Pony up in Madison County

Pony barPony, as a gateway into the Tobacco Root Mountains, may be categorized as a ghost town in much of today’s literature about Montana, but it certainly has a lot of real people hanging around to be a ghost town.  Established during the gold rush decade of the 1860s, mines here stayed in operation until World War II, and consequently, a wide range of historic buildings remain in the town today.


Morris State Bank, Pony, MT

I explored Pony in 1984–and was captivated by what was there, especially its superb neoclassical styled state bank building.  Here is where historic preservation has helped make a difference.  In 1987 the state historic preservation office approved the Pony Historic District to the National Register–a reflection of the town’s significance, its extant historic architecture, but most importantly the determination of its residents and property owners that the town would survive into the 20th century.

The Pony School–another impressive neoclassical design–and the Craftsmanesque gymnasium/community center, which is from the New Deal era, overlook the town, and remain in good condition.  Other community institutions include extant frame and concrete block churches, both in Gothic style, and the Mt. Jefferson Masonic Lodge building.

Pony Mt Jefferson Masonic #56

Besides the all-important Pony bar and the bank, other historic business structures remain in different states of repair, such as the brick law office, and the frame two-story general store seen below.

The range of domestic architecture in Pony is also significant, from grand brick Queen Anne style homes to more vernacular and Gothic styled influenced gable-front and wing dwellings. Another noteworthy home is the frame, two-story dwelling of the Pony park keeper.

IMG_0033Yes, Pony has a park, another of positive developments since my work in 1984-1985.  The park is not only community space, but it also has various artifacts and machinery from the mining era, along with public interpretation of the district’s history and of the artifacts within the park.

Pony is one of those jewels of Montana, a place loved by residents, valued by those who discover it.  Let’s hope that the historic district keeps it for generations to come.



The wonderful Twin Cowboys gate on Pony Road


Ennis, a Madison County Gateway

IMG_0336Nestled where Montana Highway 287 encounters U.S. Highway 287 in the southern end of Madison County, Ennis has changed in significant ways in the last 30 years. Its earlier dependence on automobile tourism to Yellowstone National Park has shifted into the favor of population growth and development in this portion of the county.

IMG_0328The iconic Ennis Cafe, always a favorite place back in the day of the statewide work, remains, with a new false front emphasizing the wildlife and open spaces of this area.   That place, along with several classic watering holes, served not only locals but the

motoring public headed to Yellowstone.  The Riverside Motel is a classic piece of roadside architecture from the 1950s, and the place where I stayed in 2012 during the Ennis work.

Another great bit of contemporary style design comes in the mid-20th century U.S. Forest Service headquarters building at Ennis–Rustic style with a Ranch-style House look.

Madison Ranger Station, Beaverhead and Deer Lodge Ntl Forests, Ennis

But now Ennis abounds with signs of more recent prosperity.  A town of 660 residents in 1980 now has 838 and counting in 2015.  New, more architecturally distinctive buildings potmark the town.  The First Madison Valley Bank is a blending of Prairie and Rustic styles, with exposed log walls, updated for the 21st century.

While the local city hall may have only a recent faux paneling update to its exterior, the Madison Valley Public Library is another 21st century interpretation of Rustic style.

Most interesting is the amount of public sculpture found throughout the town.  Designed to delight the visitor, and to convey a sense of the long standing traditions of recreation and ranching in the community, the sculptures comes from such talented artists as Jim Dolan, Dave Clarke, and E.C. Lyon, among others.



New bars, restaurants, and medical center have been established, again more architecturally distinct for the Yellowstone visitor, and fly fishing devotee, of today.


South of Ennis Jeffers, once a cross roads town for traffic to the park.  It is now just off of the highway, and it retains several worthy historic buildings, centered around the turn of the 20th century Trinity Episcopal Church and the Jeffers Inn. But the crossroads village

also has captivating Queen Anne-style houses, false front stores, enough of a physical history left to suggest that it was bubbling with activity over 100 years ago.

