Back on the Hi-Line at Chinook: a town that got it

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Chinook, the seat of Blaine County, has long been among my favorite Hi-Line towns.  Certainly there is the Elk Bar, with its cowgirl in the champagne glass neon sign,–is there a better bar sign in the Big Sky Country?  But then Chinook is most definitely a railroad town of Great Northern vintage.  Then it is part of U.S. highway corridor, and I loved staying at what was then a Mom and Pop Bear’s Paw motor lodge on the west side of town in 1984.  And it is irrigation country, and the impact of the federal Milk River Project in the early 20th century.  Railroads, highways, irrigation, bars–throw in that the town is also the gateway to the Bear’s Paw National Battlefield and the end of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail:  little wonder I stayed there for 3 days in 1984 exploring a wide swath of the region.

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This post is subtitled “a town that got it” for the simple reason that when I visited in 1984, outside of the battlefield (which was little more than preserved ground with a few early 20th century markers not the more fully interpreted landscape you find today) and the local museum (which was since grown considerably) the words “historic preservation” were new, and somewhat foreign.  Nothing was happening–30 years later however you can see a range of preservation work, along with some exciting adaptive reuse projects.  Chinook treasures its past and sees it as an asset for the present, and future.

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A U.S. 2 service station converted into a great ice cream stop in Chinook

What didn’t I “see” in 1984:  the New Deal imprint on the town.  Frankly put, the Chinook High School is one of my favorite New Deal buildings in the state–perhaps its slick International modernism made it hard to grasp 30 years ago but today its powerful statement of 1930s aesthetics can’t be missed.

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That’s not all the New Deal left the town–it also energized public buildings with a new City Hall and an annex to the county courthouse, both somewhat subdued architectural statements.

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I did a better job of understanding the transportation corridors and how they impacted Chinook.  Most prominent to my mind was a three-story brick hotel, serving both railroad passengers and newly arriving homesteaders.  In 1984 it looked as if only minor changes had occurred since first construction-it still looks that way 30 years later with a few more windows filled-in, and general hard times apparent.

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The Great Northern depot was another focus of my work but somehow I missed a great 1920s gas station that has been restored and converted into new uses by a local financial institution–it is now on the National Register of Historic Places and good example of how the roadside architecture of the 1920s can find new uses in the 21st century.

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Another big miss was the Sugar Refinery–especially considering the role that Chinook played in the Milk River project, both in its origins, the nationally significant case of Winters v. United States at the turn of the century (see Beth LaDow’s epic study The Medicine Line (2001), and then the impact of this major federal project from 1911 to the present.  Not to mention that the high school nicknameImage

was the Sugarbeaters, surely one of the GREAT names in high school sports.

You cross a major ditch on the way to the refinery, on the outskirts of town.  A good bit of the property remains, with the tall stack speaking strongly to the merger of homestead and factory on the northern plains.  The refinery began an new era in the town’s history–a theme worth exploring in the next post.

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Fort Benton’s Heritage Development: 3 Museums, 3 Messages

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Fort Benton in 1984 had one dominant interpretive place:  The Museum of the Upper Missouri in the local city park facing the Missouri River.  The museum is still there and thriving–on an early Sunday afternoon in May 2013 it had plenty of visitors.  Still the same too were the exhibits–dioramas told much of the story, a reflection of the long, deep influence of the dioramas prepared for the Montana Historical Society’s museum installation almost 30 years earlier.  At MHS, as it installed a new exhibit in the late 1980s, dioramas and recreated villages disappeared in favor of more artifact-driven exhibits but at the local levels many museums still feature dioramas.  And to my mind, they are almost like bits of culture-laden folk art.

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The Museum of the Upper Missouri focused not just on Native American-white relations, the trade, and the creation of Fort Benton.  It spent just as much space exploring the post-gold rush steamboat era, the development of Fort Benton as an urban center, and the general frontier to settlement thesis that still dominates the narrative of northern plains history.  After all the museum was “the place” so naturally it captured all of the areas of possible historical interest, even extending into the region’s early ranching history.

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As the “place” it was also the logical location for federal trail programs to hand their hats, or at least trail markers, from displays about the Indian Wars to Lewis and Clark and to the Nez Perce Trail.

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The museum, outside of ranching, did not serve the region’s 20th century history that was tied much less to the river (except as a source of water to be dammed for irrigation) but to the land and its transformation through massive federal funded irrigation projects and the homesteading boom into the agricultural landscape that you immediately encounter in Chouteau County once you climb out of the Missouri River bottomlands and up to the plains landscape to the north.  Thus, at the north end of town, and actually closer for tourists exiting U.S. 87, came the Museum of the Northern Great Plains.

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Here is the typical 20th century technology museum, first depicted at the Greenfield Village Museum of Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, and copied by literally hundreds of midwestern and western institutions.  A large building encloses a progression of agricultural technology from plows and tractors to automobiles and combines and onto the household.Image

And then outside of the museum doors are representative buildings–artifacts themselves of rural life, ethnic diversity, and corporate standardization, especially in the mini-gas station.  These museums are more like large-scale community attics–almost anything

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and everything is here, except for central unifying themes.  I arrived, somewhat excitedly, hoping that finally someone had the space and the wherewithal to tackle such major themes as the U.S. Reclamation Bureau and projects like the Milk River Project.  After all, the place markets itself as Montana’s agricultural history museum. Rather I found a celebration of the individual, those who stayed and made it– which then made sense when you stop and consider the isolation, the demanding climate, the difficulty of making an arid landscape bloom.  

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The latest addition to the museum landscape of Fort Benton comes courtesy of the federal government and the Bureau of Land Management–the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument interpretive center for all things federal in this part of the Missouri River country.  The building attempts to compete with the White Cliffs of the Missouri itself, and it is a modernist architectural wonder, reflecting region, topography, materials, and culture.  

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As a homage to the river itself, the building may work, but it is difficult to compete with the beauty of the Missouri at Fort Benton, even if you are on the west end of town by the old public water works.

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The Upper Missouri museum, as you would expect from a 21st century installation, tells a big story, from natural resources to prehistory to Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce, and large-scale recreations of steamboats.  And of the three museums it has the great, decisive advantage to my mind, of actually touching the Missouri.  It is the river at this location that made Fort Benton and here the river dominates the experience.

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All three museums reflect their time of creation and target specific audiences.  But you still end with the reality of three museums for just one place–the story is told loudly and often in Fort Benton, from three different vantage points and from multiple types of historical markers scattered across the town, especially at the riverfront.  Discerning heritage tourists will take it all in and get it.  But you wonder about those who stop by, in a rush to get to Great Falls, to Glacier, or heading home to some place back east.  Fort Benton in its historic riverfront buildings looks old but tired, and rather than constructing yet more new buildings to contain the history, one thinks–why not adapt the historic buildings–and tell the history in the actual places that it happened.  There is more to Fort Benton than meets the eye but how come a visit here makes you feel still like you are on the outside looking in, that just underneath the renovated surface may be a reality worth exploring.

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