Drive-In Time in Montana

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 100 US 87 roadside drive-in

June means it is drive-in time in Big Sky Country.  The next three months are not only when most visitors come to Montana.  It is the time when Montanans get out and travel to festivals, rodeos, and their own family vacations.  In my years of traveling and documenting historic places in Montana, I have not forgotten the drive-in restaurant and its role in the roadside landscape of the state.  I paid some attention to this property type during the original work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985.  Most drive-ins (and here I am focusing on independent operators not fast food chains) dated between 1950 and 1970 and the best examples were located along stretches of early federal highways.  When I returned in 2012-2016 to revisit the state’s historic landscape, scholarship told me to be on the look for drive-ins of all sorts and shapes.  Some already had shuttered–like Zandy’s in Great Falls–but others were still vibrant, and great places for road food.  The following are some of my favorites:

Bonanza Freeze, 1947, Montana St, Butte, roadside

Bonanza Freeze in Butte is a walk-up and drive–thru.  Gotta love the plate glass wall.

The Dizzy Diner in Terry, on the historic Yellowstone Trail, is a drive-thru and has a few places inside–with traffic on old U.S. 10 being diverted to the interstate, it survives as a local town restaurant–true for several other places in Montana.

Fallon Co Baker US 12 drive-in roadside

The Big K in Baker is along U.S. Highway 12–it too works as a walk-up–in southeast Montana.

Pondera Co Conrad Main Drive-InThe Main Drive-In in Conrad is located on the historic federal hi way (U.S. 91) and still draws in customers despite competition from chains and the diversion of most traffic to Interstate Highway I-15.

Daniels Co Scobey 2 roadsideAt Scobey, Shu Mei’s Kitchen converted an earlier drive-in into a family restaurant on Montana Highway 13 in northeast Montana.

Gallatin Co Three Forks drive-in

This former drive-in at the forks of the Yellowstone Trail in Three Forks has been converted to a coffee shop.

Roosevelt Co Poplar The Peculator roadside

But my favorite coffee drive-in, by far, is the Percolator, in Poplar along U.S. Highway 2 in northeast Montana.

Dawson Co Glendive roadside Frosty In and Out

Frosty’s In and Out is another classic drive-in along the historic Yellowstone Trail, this time in Glendive.

Fergus Co Lewistown drive-in roadside US 191 1It’s not surprising that Lewistown, in the middle of the state faraway from the interstate system, has several still operating roadside establishments from the mid-20th century, such as the Wagon Wheel Drive-In (above–and being a southerner I loved the sign that bragged “we have MT Dew”) and the Dash Inn (below), which opened in 1952.

Fergus co Lewistown Wagon Wheel Drive In 1952 roadside

The next three may well be my favorites of all of the different drive-ins.  Ford’s Drive-In in Great Falls is so eye-catching with its Art Deco-influenced design and neon.  Burgerville in Polson is just, well, eye-catching with all of its signs and towers–how could you ever miss it along U.S. Highway 93?

Then there is Matt’s Drive-In in Butte.  This place was awarded the prestigious 2016 America’s Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation.  The foundation’s press release stated:  “The whitewashed cottage with sky-blue trim opened in 1930 as a drive-in.  The staff still deliver some meals curbside to this day, and they remain cheerful curators of community, working the soda-fountain counter in a room lined with midcentury-style wood paneling.  The food does the roadside genre proud.”  Yes, indeed.  And you haven’t been to Montana if you have not tried a nut burger from Matt’s.  Always add a shake and onion rings here too.

Matt's Drive In, 2339 Placer, roadside

Matt's Drive In detail 3, roadside

Motels across Big Sky Country

Big Timber roadside motelIn the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, the impact of lodging chains in Montana was pretty limited to the larger towns, and gateways to the national parks.  Many what I called “mom and pop” motels, largely from the pre-interstate highway era of the 1940s and 1950s, still operated.  I was working with the state employee lodging rate of $24 a night (remember it was 1984!) and I found that the per diem eliminated the chains and I was left with the local establishments.  During those months of intense travel I came to respect and really like the Moms and Pops.  Several of the places I stayed in 1984-1985 are long gone–but ones like the Lazy J Motel in Big Timber remain.  In this post I am merely sharing a range of historic motels from across Big Sky Country.

ohaire signI began the fieldwork in February 1984 and the first stop was a public meeting at the Toole County Courthouse in Shelby.  My first overnight was just as memorable–for good reasons–at the O’Haire Manor Motel.  Its huge neon sign on the town’s main street, which was U.S. Highway 2, could not be missed, and actually the sign replaced a building that once stood along the commercial district, knocking it down so travelers would have a clear shot to the motel itself.

