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.

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 010

Toole Co Shelby Main St roadside

Toole Co Shelby Main St 3 Mint Club bar

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 013

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.

 

Sheridan County: a forgotten railroad landscape

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In the past posts I revisited the two Daniels County towns at the “end of the line” of a spur line constructed by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1910s as a way of countering the push into northeastern Montana by the Soo Line at the same time. These attempts at railroad expansion and town building took root during the homesteading boom of that decade. Now with depots gone and residents drifting away, the old railroad corridor as it stretches from Opheim on the west end to its junction with the main line at Bainville, takes on the appearance of a ghost line, attested by the image above from Homestead and the one below from Reserve,both in Sheridan County.
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At the rough mid-point of this spur line lies Plentywood–rather forsaken spot I thought in 1984 but a town now actually facing too much growth, too fast as the need for residences and space for the thousands of Bakken oil field workers seeps into northeast Montana. In 2013, the impact on Plentywood and Medicine Lake to the south was apparent as this just opened man camp at Medicine Lake shows.
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Plentywood was of considerable interest to me because once the initial homestead boom turned to disaster in Sheridan County by the time of the Great Depression, there was a local movement to create a communist party. This story was known in 1984 but now we have full accounting due to the research of Sheridan County native Verlaine Stoner McDonald in her book The Red Corner (2010).
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Plentywood has a classic T-plan town, with its depot and huge grain elevators defining what was the head of the town–and then a long “stem” of the T, where first came the commercial district, then a residential district, and finally at the “bottom” of the T: the county courthouse.

Plentywood's T-town plan, looking from the courthouse

Plentywood’s T-town plan, looking from the courthouse


This arrangement of space spoke to the railroad’s concern for safety and efficiency: T-plans moved traffic and pedestrians off of the tracks. But when the Works Progress Administration built the understated WPA Modern-styled courthouse in 1937, placing it at the end of the town, you also had a classic statement of where power lay in these plains country towns. The railroad stood at the head; at the end of the town was the seat for local politics.
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In 1984 another interesting arrangement of space I noted in Plentywood was how three different banks stood on three of the four corners of the town’s most prominent crossroads, where Montana Highway 16 crossed the main street. The banks are still there with the stone-work of the historic Adolph Riba bank (built by Henry and John Hill from the village of Raymond to the north), making it a prominent landmark.
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The impact of the regional oil boom on the public landscape is most evident in new schools and the new library, attached to the historic courthouse, changes I didn’t expect to find in a town that had lost 700 residents from the 2400 or so who lived there in 1984.
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I was especially pleased to see the town’s historic movie theater, the Orpheum, which stands adjacent to the “top” of the T, still doing well. It was rare to find a small town movie theater in 1984, even less common today. Plentywood today is more than the historic center point of a neglected railroad corridor; it lies in the center of the changes coming to the region out of the 21st century oil boom of the northern plains.
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