Plains Country Towns in Montana’s Judith Basin

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Milwaukee Road Corridor, Moore, 1984.

In my work with the State Historic Preservation Office in 1984-1985, my colleagues put up with many of my own peculiar interests and views of the Montana historic landscape, especially the focus on public buildings and the state’s railroad corridors.  My interests, however, in the country towns of the Judith Basin was probably always a puzzler; staff always wished I would press on to Lewistown, where some of the best preservation work in the state was taking place in the mid-1980s (much more on Lewistown a bit later).  But I must admit that the maze of small towns–never numbering more than 200 or so souls in any given place–created by the railroads as they fought for market dominance in the rich agricultural region of the Judith Basin some 100 years ago was just fascinating.

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Grain elevators at Moore, 1984

And they remain so today.  The geographer John Hudson had provided basic insights on the creation, distribution, and purpose of the country towns in the larger development of the northern plains–he coined the phrase “plains country towns.” The constant elements that they all shared–oriented to the tracks, the dominance of grain elevators, the prominence of depots–underscore the railroad era origins.  But the towns all had their own individual places and statements, be it a woman’s club, a library, the school, and the bars and taverns.  Thirty years later, much was missing from what I experienced in 1984–every place lost population between 1980-2010–but much still remained, and residents seemed determined to keep it that way.

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Moore still has its grain elevators but the Milwaukee depot is long gone, creating an empty space along the corridor.  Moore has the look of so many Milwaukee Road towns with a T-plan design apparent today even as the town decline from its height of 575 residents in 1920 to the 193 of today.

IMG_9790But the town, which compared to many I visited in 1984 had declined to a lesser degree (229 residents in 1980 to 193 in 2010), still has its public institutions.  The Moore Woman’s Club is celebrating its centennial in 2015 while the town’s public library is another key community center while the continued operation of the unassuming Moore public school

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IMG_9785_2is undoubtedly the major reason that the town is still here today.

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The Great Northern Railway spur line that snaked north from the Yellowstone Valley at Laurel through the Judith Gap then the basin was always a corridor of great interest to me, although the towns created along the way were small, seemingly inconsequential compared to the linking of Great Falls and Billings.

IMG_9770Traveling north out of the Yellowstone then Musselshell valleys, the Great Northern line entered the basin at Judith Gap, and the homesteaders who followed built a grand two-story brick school that spoke of their ambitions.

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The corridor then left in its wake places forgotten today.  Travelers along U.S. 191 may notice the old brick state bank building and elevators at Garneill, but they may not.

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The highway veers away from the railroad line at Garneill, meaning that the old state bank at Buffalo was a forgotten place in 1984–and the town remains so today.

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First State Bank, Buffalo, 1984.

Hobson, on U.S. 87/Montana 200, has experienced a much brighter history. Its brick bank building houses a local bar.  While no depot remains, the town’s railroad line remains a IMG_9797

IMG_9792point of focus, although most traffic, commercial and otherwise, relies on the highway.  Hobson’s population when I visited in 1984 was at its height, 261 people in 1980, and it still tops over 200 today.  Another defining characteristic is Hobson’s rather unique (for a plains country town) boulevard plan.

IMG_9794On either side lie business and public buildings and the street ends at the high school, where the six-man football field is a central element of the community’s public landscape.

IMG_9801The Murray Block, 1910, dominates the business district today as it much have done one hundred years ago–it is rare to see a false-front concrete block building.  The Masonic

IMG_9795Lodge probably helps to identify some of the builders of Hobson’s historic structures located on the boulevard.  But whoever the builders were, here is a very interesting place

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IMG_9799and just as importantly the properties are in use, be they a cafe, a store, or a library. A long two-lane road, Montana 239, stretches east from Hobson along the Judith River and headed into Little Belt Mountains.  The paved road ends at the earlier settlement of the

IMG_9419basin, the cowboy town of Utica, made famous by the paintings and writings of Charles M. Russell, the state’s most famous artist.  Utica has a strong sense of itself, although it is justa tiny place today.  A large part of that sense of the past is maintained and enhanced by the work of the Utica museum, the local historical society, and the town rod and gun club.  Utica has a level of public interpretation that was certainly not in place in 1984 and that today is rarely matched in a small Montana town.

