Another visit to Harlowton

Wheatland Co Harlowton community hall 2

Over the weekend I received a message, asking for more on Harlowton, the seat of Wheatland County.  I had developed three posts about Harlowton and other roadside properties in the county, but the reader was spot on–there is more than just the Milwaukee Road story in this central Montana town. Let’s start with the building above, originally built as the Harlowton Woman’s Club Youth Center in 1950.

img_9752The woman’s club began c. 1921 and had already made a major contribution to the town’s well-being in establishing its first library.  After World War II, however, club members felt they should once again help build the community, by building a youth center and veterans memorial garden.  Mrs. Norman Good proposed the project in 1946 and Mrs. G. D. Martin provided the first substantial donation.  The club then held fundraisers of all sorts.  By 1950, construction was underway, with contractor Clyde Wilson building the center with logs from Colby and Sons in Kila, Montana.

img_9754As the youth center was under construction, the woman’s club also reached an agreement with the school board to use land for the construction of a new football field, named McQuitty Field.  Located behind the youth center, the field opened in 1950.

img_9755

Steps from the Youth Center parking lot lead directly to the football field.

At about the same time, the woman’s club also reached an agreement with the Kiwanis Club to provide land for a community swimming pool.  The women lost their initial vision of a memorial garden, but had gained for the community two institutions–the football field and the swimming pool–that continue to serve Harlowton’s children today.

img_9750Thus, on U.S. Highway 12 lies the public recreation heart of Harlowton–a postwar gift of residents and service clubs to the community.  In 1956, the woman’s club deeded the Youth Center to the Kiwanis Club, which still manages it today.

As the images of the football field show, the recreation centers are surrounded by housing, and yes, Harlowton has an interesting range of domestic architecture–centered in the c. 1910 to c. 1960 period as you might imagine.  As a major railroad center for the Milwaukee

Wheatland Co Harlowton frame hotelRoad, it once also had several hotels and more short-term housing for workers and travelers–a good bit of that has disappeared, or is disappearing.

Wheatland Co Harlowton church

Gothic-styled churches also reflect the town’s early 20th century architectural aesthetic.  The Harlowton Wesleyan Church (above) and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (below) are good small town examples of Gothic style, especially the flashy mid-century permastone exterior of St. Joseph’s church.

img_9709It is difficult to visit Harlowton and not notice the mammoth Montana Flour Mills set of concrete grain silos–today’s silent sentinels of what ranchers once produced in abundance in these lands.

Wheatland Co Harlowton concrete elevators 2The mill, made from locally quarried stone, came within months of the completion of the railroad to Harlowton–the concrete silos reflected the hopes of investors and local ranchers, as grain production soared in the 1910s–reaching some 1.2 million bushels in 1918.  It wasn’t called Wheatland County for nothing.  I still wish the big electric sign that once adorned the silos was still there.

Wheatland Co Harlowton school

The Harlowton Public School building is another valuable survivor from the homestead boom era in the town’s history, as other other scattered commercial buildings and bank buildings–none are architecturally overwhelming but they are express the western commercial look of the early 20th century–hopeful but not overly ambitious.

Harlowton today has even picked up another depot–a moved one, that once served on the Great Northern railroad spur–the Billings and Northern–that cut through the east side of Wheatland County. It is out of place on the highway–but glad it is still in use.

Let’s end with a shout out to classic taverns–in this case Central Avenue’s Oasis Bar and the Stockman Bar. Indeed, with its classic electric sign, the Stockman Bar begs the question–where are the state’s other Stockman Bars.  Ah, the next post.

 

Willow Creek: end of the line

IMG_6775Willow Creek was the end of the line for both the Northern Pacific and Milwaukee Road railroads as they vied for dominance in turn of the 20th century western Gallatin County.  The Northern Pacific came first with its spur line to Butte in the late 1880s then the Milwaukee arrived c. 1908.  Both used the same corridor, along what is now called the Old Yellowstone Trail on some maps; the Willow Creek Road (MT 287) on others.  It was a route that dated to 1864–the town cemetery, according to lore, dates to that year and Willow Creek has had a post office since 1867.

To find Willow Creek you follow the tracks and go south, entering one of the most beautiful rural landscapes left in the county. At the head of town is a historic early 20th century grain elevator on the old Northern Pacific line.

From there the old Yellowstone Trail highway curves into the town itself, creating a streetscape that takes you back 80 years at least, when Willow Creek was full of promise as a two-line town.

