Heading North on Montana’s U.S. 89

Teton Co Fairfield ditch south of town 1We just finished an exploration of U.S. Highway south from Great Falls to Livingston, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.  Now let’s head in the opposite direction, north of Great Falls to Glacier National Park.  In the first half of this trek, one great man-made landscape dominates either side of the road–the Sun River Irrigation Project, established by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1906 but not completed until the late 1920s.

 

The project has two divisions:  the smaller is the Fort Shaw division centered at the town of Simms (discussed in an earlier post) and the much larger is the Greenfields Irrigation District, over 80,000 acres, headquartered at Fairfield, which is located on U.S. 89.  On either side of Fairfield, you can see the expanse of irrigation land, framed by the Rocky Mountains.  One wonder how many travelers pass by this early 20th century engineered landscape and never give it a look.

Teton Co Greenfields irrigation district W US 89

Teton Co Fairfield Greenfields irrigation 1Feeding in and out of Fairfield are multiple canals and ditches, with the great bulk of land devoted to the production of malting barley, under

contract to Anheuser-Busch for years now.  Dominating the highway along the Great Northern spur line are huge metal granaries for all of the barley to make millions of bottles of beer.

Teton Co Fairfield Busch barleyFairfield itself is a classic T-plan railroad town.  The barley granaries dominate the trackside, where also is located the headquarters for the Greenfields Irrigation District, so designated in 1926.

Teton Co Fairfield irrigation dist officeAlong the stem of the “T” plan are all of the primary commercial buildings of the town, from an unassuming log visitor center to various one-story commercial buildings, and, naturally, a classic bar, the Silver Dollar.

Teton Co Fairfield 6 Silver Dollar BarPublic spaces and institutions are located at the bottom of the “T,” including a community park and swimming pool, a c. 1960 community hall, and an Art-Deco styled Fairfield High School.  The park, pool, and high school were all part of the second period of federal improvement at Fairfield during the New Deal era.

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The high school and the adjacent elementary school are clearly the heart of the community, even if situated at the bottom of the town plan.  In designing Fairfield 100 years ago, the railroad, the highway, and the grain elevators were the economic focus with the vision of irrigated fields creating an agricultural paradise out of the semi-arid lands of Teton County.  But those who came and built Fairfield as a community

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understood that schools represented their hopes and identity for that future.  Today Fairfield is a few families larger in population than 1970, bucking the trend that the old reclamation towns were fated to fade into obscurity as time moved on in the northern plains.

Shifting Meanings in the Big Horn Landscape

IMG_5494When I first arrived in Montana in 1981 the first place that I stopped at was Little Bighorn Battlefield, then known as Custer Battlefield National Monument.  As a southerner new to the west, here was a place that “everyone” knew about, an iconic western battlefield where Gen. George A. Custer and the 7th Calvary suffered a devastating defeat from a combined Sioux-Cheyenne force.  Everything then was focused on “Last Stand Hill” where

Custer Battlefield, Crow Agency (43-30)

Little Big Horn Battlefield, 1984

Custer and his troops had stood for almost 100 years.  As a veteran visitor to southern Civil War battlefields, it struck me how what you saw and experienced was all about the federal side–similar to what you found back then at southern Civil War memorial parks, where valiant Confederates fought what seemed to be a foe with no name outside of enemy.

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This quotation from Theodore O’Hara’s “Bivouac of the Dead” is found in many Civil War era national cemeteries.

IMG_1364Over the decades I have returned to the battlefield numerous times, even once (by accident I hadn’t even thought that the day would be an anniversary) when re-enactors posed by the famous obelisk monument, creating a very odd juxtaposition between past and present. (I don’t think Custer and his men were smiling on that hill in 1876).

IMG_1383By this time, meaning at the battlefield had shifted to a larger, more inclusive narrative, beginning with the actual name of the park, now Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Public interpretation, fueled not only by the changing times but an intensive archaeological investigation of the park in the late 1980s, suddenly located Native Americans within the battle landscape.  There was a growing feeling that yes this was a battle between enemies, but enemies with names, motivations, and their own sense of what it all meant.

IMG_1377Last Chance Hill was still a focal point in 2015 but now its narrative of unity and sacrifice was countered by a new monument, built to consider the story of Little Bighorn from the perspective of the Native American warriors who fought here.

IMG_5520The monument compels reflection—the metal profiles of Native American warriors blend into the actual battlefield landscape as if ghosts of warriors past were again upon the field.  Text and images add additional layers of interpretation and meaning to the battlefield, from a decided Native American perspective.

IMG_5514Then new tombstones, in a brownish stone, distinguished fallen Cheyenne warriors from the marble tombstones for soldiers from the 7th Calvary.  The place has been ennobled, transformed as a both a park and a place of reflection on what the Indian Wars of the 1870s have meant to the nation and to the peoples who fought in them.

IMG_5504Nearby within Crow Agency is a further addition to the public interpretation of the region’s military history: the exemplary Apsaalooke Veterans Park, an installation that celebrates veterans past and present.  IMG_5530At the I-90 exit for U.S. 212 at Crow Agency, a new landscape has emerged through spaces such as the park, the new Apsaalooke casino, and especially the modernist styled medical center, located near the fairgrounds for the annual Crow fair.

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The sparking bright lights of casino sign stand in stark contrast to the old mission church, now The Father’s House place of worship.

IMG_5524In the middle of the Crow Indian Reservation is another landscape of change, one not so visited by tourists.  St. Xavier was an important Catholic mission among the Crow Indians, established along the Big Horn River in 1887-1888 by Father Peter Prando.  The understated Gothic-styled church was a building documented in my A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History book in 1986 and the survey included both the church and small gable-front residence built for the priests.