Toole Co Shelby OHaire Motel

Motels along U.S. Highway 2 often had the grand statement to catch attention of those traveling at 80 miles a hour down the highway.  Galata, which billed itself as a gateway to the Whitlash port of entry on the Canadian border to the north, had the tallest cowboy in the region to greet visitors.

Toole Co Galata roadsideCut Bank’s Glacier Gateway, on the other hand, reminded visitors that it was that “coldest place” in the United States that they had heard about in weather forecasts.

The Circle Inn Motel outside of Havre on U.S. Highway 2 reflected the classic design of separate duplexes–cabins–for guests while the gleaming white horse statue reminded them, if they needed the prod, that they were in the wild west.

Hill Co Havre roadside

Similar mid-20th century motels are found along Montana’s historic federal highways.  Some, like the La Hood Motel, are now forgotten as the highway, once known as the Yellowstone Trail and then U.S. Highway 10, has been relegated to secondary use.

LaHood motel, Montana 2 roadsideAnother example from the old Yellowstone Trail and U.S. Highway 10 is the Shade Tree Inn Motel in Forsyth–although coal and railroad workers help somewhat to keep it going in the 21st century.

Forsyth Rosebud Co 5Just a block west of another historic section of U.S. Highway 10 in Deer Lodge is the Downtowner Motel, with its sloping roof and extended rafters representing the best in “contemporary” style from the 1960s. This place too was clean, cheap, and well located for a day of walking the town back in 1984.

Downtowner Motel, Deer Lodge

Other motels have carried on, in a diminished role, dependent more on workers needing temporary quarters than on travelers.  In Malta, on U.S. Highway 2, I expected easy to acquire and cheap lodging at the Maltana Motel–a favorite of mine from the 1980s–but even though the town was over 200 miles from Williston, North Dakota, demands for its rooms had risen with the oil boom of the early 2010s.

Phillips Co Malta Maltana Motel roadside

The Country Side Inn Motel in Harlowton once buzzed with travelers along either U.S. Highway 12 or U.S. Highway 191 but as interstate routes have become so dominant, these motels have struggled to attract customers.

Wheatland Co Harlowton motel US 12 roadsideNot only have the changes in traffic patterns been important, the present generation’s preference for chain motels–and the proliferation of chains across the state–have shaped the future of the mid-20th century motel.  A good example is the challenges facing the continuation of the Cherry Hill Motel in Polson, located along U.S. Highway 93.  Here was a favorite spot in 1984–near a killer drive-in–a bit out of the noise of the town, and sorta fun surroundings with a great view of Flathead Lake.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 4

Lake Co Polson motel roadsideThe place was up for sale in 2015–and the internet today tells me that it is “permanently closed.”  I hope it can find a new owner and is still there when I next return to Polson but with the general boom in the Flathead Lake region, one assumes its days are numbered.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 1The bear might be hugging the tree but does anyone else care enough–or want this type of lodging, complete with the “picture window” of the 1950s and 1960s, in the comfort obsessed 21st century?

I began this brief overview with the first place I stayed during the 1984-1985 fieldwork, and I will close with the last place I stayed as I finished the new statewide survey in May 2016:  the Yodeler Inn in Red Lodge.  Built in 1964 this wonder chalet-style property is listed in the National Register–of course in 1984 I never gave a thought about the motel as National Register worthy, I just loved the location, and thought it was cool.

It is still that–good rooms, great lobby, and a self-proclaimed “groovy” place.  To the north of the historic downtown are all of the chains you might want–stay there if you must, and leave the Yodeler Motel to me!

Lincoln and its log traditions

img_7245One of my favorite weekend drives, when I lived in Helena over 30 years ago, was to head north, via the Flesher Pass (above) and Montana Highway 279, and hit the very different landscape of Montana Highway 200 (below) and eastern end of the Blackfoot Valley.

Lewis & Clark Co MT 200 W to LincolnThe destination was breakfast, often at Lambkin’s, a family business that, to my delight, still operates when I visited in 2015.  Lambkin’s is one of those classic small town Montana eateries, great for breakfast, and not bad for a burger and pie later in the day.  The town is

Lincoln, known back in the early 1980s as a logging town, and known better today as the location of  Ted’s Kaczynski shack, from where as the Unabomber, he brought death and wrecked havoc on the lives of his fellow citizens, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Obviously Ted and I did not travel in the same circles.  He was a hermit who rarely engaged with anyone.  Lincoln is totally different:  a friendly town that invites repeat visits–if it was not breakfast for me, it was a stop at the Wilderness Bar.  Good times, open, interesting people in this town of several hundred is how I recall Lincoln.

Lewis & Clark Co Lincoln library

Lincoln in 2015 is clearly a place where the population has grown–over 1,000 now, which is reflected in the recently added public buildings, be it the town Library and the Chamber of Commerce, but more impressively the Lincoln Public School.

