Back on the Hi-Line: Hinsdale and Saco

Phillips Co Saco west on US2 showing old road, new, and GN tracks

Hinsdale (just over 200 people in Valley County) and Saco (just under 200 people in Phillips County) are two country towns along the Hi-Line between the much larger county seats of Glasgow and Malta.  I have little doubt that few visitors ever stop, or even slow down much, as they speed along the highway.  Both towns developed as railroad stops along the Great Northern Railway–the image above shows how close the highway and railroad tracks are along this section of the Hi-Line.  Both largely served, and still

Phillips Co Robinson Ranch w of saco roadside

serve, historic ranches, such as the Robinson Ranch, established in 1891, in Phillips County.  Both towns however have interesting buildings, and as long as they keep their community schools, both will survive in the future.

Valley Co Hinsdale school

Hinsdale School, Valley County

Phillips Co Saco school

Saco School, Phillips County

Of the two towns, I have discussed Saco to a far greater extent in this blog because it was one of my “targeted” stops in the 1984 survey.  The State Historic Preservation Office at the Montana Historical Society had received inquiries from local residents in Saco about historic preservation alternatives and I was there to take a lot of images to share back with the preservationists in Helena.  But in my earlier posts, I neglected two community

Phillips Co Saco post officebuildings, the rather different design of the post office from the 1960s and the vernacular Gothic beauty of the historic Methodist Church, especially the Victorian brackets of its bell tower.

Phillips Co Saco UM church

I ignored Hinsdale almost totally in its first posting, focusing on roadside murals.  This Valley County town is worth a second look, if just for its two historic bank buildings.  The former First National Bank and the former Valley County Bank both speak to the hopes for growth along this section of the Milk River Project of the U.S. Reclamation Service in the early 20th century.  Architecturally both buildings were touched by the Classical Revival style, and both took the “strongbox” form of bank buildings that you can find throughout the midwest and northern plains in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Valley Co Hinsdale 4 1st national bank

Valley Co Hinsdale 2 bankValley Co Hinsdale 1 bank

The rest of Hinsdale’s “commercial district” has the one-story “false-front” buildings often found in country railroad towns along the Hi-Line.

Valley Co Hinsdale 3

Local residents clearly demonstrate their sense of community not only through the school, which stands at the of the commercial area.  But community pride also comes through in such buildings as the c. 1960s American Legion Hall, the c. 1902 Methodist church (the separated cupola must be a good story), and St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.

Valley Co Hinsdale American Legion hall

Valley Co Hinsdale UM Church 1902

Valley Co Hinsdale St Albert's Catholic

These small railroad towns of the Hi-Line have been losing population for decades, yet they remain, and the persistence of these community institutions helps to explain why.

Eastern Montana County Seats: Circle

McCone Co Circle sign

In my original post about Circle, the seat of McCone County, I focused on the fate of the Gladstone Hotel, a place that I had stayed at in 1984 and a property listed in the National Register of Historic Places as one of the few homesteading era hotels left in the region.  I also spoke about public institutions, the fairgrounds, schools, and the excellent McCone County Museum. In the years since I visited and talked about Circle in 2013, I have fielded several inquiries, and people wishing to see more.

McCone Co Circle St Francis Xavier Catholic

Sometimes you wonder how you neglected to speak about obvious landmarks, such as St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, which is among the town’s most impressive architectural statements.  It blends the more traditional late 19th century bell tower found at other Catholic churches will mid-twentieth century brick work and large glass block windows.

At least I had an excuse for the landmark across the street, the George McCone Memorial County Library, which in 2013 I could only get a decent side view (image on right) due to a public gathering taking place–one that I do not want to interrupt just to get a photo so the image on the left is from library’s website. I have another reason to return to Circle is the next couple of years! Public libraries are so important, period, but especially so in small towns.