U.S. Highway 287 is the modern two-lane road that runs along the Madison River and it heads into the national park.  The route also passes along some of the finest fly fishing of the Madison River Valley.  The Old Kirby Place fishing lodge (c. 1885) was once a toll gate, lodge, and dwelling.  Adjacent is the historic Hutchins Bridge (1902), a steel truss bridge

that was once the primary river crossing for the increasing number of tourists coming down the valley to reach Yellowstone National Park.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Not only is the bridge a major landmark for those who fish, it is also part

IMG_0079 of a section of the highway where you will encounter magnificent views of the Madison River Valley and open ranch lands.




Nevada City and Montana’s building zoo tradition


Virginia City in the 19th century was a living, breathing place, and continues so today.  After all it is not all a recreated outdoor museum, it is the location, still, of the Madison County Courthouse and is the seat of Madison County. The courthouse is one of the great 19th century public buildings of Montana.

IMG_0127In restoring Virginia City, the Bovey family thus worked within a local government context.  The Montana Heritage Foundation also works within that context today.

Nevada City, just a stone’s throw away, was and is different.  Here stood the historic Gothic Revival-styled Finney House, built c. 1863-64, along with about a dozen or so other historic buildings.

IMG_0196There was no living community here to speak of.  It presented the opportunity for the Boveys to acquire and save other buildings from the area, however.  The Finney  property became the historic foundation of one of the state’s first “building zoos”–a collection of historic buildings moved together to tell a local history story.  In 1984, when I was surveying Montana for the state historic preservation plan process, I paid little to no attention to Nevada City–here, I thought, was fake western history, with a bunch of moved buildings, which by definition are rarely eligible for the National Register.

Today I think about Nevada City differently.  As a historic district of related buildings, placed here in a coherent plan c. 1959-1960 that was designed to convey to the public a range of the western experience during the northern Rockies gold rush era, and to serve smack dab on the side of Montana Highway 287 as a heritage tourism resource, Nevada City is due a re-assessment.  These once scattered buildings have established a new context over the last 30 years.  And, like in Virginia City, the Montana Heritage Foundation is doing what it can to repair and conserve this unique built environment.

IMG_0193Nevada City tells multiple stories.  One of the most apparent is how heritage tourism has shaped the late 20th century historic preservation movement.  The lodging and restaurant at Nevada City is part of the general sustainability plan for the entire operation.  The authentic environment and ease of highway access are major draws for tourists.


Behind the fenced barriers of the outdoor museum (unlike several building zoos in the state this place is just not open without barriers for tourists to visit), you can encounter significant properties associated with the vigilante movement, such as this spot associated with the hanging of George Ives in 1863.


Another theme is vernacular architecture on the gold rush frontier, and how even the mundane false front style of so many buildings at that time could be more elaborate, and expressive.  The craftsmanship of the original buildings would need to be carefully assessed to determine whether what you see today reflects 150 years ago or the craftsmanship of restoration 50 years ago.



IMG_0195Another way to consider Nevada City is how heritage tourism ideas of the 1960s–especially the idea of excursion passenger trains–impacted the built environment.  What is now known as Alder Gulch Railroad started c. 1964, a way of attracting visitors to stop in Nevada City where then they could take the short ride to Virginia City.

Therefore, when in 1984-1985 I made the decision to give Nevada City little more than a nod, that was ok–the restored village effort was then only 20-25 years old.  Not very historic, although the buildings came from history.  Thirty years later, my thoughts have changed dramatically.  Nevada City is much more than a passing interest.  In fact, it is a

IMG_0194telling example of how historic preservation worked in the West, a true public-private partnership, in the years immediately before the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966.

Virginia City, past and present


thumb_IMG_2489_1024Virginia City was Montana’s first effort to protect a large district of buildings, and it took place through private initiative.  In the late 1980s, out of the earlier fieldwork that decade, I was preparing an article on Montana’s preserved landscapes, and eventually the piece appeared in a book on historic preservation in the West published by the University of New Mexico Press.  Virginia City had always intrigued me, because of how the Bovey family admitted to anyone who would listen that their encouragement came from the success of Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, where I had began my career.

