Motels across Big Sky Country

Big Timber roadside motelIn the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, the impact of lodging chains in Montana was pretty limited to the larger towns, and gateways to the national parks.  Many what I called “mom and pop” motels, largely from the pre-interstate highway era of the 1940s and 1950s, still operated.  I was working with the state employee lodging rate of $24 a night (remember it was 1984!) and I found that the per diem eliminated the chains and I was left with the local establishments.  During those months of intense travel I came to respect and really like the Moms and Pops.  Several of the places I stayed in 1984-1985 are long gone–but ones like the Lazy J Motel in Big Timber remain.  In this post I am merely sharing a range of historic motels from across Big Sky Country.

ohaire signI began the fieldwork in February 1984 and the first stop was a public meeting at the Toole County Courthouse in Shelby.  My first overnight was just as memorable–for good reasons–at the O’Haire Manor Motel.  Its huge neon sign on the town’s main street, which was U.S. Highway 2, could not be missed, and actually the sign replaced a building that once stood along the commercial district, knocking it down so travelers would have a clear shot to the motel itself.

Toole Co Shelby OHaire Motel

Motels along U.S. Highway 2 often had the grand statement to catch attention of those traveling at 80 miles a hour down the highway.  Galata, which billed itself as a gateway to the Whitlash port of entry on the Canadian border to the north, had the tallest cowboy in the region to greet visitors.

Toole Co Galata roadsideCut Bank’s Glacier Gateway, on the other hand, reminded visitors that it was that “coldest place” in the United States that they had heard about in weather forecasts.

The Circle Inn Motel outside of Havre on U.S. Highway 2 reflected the classic design of separate duplexes–cabins–for guests while the gleaming white horse statue reminded them, if they needed the prod, that they were in the wild west.

Hill Co Havre roadside

Similar mid-20th century motels are found along Montana’s historic federal highways.  Some, like the La Hood Motel, are now forgotten as the highway, once known as the Yellowstone Trail and then U.S. Highway 10, has been relegated to secondary use.

LaHood motel, Montana 2 roadsideAnother example from the old Yellowstone Trail and U.S. Highway 10 is the Shade Tree Inn Motel in Forsyth–although coal and railroad workers help somewhat to keep it going in the 21st century.

Forsyth Rosebud Co 5Just a block west of another historic section of U.S. Highway 10 in Deer Lodge is the Downtowner Motel, with its sloping roof and extended rafters representing the best in “contemporary” style from the 1960s. This place too was clean, cheap, and well located for a day of walking the town back in 1984.

Downtowner Motel, Deer Lodge

Other motels have carried on, in a diminished role, dependent more on workers needing temporary quarters than on travelers.  In Malta, on U.S. Highway 2, I expected easy to acquire and cheap lodging at the Maltana Motel–a favorite of mine from the 1980s–but even though the town was over 200 miles from Williston, North Dakota, demands for its rooms had risen with the oil boom of the early 2010s.

Phillips Co Malta Maltana Motel roadside

The Country Side Inn Motel in Harlowton once buzzed with travelers along either U.S. Highway 12 or U.S. Highway 191 but as interstate routes have become so dominant, these motels have struggled to attract customers.

Wheatland Co Harlowton motel US 12 roadsideNot only have the changes in traffic patterns been important, the present generation’s preference for chain motels–and the proliferation of chains across the state–have shaped the future of the mid-20th century motel.  A good example is the challenges facing the continuation of the Cherry Hill Motel in Polson, located along U.S. Highway 93.  Here was a favorite spot in 1984–near a killer drive-in–a bit out of the noise of the town, and sorta fun surroundings with a great view of Flathead Lake.

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Lake Co Polson motel roadsideThe place was up for sale in 2015–and the internet today tells me that it is “permanently closed.”  I hope it can find a new owner and is still there when I next return to Polson but with the general boom in the Flathead Lake region, one assumes its days are numbered.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 1The bear might be hugging the tree but does anyone else care enough–or want this type of lodging, complete with the “picture window” of the 1950s and 1960s, in the comfort obsessed 21st century?

I began this brief overview with the first place I stayed during the 1984-1985 fieldwork, and I will close with the last place I stayed as I finished the new statewide survey in May 2016:  the Yodeler Inn in Red Lodge.  Built in 1964 this wonder chalet-style property is listed in the National Register–of course in 1984 I never gave a thought about the motel as National Register worthy, I just loved the location, and thought it was cool.

It is still that–good rooms, great lobby, and a self-proclaimed “groovy” place.  To the north of the historic downtown are all of the chains you might want–stay there if you must, and leave the Yodeler Motel to me!

Montana’s Stockman’s Bars

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As promised in the last post, we are taking a bit of a detour and exploring some of Montana’s bars, especially those with the name Stockman’s or Stockmen’s.  The Stockman’s Bar in Missoula is certainly the most famous one in the state, as it has

img_7558entertained generations of Grizzly students and fans–note the window mural. But it is just one of several favorite Stockman’s Bars I have encountered in my Montana fieldwork. My top choice is actually on the other end of the state–almost in North Dakota in fact–the Stockman’s Bar in Wibaux.