Gallatin Co Willow Creek

Two important commercial landmarks face each other.  First is the frame, false front early 20th century Willow Creek Cafe and Saloon, a local establishment that I cannot recommend enough.  It is the social heartbeat of the town.

IMG_6771Across the street is the “employment center,” the Willow Creek Tool and Technology which sells its wares across the west out of its brick building from the 1910s. (Note the faded advertising sign that once greeted travelers on the Yellowstone Trail highway.)

IMG_6762The cultural side of Willow Creek is represented by several places: homes and galleries of different artists, a monthly arts festival in the summer, and two special buildings from the 1910s.  The Stateler Memorial Methodist Church, c. 1915, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Built from rusticated concrete blocks (from the cement factory at Three Forks) designed to resemble stone masonry, the church building is home to one of the oldest congregations (1864) in the Methodist Church in Montana.  The Gothic Revival-styled sanctuary is named in honor of its founding minister Learner B. Stateler.

IMG_6770Nearby is another crucial landmark for any rural Montana community–the local school.  The Willow Creek School is an excellent example of the standardized, somewhat Craftsman-styled designs used for rural Montana schools in the 1910s. Two stories of classrooms, sitting on a full basement, was a large school for its time, another reflection of the hopes of the homesteading era.

Gallatin Co Willow Creek school 3Additions in form of a gym and added rooms had come to the north and the school and its lot is the town’s community center. Although so close to Three Forks, the school kept its

enrollment enough to maintain a Class C status in athletics and its tiny football field and track, with a beautiful view of the Tobacco Root Mountains, might be one of the most scenic athletic field spots in the west. No wonder that residents do what they can to keep the school and the town alive in an era of great change in Gallatin County.

Gallatin Co Willow Creek football field 1

 

 

 

Denton: Fergus County’s Agricultural Trade Centers

IMG_9892

Fergus County, with Lewistown as the county seat, lies at the heart of Central Montana.  Although gold and other precious minerals were found at Maiden and other sites in the early years, the region grew once the railroads came at the turn of the century.  More than a dozen substantial agricultural trade centers, all connected to Lewistown by the rails, soon surrounded the county seat.  When I surveyed the region in the 1980s, the continued vitality of these towns impressed–and they still deserve a close look today.

Denton Fergus Co

In 1984 I came looking for railroad depots, frankly, but was blown away by the Farmers State Bank, one of the best “strongbox” style of small town banks I had encountered anywhere in Montana.  The town then was in a pattern of slow, steady decline, from a high of 435 residents in 1950 to 356 in 1980.  That rate in most Montana country towns meant that the bank was long gone–but here it remained and stood proudly along Highway 81.

IMG_9884

Thirty years later, the bank building still made its statement of permanence in materials (brick) and in style along the highway.  Indeed, the town’s population had continued to slip downward, especially in the last 20 years, reaching a mere 255 residents in the last census.  But the bank remains–and even has a new addition to the rear of the building.

IMG_9885

I passed by this iconic Fergus County building in late May of this year, just weeks after the completion of its merger with Dutton State Bank (another great building to be discussed later).  All was well: it remained one of Denton’s anchors.

IMG_9896The town’s schools are another important anchor.  The football field (see the first image) serves as the eastern gateway to Denton; the schools are bunched together as though they grew organically from that spot one hundred years ago and have evolved ever since.

IMG_9880

True, Denton and its neighbor to the west Coffee Creek celebrated their centennials in 2013.  And it was appropriate that a granary announced this fact since grain is king here. The elevators standing along the old Milwaukee Road line still boldly state the importance of agriculture to Denton. Even after the Milwaukee ceased operations in 1980 state officials worked with local governments and ranchers to create a new Central Montana line, which kept the elevators running, and in more recent times, has made Denton the western terminus of the popular Charlie Russell Choo-Choo excursion train.

IMG_9881

IMG_9882

Schools, a bank, and grain elevators are anchors but Denton also has maintained vibrant cultural institutions from its town library, housed in a brilliant c1960 building, and churches such as the historic Gothic-styled Our Savior Lutheran Church and St. Anthony Catholic Church.

IMG_9887

IMG_9897

IMG_9898

Residents also have kept the local Masonic Lodge in operation, housed in the 2nd floor of the post office building, which, due to its overall neoclassical style-appearance and corner lot setting, was probably a bank building built shortly after Denton became a town in 1913.

Fergus Co Denton post office and masonic hall  - Version 2