Shelby Montana’s historic downtown

Toole Co Shelby sign and BNSF train

As we all have read the newspapers over the last six weeks, it has been doubly sad to learn of the devastation COVID-19 has brought to the people of Toole County, where the town of Shelby is the county seat.  The virus has ravaged most of the United States but the level of its impact on such rural places as Shelby and Toole County has been especially devastating since in places like these everyone does know everyone.  The impact is so direct and personal.

Toole Co Shelby courthouse 4

In this weekend’s papers, reporters stressed how residents are moving forward the best they could, despite the sadness, and fear.  I would expect no less.  I last visited Shelby seven years ago; indeed I made two stops between 2011 and 2013.  Of course people were friendly, helpful, just as they had been when I started my initial Montana survey in 1984 with an overnight program in Shelby at the courthouse.  Imagine my delight to learn in those same news stories that the town had met virtually of course to discuss a pending proposal to place the downtown in the National Register of Historic Places.  I fully agree: the range of buildings along Main Street (historic U.S. Highway 2) has always ranked among my favorite Main Streets in the state.

Toole Co Shelby Main St 2 roadside bars

Let’s me share today views of the downtown commercial buildings that I took in 2011 and 2013.  They reflect the impact of the 1920s oil boom on the town and county–so many date to those decades–but as a group they also show how Shelby grew in the early to mid-twentieth century on both sides of the Great Northern Railway that passed through the heart of town, with its historic depot still serving passengers on the Empire Builder today.

Toole Co Shelby depot

The range of roadside architecture in the tavern, restaurant, and motel signs is particularly significant–in so many other places these touchstones of mid-century commercial design have been lost.  But I also like the unpretentiousness of the buildings, and the commercial district they create.  The architecture in that way reflects the residents themselves:  flashy if you want it, but also solid, grounded, and ready to face what comes their way.

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Toole Co Shelby Main St roadside

Toole Co Shelby Main St 3 Mint Club bar

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2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 009

Toole Co Shelby Main St 4 Deco

Toole Co Shelby bar n of depot

The downtown district would add much to the National Register of Historic Places.  Shelby was already represented by a historic garage and the original City Hall, recently a visitor center, that was built for the famous Fourth of July 1923 heavyweight

bout between Jack Dempsey-and Tommy Gibbons.  But these additions tell its full story of commercial growth in the age of the highway.  I hope the project moves smoothly forward–Shelby and Toole County deserves that break, along with many, many others as they fight back against the scourge of our time.

 

Montana’s Malta: More Travels along the Hi-Line

Phillips County is one of my favorite places along the Hi-Line. The Milk River Valley is beautiful; the high plains at Loring and Whitewater are lonesome yet compelling. Empty I guess is how many would describe the county as just over 4250 people live there–in a county of 5,212 square miles.

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Loring Hall in 1984

But the diversity of the landscape is memorable. The southern tip of the county is the gateway to the Charles M. Russell National Monument, truly one of the great national parks that few people know about but home to some of most overwhelming views of the Missouri River. North of the Missouri are the southern end of the Little Rocky Mountains and the old mining towns of Zortman and Sandusky.

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Abandoned cabins at Zortman, 2013

I have already written about the two Hi-Line towns on the west end (Dodson) and the east end (Saco). Now it is Malta’s turn. When I visited there in 1984 little did I know that Malta was at its population peak.

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The 1980 census counted 2,367 residents–never had the town had that many people, and judging from the last three decades, that number is never returning: the population is now under 2,000. The 1980 as a peak population decade–not common among Hi-Line towns, but that wasn’t all that set Malta apart from what I encountered east or west.

Vibrant community institutions anchored the town. The neoclassical Phillips County Courthouse (1921) served as the foundation for the east end residential neighborhood. Designed by Great Falls architect Frank E. Bossout, the red brick courthouse reflects a more restrained expression of the popular classical revival movement, especially compared to Bossout’s earlier more flamboyant Beaux-Arts design for the Hill County Courthouse (c. 1914) in Havre. (I wish they would remove the vines–not good for the bricks.)

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Nearby was the Carnegie Library, which had been recently converted to serve as a county museum. In 1984 the community was quite proud of the place, recently (1980) listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Now the museum has moved to new quarters, the Phillips County/ Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, on U.S. Highway 2, where dinosaurs are the primary attraction moreso than local history after a major nationally-noted dinosaur discovery happened in the county in 2000. Yet the town has preserved a notable local house, the Victorian-style H.G. Robinson House (1898), nearby the new museum and there in a domestic setting the town’s early history and settlement is interpreted. The new highway historical/cultural institutions are improvements–but have come at a real cost: a crumbling Carnegie Library, the town’s only National Register-listed property that needs help, now.

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Another community institution was the Woman’s Club of the late 1930s, a Rustic-style building that has been discussed earlier in the blog, as part of the institutions that spoke to women’s history that I missed and could not “see” in 1984. But it was also one of three major New Deal buildings that missed–the others being the two-story brick WPA-constructed City Hall and the massive brick “Old Gym” that once served the high school.

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Malta also had its share of schools and churches, although again I did not “see” in 1984 the beauty of the contemporary-styled St. Mary’s Catholic Church from c. 1960.

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Malta’s business district is the classic T-town type of design found all along the Great Northern line. It too had its anchors: massive grain elevators and grain storage bins, along with the Arts and Crafts styled Great Northern passenger depot, defined the top of the “T”.

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Once you took the New Deal-era underpass to go under the tracks, there was the neoclassical First State Bank introducing the “stem” of the T and several blocks of businesses: two movie theaters (both closed now unfortunately) and an Art Deco-styled auto dealership being particularly notable buildings.

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Although it was in rough shape Malta also had its railroad/highway park (Trafton Park) on the north side of U.S. 2, where the original U.S. Highway 2 passed using a steel Parker through truss bridge to cross the Milk River.

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Nearby was a railroad bridge allowing Great Northern passenger trains to do the same.

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Malta, Great Northern Bridge over Milk River, 1984

The town also had its own rodeo grounds, tucked away next to a historic livery stable at the corner of N 2nd Street and N 2nd Avenue. The Maltana Motel–even in 1984 it struck me as a classic 1950s motor court–was the place to stay then, and now. It is one of the few survivors of the “Mom and Pop” roadside abodes I enjoyed in 1984 along the Hi-Line.

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Malta has many potential National Register listings–as the many photos here suggest. And all of these heritage assets could be a valuable foundation for new visions and investment. The community is keeping the buildings in use and in general decent repair. But you worry about the future–if the town’s recent trend of population decline continues.