Sanders County, like many of the places that are on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, has boomed in the last 25 years, from a population over 8,000 to the current estimated population of 11,300. It is close to Missoula, the eastern side is not far from Flathead Lake, Montana Highway 200 runs from Dixon to the end of the county at Heron. With wide valleys and narrow gorges created by both the Flathead and Clark’s Fork Rivers, which meet outside the town of Paradise, Sanders County is frankly a spectacular landscape, with dramatic mountain views framing open plains, such as the image above and the awesome gorge of Clark’s Fork River, below at Thompson Falls.
The eastern side of the county is just as dramatic just in a far different way. For centuries First Peoples hunted game and dug the camas root in the broad upland prairie that became known as Camas Prairie, crossed now by Montana Highway 28.
Then, leading from the county’s southeastern edge there is the beautiful Flathead River Valley, followed by Montana Highway 200, from Dixon to Paradise, and most importantly,
a transportation route initially carved as a trail by the First Peoples who became the nucleus of today’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe and much later engineered into a major corridor by the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, as it stretched westward from Missoula to the west coast.
In its wake, the Northern Pacific created most of the county’s townsites by locating sidings along the track. Substantial settlement arrived once the federal government opened lands for the homesteading boom in the early 20th century.
Dixon, named for the former Montana governor Joseph Dixon, is one of the remaining railroad/homesteading towns along the Flathead River. The fate of the community bar, above, is symbolic of the recent history of the town, one of population decline.
Decline but not despair, judging from the pride and identity reflected in the Dixon School. The classroom building dates to the end of the homesteading boom, 1919, and reflects a local contractor’s interpretation of Prairie/ Mission-style. The gymnasium, like several in rural Montana, comes from the New Deal era of the 1930s and is in the WPA Deco style often favored by the federal agencies.
The most spectacular historic rural school in Sanders County, however, lies to the northwest of Dixon in Camas Prairie. The setting itself is jaw dropping but then the tiny gymnasium is among the handful of really excellent examples of Prairie style in Montana’s public architecture.
Local residents are being excellent stewards of this captivating property–certainly one of my favorite spots in the state combining landscape with architecture with history. The architect was the Missoula designer H. E. Kirkemo, and the school was completed in 1940, near the end of the New Deal school building programs.
Bridges for Montana Highway 200 and the Northern Pacific Railroad cross the Clark’s Fork River at Paradise
Located near the confluence of the Clark’s Fork River and the Flathead River–long a place of settlement for the Salish and later Canadian and American fur traders–is the town of Paradise, first platted by the North West Improvement Company, a group of investors aligned with the Northern Pacific Railroad, in 1908. Paradise today is one of the region’s best examples of a railroad town and served the railroad as a switching yard and division point, with lumber being the primary product shipped along the rails. The railroad opened its own Tie Treating Plant here in 1908, producing hundreds of thousands of railroad ties each year and at its peak employing 45 workers. It was one of two Northern Pacific facilities for the production of railroad ties–the second plant was on the eastern end of the line in Brainerd, Minnesota.
The brick mid-20th century passenger station and office is a physical indicator of the importance of the Paradise operations to the Northern Pacific. Most small towns merited only a frame depot. No National Register-listed properties exist in Paradise.
Let’s hope that changes soon as residents continue on their quest to preserve, restore, and transform the historic Paradise school as a community center and museum, not just of 20th century rural education but of the town and railroad history as well. Located on a hill north of town that provides excellent views of Paradise, the railroad tracks, and the river confluence, the 1910 nschool is an interesting piece of late Victorian public architecture, more Romanesque than anything else, particularly with its projecting central entrance with the arched window providing light to the hallways and staircases.
The school had just closed its doors for good when I lasted visited but the restoration planning has been underway ever since. I look forward to my next visit to Paradise to experience the final results. Near the school is another historic community property, the Paradise Cemetery, where tombstones mark the names of those who worked so long for the railroad and for the creation of this place within the Clark’s Fork River Valley.