Headlines and Kremlin, Montana that is

Multiple news stories and headlines at the end of 2016 spoke of the federal government’s warm relationship with those residing in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia.  Have no idea of what the federal government’s new relationship with the Kremlin in Moscow might mean, but it did get me thinking that, perhaps, on the off chance, it might bring new federal attention to the Montana Kremlin–a tiny Great Northern Railroad town in Hill County.

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The federal government first impacted this place in 1911 after it threw open the old Fort Assiniboine reserve to homesteading.  The railroad had maintained a stop here as early as 1901 but with the federal opening of new land, permanent settlers came to carve out their new homesteads.

Hill Co Kremlin 2Kremlin never grew to be much, perhaps 300 residents at its height (around 100 today), not because it never participated in the region’s agricultural boom–the decaying elevators speak to prosperity but a tornado and then drought doomed the town to being a minor player along the Great Northern main line.

During the Great Depression, the federal government made its second impact on the town.   New Deal agencies installed a new water system. Funding from the Public Works Administration led to the construction of a new school in 1937-38, an institution, with changes, that still serves the community.

 

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Hil Co Kremlin possible WPA kitchen?

I have wondered if this separate building on the school yard was built as the lunchroom–it is similar to lunchroom buildings I have found in the South, or was it built as a teacher’s residence.  You find that in the northern plains.

The early history of Kremlin is marked by one architecturally interesting building–this rectangular building covered with pressed tin–when new it must have gleamed in the

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sun.  Note the classical cornice at the top of the roof line–this entire decorative scheme belongs more to the late 19th century but here it is, in Kremlin, from the 2nd or 3rd decade of the 20th century.

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Kremlin’s Lutheran Church (below) in 2013 was holding services every other week in the month, while the Methodist (?) Church had already seemingly closed its doors.  Religious freedom thrives in Montana’s Kremlin, probably not so much in that other Kremlin.

Hil Co Kremlin Lutheran Church

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Nor would that other Kremlin in the past have cared a whit about the Montana Farmers Union, which has shaped the life and economy of Kremlin and its neighbors for the decades.  That other Kremlin, however, would like the oil………

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The last time Kremlin directly felt the hand of the federal government was in this decade, when the U.S. Postal Service, which had been building new small-town facilities like the one in Kremlin below for a decade, announced that it needed to close hundreds of rural post offices.

Hill Co Kremlin post office

Kremlin residents joined their neighbors in protest: and the federal backed down. When I last visited Kremlin 3 years ago, I mailed a letter from its post office.  Persistence, commitment, community mark the Montana Kremlin–maybe that’s why I would rather hear about this place in Hill County than that other one, which suddenly new decision makers are courting.

 

 

Great Northern Towns in west Hill County, Montana

In my 1984 fieldwork, Havre was a base for quite a bit of travel along the Hi-Line.  One of the most compelling landscapes, and among my favorites for the state, were the little towns, regularly spaced about every eight miles, west of Havre.

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At the time, my understanding of this landscape was heavily influenced by recent works by the American Studies scholar John Stilgoe (Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene) and the historical geographer John Hudson (a series of articles that culminated in the book Plains Country Towns.) Stilgoe reminded me that railroads in the late 19th century not only defined towns and urban design but impacted American culture in how small, tiny spaces became part of urban, metropolitan life through the steel tracks.  Hudson explain why towns existed every six to seven miles or so throughout the plains (these were often single track lines so trains needed places to pull over for passing, and places where water and fuel could be acquired as necessary).  Hudson explained differences between railroad division points, where shops and offices would be located, and “country towns,” where typically a combination depot carried out all of the railroad’s corporate functions.

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This arrangement of space, and the ennobling of railroad culture in larger towns, was exactly what I saw in Havre and Hill County.  Ever since 1984, this has been among my favorite places in Montana.  In a posting last year I discussed the “disappearing depots” along the Hi-Line, focusing on west Hill County.  I want to revisit those same places today, with a deeper view on what was there in 1984 and what you find today.

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Inverness, established c. 1909, was the first place I stopped but spent little time there because already in 1984 its Great Northern depot was gone.  But in 2013, I was looking for beyond the Stilgoe-Hudson way of understanding plains country towns.  Inverness in 2010 had 55 residents, but still held several early settlement landmarks, such as its early 20th century elevators along the railroad, a National Register-quality c. 1920 store/gas station, and two large two-story frame blocks–the historic Inverness Hotel (most recently Inverness Supper Club) dates to the second decade of the 20th century.