Here you see the future linked to the town’s logging past, and how log architecture has now become such a defining feature of Lincoln’s roadside.  There was always a log, rustic theme here but the additions of the last 20 years give not only a frontier aesthetic to the town, but reinforces its identity as place where people and the forests, in this case the surrounding Helena National Forest, have learned to co-exist.

Lewis & Clark Co Lincoln lodge

The log/ rustic theme of the new post office is rare in Montana–and I am grateful that it is not the standardized designed rectangular box that the postal service has built in too many Montana towns in the last generation.  The log aesthetic of the buildings are further enhanced by various log sculptures set in and around the town.  They too harken to the imagined past of the frontier era of the late 19th century.

Lewis & Clark Co Lincoln 9

On the eastern end of Lincoln, however, is emerging an entirely new, and welcome, tradition:  the Sculpture in the Wild park.  A vision of Rick Dunkerly, the park invites artists from across the country and around the world to come to Lincoln and  to leave, on

 

getlstd-property-photo

Source: Wikipedia

the ground, their own vision of the interplay between environment, culture, and people in the Blackfoot Valley.  The park idea is breathtaking–and just getting underway when I visited in 2015.  But it is promising indeed, and a much better way to identify and think about what the people of Lincoln, Montana, are all about–than a crazed PhD who saw little hope in the future.

 

Yellowstone Gateways: Gardiner

HPIM0597.JPGThe most popular Montana gateway into Yellowstone National Park is at Gardiner, in the southern tip of Park County.  Here is where the Northern Pacific Railway stopped its trains, at a Rustic styled passenger station long ago demolished, and travelers passed through the gate above–designed by architect Robert Reamer–and started their journey into the park.

img_2966By the mid-20th century, Gardiner had become a highway town, the place in-between the beautiful drive through the Paradise Valley on U.S. Highway 89 (now a local paved road)

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to the northern edge of the national park boundary.  Here at Gardiner, there are two rather distinct zones of tourism development.  On the north side of the Yellowstone River along U.S. 89 is a mid to late 20th century roadside landscape, including such classic bits of roadside architecture as the Hillcrest Motel and Cabins, the Jim Bridger Motor Lodge, and the Absaroka Lodge as well as a plethora of other visitor services

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On the south side river, closest to the park entrance, is an earlier layer of commercial development, ranging from the turn of the 20th century to the early years of the 21st century.  A major change in the last 30 years is how this section of town has been remodeled and rebuilt (such as the modern Rustic style of the Yellowstone Association building below) with a wholly new streetscape and road plan installed c. 2015.

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Yet, mixed in with all of tourism businesses, are community institutions that have served local residents for decades.  My favorite is the Gardiner Community Center, built in 1910 as an opera house but transformed into a community building by the Fraternal Order of Eagles when it took over the building’s management in 1928.  The building has served the community as a school, with basketball games in the large open hall, and then for many other community functions and as home to the local WFW chapter.  The Greater Gardiner Community Center acquired this landmark in 2015 and is developing plans for its restoration and revitalization, good news indeed.

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Another key community institution with Gardiner’s trademark stonework comes from the second half of the 20th century, St. Williams Catholic Church.

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Recent and on-going local efforts to re-energize the historic town should meet with success, for there are significant historic commercial buildings, dwellings, and public buildings on both sides of the Yellowstone River.

img_2957The plan to develop a new Gardiner library at the old Northern Pacific depot site at part of the Gardiner Gateway Project is particularly promising, giving the town a new community anchor but also reconnecting it to the railroad landscape it was once part of. Something indeed to look for when I next visit this Yellowstone Gateway.

 

 

Augusta, more than just a rodeo

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot Augusta 005My friends in the environs of Helena have been surprised that after 300 something posts I had yet to say anything about Augusta, a crossroads town in northern Lewis and Clark County along U.S. Highway 287, during my revisit of the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan. They knew that I loved the open range drive to Augusta, whether approaching from U.S. 287 or U.S. Highway 89.

Teton Co US 89 to gilman and AugustaThen, the various businesses and bars along Main Street represented not just a favorite place in rural Lewis and Clark County, but also document a classic western town with great roadside architecture such as the Wagon Wheel Motel.

The annual rodeo in Augusta is one of the state’s best, but Augusta is worth much more than just a summer visit during rodeo season.  When I returned in 2014 I found one key building missing–the historic Great Northern Railway passenger station, shown below from a 1984 image.

Created with GIMPAugusta began as a crossroads town for neighboring ranches; the later extension of a railroad spur to nearby Gilman spurred competition between the two towns.  But Augusta Teton Co US 89 August and Gilman hwy marker 1won that battle–today not much outside of the Montana Highway Historical marker, a steel bridge, and a disappearing railroad corridor remains of Gilman.

Augusta has several significant properties, starting with its historic high school building, a bit of neoclassicism on the northern plains.

img_9066But I like the football field almost as much as the historic school–could a more neighborhood setting even be imagined?

