An end of the century trip to Central Montana

The vast majority of my effort to document and think about the historic landscapes of Montana lie with two time periods, 1984-85 and 2012-16. But in between those two focused periods, other projects at the Western Heritage Center in Billings brought me back to the Big Sky Country. Almost always I found a way to carve out a couple of additional days to get away from the museum and study the many layers of history, and change, in the landscape by taking black and white images as I had in 1984-85. One such trip came in 1999, at the end of the 20th century.

In Billings itself I marveled at the changes that historic preservation was bringing to the Minnesota Avenue district. The creation of an “Internet cafe” (remember those?) in the McCormick Block was a guaranteed stop.

But my real goal was to jet up highways 191 and 80 to end up in Fort Benton. Along the way I had to stop at Moore, one of my favorite Central Montana railroad towns, and home to a evocative set of grain elevators.

Then a stop for lunch at the Geraldine bar and the recently restored Geraldine depot, along a historic spur of the Milwaukee Road. I have always loved a stop in this plains country town and this day was especially memorable as residents showed off what they had accomplished in the restoration. Another historic preservation plus!

Then it was Fort Benton, a National jewel seemingly only appreciated by locals, who faced an often overwhelming task for preserving and finding sustainable new uses for the riverfront buildings.

It was exciting to see the recent goal that the community eagerly discussed in 1984–rebuilding the historic fort.

A new era for public interpretation of the northern fur trade would soon open in the new century: what a change from 1984.

I beat a quick retreat back to the south, following the old Manitoba Road route along the Missouri and US Highway 87 and back via highway 89 to the Yellowstone Valley. I had to pay a quick tribute to Big Timber, and grab a brew at the Big Timber

Bar. The long Main Street in Big Timber was obviously changing–new residents and new businesses. Little did I know how much change would come in the new century.

One last detour came on the drive to see if the absolutely spectacular stone craftsmanship of the Absarokee school remained in place–it did, and still does.

My work in Tennessee had really focused in the late 1990s on historic schools: few matched the distinctive design of Absarokee. I had to see it again.

Like most trips in the 1990s to Billings I ended up in Laurel–I always felt this railroad town had a bigger part in the history of Yellowstone County than

generally accepted. The photos I took in 1999 are now striking– had any place in the valley changed more than Laurel in the 21st century?

Montana’s oil landscape

Fallon Co? MT 7 oil fieldThe last post addressed Montana’s famous ranching landscape.  Intermixed with the ranches, especially in the eastern third of the state, is a very different landscape of technology, one of pumps, storage facilities, pipelines, and refineries–the oil landscape of 20th and 21st century Montana.

Billings oil IMG_1352

Billings is the largest city in Montana, and oil refineries along the railroad lines, are a major reason why.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Billings was not close to being the largest town in the Yellowstone Valley–both Glendive and Livingston held that honor.  But due to its railroad network, and the rise of oil from the 1940s onward, Billings had far surpassed any place in the Yellowstone, and, in fact, had become the largest city of the northern plains.  Go up on the bluffs overlooking the city and it is easy to see how oil has impacted this place.

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 13 oil

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 19 oil

Billings boomed in the mid-20th century because of oil–and the impact spread throughout the county.  The former Cenex refinery at Laurel–the next railstop to the west–dominates the town’s exit on Interstate Highway I-90.

 

Yellowstone Co Laurel Refinery 2

img_3046

Yellowstone County is the distribution center for oil and petroleum in Montana.  The production areas can be found in almost any eastern county, where companies have established wells that pump crude non-stop–there are few oil fields here but plenty of pumps within the fields of Montana.

Musselshell Co US 87 oil wells at MT 244

Sheridan Co Homestead oil well

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 2 oil

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 1 oil

The number of pumps stretched across the landscape amazed me during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan fieldwork.  I didn’t really think of oil when I thought about Montana back then. The focus 30 years ago was not on the transformative boom that had begun ten years earlier but we did know enough to consider the earlier boom from the 1920s which began at a place called Cat Creek in what became Petroleum County in central

 

Petroleum Co Winnett courthouse 2

Petroleum County Courthouse in Winnett is listed in the National Register.

Montana to the similar 1920s boom, which lasted a good deal longer, in east side of the Rockies next to the Canadian border in Toole and Glacier counties.  Cut Bank, the seat of

cut-bank-sign

Glacier County, still bragged about its role as the “north oil center” in 1984.  To the south of Cut Bank at Kevin, you can still find both active and historic resources associated with the region’s oil production.

Toole Co Kevin 7 oil

Toole Co Kevin 8 oil

The towns of Kevin and Oilmont, however, have lost hundreds of residents since the boom–their deteriorating buildings tell a common Montana story of boom and bust, the patterns of extractive industries everywhere.

Toole Co Oilmont school

The former Oilmont School.

Now I wonder what will be the fate of the sudden boom towns of the fracking excitement of the early 21st century.  When I planned my fieldwork for the revisit to the Montana landscape, I decided that I must go to the eastern counties first–places like Plentywood, Sheridan, Culbertson, etc., because they would be the next to transform due to the Baker

Roosevelt Co Bainville fracking

field expansion.  Fracking I found–like in Roosevelt County above–but fractured communities–not so much, as I have discussed in earlier posts.  And now the boom has subsided–for how long? International markets will decide.

Toole Co Kevin oil storage

No matter what happens, Montana’s oil landscape will remain, past and present, and become one of the layers of history that speaks to how technology and international markets shaped the Big Sky Country.