat accustomed to their presence–coming from the South I had no idea of the role Montana played in our nation’s defense.  


But the missile silo was a surprise:  what I really was seeking was something on the Marias River–or Baker–Massacre, one of the most horrific events of Montana’s early territorial period.  The site is east of Shelby and south of U.S. 2 on private ranch land–and the family has been excellent stewards of this place.  No need for me to tred on such sacred ground, but there is a need to intepret that story, and to tell visitors and residents that here in this seemingly peaceful beautiful countryside a group of territorial citizens murdered Blackfeet women, children, and elderly in some sort of mindless bloody search for revenge.  That story wasn’t told in 1984 but a long text marker does so now. It strikes the right message: that the massacre “profoundly impacted the Blackfeet people and is very much alive in tribal memory.”  A small bouquet of flowers at the marker’s base in 2013 testifies to the truth of this simple memorial.


Dunkirk, the first of a trio of Toole County railroad villages east of Shelby, was too close to Shelby itself to ever maintain its own identity for long.  Its Frontier Bar was long a worthy roadside stop for thirsty travelers.  Outside of the Westermark Grain Corporation elevators, the bar was the only reason to even give Dunkirk a glance.

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Devon is a plains country town on the Great Northern Railway that was the first “prairie ghost town” of the 1984 survey.  Numerous false-front frame buildings from the 1910s and 1920s existed in 1984:  30 years later several of these were gone. 




Devon streetscape, 1984



Devon, Montana, 1984


Devon grain elevator, 1984

Yet I must admit that Devon now had more to it than what I recalled from 1984.  Certainly the old brick bank building had been abandoned, and the town community hall appeared shuttered, but the contemporary-styled Devon Lutheran Church spoke to persistence, even after decades of economic change. The grain elevators that were prominent in 1984 also had persisted, and stood as three sentinels on the plains.

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Galata, established in 1901, is another Great Northern Railway stop, with its corridor landscape speaking to its isolation and agricultural dependence.  It is a T-town plan town, where the main street forms the stem of the T while the railroad tracks form the top of the T.Image

 In the latter half of the 20th century, Galata had actually reached beyond its T-town plan and out to the highway.  Its Motel Galata is a classic piece of roadside architecture, and its huge highway sign of a Montana frontiersman with cowboy hat waving his car keys beckoning travelers to stop.


Galata also has kept its post office–a classic 1960s standardized design.  But the real key is the strength of its community institutions, churches, American Legion lodge hall, and especially the

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school.  The school campus contains two eras:  the classic frame country school of the homesteading era, with additions, and then the more ranch-styled flat roof school building common in American suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s.

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As discussed earlier in this blog, Hi-Line residents also make their presence known by signs, even if they are a little worn or emblematic of the loss of other community buildings.  Galata is no exception.



Square Butte and a spring storm



One of my favorite Central Montana landmarks and small railroad towns is Square Butte.  Once served by the Milwaukee Road, few travelers find the town today.  Yet several key landmarks remain–the historic late 19th century stone jail is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  



There is a historic brick school building, a bit worse for wear but still a key survivor that marks the height of the homesteading boom in the county.  



But my favorite resources are the elevators along the railroad corridor–still standing tall, although in that stormy day–I made it through a pretty strong hail storm about 10 minutes after the photo–the elevators perhaps look dramatic than normal.


And perhaps most importantly the town still has a local tavern, the appropriately named Square Butte Country Club Bar.  Still an important community center today, as it was in 1984.