Lewis & Clark County Augusta football field 1Then there are historic commercial buildings from the early 20th century–several with National Register qualities, especially the F. M. Mack General Merchandise store–a frame building with paired bracketed cornice.

img_9073Over 300 people call Augusta home today, a slight increase since my work 30 years ago.  The community not only has kept the historic buildings noted above, residents also have opened the Augusta Area Museum–heritage is clearly part of the town’s future.

Lewis & Clark County Augusta museum

Chico Hot Springs

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During my historic preservation plan travels across Montana in 1984-1985, the old hot springs hotel shown above–Chico Hot Springs near the Yellowstone River in the Paradise Valley of Park County–was a certain destination.  My colleague at the state historic preservation office, Lon Johnson, encouraged me to stop–not only did the place have the best food in the region it also was cheap lodging, for one of the old single rooms without bath upstairs. the first visit hooked me–and ever since Chico Hot Springs has always been my number one stop when planning any of my return visits to Big Sky Country.

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Chico Hot Springs in 1988.

Chico was among my top recommendations for a future listing in the National Register of Historic Places–and it was finally listed in the National Register in 1998–almost at the time of the 100th anniversary of the hotel.  Locals had taken advantage of the natural hot spring as soon as miners began to flood Emigrant Gulch in the 1860s.  But there was little development, largely because Hunter’s Hot Springs, near Springdale to the northeast in Park County, was already established as the region’s premier resort.  Not until 1900 was the springs’ commercial potential developed.  That was when Percy Matheson Knowles and William Knowles built the Colonial Revival-styled hotel–but a loose colonial feel to the exterior with a much more rustic style interior.  At the time of my first visits in the early 1980s, the place had gained some fame, not only for its scenes in the cult western movie Rancho Deluxe but as a genuine place of history and relaxation on the northern gateway into Yellowstone National Park.

With fame and increased visitation came changes–new wings with much more modern amenities, additional fancy cabins, even a spa. Once there had been the restaurant, the

pool, and the horse rides for entertainment.  Chico was a stop over, or a good night out.  Now it was a destination in its own right. But the changes, for me, have meant little–I still go there for the welcome and comfort of the lobby, the good food and drink, a chance

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to sit in the pool or out on the porch, and to think about old hot springs hotels like this place–where travelers had stopped for over 100 years, to take in the waters, have a drink, and relish the wildness of the west.  Chico since the early 1980s is not quite so wild–except in the winter months when many tourists are gone, and the place reverts back to the locals for a few months.  But to my mind, anytime is a good time to stop and stay awhile.

 

Cut Bank’s Public Art

No doubt readers may doubt that public art and Cut Bank are used in the same sentence, but the use of historical murals to enliven the town’s historic commercial core was the biggest change I experienced from visiting Cut Bank in 1984 and 2015.

cut-bank-sign

This welcome sign on U.S. Highway 2 in 1984 touted the oil boom that so re-shaped the town and Glacier County generally in the second half of the twentieth century.  Then the town’s penguin, a roadside landmark on U.S. 2,  accepted the commonly heard observation that Cut Bank was the coldest place in all of Montana–its World War II air base always was reporting weather conditions, ensuring that many Americans equated Cut Bank with frozen temps.

2011-mt-glacier-county-cut-bank-028I am speaking instead of the wide range of images and themes that visually interpret the town’s and county’s history. Finding public art murals about the open landscape once dominated by the Blackfeet Indians and the buffalo is not surprising–communities often embrace the deep history of their land.

Glacier Co Cut Bank buffalo and indians mural ruralThat Cut Bank also has a large expressive mural about the Lewis and Clark Expedition is not surprising–murals about Lewis and Clark were installed across several towns during the bicentennial of the expedition in the first decade of this century. East of Cut Bank is Camp Disappointment, one of the more important sites associated with the Corps of Discovery.

Glacier Co Cut Bank L&C muralNor is it surprising to see communities commemorate their homesteading roots, and the importance of agriculture and cattle ranching.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural homesteaders

Glacier Co Cut Bank cowboys murals 3But I was surprised, pleasantly, by the number of murals that also documented the town’s twentieth century history, whether it is the magnificent steel trestle of the Great Northern Railway just west of the commercial core, or a mural that reminded everyone of the days when the railroad dominated all traffic here.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural trestle

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The actual trestle along U.S. Highway 2.

img_9162It is this first half of the 20th century feel that the murals interpret–the era that actually built most of the historic buildings you find there today–that I find so impressive and memorable about Cut Bank, be it people on bicycles or what an old service station was like.

Glacier Co Cut Bank theater deco bike mural

img_9173Space matters when you interpret the built environment, and these various murals reflect not only a sense of town pride and identity they also give meaning to buildings and stories long forgotten.

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