During my initial work of the 1980s, the large electric sign still worked–and those words just beckoned you to come in, especially as the interior was lit up with the large glass block windows.  This place was a drinkers’ hangout–you went down to the Shamrock for food.

A similar large electric sign welcomes you to Central Montana’s Stockman’s Bar in Harlowton–the one mentioned in the last post.  But to be a good Stockman’s Bar, a flashy sign is not a necessity–as proven by the friendly Stockman’s Bar in Hall, back in the western part of the state.

Granite Co, Stockman bar and store, MT 513, HALL

But cattle and sheep country–at least historic towns associated with stock growing–are where most of the Stockman’s Bars can be found.  Wolf Point’s Main Street is famous for its commercial strip, named Front Street faces the highway and tracks of the Great Northern Railway.  One of historic institutions along that corridor is the Stockman’s 220 Club, a real institution for residents and travelers.

Roosevelt Co Wolf Point Stockman Bar

Another altered facade is at the historic Stockman’s Bar in Roundup, another livestock growing center and the seat of Mussellshell County.

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My favorite combination bar/restaurant with the Stockman name is in the Livingston’s historic district.  I rarely come to town without a stop at this drinking landmark.

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These buildings are a mere sampling of the Stockman’s Bars in Montana. There are more to explore in all sections of the state, from Bridger to Kalispell.

Another visit to Harlowton

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Over the weekend I received a message, asking for more on Harlowton, the seat of Wheatland County.  I had developed three posts about Harlowton and other roadside properties in the county, but the reader was spot on–there is more than just the Milwaukee Road story in this central Montana town. Let’s start with the building above, originally built as the Harlowton Woman’s Club Youth Center in 1950.

img_9752The woman’s club began c. 1921 and had already made a major contribution to the town’s well-being in establishing its first library.  After World War II, however, club members felt they should once again help build the community, by building a youth center and veterans memorial garden.  Mrs. Norman Good proposed the project in 1946 and Mrs. G. D. Martin provided the first substantial donation.  The club then held fundraisers of all sorts.  By 1950, construction was underway, with contractor Clyde Wilson building the center with logs from Colby and Sons in Kila, Montana.

img_9754As the youth center was under construction, the woman’s club also reached an agreement with the school board to use land for the construction of a new football field, named McQuitty Field.  Located behind the youth center, the field opened in 1950.

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Steps from the Youth Center parking lot lead directly to the football field.

At about the same time, the woman’s club also reached an agreement with the Kiwanis Club to provide land for a community swimming pool.  The women lost their initial vision of a memorial garden, but had gained for the community two institutions–the football field and the swimming pool–that continue to serve Harlowton’s children today.

img_9750Thus, on U.S. Highway 12 lies the public recreation heart of Harlowton–a postwar gift of residents and service clubs to the community.  In 1956, the woman’s club deeded the Youth Center to the Kiwanis Club, which still manages it today.

As the images of the football field show, the recreation centers are surrounded by housing, and yes, Harlowton has an interesting range of domestic architecture–centered in the c. 1910 to c. 1960 period as you might imagine.  As a major railroad center for the Milwaukee

Wheatland Co Harlowton frame hotelRoad, it once also had several hotels and more short-term housing for workers and travelers–a good bit of that has disappeared, or is disappearing.

Wheatland Co Harlowton church

Gothic-styled churches also reflect the town’s early 20th century architectural aesthetic.  The Harlowton Wesleyan Church (above) and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (below) are good small town examples of Gothic style, especially the flashy mid-century permastone exterior of St. Joseph’s church.

img_9709It is difficult to visit Harlowton and not notice the mammoth Montana Flour Mills set of concrete grain silos–today’s silent sentinels of what ranchers once produced in abundance in these lands.

Wheatland Co Harlowton concrete elevators 2The mill, made from locally quarried stone, came within months of the completion of the railroad to Harlowton–the concrete silos reflected the hopes of investors and local ranchers, as grain production soared in the 1910s–reaching some 1.2 million bushels in 1918.  It wasn’t called Wheatland County for nothing.  I still wish the big electric sign that once adorned the silos was still there.

Wheatland Co Harlowton school

The Harlowton Public School building is another valuable survivor from the homestead boom era in the town’s history, as other other scattered commercial buildings and bank buildings–none are architecturally overwhelming but they are express the western commercial look of the early 20th century–hopeful but not overly ambitious.

Harlowton today has even picked up another depot–a moved one, that once served on the Great Northern railroad spur–the Billings and Northern–that cut through the east side of Wheatland County. It is out of place on the highway–but glad it is still in use.

Let’s end with a shout out to classic taverns–in this case Central Avenue’s Oasis Bar and the Stockman Bar. Indeed, with its classic electric sign, the Stockman Bar begs the question–where are the state’s other Stockman Bars.  Ah, the next post.

