Heading North on Montana’s U.S. 89

Teton Co Fairfield ditch south of town 1We just finished an exploration of U.S. Highway south from Great Falls to Livingston, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.  Now let’s head in the opposite direction, north of Great Falls to Glacier National Park.  In the first half of this trek, one great man-made landscape dominates either side of the road–the Sun River Irrigation Project, established by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1906 but not completed until the late 1920s.

 

The project has two divisions:  the smaller is the Fort Shaw division centered at the town of Simms (discussed in an earlier post) and the much larger is the Greenfields Irrigation District, over 80,000 acres, headquartered at Fairfield, which is located on U.S. 89.  On either side of Fairfield, you can see the expanse of irrigation land, framed by the Rocky Mountains.  One wonder how many travelers pass by this early 20th century engineered landscape and never give it a look.

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Teton Co Fairfield Greenfields irrigation 1Feeding in and out of Fairfield are multiple canals and ditches, with the great bulk of land devoted to the production of malting barley, under

contract to Anheuser-Busch for years now.  Dominating the highway along the Great Northern spur line are huge metal granaries for all of the barley to make millions of bottles of beer.

Teton Co Fairfield Busch barleyFairfield itself is a classic T-plan railroad town.  The barley granaries dominate the trackside, where also is located the headquarters for the Greenfields Irrigation District, so designated in 1926.

Teton Co Fairfield irrigation dist officeAlong the stem of the “T” plan are all of the primary commercial buildings of the town, from an unassuming log visitor center to various one-story commercial buildings, and, naturally, a classic bar, the Silver Dollar.

Teton Co Fairfield 6 Silver Dollar BarPublic spaces and institutions are located at the bottom of the “T,” including a community park and swimming pool, a c. 1960 community hall, and an Art-Deco styled Fairfield High School.  The park, pool, and high school were all part of the second period of federal improvement at Fairfield during the New Deal era.

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The high school and the adjacent elementary school are clearly the heart of the community, even if situated at the bottom of the town plan.  In designing Fairfield 100 years ago, the railroad, the highway, and the grain elevators were the economic focus with the vision of irrigated fields creating an agricultural paradise out of the semi-arid lands of Teton County.  But those who came and built Fairfield as a community

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understood that schools represented their hopes and identity for that future.  Today Fairfield is a few families larger in population than 1970, bucking the trend that the old reclamation towns were fated to fade into obscurity as time moved on in the northern plains.

Grassrange: Fergus County Crossroads

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Grassrange is a central Montana crossroads, where U.S. Highway 87 meets Montana highways 19 and 200, and it serves as the eastern gateway to Fergus County.  The wonderful vernacular roadside statement of “Little Montana”–an obvious homage to the much larger and more famous “Little America” in southeast Wyoming–reminds even the most oblivious traveler that you have reached a highway crossroads.

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As the name implies, this is ranching country, with several of the state’s most famous spreads nearby.  The school reflects the pride in ranching, witness its school emblem and name the Rangers.

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There is more than livestock to the history of Grassrange, as the elevators attest.  This is also farmers’ country since the early 20th century homesteading boom.  Yet Grassrange has never been a bit town itself.  It dates to 1883 when the first post office was stab listed to serve surrounding ranchers; the town still has its standardized 1970s post office building.

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Grassrange has a definite sense of its past.  Despite its scant population–just over 100 in the 2010 census–it has a city park (top image of this blog) plus its own public interpretation of its history, literally carved from local hands.

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It also has surviving historic landmarks, from a false-front Masonic Lodge to a vernacular Gothic-styled United Methodist Church, to a well-worn one-block commercial building that, considering its add-ons and alterations, has served the community in several different ways over the last 100 years.

Fergus Co Grassrange masonic hall  - Version 2

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Many rural Montana crossroads are little more than a combination bar/cafe/store/gas station today.  Grassrange has dwindled in size since my first visit in 1984 but it has kept its school and such community buildings as the church, Masonic hall, and city park.  It is home than the home of “Little Montana”; it’s a reminder of the precarious state of Montana’s small towns across the vastness of the northern plains.

Geraldine: A Milwaukee Road Town that made it

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My last post looked at the disappearing towns of the Milwaukee Road in central Montana’s Meagher County.  Those themes of a railroad, town creation, and abandonment were constant in several posts as I traced the imprint  of the Milwaukee on Montana’s landscape in the 20th century.  However, not all central Montana plains towns tied to the Milwaukee Road have disappeared–Geraldine in Chouteau County is one of those exceptions.

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Milwaukee Road depot at Geraldine, c. 1998

Geraldine was established c. 1913 along a major spur line of the Milwaukee Road that connected its division point at Harlowtown to the much larger railroad transportation center of Great Falls to the north.  Due to the richness of the high plains agriculture of southern Chouteau County–the land south of the Missouri River–and the commitment of its citizens, Geraldine has remained generally solid through the decades.  According to census records, the town has never topped 400 residents, 375 being the largest number of residents, and now, according to the 2010 count, there are only about 100 less, a little over 260 residents.  Losing what amounts to 25-30% of the population over the 100 years sounds like a disappearing town, true, but in an eastern Montana perspective, it is not.  As this blog has documented at many places, too many plains country towns have lost 50% or more of their population in just the last 30 years.

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In the 1984-85 historic preservation survey, Geraldine impressed me for several reasons.  First was the dominating presence of the grain elevators, as seen above and with the first photo in this blog.  I had grown accustomed to Milwaukee Road towns where the corporate standardized design for the combination depot–a building that joined both freight and passenger operations–dominated the railroad corridor.  Here the elevators punctuate the skyline and loom over the town itself–the railroad created the need for them, certainly, but by the end of the 20th century the elevators were still viable businesses while the depot had become a local museum and community center.