St. Xavier Mission Chapel, Crow Reservation (45-2)    

Those same buildings remain today, as does the nearby Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, representing community continuity and the Catholic commitment to the reservation.  But

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IMG_5961the mid-20th century St. Xavier town site has not weathered the decades so well.  Businesses have largely disappeared and the Art Deco-styled St. Xavier public school, a Public Works Administration project from the New Deal designed by Billings architect J.G. Link in 1938 is now abandoned and decaying.

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IMG_5953Across the road from the school is St. John’s Lutheran Church, a weather- and time-worn, a 20th century log building speaking more to the past than the present. And running

IMG_5958nearby is one of many irrigation ditches that promised the transformation of the Big Horn Valley for 20th century homesteaders but as the forgotten ranches surrounding St. Xavier remind us, the irrigated empire of eastern Montana did not bring riches to everyone.

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IMG_6003Transformations and shifting meanings of the past from the perspective of the present make the Big Horn a fascinating place to explore.

Bridger: Northern Pacific Railroad Hub in the Clark’s Fork Valley

IMG_5650As you head north into Montana from Wyoming on U. S. 310, the first substantial place you encounter is Bridger, named for famed fur trader and early Yellowstone traveler Jim Bridger.  Like its neighbor to the north in Fromberg, Bridger is another turn of the 20th century Northern Pacific Railroad town in the Clark’s Fork River Valley that was much the same from my initial visit 31 years ago.  Its population had remained steady–a tad over 700, about the same as in 1984, and only 150 or so less than its height in 1950.

IMG_5659The town’s grain elevators speak to the formative impact of the railroad.  Here back in the late 1890s engineers followed a well worn and recognized Indian trail–a similar route to what Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians chose a generation earlier as he tried to find safety for his people, traveling from Wyoming into the Clark’s Fork Valley.

IMG_5631The town’s commercial district retains much of its early 20th century look.  Old bank buildings dominate the town center, while substantial 2-story commercial buildings (including properties listed in the National Register) remain, showing how quickly merchants came to Bridger and launched businesses to attract the growing number of homesteaders in the Clark’s Fork River valley in the 1910s.

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IMG_5655That first generation of settlers did their part to build lasting community institutions.  The Bridger United Methodist Church is an impressive example of vernacular Gothic design. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The town library is almost a picture perfect example of what this institution should look like in a small town setting.

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IMG_5636The irrigation ditch drifting through the town park is a reminder of how the engineered landscape of irrigated fields provided much of Bridger’s early wealth and development.  The park itself was a creation of the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s.

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Within the park is a ceramic and brick arch, one of the town’s many examples of public art.  The mural on a side of a store seen earlier in this post is another example while creative metal statues of wild horses grazing or the imposing figure of Jim Bridger himself welcoming visitors at the southern end of the town underscores a local tradition of public art not often seen in Montana’s small towns.

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IMG_5661                     Carbon Co Bridger jim bridger mt 2 - Version 2

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Other historic statements of the town’s sense of community include the 1930s Civic Center, a bit worn today but a center for community gatherings and social events for decades.

IMG_5651Bridger’s schools from the 1960s introduce Montana modernism to the townscape, almost like spaceships landing within the middle of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  Modernism 1960s style also characterize Sacred Heart Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and the Bridger Seventh Day Adventist Church, constructed in 1965.

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St. Paul Lutheran ChurchIMG_5639                                            Sacred Heart Catholic Church

IMG_5649These community anchors date from 50 years ago, so obviously growth has been stagnant, or stable, pick your terms, since the boom introduced in the valley through expanded irrigation projects in the post-World War II era.  But all of the buildings are well maintained, and are part of the sense of overall sense of pride you get from a visit to Bridger.

IMG_5654Bridger has reminders, both in monuments and in businesses, of the deep past of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  It is an interesting place of strong institutions, several National Register-listed historic homes, and local business, and a significant part of the often ignored history of the Clark’s Fork Valley.

Backdrops to Montana History: The Irrigation Ditch

Coming to Montana in 1981 from the wet, humid South, I thought little of irrigation as a moving force in history.  To my mind, irrigation was about sprinklers keeping suburban lawns nice and green in the summer.  I cared little for that, and thought no more about it.

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Milk River system, Tampico, Valley County

Realizing that irrigation had shaped the history of the United States was another of those primary contributions living and working in Montana brought to my understanding of history.  In the 1984-85 historic preservation survey of the state, I noted a few key systems and thought about their significance.  But in the time since, I came to understand irrigation as one of the key components of an engineered landscape, that literally reshaped the state and made towns, cities, and ranches possible in the early 20th century.

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Big Hole Valley

Early Montana settlers, especially the pioneering irrigator I.D. O’Donnell of Billings,  understood by the turn of the century that there would never be enough water to make Montana an agricultural paradise.  Men could not conquer nature–but they could build a machine that could harness it, even replace it.

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This irrigation effort in Valier took advantage of the 1894 Carey Act.

So with the financial assistance of the federal government, first with the Carey Act of 1894 and then the vastly more important Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the transformation of Montana through irrigation took place in the first third of the 20th century. 

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The U.S. Reclamation Service Office at Ballatine, Yellowstone County.  Championed by I.D. O’Donnell, the Huntley project was the second USRS project in the nation.

The engineered landscape represented by irrigation is everywhere in Montana.  I will pick up this theme in later postings but end today with another image that evokes the impact, even beauty, of the man-made streams that crisscross the state.

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Madison County, along Montana Highway 249