As I discussed in the article, “the Bovey family spent its own money and raised funds to restore Virginia City, then largely abandoned and in decay, to its appearance during the years the town served as a major western mining center and the territorial capital of Montana. Like the Williamsburg restoration, which focused on one key story—the revolution—in its depiction of history, the Virginia City restoration also showcased one dramatic event—the vigilante movement for law and order of the late 1860s. Success at Virginia City led the restoration managers to expand their exhibits to the neighboring “ghost town” of Nevada City, where they combined the few remaining original structures with historic buildings moved from several Montana locations to create a “typical” frontier town.”

thumb_IMG_2480_1024“The Bovey family lost interest in the project during the 1990s and at one time it appeared that many of the valuable collections would be sold and dispersed. The State of Montana and thousands of interested citizens stepped forward and raised the money to acquire the


property and keep both Virginia City and the recreated Nevada City open to the public.” The black and white photos I am sharing here come from a trip in 1990 that I specifically took to record Virginia City as the restored town out of the fear that the place would be dismantled, and this unique experiment in preservation lost.


About ten years ago, I was given the opportunity to return to Virginia City and to see what the public efforts had brought to the town.  At that time local and state officials were interested in pursuing heritage area designation.  That did not happen but it was a time when I began to understand even larger stories at Virginia City than 20 years earlier.


One of the “new” properties I considered this decade in my exploration of Virginia City was its historic cemetery.  Yes, like tens of thousands of others I had been to and given due deference to “Boot Hill,” and its 20th century markers for the vigilante victims

IMG_0095I am speaking instead of the very interesting historic city cemetery, just a bit to the north. It has a wide of grave markers, that show the confluence of folk burial practices of the mid to late 19th century with the more popular, and mass produced imagery of Victorian burial markers.  There are, just as in southern cemeteries, family plots marked by Victorian cast-iron fences. Or those, in a commonly found variation, that have a low stone wall marking the family plots.




There are hand-cut stone grave houses, placed above ground–the burial is actually below the ground, but the houses for mid-19th century Americans symbolized home, family, and the idea that the loved one had “gone home.”  The one at the Virginia City Cemetery has a “flat roof” while I am more accustomed to a sharp gable roof on such structures.


The cast-metal prefabricated grave markers, according to early literature on the topic, are “rare.”  Compared to masonry markers, yes these Victorian era markers are few in number.  But they are not particularly rare; I have found them in rural and small town cemeteries across the South.  They are here in Virginia City too.

One of the most prominent belonged to Union Civil War veteran, and Kentucky native, James E. Callaway, who served in the Illinois state legislature after the war, in 1869, but then came to Virginia City and served as secretary to the territorial government from 1871 to 1877.  He also was a delegate to both constitutional conventions in the 1880s. He died in Virginia City in 1905.

IMG_0107Callaway’s grave is one of several of individuals significant in the territorial era.  Thomas J. Dimsdale, the chronicler of the vigilante movement, is buried here as well as a more elaborate grave site for Bill Fair-weather, which includes a marker that describes him as the discoverer of Alder Gulch.



Another property type I ignored in 1984-85 during my work in Virginia City was the impact of the New Deal.  The town has a wonderful WPA-constructed community hall/ gymnasium, which is still used for its original purposes.


The impact of the Montana Heritage Foundation and the concerted state effort beginning in the mid-1990s has been profound on Virginia City.  There has been a generation of much needed work of collection management at the curatorial center, shown below.  The Boveys not only collected and restored buildings in the mid-20th century, they also packed them with “things”–and many of these are very valuable artifacts of the territorial through early statehood era.

IMG_0181The impact on the buildings, and the constant efforts of repair and restoration, is very clear today.  Virginia City is far from a sanitized outdoor museum environment.  Residents still work and live here, but the historic built environment is in better shape than at any time in the early 1980s, as the images below attest.



IMG_0153Save America’s Treasures funding has been leveraged with private donations and state funding to shore up the most significant properties.  There is also a much greater, and more accurate, public interpretation found through the historic district.  Visitors get much

more than a “quaint, Old West” experience–they can actually learn about the rigors, challenges, and opportunities of the gold rush frontier in the northern Rockies.