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Then there was the town plan.  Milwaukee Road country towns were “T-plan” towns where the tracks, depot, and elevators defined the top of the T while the town’s business district formed the stem of the T.  Geraldine was a bit different, a tilted T-plan town, where the top

IMG_8818of the T, due to the railroad’s approach was slanted, giving Geraldine, compared to other Milwaukee towns, an off-kilter look.  Geraldine also still had business, although the number of independent places had diminished since 1984-1985.  Two key institutions today are

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the local state bank, a Classical Revival-styled two-story building from c. 1914 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the First National Bank of Geraldine.  Unlike scores of other local institutions in the 1920s and 1930s, the Geraldine bank did not close its doors and continues to serve ranchers and town residents today.  It is a rock from Geraldine’s past that surely helps to define its future.  The same can be said for the

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Geraldine school–home of the Tigers.  This local school has several different building periods, as this image of its facade indicates, but maintaining a school district is vital to the town–plains country towns that lose their schools soon become abandoned places.

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Geraldine touches upon many key theme of eastern Montana history–in subtle yet significant ways.  It even lightly touches on another theme of this blog–Montana Modernism.  No one was much looking at the contemporary styled buildings of the late 1950s and 1960s in 1984-1985.  I was no exception.  But in the 21st century, we want to document those buildings and appreciate how the new architecture expressed the hopes of the post World War II generation.  Geraldine’s contribution is its United Methodist

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Church, with its particularly notable tall concrete bell tower, mixing a bit of tradition with the new look of the postwar generation.

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Geraldine of course has a classic western watering hole–Rusty’s Bar and Grill, completed with its front glass block windows.  It is highly recommended–not much on the outside admittedly but a full community experience on the inside.  Historic depot and bank, modern-styled church, unique town plan, and great bar:  more than enough reasons to come to Geraldine, not once but whenever travels take you between Great Falls and the Musselshell River Valley.

Valley County’s Farming Outposts, and some Lefse

Valley County–another huge Hi-Line county stretching from the border with Canada to the Missouri River–became one of my favorite places to explore in 1984, and then again in 1988. Fort Peck Dam made it a targeted area because I was interested in the New Deal agencies as back then an under-studied part of the national built environment, and because I came from Tennessee. Nowhere else did the New Deal leave such a heavy hand as the series of dams and lakes of the Tennessee Valley Authority. But in its massiveness–Fort Peck on the Missouri River came damn close.

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But let’s start considering Valley County not from its most visited landscape–Fort Peck Dam and Lake–but from its least visited the northern third of the county, where once thousands of homesteaders tried to make their mark but today only hundreds remain to help tell that story still documented by abandoned schools, scarely populated towns, and miles of open prairie. But some places from 1984 were so powerful that linger today, and Glentana School is one of those.

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It was abandoned but had hope in 1984–today it is 30 years into becoming a ruin, perhaps a majestic one at that, of the hopes and dreams of homesteaders at the end of the Great Northern spur line almost 100 years ago.

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Glentana had lost its post office–replaced by a plexiglass and metal postal delivery system one may guess it is called, a sure sign of being forgotten. Not so for its neighbor Richland, where the post office remains open (let’s hope it stays that way).

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But schools turned into homes and community halls are always signs of withering communities–indeed almost every business Richland had in 1984 was now closed.

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Opheim, established in 1911, is the biggest place by far in the northern reaches of Valley County.  It had 85 residents in 2010, down from about 210 in 1984 and more than double that number in 1960, during the years that it served as federal radar base during the Cold War.

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Its population loss is documented not only in the historic town cemetery but also in its abandoned buildings. Yet, compared to other towns, Opheim had more than a sense of life about it, it had a strong sense of place and self, starting with the 1927 school remained vibrant, with a recent addition in place.

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The Mint Bar and Outpost were still in service, and the flag flew proudly over the town, and post office.

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Most importantly, well at least after the school, is Granrud’s Lefse, once a family business that was fairly new in 1984 but that is now a regional institution for its traditional Norwegian lefse–a rolled potato snack that is fairly tremendous, and can be ordered online.

Image Opheim in 2013 is what it was, for so many years now: an outpost of America’s agricultural economy. Ignored and usually forgotten by most–true enough. But to those I have met there over 30 years, it is a place that helps to center life and community in the far northern reaches of Montana. And don’t forget the lefse.

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The Irrigated West: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Montana’s Hi-Line

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Fresno Lake, Hill County, 2013

The impact of federally funded irrigation projects is apparent throughout Montana but perhaps even moreso along the Hi-Line.  As I started his fieldwork in 1984 in Toole County, one of the first places I visited was Tiber Dam, a project that turned a large chunk of the Marias River into Lake Elwell.  The dam was finished in 1952 but numerous expansions and alterations occurred in the late 1960s and then late 1970s.

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Lake Elwell, Liberty County, 1984

 

When I encountered the town of Fresno in 1984, there was not much there but a tavern, built in the 1950s to take advantage of the increasing number of folks traveling to Fresno Lake for recreation, and a huge elevator complex.

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Today both the elevators and tavern remain, and the only changes found at the dam was additional fencing and pre-cautions for the security of the facility.

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Fresno Dam was part of the huge Milk River Project of the New Deal era.  The dam dates to 1937-1939, but was raised in 1943 and again in 1951 when “a concrete parapet and curb walls were constructed on the crest.”

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The Milk River project is the one of the state’s oldest and most influential federal irrigation projects.  Dating to 1903, the project slowly unfolded across the plains, starting at St. Mary’s in Glacier County in 1905 and moving to the Dodson pumping station in Phillips County by 1944.  The Fresno Dam was funded by FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act, making it a rarely identified place associated with the New Deal transformation of Montana.  

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We will be returning to this project and the story of the irrigated West often as we move across the state.