Eastern Montana County Seats: Scobey

Daniels Co Scobey signs

For whatever reason, readers of Montana’s Historic Landscapes have been very interested in Daniels County, way up in the northeast corner of the state.  In previous posts I have discussed the Daniels County Courthouse–one of my favorites–the county’s historic rural schools and Flaxville, one of the most interesting tiny towns left from the homesteading era in all of eastern Montana.

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Today I want to look back at Scobey, the seat of Daniels County, which was established in 1920 at the end of the homesteading era.  Sometimes it is referred to as the most isolated county seat in America.  But whatever its isolation may be, I found Scobey a relaxing, interesting place, and actually took many images.  But outside of the courthouse, schools, the fairgrounds, and wonderful Pioneer Museum, I did not share much with the readers.  This post changes that.

Daniels Co Scobey 5 libraryThe county library, above, is small but busy, a reminder of how important these public buildings can be.  About 5 years ago, the time of my last visit, Scobey still had its own medical center, below, as well as a distinctive post office, different from many in the region due to its modernist style.

Daniels Co Scobey hospital

Daniels Co Scobey post office

Much of its past remains, and remains in use.  The railroad corridor had changed–the passenger depot was gone, but historic grain elevators still mark how Scobey was a major grain shipping point for much of the 20th century.

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Historic churches have left deep roots in Scobey.  Below are the Scobey United Methodist Church, the Scobey Lutheran Church (which has a wonderful Gothic altar), and St. Bonitus Catholic Church, another example of mid-century modern in the Catholic church buildings of Eastern Montana.

Daniels Co Scobey Methodist

Daniels Co Scobey Lutheran

Daniels Co Scobey St Philip Bonitus

The residential area has plenty of vernacular-styled 20th century homes, most from the first half of the century.  I particularly liked the next two bungalows on Timmons Street.

Daniels Co Scobey Timmons St

Daniels Co Scobey timmons street

Five years ago the business district had clearly weathered the 2007-2008 recession and lots of stores and bars were open, anchored by Independence Bank, another example of 1960s-1970s modern commercial style in Scobey.

Businesses from the first decade of settlement also were part of the “downtown” fabric, such as this historic two-story Masonic Hall and the Pioneer Hotel, which once served as a first stop for homesteaders upon their arrival in Scobey.

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Daniels Co Scobey Pioneer Hotel

There is a persistence in Scobey that is admirable.  The Daniel County Leader, the local newspaper, also has weathered the storm of media change in the 21st century and stands in the heart of town, still undoubtedly serving as a community communication center.

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How I missed these properties in my initial post–well I can’t explain that.  I am sure I had a good reason 5 years ago. But what is really inexplicable to me is why I did not share more of my photos from the Scobey School–especially its football and track field below–

Daniels Co Scobey 1 football

along with more interior images from the Daniels County Courthouse, the one building in Scobey that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Here you see the courthouse’s long hallway (with its National Register sign in the corner), the records vault, the courtroom’s jury box, and the jury room.  Just walking into this place takes me to the beginning years of Daniels County.

Daniels Co Scobey courthouse interior

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Daniels Co Scobey courthouse interior jury room

One property type many people ask about are cemeteries.  Unfortunately I did not have the time to record every tombstone in these places–another time, perhaps.  But I can add to the blog additional images from the Daniels County Cemetery, which lies outside of Scobey.  These images hardly cover everything but they do document what a special place this tiny county seat is, for residents and for visitors willing to go exploring.

Daniels Co Scobey Cemetery

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Daniels Co Scobey Cemetery 3

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Eastern Montana County Seats: Ryegate

Golden Valley Co US 12 Ryegate sign football filed

Ryegate, population of approximately 236, is the seat of Golden Valley County.  Since it stands along U.S. Highway 12 at its junction with Montana Highway 300, it is a small town that I visit almost every time I am in Montana and making a trek between Billings and Helena.  I always prefer the two-lane U.S. and state roads because they give you a sense of immediacy in the landscape that driving interstates do not.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate elevators signsBut like most travelers I roar down the highway, perhaps noting the tall grain elevators facing the town proper, and pay little attention to anything else.  In a post of four years ago, I spoke of Golden Valley County and its historic landmarks, highlighting the grain elevators, the Golden Valley Courthouse, the Sims-Garfield historic ranch, and the historic town bar in Ryegate.  But like the other eastern Montana county seats, Ryegate deserves a closer look.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate courthouse

Golden Valley Courthouse, photo from 2007

 

Although the depot and tracks are long gone, surviving railroad bed reminds us that Ryegate is a historic Milwaukee Road town, established c. 1910, and became a county seat in 1920 when Golden Valley County was established.  As the seat, the town became the county’s center for public education.  Ryegate School is still a K-12 school serving the entire county.

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The intro photo to this post shows the athletic field; the school uses the historic gym below for sports and community events.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate schoolRyegate received one of the standardized “modern” post office designs from the federal government in the 1970s–the town’s fortunes have remained basically frozen after the Milwaukee Road declared bankruptcy and shut down the tracks in 1980.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate post office

In my original posting I ignored a historic church building, below, St, Mathias Catholic Church, which was dedicated and opened in October 1914. From what I know it is the oldest institutional building in Ryegate. I want to research this compelling example of vernacular church architecture more!

Golden Valley Co Ryegate St Mathias Catholic

Ryegate, like many of the towns along U.S. Highway 12, got the big whammy in the late 1970s of the interstate system being finished and the railroad going bankrupt.  The amount of traffic passing through now is a fraction of what it used to be. The historic commercial building below once served different businesses and customers.  It is mostly used for storage today.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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