IMG_0165As the image above of the Smith Store attests, there is no need to paint too rosy of a picture about the future of Virginia City.  This National Historic Landmark will always need a lot of care, attention, and funding if it is to survive another century.  During the national hoopla of the Civil War sesquicentennial in the first half of this decade, the same sesquicentennial of the gold rush to the northern Rockies (Bannock, Virginia City, Helena, etc.) has passed by quietly.  But both nation-shaping events happened at the same time, and both deserve serious attention, if we want to stay true to our roots as a nation.


Here in 2016, the preservation community is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.  The impact of that federal legislation has been truly significant, and can be found throughout the state.  But the earlier efforts by families, local communities, and state governments to save what they could of the past, in some cases to market it as a heritage tourism asset, in other cases, to save it for themselves, must also be commemorated.  Virginia City begins the state’s preservation story in many ways–and it will always need our attention.


Montana 287: The Golden Highway

Daybreak on Madison Valley, from MT 287Cutting through Montana’s southeast corner is state highway 287, not a particularly long route at a little over 40 miles in length, but a spectacular one nonetheless as it connects the Madison River Valley (seen above) with the Ruby River Valley, with the famous mining town of Virginia City in the mountains in between.

IMG_0239We have already talked about the western gateway to the highway, the town of Twin Bridges.  Now I wish to move from west to east, stopping first Sheridan and its Bethel United Methodist Church, a brick late 19th century Gothic Revival church, which is


located on Main Street.  Not far away is Christ Episcopal Church.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the church’s builders used locally available river stone in a design from architect George Hancock.  This 1896 building is an excellent example of the Cotswold Cottage-type of Gothic Revival style favored by so many Episcopal congregations at the turn of the 20th century.  It also sets a local precedent for architecturally distinguished dwellings, including the parish house below, found in Sheridan today.

IMG_0237The O’Brien House is also listed in the National Register.  Built in 1894, this two-story brick home is another example of Sheridan’s boom following railroad development.  It is a rather late example of Italianate style (typically more popular in Montana in the 1870s).

Both of these buildings caught my eye in the 194-85 survey but when I returned here in 2012 another part of the town’s domestic architecture caught my eye:  a group of homes along Mill Street.  This street parallels Mill Creek and runs to the Sheridan High School.

IMG_0225This Craftsman-style building dates c. 1920.  Along the street are several interesting examples of domestic architecture from the early 20th century.  You wonder if Mill Street might not be a possible National Register historic district.

Nearby the homes along Mill Street is a great public building from more recent times, the 1960s, in the Contemporary-styled Sheridan Public Library.

Sheridan public library

Two historic commercial buildings are also worthy of documentation.  Neither the Jensen’s Store nor the Ruby Hotel are “restored” in the classic preservation sense.  Rather they are alive, still serving the community in the ways they have for decades. The historic name for the Jensen’s store is the H.D. Rossiter Store, a classic example of a western general store built in brick and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The Ruby Hotel is a favorite of mine, especially for the saloon at street level.

Rossiter Bldg, Sheridan NR?

Ruby Hotel, Sheridan




Madison County: Much More Than Ghost Towns

In my 1984-1985 work on the state historic preservation plan, the working assumption was that Madison County was, well, good.  Tons of attention since the 1930s had been showered on the mining towns of Virginia City and Nevada City.  The former was recognized as a National Historic Landmark; if one back then thought of rural counties where preservation was valued and key resources identified, then Madison County was the place.

Dance & Stuart Store W Side of Wallace VA City, MT

Virginia City, 1984

I came to appreciate that Madison County is much more than ghost towns, and that appreciation has grown in the decades since.  It is a rich agricultural landscape, what I like to call a working landscape where ranching still matters, a lot.  Here the past blends with the present in interesting and challenging ways, thus several blogs will explore the historical landscapes of Madison County, from the territorial era to today.

Silver Star from Jefferson River  Montana Highway 41 and the western side of the county is where I start, with the town of Silver Star, nestled between a spur line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Highway 41, and Jefferson River.  Gold was discovered nearby in 1866 and the town is named for a mine, but growth came more from transportation, with Silver Star serving as an early transportation stop between Virginia City and Helena in the 1870s. Today the place is best known for a privately held massive collection of mining machines, tools, and artifacts established by Lloyd Harkins, and for its rural post office that is nestled within the town’s general store.

