Joplin in Liberty County: A Disappearing Railroad Town

Image

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.’” 

Image

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.

Image

 

 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.

Image

 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. 

Image

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.

Image

 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. 

Image

 

Image

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.’”

Image Image

On the Hi-Line at Liberty County, 1984 and now

Image

Abandoned homestead in 1984, north of Joplin, Sweetgrass Hills in background

 

Liberty County, created in 1919 with Chester as county seat, was the next place I visited, and it proved to be one of my favorites along the Hi-Line.  Stuck between the larger railroad towns of Shelby, a junction point, to the west and Havre, a division point with Great Northern maintenance yards to the east, the Great Northern never saw a need to invest in or to encourage investment in town development in Liberty County.  In the 1910s, hundreds of homesteaders flooded into the area:  this 1984 image above of an abandoned homestead with the sacred Sweetgrass Hills in the background is one of my favorities.  Today a little over 2000 people live in the county.Image

Lothair was the first town I encountered in Liberty County.  Its grain elevators called me off the highway in 1984; they remain landmarks today. 

Image

Nothing else much is there, although in the 1910s residents and nearby homesteaders petitioned the state railroad commissioners to force the Great Northern to treat their town more seriously.  The 1918 petition, launched by the Lothair Commercial Club and others, called on the railroad to replace a depot that had burned in 1912.  The residents complained that “the depot now in use is of the portable style 12×34 feet, which with a box car body for freight, constitutes the facilities for the handling of passengers, freight, baggage, and express, as well as for the housing of the agent and operator. . . . The waiting room is only of sufficient size to accomodate four or five people comfortably.”  The petitioners argued that their town was at “the center of a very extensive dry land farming territory, nearly all of which has been filed on, but only about one-third is under active cultivation at the present time.”  But the hopes of Lothair never survived the homesteading crash of the 1920s.

Image

mid-1980s town sign of Chester

 Chester has fared better.  It retains a historic Great Northern depot, from the 1950s, although it was been moved from its earlier prominent location a bit farther to the east along the line. 

Image

Chester has a T-town plan, with one attribute that I later found in other turn-of-the-century Montana railroad towns:  an architecturally compelling two-story brick building on one corner, situated so its entrance faced both the tracks and the highway that paralleled the railroad. 

Image  Image

This building is the historic First State Bank of Chester (1910), one of two Liberty County buildings in the National Register of Historic Places.  The bank closed in 1920, but the building remained important to the community, serving all sorts of function; a local high school class researched its history for the National Register nomination in 1997.

Image

1st State Bank, Chester, 2013

 The organization of space in Chester is interesting.  As typical of a T-town plan, the railroad corridor dominates the top of T with the tracks, elevators, warehouses, and railroad buildings.  

Image

Chester t-town plan, 2013

The adjacent route of U.S. Highway 2 creates sorta of a “bottom” to the top of the T, where gas stations and other auto- and traveler-focused buildings, including a diner and an automobile museum, stand.  One bit of roadside architecture–the MX Motel–really captured my attention in 1984 because only a few years earlier Montana and especially Liberty County eagerly pursued

Image

MX Motel sign, 1984

the Carter administration idea of a defense system where nuclear missiles would be moved on tracks over a huge expanse of land, creating uncertainty for enemy targeting of missile silos. Liberty County had good reason to be excited about the MX–the time Chester had enjoyed sustainable growth was in the 1950s when the Bureau of Reclamation constructed the Tiber Dam/Lake Elwell project in the southern end of the county. 

Image

Tiber Dam Reservoir (Lake Elwell), 1984

I stayed at the MX Motel in 1984–and never imagined it would still be there 30 years ago.  It remains, but I wonder if anyone recalls why the name MX made sense to Liberty County in the past.  

Image 

The stem of the T-town plan in Chester is also interesting.  The bank is the visually prominent element while the county courthouse is a large two-story brick facade a bit farther down the street.  At the base of the T is the school campus, a sprawling group of brick Art Deco-influenced buildings (1935 for the Art Deco elementary school; the high school building dates to 1952) that now serve students with three old railroad towns: Chester, Joplin, and Inverness, and the school nickname is the Hi-Line Hawks.

 Image Image

Located between the commercial district and the school is the National Register-listed First Episcopal Methodist Church (1911-1968); it became the county museum in 1970, and soon will have served that cultural function for longer than it was a church. A much more recent yet still appropriate adaptive reuse is the conversion of another church into a county arts center.  This portion of Montana has actively pursued cultural tourism in the 21st century and the arts center plus the earlier museum are parts of that effort.

Image Image

Next: Joplin, a Liberty County town on the border with Hill County