Forsyth, the seat of Rosebud County, has used historic preservation effectively as one of many community assets to guide its economic sustainability over the last 30 years. When I first visited there in 1984, the community had already started to grapple with the impact of the coal mining far south at Decker. The passing of coal trains defined much of rhythms of traffic and life back then. But even 30 years ago, residents were determined to keep their identity and to celebrate their heritage, despite being drawn into a different world. That was impressive–and from 1986 to 1990, they put their commitment into physical terms by listing many properties in the National Register of Historic Places.
Earlier posts talked about such key heritage institutions as the Rosebud County Courthouse, the adjacent Rosebud County Museum, the Howdy (Commercial) Hotel, and then the adaptive reuse of the Vananda State Bank as new landmark business. Forsyth also has a downtown commercial historic district, which includes both the hotel, bank, the Roxy Theater shown above, but additional classic Montana two-story commercial buildings, with their understated Victorian or classical cornices.
The Masonic Temple, designed by Miles City architect Byrnjulf Rivenes in 1911, served the community in many ways during its formative years, including the town library. The Blue Front rooming house came in 1912 and served as home for Northern Pacific railroad employees for many years–today it is a remarkably intact example of that type of single-man housing from 100 years ago.
Residents also have designated a historic district of their homes and churches that developed in the early 20th century. It is an impressive array of buildings, from the c. 1920 First Presbyterian Church, a Gothic Revival design by Howard Van Doren Shaw of Chicago in partnership with McIver and Cohagen of Billings, to the brilliant Craftsman-style of the McQuistion House (1914) built by Louis Wahl of Forsyth for ranchers Joshua and Grace McQuistion as their “town” home. Then there is the 1897 Queen Anne-style house moved to its Forsyth lot by ranchers Robert and Dora Lane in 1909. The Lanes moved on but the house has stayed, becoming over 100 years a real cornerstone to the historic neighborhood.
Indeed, that is a theme found throughout town. Despite the coal industry that rumbles in the southern end of the county, Forsyth still holds on, and shows pride in, its ranching past. No better emblem can be found than the modern front to the Forsyth high school.
Like the vast majority of eastern Montana towns I visited in 2013, Forsyth has lost population from 1980. Then over 2500 lived there; in 2010 the census takers counted over 1700 residents. But unlike many, Forsyth is not beat up, abandoned, forgotten, depressing. The murals by Bob Watts, discussed in an earlier post, are part of the
answer. Local stubbornness is another. But pride in community as expressed through the town’s many historic preservation projects is another. Forsyth has figured out how to gain a future through an appreciation of the past. Let’s hope others follow their lead.