South of Silver Star along MT Highway 41 is frankly a spectacular rural landscape, with the Jefferson River and the Tobacco Root Mountains providing most of the backdrop.  The river

IMG_0301valley and its irrigation systems helped to produce one of the most famous barns in the state:  the Round Barn, just north of Twin Bridges. In 1882 Noah Armstrong, who had made a fortune in mining, built the barn as part of his Doncaster Stable and Stud Farm.  In 1933

IMG_0297the Bayers family acquired the barn and incorporated it into their cattle business.  When I visited in 1912 the barn was still an agricultural structure, with its wedding cake shape casting a distinct profile on the landscape. In 2015, the barn was restored to a new use: as a wedding and event reception space.

This section of Montana 41 also followed a route traveled by the Lewis and Clark expedition in August 1805.  Today, like most of the trail throughout the state, there is much more public interpretation than in the 1980s. The marker below on Montana 41 explains the expedition’s confusion over the junction of the Big Hole and Jefferson rivers; in Twin Bridges there is an outdoor interpretive area at the county fairgrounds that commemorates the expedition, especially the role of Sacajawea.


The real jewels at the Madison County Fairgrounds are the historic buildings themselves–a wonderful set of New Deal-era public buildings crafted by the Works Progress Administration in the mid-1930s. An earlier post reviewed the fairgrounds history, noting that “‘WPA engineer C. D. Paxton drew the plans and Tosten Stenberg, well known for his log structures in Yellowstone Park, directed construction. Local foreman Fred Sommers was brought out of retirement with a special waiver from Washington to supervise the project. Lodgepole pine, fir logs, and other building materials were gathered locally and prepared by workers on site.'”

Madison County fair exterior

Madison County Fair roofThe result is spectacular, and with their restoration in the last 30 years, the buildings are not just landmarks but busy throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

Roof interior, Madison Co fairgrounds


Twin Bridges is also more than the fairgrounds.  When I visited for the first time in almost 30 years in 2012, the entire business district has getting an infrastructure facelift.  The construction did not diminish my appreciation for the range of historic commercial

buildings along the highway.  Most worthy of note is the late Victorian-styled Reid Block of 1917, the construction of which coincided with the homesteading boom in this part of the county.  The Reid Block is now home to the Twin Bridges Historical Association.

IMG_0260The Old Hotel, a brick two-story gable-front building, also marks the town’s ascent during the early 20th century when the town achieved its highest population, about 750 in 1920.  Today about half of that number call Twin Bridges home.

IMG_0256My personal favorite, and a frequent stop during the 1980s, is the Blue Anchor Bar, nestled on the first floor, with an Art Deco style redesign, in a two-story commercial block.

IMG_0257Twin Bridges is a very important river junction, thus the name, where the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Ruby rivers all meet to form the Jefferson River.  A public park near the confluence just south of the Montana 41/287 helps to tell that story. Nearby is the Twin Bridges School and its amazing modernist styled gymnasium.

Twin Bridges school



Twin Bridges School is award winning and clearly the pride of every resident. Another part of Montana’s history of childhood education is also at Twin Bridges, the Montana State Orphanage later known as the State Home for Children.  The Queen Anne-style orphanage


dates to 1894–it was known as “The Castle” and is listed in the National Register– and as the decades passed the state enlarged the facility and added modern-styled facilities to the complex.  The state closed the orphanage in 1975.  Ever since that time, preservationists statewide and residents locally have tried to come up with an adaptive reuse plan that could put the buildings back in service.

For a brief history of the orphanage, visit the blog post “There’s No Place like Home: The Role of the Montana State Orphanage” on the montanawomenshistory.org blog.  It features historic photographs of the orphanage.  In 2010 the Bozeman Daily Chronicle featured the deteriorating campus in a news feature, wondering when and if preservation and adaptive reuse would happen.  That question remains today.



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.



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.



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.



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. 



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.



Madison County, along Montana Highway 249