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The Sacred Heart Catholic Church dates to the town’s beginnings, but a brick school from 1931 with 1952 additions closed in the early 21st century.

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Inverness’s c. 1960 post office is a great example of stone-faced standardized design that the postal service used in small towns across the nation in that decade. It was one of the offices threatened with closure in 2011.

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Rudyard, established 1909, was the largest of the west Hill County towns, about 500 people in 1980 but now with only 258 residents according to the 2010 census.  Its prominence in the second half of the 20th century is reflected in two buildings:  the tall concrete grain elevators along the railroad and the contemporary-styled Wells Fargo bank building on the prominent town corner facing the tracks and Reed Street.

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Thirty years ago, as the construction of a modern bank building attests, several stores and the Hi-Line Theater were hubs of activity; today most businesses are closed.

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Museums now abound–with the moved depot forming a small building zoo while an early 20th century stone building has become an auto museum.

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Rudyard also has one of the highway’s most famous town signs–boasting of a population now greatly diminished but the old sorehead remains–at the Sorehead Cafe in the heart of the four block long commercial district.

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One hundred years ago, Hingham (1910) seemed to be the town that would make it. From the railroad corridor several blocks of commercial businesses were filled in the next decade.

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There was a town square featuring a city park in the midst of it all.

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Here the town’s Commercial Club hosted the Hi-Line Fair, which “presented farmers and ranchers with an opportunity to exhibit their grain and livestock and to exchange ideas with people from other points along the Hi-Line.”

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While the buildings, outside of the brick neo-classical brick bank (1913-14), were frame, town boosters were confident these were only the initial businesses. But the second decade of the 20th century proved to be the town’s high point, and frame buildings still define local businesses.

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In 1930 they defined the town with a large, handsome two-story brick school at its south end (near U.S. 2, a recognition of the highway’s importance in getting students to and from Hingham).

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The Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church is a modernist landmark, and one of the most architecturally important buildings of the Hi-Line, part of the Great Falls diocese effort to improve and modernize its churches in the mid-20th century.  A much earlier frame Methodist Church remains, and has most recently served as a community chapel.

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The boosters of Gildford also had high hopes in 1910 and the homesteading boom brought a full fledged town into existence by 1915-16.

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The boom decade is marked by the extant Gildford State Bank (1914), which also served as the town’s post office when I first visited in 1984.  The town also had an early industry, the Mundy Flour Mill.

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Kremlin acknowledges its distinct name with its highway town sign.

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Settlement began in 1909, with a plat from land agent K.C. Farley, focused on the Great Northern section house, later replaced by a standardized depot, all of which is gone from the railroad corridor today.

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The WPA built a new high school in 1938, which remains a central landmark for the community, a symbol of the future, and a good way to end this posting.

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Town Signs along U.S. Highway 2 in Hill and Liberty counties

Right now everyone is into Montana’s traveling season with rodeos and fairs in full swing (my old residence of Helena is having Last Chance Stampede this weekend). So I thought that a rather straightforward but fun look at signs along two Hi-Line counties was in order.

Let’s begin with Joplin, in Liberty County. In 1984 it had one of my favorites in the state, a relic of old fashioned early twentieth century boosterism with its motto–“Joplin: Biggest little town on Earth”

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The sign still exists, located north of the highway, closer to the railroad tracks (passengers of the Empire Builder see it daily). Joplin’s highway sign, however, is more modern and sleek–and symbolic with the grain elevator and wheat motifs. This 21st century type of metal, CAD-drawn sign is found all along U.S. 2.

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For instance, Chester, the seat of government for Liberty County, has a newer metal sign, suggesting a bit of streamlined Deco with its quotation of a classic passenger train engine.

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Kremlin, in Hill County, wishes to make clear its allegiances, complete with an American flag.

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Hingham, in Hill County, uses a metal screen to proclaim its existence, along with identifying community landmarks of importance. When compared to the standardized green rectangular state sign, “Entering Hingham,” there can be no doubt why town signs still matter. To officialdom, the small railroad towns are relics, hardly worth a glance, or slowing down. For residents, the signs say: hey we are here; we’re home.

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Rudyard, also in Hill County, is even willing to air its dirty laundry-an admission that in true Montana style, a resident took as the slogan for their business along the town’s main street.

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Let’s end with Hill County’s Gildford–for no particular reason except that this town has a sign always found when bragging rights can be asserted–especially when it involves high school sports. When I come back to this topic in other parts of the state we will see many more examples of signs that not only identify but also celebrate the town’s most precious assets: their high schools.

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