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IMG_9422Utica also has done a commendable job of maintaining and preserving key community buildings, such as the early 20th century school and community hall, both properties associated with the homesteading boom of that time.  The town’s historic store is a little

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IMG_9427worse for the wear of 100 years of use, but it is still here, and the stone construction speaks strongly to the vernacular quality of the area’s built environment.

IMG_9428History and preservation are not the only reasons for Utica’s survival.  In true Montana fashion, most people who take the long drive here come for the food, drink, and good

IMG_9430times at the Oxen Yoke Inn–why else would you locate the town’s primary interpretive sign next to the bar’s parking lot.

IMG_9431For most travelers the highway from Hobson at the eastern end of Judith Basin County to Stanford, the county seat, in the center of the county, is just open road.  But between those two towns three Great Northern hamlets still have significant remnants of their past.  Moccasin was such a favorite in 1984 that the resulting book from the survey work,  A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, had two images from the place–the New Deal school, with its totally out of place but flashy Art Deco design, and the two-story Classical Revival styled bank building. Moccasin MT JB CoMoccasin, Judith Basin Co (p84 85-1)Those landmarks remain in Moccasin, but much worse for the wear.  The school is clearly among those threatened landmarks highlighted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.  The bank is hanging on, barely.

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IMG_9821Moccasin still has other historic buildings worthy of note, such as a church, its town pump, even a telephone booth (a real disappearing part of the landscape from 1984 to 2014).

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IMG_9822More importantly, its historic Great Northern combination depot, although battered, still is along the tracks nearby the elevators, reminding anyone looking closely enough of the railroad roots of the place.

IMG_9809The next two towns of Benchland and Windham also retain their historic depots.  The Benchland station has deteriorated in the last generation as documented in a comparison of a 1984 image with one from 2014.

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IMG_9834The Windham depot has been moved slightly off the tracks–but still within a stone’s throw of the rails.  The station, along with the historic commercial strip of the T-town plan, and historic elevators, still give meaning to the “W” of the town sign.

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IMG_9839The curve of the tracks headed to Stanford is a good place to rest with this post–more on the plains country towns of the Judith Basin in the next post.

Wheatland County’s Roadside Architecture

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My previous post focused on Harlowton, the seat of Wheatland County, and its railroad past as a key division point for the Milwaukee Road.  Now let’s consider that other half of the county’s transportation corridor–the one created by U.S. Highway 12.  The Two Dot Bar, shown above, was an early destination point for me in eastern Montana.  What other Montana town back in the early 1980s had a song about it by Hank Williams, Jr?  Hank’s verse, “I’m from Two Dot, Montana, and I don’t give a damn” was one of many theme songs on my boom box for those long drives across the state.

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The new highway visitor center, at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S. 191 outside of Harlowton, speaks to the region’s dependency on the railroad, but to get around here anymore you need the roads.  Harlowton has several compelling properties along the highway, none moreso than this carefully preserved mid-20th century service station.

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Nearby is the historic county jail, converted into a very casual and fun local eatery.  Indeed the public architecture of Harlowton is different from many rural Montana towns–the historic jail and courthouse are out on the highway, not down in the heart of the town, nearer to the railroad core.

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The Corral Motel sign is one of my favorites of central Montana, and is a reminder of how historic highway motels that are not part of a major chain remain good travel options.

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Then there are the old garages and gas stations all around Harlowton that are still used in some way today–they too are reminders when U.S. 12 was a major artery.

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Then at the north end of the county, on U.S. Highway 191, is Judith Gap, and perhaps they have grabbed bragging rights for the most spectacular bit of roadside architecture.  Nope it is not the neat town sign–although I like it a lot.

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Nor is it the not-to-be-missed Hitchin’ Post Bar.

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it is the interpretive site with one of the huge steel blades used on wind turbines found along both U.S. 12 and U.S. 191 in Wheatland County–wind turbines are defining elements now of the northern plains landscape–and here you can touch one.

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