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.

The Milwaukee Road Heads into the Musselshell Valley

As the Milwaukee Road left the Yellowstone Valley at Forsyth and struck northwest toward the Musselshell River valley, it created one of Montana’s most classic prairie railroad towns, Ingomar, established in 1908.  The hamlet, with 25 or so residents today, compared to perhaps the 100 who lived around there in 1980 has several historic buildings that document its quick twentieth century rise, and just as quick fall in the 1920s and 1930s depression years.

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Jersey Lily Bar, Ingomar, 1984

In the 1984 survey of Montana, Ingomar really just had one reason to stop:  the Jersey Lilly Bar, owned and managed by Bill Seward, who had done so since 1984.  That spring Seward and I became good friends.  Few people stopped there in February and March and since I was in the region, I found ways to stop in. do coffee (strong, hot, always ready) and have whatever Bill was thinking of cooking.  He was proud of his beans, and liked sliced red potatoes when he had them.  Seward added the faux western wood porch to a 1914 bank building:  he said that the tourists liked it, that it made the otherwise Classical Revival bank look “Old West.”  Until Seward’s death in 1995, I found reasons to visit Ingomar three other times, in a way just to make sure that both Seward and the bar was still going on.  Since the construction of the interstate highway to the south had so killed traffic along U.S. Highway 12, you wondered when the bar would close.

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This former homestead-era bank building, the Wiley, Clark, and Greening Bank, opened in 1914 and closed as a bank seven years later.  In 1933, the height of the Depression, it re-opened as the Oasis Bar (it certainly was that along U.S. 12) and it became the Jersey Lilly Bar in 1948.  Almost seven decades later, it is a well-known landmark on the highway, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

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Adjoining the bar, and accessible only through the bar, is another National Register building, the Bookman General Store, constructed as really an act of faith in 1921, replacing an earlier store that had burned.  The prospects for Ingomar was not so rosy by that time but the Bookman family stayed the course–lost the store for two years from 1933-1935–but reacquired it and kept it open to 1943.

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A third Ingomar landmark on the National Register is the public school, which evolved from  a one-room in 1913 to the rambling building you see today, constructed by Neils Hanson of Melstone in 1915.  When I surveyed Ingomar in 1984, the school still operated but closed for good in 1992.  It was converted into a “biscuit and bunk” later that decade.

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Another important historic building is the Milwaukee Road “combination-style” depot, where the passenger and freight service was combined into one building.  Many of these have disappeared along the line since its closure, and too many have disappeared or have been moved since my survey work of 1984-1985.  Ingomar has its depot, converted into a private residence along the now-gone tracks in the 1990s.

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Other historic properties exist, perhaps waiting new futures.  The rodeo grounds stay in use while the Riechers Brothers general merchandise and machinery store building remains standing.  Other structures are barely hanging on.

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As travel dwindles and population disappears, you worry about the future of Ingomar.  Their signs and their heritage assets beckon visitors daily but will enough even come by to make a difference?

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Melstone, just west of where the Milwaukee Road crossed the Musselshell River and entered its valley, is another worrisome case.  Its population has dropped to under 100–almost 150 lost since my visit in 1984.  But it still has its school, which is very much the town’s central institution and point of pride.

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Melstone has lost its signature building, the 1912 Antlers Hotel, located on the town’s most prominent corner between its main street, that leads to the school, and the intersection with U.S. Highway 12.

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Antlers Hotel, Melstone, 1984

The location of the Antlers Hotel is now a grassy spot.

The location of the Antlers Hotel is now a grassy spot.

Melstone has a hardware/general store along with Jakes Garage on the highway and the Melstone Bar and Cafe, another classic roadside stop along u.S. 12.

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Ingomar and Melstone–I understand to most eyes they are dumps, not worth a look–but in my fieldwork they are interesting and valuable, physical signs of the 20th century determination to make rural settlements work, and despite their losses, they are still here some 100 years later.