Jackson, Montana, is another favorite place of mine in Beaverhead County. Located on Montana Highway 278, far away from any neighborhoods, the town dates to the 1880s, as
this area of the Big Hole Valley opened up to ranching. Its name came from Anton Jackson, the first postmaster; the town still has a historic post office building even though its
population barely tops 50. That is enough, once kids from surrounding ranches are added, to support the Jackson elementary school–a key to the town’s survival over the years.
Jackson grows significantly during the winter, as it is an increasingly popular winter get-away destination, centered on the historic Jackson Hot Springs, which had been upgraded and significantly expanded since my last visit in 1984.
But my real reason to tout the wonders of Jackson, Montana, lie with a simple but rather unique adaptive reuse project. A turn of the 20th century church building has been converted into a hat manufacturer business, the Buffalo Gal Hat Shop–and I like hats!
Grant is another ranching town along a Montana secondary highway, this time Montana Highway 324. Like Jackson, it too has enough year-round residents and children from nearby ranches to support a school, a tiny modernist style building while an older early 20th century school building has become a community center.
Grant only attracts the more hardy traveler, mostly hunters. The Horse Prairie Stage Stop is combination restaurant, bar, and hotel–a throwback to isolated outposts of the late 19th century where exhausted travelers would bunk for a night.
Back when I visited in 1984, Monte Elliott (only the third owner of the property he claimed) showed off his recent improvements made within the context of a business location that dated to the Civil War era. The lodge still keeps records from those early days that they share with interested visitors. In the 21st century, new owner Jason Vose additionally upgraded the facilities, but kept the business’s pride in its past as he further expanded its offerings to hunters and travelers.
Far to the north along Montana Highway 43 is the Big Horn River Canyon, a spectacular but little known landscape within the state. Certainly anglers and hunters visited here, but the two towns along the river in this northern end of Beaverhead County are tiny places, best known perhaps for their bars as any thing else.
Certainly that is the case at Dewey, where the Dewey Bar attracts all sorts of patrons, even the four-legged kind. The early 20th century false-front general store that still operated in 1984 is now closed, but the town has protected two log barns that still front Montana Highway 43.
Wise River still has four primary components that can characterize a isolated western town: a post office, a school, a bar/cafe, and a community center. It is also the location for one of the ranger stations of the Beaverhead National Forest.
The station has a new modernist style administrative building but it also retains its early twentieth century work buildings and ranger residence, a Bungalow design out of logs.
The forest service station has provided Wise River with a degree of stability over the decades, aided by the town’s tiny post office and its early 20th century public school.
Just as important as a town anchor is the Wise River Community Center, which began in the gable-front frame building as the Wise River Woman’s Club but has expanded over the last 30 years into the larger building you find today.
But to my eye the most important institution, especially for a traveler like me, is one of the state’s most interesting bits of roadside architecture, the Wise River Club. I have already written about this building, from my 1984 travels.
The liveliness of that 1984 exterior–note the mini-totem pole, the log benches, wagon wheels, and yes the many antlers defining the front wall–is muted in today’s building.
But the place is still there, serving locals and travelers, and a good number of the antlers now grace the main room of the bar.
Wise River, unlike Dewey but similar to Jackson, has been able to keep its historic general store in business. The post office moved out in the 1990s to the new separate building but the flag pole remains outside to mark how this building also served both private and public functions.
The country towns of Beaverhead County help to landmark the agricultural history of this place, and how such a huge county as this one could still nurture tiny urban oases. Next I will leave the rural landscape and look at Beayerhead’s one true urban landscape–the county seat of Dillon.