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.

 

Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Harlem on the Hi-Line

 

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Whenever travelers or residents for that matter talk about Hi-Line towns, Havre, Shelby, Glasgow, Wolf Point always enter the conversation. Some places, inexplicably to my mind, never do: Harlem is a case in point.

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A gateway to the Fort Belknap Reservation, Harlem is one of the early Great Northern Railway towns, dating to 1889, and was established to serve as a commercial center on the northern border of the reservation.When the homesteading boom swept through the Hi-Line during the early 20th century, Harlem quickly expanded and most of the historic buildings found there today date between 1910 and 1940.

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What struck me powerfully when I visited in 2013, compared to my last visit in 1984, was dual themes of growth and decline. The Aaniiih Nadoka College, established in 1884, had left its initial spartan quarters on the edge of the reservation into new modern-styled buildings, that still reflected the spirit of earlier vernacular styled buildings.

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The 30-year growth of the college certainly underscored new opportunities as the flashy facade of the Ft Belknap Casino, facing U.S. Highway 2, showed a new revenue source. Standardized designs for federal housing also indicated the growth of a large neighborhood just south of the U.S. 2 and Montana 66 junction.

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The theme of decline, however, marked the historic business district of Harlem. When I visited in 1984, Harlem had over 1000 residents–now that number is close to 800. Classic roadside gas stations, even at prominent corners, had closed.

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The Art Deco-ish Brekke Block (1941) only had a few going businesses; the early 20th century commercial block at Central and Main streets had even fewer signs of life. The Grand Theatre no longer showed movies. The imposing classical facade of the old state bank had broken windows and decaying architectural details.  These historic buildings retain their potential to impress, and could be heritage assets in multiple ways.  They need attention before it is too late.

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While life and commerce enlivened the railroad and highway corridor, the downtown had a shuttered, tired look. But pride was there too. The Harlem Centennial Park, established in 1987, featured an memorial to the thirteen airmen who lost their lives when Air Force cargo planes collided north of town in 1992. The dedication and commitment to raise the funds and build such an appropriate monument impresses–and for travelers like me, I had no idea that this terrible air accident took place, and was glad that Harlem understood its obligation to the airmen and to history to record the event, permanently, with the memorial.  It was one of several surprises I encountered during my visit to Blaine County in 2013.

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