Adaptive Reuse and Montana’s Depots

When I carried out the 1984-1985 survey of Montana as part of the state historic preservation planning process, one resource was at the forefront of my mind–railroad passenger stations.  Not only had recent scholarship by John Hudson and John Stilgoe brought new interest to the topic, there had been the recent bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road, and the end of passenger service in large parts of the state, except along the Hi-Line of the old Great Northern Railway (where Amtrak still runs today.)

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The mid-20th century standardized design for Great Northern stations at Chester on US 2.

Some of the passenger stations in the major cities had already been converted into new uses, such as restaurants, offices, and various downtown commercial uses. The lovely turn of the twentieth century stations for the Great Northern (left) and the Milwaukee Road (right) in Great Falls showed how the location of the buildings, plus their

architectural quality and the amount of available space made them perfect candidates for adaptive reuse.  While the tenants have changed over the past 30 plus years, both buildings still serve as heritage anchors for the city. While success marked early adaptive reuse projects in Great Falls and Missoula, for instance, it was slow to come to Montana’s largest city–the neoclassical styled Northern Pacific depot was abandoned and

Billings 2006 002deteriorating in the mid-1980s but a determined effort to save the building and use it as an anchor for the Montana Avenue historic district has proven to be a great success in the 21st century.

In the 1984-1985 I documented hundreds of railroad depots across Big Sky Country.  From 2012-2015 I noted how many had disappeared–an opportunity to preserve heritage and put a well-located substantial building for the building back to work had been wasted.  But I also came away with a deep appreciation of just how many types of new lives train stations could have.

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Turning iconic buildings into community museums is a time-honored tradition, as you can find at the magnificent Northern Pacific station at Livingston, shown above.  A handful of Montana communities have followed that tradition–I am especially glad that people in Harlowton and Wheatland County banded together to preserve the

IMG_9725.JPGMilwaukee Road depot there, since Harlowtown was such an important place in the railroad’s history as an electric line.

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But there are so many other uses–as they know in Lewistown.  Already in the mid-1980s investors in Lewistown had turned the old Milwaukee Road station, shown above, into a hotel and conference center, the Yogo Inn.  When I visited Lewistown in 2013 the Yogo was undergoing a facelift after 30 years as a commercial business. The town’s other

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historic depot, a substantial brick building (above) from the Great Northern Railway, was a gas station, convenience mart, office building, and store, all in one.

 

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Deer Lodge is blessed with both of its historic depots.  The Milwaukee Road depot has become a church while the Northern Pacific depot became the Powell County Senior Citizens Center.  Indeed, converting such a community landmark into a community center is popular in other Montana towns, such as the National Register-listed passenger station shown below in Kevin, Toole County, near the border with Canada.

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One of the most encouraging trends of this century is how many families have turned depots into their homes–you can’t beat the location and the long, horizontal nature of the often-found combination depot (passenger station and luggage warehouse in same building) means that these dwellings have much in common with the later Ranch-style houses of the 1950s and 1960s.

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A former Great Northern depot in Windham.

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A Milwaukee Road depot turned into a home in Rosebud County.

But in my work from 2012-15 I found more and more examples of how local entrepreneurs have turned these historic buildings into businesses–from a very simple, direct conversion from depot to warehouse in Grassrange to the use of the Milwaukee Road depot in Roundup as the local electric company office.

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As these last examples attest–old buildings can still serve communities, economically and gracefully.  Not all historic preservation means the creation of a museum–that is the best course in only a few cases.  But well-built and maintained historic buildings can be almost anything else–the enduring lesson of adaptive reuse

The Milwaukee Road Heads into the Musselshell Valley

As the Milwaukee Road left the Yellowstone Valley at Forsyth and struck northwest toward the Musselshell River valley, it created one of Montana’s most classic prairie railroad towns, Ingomar, established in 1908.  The hamlet, with 25 or so residents today, compared to perhaps the 100 who lived around there in 1980 has several historic buildings that document its quick twentieth century rise, and just as quick fall in the 1920s and 1930s depression years.

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Jersey Lily Bar, Ingomar, 1984

In the 1984 survey of Montana, Ingomar really just had one reason to stop:  the Jersey Lilly Bar, owned and managed by Bill Seward, who had done so since 1984.  That spring Seward and I became good friends.  Few people stopped there in February and March and since I was in the region, I found ways to stop in. do coffee (strong, hot, always ready) and have whatever Bill was thinking of cooking.  He was proud of his beans, and liked sliced red potatoes when he had them.  Seward added the faux western wood porch to a 1914 bank building:  he said that the tourists liked it, that it made the otherwise Classical Revival bank look “Old West.”  Until Seward’s death in 1995, I found reasons to visit Ingomar three other times, in a way just to make sure that both Seward and the bar was still going on.  Since the construction of the interstate highway to the south had so killed traffic along U.S. Highway 12, you wondered when the bar would close.

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This former homestead-era bank building, the Wiley, Clark, and Greening Bank, opened in 1914 and closed as a bank seven years later.  In 1933, the height of the Depression, it re-opened as the Oasis Bar (it certainly was that along U.S. 12) and it became the Jersey Lilly Bar in 1948.  Almost seven decades later, it is a well-known landmark on the highway, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

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Adjoining the bar, and accessible only through the bar, is another National Register building, the Bookman General Store, constructed as really an act of faith in 1921, replacing an earlier store that had burned.  The prospects for Ingomar was not so rosy by that time but the Bookman family stayed the course–lost the store for two years from 1933-1935–but reacquired it and kept it open to 1943.

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A third Ingomar landmark on the National Register is the public school, which evolved from  a one-room in 1913 to the rambling building you see today, constructed by Neils Hanson of Melstone in 1915.  When I surveyed Ingomar in 1984, the school still operated but closed for good in 1992.  It was converted into a “biscuit and bunk” later that decade.

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Another important historic building is the Milwaukee Road “combination-style” depot, where the passenger and freight service was combined into one building.  Many of these have disappeared along the line since its closure, and too many have disappeared or have been moved since my survey work of 1984-1985.  Ingomar has its depot, converted into a private residence along the now-gone tracks in the 1990s.

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Other historic properties exist, perhaps waiting new futures.  The rodeo grounds stay in use while the Riechers Brothers general merchandise and machinery store building remains standing.  Other structures are barely hanging on.

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As travel dwindles and population disappears, you worry about the future of Ingomar.  Their signs and their heritage assets beckon visitors daily but will enough even come by to make a difference?

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Melstone, just west of where the Milwaukee Road crossed the Musselshell River and entered its valley, is another worrisome case.  Its population has dropped to under 100–almost 150 lost since my visit in 1984.  But it still has its school, which is very much the town’s central institution and point of pride.

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Melstone has lost its signature building, the 1912 Antlers Hotel, located on the town’s most prominent corner between its main street, that leads to the school, and the intersection with U.S. Highway 12.

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Antlers Hotel, Melstone, 1984

The location of the Antlers Hotel is now a grassy spot.

The location of the Antlers Hotel is now a grassy spot.

Melstone has a hardware/general store along with Jakes Garage on the highway and the Melstone Bar and Cafe, another classic roadside stop along u.S. 12.

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Ingomar and Melstone–I understand to most eyes they are dumps, not worth a look–but in my fieldwork they are interesting and valuable, physical signs of the 20th century determination to make rural settlements work, and despite their losses, they are still here some 100 years later.