McCone Co Circle school 4

McCone Co Circle school

McCone Co Circle school 1

Nearby the public library, naturally, is the large school complex area, with most of the buildings dating to the second half of the twentieth century, including the “spaceship” era of school building from the 1960s and 1970s (immediately above).  With this building type educators decided to move away from the standard rectangular classroom and build more flexible circle-designs to encourage innovation and flexibility from teachers.

McCone Co Circle fairgrounds 1

McCone Co Circle fairgrounds

Just as I could/ should have said more about the schools, I needed to do the same with the McCone County Fairgrounds, a comparatively huge public property on the town’s outskirts.  The county fair is almost as old as the county itself, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.  That’s right, McCone County was established in 1919.

McCone Co Circle streetscape

The fairgrounds, schools, and libraries–I discussed bars in an earlier post– are vital community centers in Circle, as its Vets Club, with that building occupying a strategic corner in town and its glass block windows distinguishing its entrance. As it is true with so many small western towns, regular movie showings are rare to non-existent. The Claret Theater was closed in 2013 and does not appears to have re-opened.

McCone Co Circle theater

A word about banks.  During the homesteading era, local banks competed for the patronage of the homesteaders.  When the boom went to bust, the banks closed up business but their buildings, typically well located in the town, remain and ever since different owners have converted these buildings into new uses.  A boutique had opened in one of the old Circle banks, seen below.

McCone Co Circle bank

Since I had visited Circle last some 30 years ago, Wells Fargo has located a new bank, again at a prominent street corner, and contributes significantly to the town’s financial services.

McCone Co Circle bank 1980sAnother new financial services building since my 1980s visit to Circle is the McCone County Credit Union building, shown below to the left of the landmark McCone County Memorial building.

McCone Co Circle medical clinic

These images are among those I took of Circle in 2013–it was a rather quick stop and I look forward having more time to explore in the next year.

McCone Co Circle old city hall ND?

Harlem on the Hi-Line

 

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Whenever travelers or residents for that matter talk about Hi-Line towns, Havre, Shelby, Glasgow, Wolf Point always enter the conversation. Some places, inexplicably to my mind, never do: Harlem is a case in point.

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A gateway to the Fort Belknap Reservation, Harlem is one of the early Great Northern Railway towns, dating to 1889, and was established to serve as a commercial center on the northern border of the reservation.When the homesteading boom swept through the Hi-Line during the early 20th century, Harlem quickly expanded and most of the historic buildings found there today date between 1910 and 1940.

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What struck me powerfully when I visited in 2013, compared to my last visit in 1984, was dual themes of growth and decline. The Aaniiih Nadoka College, established in 1884, had left its initial spartan quarters on the edge of the reservation into new modern-styled buildings, that still reflected the spirit of earlier vernacular styled buildings.

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The 30-year growth of the college certainly underscored new opportunities as the flashy facade of the Ft Belknap Casino, facing U.S. Highway 2, showed a new revenue source. Standardized designs for federal housing also indicated the growth of a large neighborhood just south of the U.S. 2 and Montana 66 junction.

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The theme of decline, however, marked the historic business district of Harlem. When I visited in 1984, Harlem had over 1000 residents–now that number is close to 800. Classic roadside gas stations, even at prominent corners, had closed.

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The Art Deco-ish Brekke Block (1941) only had a few going businesses; the early 20th century commercial block at Central and Main streets had even fewer signs of life. The Grand Theatre no longer showed movies. The imposing classical facade of the old state bank had broken windows and decaying architectural details.  These historic buildings retain their potential to impress, and could be heritage assets in multiple ways.  They need attention before it is too late.

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While life and commerce enlivened the railroad and highway corridor, the downtown had a shuttered, tired look. But pride was there too. The Harlem Centennial Park, established in 1987, featured an memorial to the thirteen airmen who lost their lives when Air Force cargo planes collided north of town in 1992. The dedication and commitment to raise the funds and build such an appropriate monument impresses–and for travelers like me, I had no idea that this terrible air accident took place, and was glad that Harlem understood its obligation to the airmen and to history to record the event, permanently, with the memorial.  It was one of several surprises I encountered during my visit to Blaine County in 2013.

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