 

Wheatland County’s Roadside Architecture

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My previous post focused on Harlowton, the seat of Wheatland County, and its railroad past as a key division point for the Milwaukee Road.  Now let’s consider that other half of the county’s transportation corridor–the one created by U.S. Highway 12.  The Two Dot Bar, shown above, was an early destination point for me in eastern Montana.  What other Montana town back in the early 1980s had a song about it by Hank Williams, Jr?  Hank’s verse, “I’m from Two Dot, Montana, and I don’t give a damn” was one of many theme songs on my boom box for those long drives across the state.

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The new highway visitor center, at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S. 191 outside of Harlowton, speaks to the region’s dependency on the railroad, but to get around here anymore you need the roads.  Harlowton has several compelling properties along the highway, none moreso than this carefully preserved mid-20th century service station.

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Nearby is the historic county jail, converted into a very casual and fun local eatery.  Indeed the public architecture of Harlowton is different from many rural Montana towns–the historic jail and courthouse are out on the highway, not down in the heart of the town, nearer to the railroad core.

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The Corral Motel sign is one of my favorites of central Montana, and is a reminder of how historic highway motels that are not part of a major chain remain good travel options.

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Then there are the old garages and gas stations all around Harlowton that are still used in some way today–they too are reminders when U.S. 12 was a major artery.

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Then at the north end of the county, on U.S. Highway 191, is Judith Gap, and perhaps they have grabbed bragging rights for the most spectacular bit of roadside architecture.  Nope it is not the neat town sign–although I like it a lot.

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Nor is it the not-to-be-missed Hitchin’ Post Bar.

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it is the interpretive site with one of the huge steel blades used on wind turbines found along both U.S. 12 and U.S. 191 in Wheatland County–wind turbines are defining elements now of the northern plains landscape–and here you can touch one.

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Harlowton: Lost Landmarks in a Milwaukee Road Town he

IMG_9748Harlowton is my favorite of Montana’s Milwaukee Road towns.  Its roots lay with the vision of Richard Harlow to build an independent central Montana railroad.  When the Milwaukee Road assumed control of Harlow’s mini-empire, it turned Harlowton into one of the line’s key division points, the place where steam engines switched to electric power for the journey up and over the Rocky Mountains.

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Fischer Park with Milwaukee Road electric engine, Harlowton, 2006

When I surveyed the town in 1984, I did so with the blessing and insight of Lon Johnson, then the historic architect of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office.  Harlowton was a special case for Lon, especially the dream of restoring and reopening the magnificent State Theatre (1917), a hallmark of its days when Milwaukee passenger traffic promised so much for this small plains town.

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Before the restoration could take place, however, the theatre caught fire in 1997 and plans were set aside until 2011 when a new effort to restore the building occurred, but a second fire in 2012 again stopped progress.  The photos above from 2013 show that the hulk of the 1917 theatre remain but with the declining local population, renewal of the theatre will be difficult.

Milwaukee Road depot and offices, Harlowton, 2006

Milwaukee Road depot and offices, Harlowton, 2006

My great interest in Harlowton centered on the Milwaukee Road and its works.  In 1984, the company’s bankruptcy was only a few years old.  Down at the tracks, there was still the railroad line, the depot, the roundhouse, and other buildings.  I considered these remnants, especially in the local context, as extremely significant.  Afterwards, locals and the SHPO agreed and the Milwaukee Road depot historic district was created.  Over the next 25 years, I would stop by Harlowton periodically to monitor the district, and noted with approval how the depot had been repaired.  The roundhouse, unfortunately, was lost.

Harlowton depot and offices in 2013

Harlowton depot and offices in 2013

Looking north from the depot, on the bluffs of the Musselshell River overlooking the railroad tracks, stood a third key landmark, the Graves Hotel.  My colleague Lon Johnson also had

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Harlowton, from the railroad depot, 2006

been a big fan of this Queen Anne-styled stone railroad hotel, with the stone carved from the nearby bluffs.  I too fell in love with the Graves, staying here periodically in the 1980s.

Graves Hotel, Harlowton, MT, 1984

Graves Hotel, Harlowton, MT, 1984

When I visited in 2006, however, the Graves looked good–from a recent repainting of its late Victorian detailing–but it was closed, and so it has remained ever since.  I do not

Graves Hotel harlowton

pretend to have the answers on how do you maintain a large three-story National Register hotel that is miles from an interstate and located instead on a little-used-by-tourists route

Graves Hotel in 2013

Graves Hotel in 2013

(U.S. Highway 12), but even if the hotel can come partially back to life, it would be a real tourism boost to Harlowton.

It’s not like the local residents aren’t in the game and trying.  The county museum, the Upper Musselshell Valley Museum, continues to grow its profile along Central Avenue.  The buildings made of locally quarried stone, with late Victorian cornices, harken to the turn of the 20th century when Harlowton held such promise with the Milwaukee Road’s arrival.

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The Harlo Theatre remains in business too, and is a throwback to small town theaters, and a rare survivor in today’s home entertainment world.  Plus it is a cool building.

IMG_1592 copyDespite missing out on the interstate, losing a railroad, and dropping a lot of population, there is still something to Harlowton that makes me return, trip after trip.  More on that something in the next blog.