Drive-In Time in Montana

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 100 US 87 roadside drive-in

June means it is drive-in time in Big Sky Country.  The next three months are not only when most visitors come to Montana.  It is the time when Montanans get out and travel to festivals, rodeos, and their own family vacations.  In my years of traveling and documenting historic places in Montana, I have not forgotten the drive-in restaurant and its role in the roadside landscape of the state.  I paid some attention to this property type during the original work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985.  Most drive-ins (and here I am focusing on independent operators not fast food chains) dated between 1950 and 1970 and the best examples were located along stretches of early federal highways.  When I returned in 2012-2016 to revisit the state’s historic landscape, scholarship told me to be on the look for drive-ins of all sorts and shapes.  Some already had shuttered–like Zandy’s in Great Falls–but others were still vibrant, and great places for road food.  The following are some of my favorites:

Bonanza Freeze, 1947, Montana St, Butte, roadside

Bonanza Freeze in Butte is a walk-up and drive–thru.  Gotta love the plate glass wall.

The Dizzy Diner in Terry, on the historic Yellowstone Trail, is a drive-thru and has a few places inside–with traffic on old U.S. 10 being diverted to the interstate, it survives as a local town restaurant–true for several other places in Montana.

Fallon Co Baker US 12 drive-in roadside

The Big K in Baker is along U.S. Highway 12–it too works as a walk-up–in southeast Montana.

Pondera Co Conrad Main Drive-InThe Main Drive-In in Conrad is located on the historic federal hi way (U.S. 91) and still draws in customers despite competition from chains and the diversion of most traffic to Interstate Highway I-15.

Daniels Co Scobey 2 roadsideAt Scobey, Shu Mei’s Kitchen converted an earlier drive-in into a family restaurant on Montana Highway 13 in northeast Montana.

Gallatin Co Three Forks drive-in

This former drive-in at the forks of the Yellowstone Trail in Three Forks has been converted to a coffee shop.

Roosevelt Co Poplar The Peculator roadside

But my favorite coffee drive-in, by far, is the Percolator, in Poplar along U.S. Highway 2 in northeast Montana.

Dawson Co Glendive roadside Frosty In and Out

Frosty’s In and Out is another classic drive-in along the historic Yellowstone Trail, this time in Glendive.

Fergus Co Lewistown drive-in roadside US 191 1It’s not surprising that Lewistown, in the middle of the state faraway from the interstate system, has several still operating roadside establishments from the mid-20th century, such as the Wagon Wheel Drive-In (above–and being a southerner I loved the sign that bragged “we have MT Dew”) and the Dash Inn (below), which opened in 1952.

Fergus co Lewistown Wagon Wheel Drive In 1952 roadside

The next three may well be my favorites of all of the different drive-ins.  Ford’s Drive-In in Great Falls is so eye-catching with its Art Deco-influenced design and neon.  Burgerville in Polson is just, well, eye-catching with all of its signs and towers–how could you ever miss it along U.S. Highway 93?

Then there is Matt’s Drive-In in Butte.  This place was awarded the prestigious 2016 America’s Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation.  The foundation’s press release stated:  “The whitewashed cottage with sky-blue trim opened in 1930 as a drive-in.  The staff still deliver some meals curbside to this day, and they remain cheerful curators of community, working the soda-fountain counter in a room lined with midcentury-style wood paneling.  The food does the roadside genre proud.”  Yes, indeed.  And you haven’t been to Montana if you have not tried a nut burger from Matt’s.  Always add a shake and onion rings here too.

Matt's Drive In, 2339 Placer, roadside

Matt's Drive In detail 3, roadside

Howdy from Terry!

Terry overview
Terry, the seat of Prairie County, has long been one of my favorite places in the Yellowstone Valley. Stuck between the much larger, and more famed, Yellowstone towns of Miles City (to the west) and Glendive (to the east), Terry has somehow developed and kept its own identity as a western place, and landscape, that still speaks strongly to the patterns that transformed the region over the last 150 years: railroads, homesteading, cattle, and town building.
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In 1984 I focused on the railroad imprint on the town, which began in the early 1880s as Northern Pacific officials understood the need for a railroad stop at place near the confluence between the Yellowstone and Powder rivers.
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In 2013, however, the depot was gone from the tracks but not the town. It had been moved to become part of the solid Prairie County Museum, a local institution that was still quite new when I first visited in 1984. Located in the town’s most prominent neoclassical bank building from the 1910s, the museum was a place where I held a public meeting about the preservation plan process and found a community totally engaged with its past.
Terry bank
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The museum highlights agriculture and ranching, and includes the Evelyn Cameron Gallery, which displays and celebrates the life and contributions of this important western photographer. One change I noted last year was the creation of the Evelyn Cameron Heritage Center, on Laudre Avenue just a few yards away from the museum, which is at the crossroads of Laudre and Logan Avenues.
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That crossroads was another pattern in Terry’s landscape that caught my eye. Most Northern Pacific towns, originally, were symmetrical plans, with a long line of commercial buildings flanking one side of the tracks and grain elevators and warehouses on the other side. Terry, however, had a classic T-town plan, with the tracks creating the top of the T and then a main commercial artery, in this case Logan Avenue, serving as the stem of the “T.”
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Why was Terry different? It is the impact of the Milwaukee Road as it built through the valley in 1906-1907. In 1984 there was still a second set of tracks, and a few scattered commercial buildings, to the north of the Northern Pacific mainline. Today two buildings remain along with the roadbed that marks this second period of Terry’s growth.
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Just west of the “downtown” you can find the one still thriving institution associated with the Milwaukee Road impact on Terry: the Prairie County Fairgrounds, which once faced the Milwaukee’s main line. (I have discussed the fairgrounds in an earlier post.)
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Another wave of change came to Terry in the 1920s as U.S. Highway 10 gave the town another transportation pattern. The highway’s crossroads with the original T-plan commercial artery is marked by a still extant somewhat Art Deco-styled brick gas station/ auto dealership.
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The most recognized roadside landmark is the Kempton Hotel, a true rarity now for this section of the Yellowstone Valley as those rambling montage of buildings that once constituted places of rest and relaxation along the nation’s highways have largely disappeared from the landscape.
Then, just yards away, is another rambling montage of historic buildings, the schools of Prairie County, ranging from the large stately multi-story brick buildings of the early 20th century to more restrained modern buildings of the second half of the century.
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At the edge of town are three different properties, all related to the need for highway transportation. The Dizzy Diner is a classic 1950s drive-in while the crumbling Terry drive-in also speaks to past patterns in popular culture. Then the Prairie County Grazing District Stockyards connects the present to the past traditions of stock raising in this region.
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Certainly the biggest change is Terry from 1984 and 2013 was the transformation of the county courthouse. In 1984 I was shocked that there was only an unadorned concrete block building for the courthouse, and I have shared images of that building across the country. Well the concrete block building on Logan Avenue is gone, replaced by a much larger, still unadorned building for local government.
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Terry’s population has dropped by a third since my first encounter with the town in the early 1980s. But new public investment, and a still commercially relevant “downtown” speaks volumes to the residents’ commitment and faith in this small yet significant Yellowstone valley town.