Pointing the Way

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Montana Highway 87 at the state’s border with Idaho

It’s time to find your way to the Big Sky Country, for whatever your route, you will find a warm welcome of signs, of all sorts, whether you are traveling by motorbike, automobile, truck, or taking the grand Amtrak route across the northern counties, Montanans will make sure you know where you are.

Phillips Co Malta GN depot sign

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U.S. Highway 212 coming at the border with South Dakota.

Valley Co Opheim sign

Entering Montana via Montana Highway 24 from Canada.

Valley Co Frazer 1 sign

There’s certainly a cast of characters to encounter, from the Vikings at Opheim and the bear cubs at Frazer (above) to giants walking across the land at Rockvale (below) or even fur traders immortalized in

IMG_2799metal like Thunder jack in the Shields Valley on U.S. 89 north of Livingston.  There’s always a wave and friendly greeting!

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Leave your GPS at home.  There are so many signs, you really can’t get lost, whether you on on the vastness of the plains or traveling between the Blackfeet Reservation and the

Teton Co Pendroy sign US 87

wonders of Glacier National Park, signs will point the way. So head out for Froid–or be willing to explore the curvy roads between prairie and mountains in southern Montana.

Roosevelt Co Froid 1 sign

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Where ever you end up your journey, someone or something will be there to provide essential roadside services, like Little Montana on Highway 200 and even get you to stop

IMG_0029.JPGand consider those who have passed before with the many historical markers.

IMG_0051.JPGThe vastness and diversity of the Big Sky Country is amazing, with so many bridges to

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Madison County

cross that you can’t go wrong.  Kick up your boots, have a drink, stay awhile, and enjoy!

Blaine Co Chinook Elk Bar sign NR

An end of the century trip to Central Montana

The vast majority of my effort to document and think about the historic landscapes of Montana lie with two time periods, 1984-85 and 2012-16. But in between those two focused periods, other projects at the Western Heritage Center in Billings brought me back to the Big Sky Country. Almost always I found a way to carve out a couple of additional days to get away from the museum and study the many layers of history, and change, in the landscape by taking black and white images as I had in 1984-85. One such trip came in 1999, at the end of the 20th century.

In Billings itself I marveled at the changes that historic preservation was bringing to the Minnesota Avenue district. The creation of an “Internet cafe” (remember those?) in the McCormick Block was a guaranteed stop.

But my real goal was to jet up highways 191 and 80 to end up in Fort Benton. Along the way I had to stop at Moore, one of my favorite Central Montana railroad towns, and home to a evocative set of grain elevators.

Then a stop for lunch at the Geraldine bar and the recently restored Geraldine depot, along a historic spur of the Milwaukee Road. I have always loved a stop in this plains country town and this day was especially memorable as residents showed off what they had accomplished in the restoration. Another historic preservation plus!

Then it was Fort Benton, a National jewel seemingly only appreciated by locals, who faced an often overwhelming task for preserving and finding sustainable new uses for the riverfront buildings.

It was exciting to see the recent goal that the community eagerly discussed in 1984–rebuilding the historic fort.

A new era for public interpretation of the northern fur trade would soon open in the new century: what a change from 1984.

I beat a quick retreat back to the south, following the old Manitoba Road route along the Missouri and US Highway 87 and back via highway 89 to the Yellowstone Valley. I had to pay a quick tribute to Big Timber, and grab a brew at the Big Timber

Bar. The long Main Street in Big Timber was obviously changing–new residents and new businesses. Little did I know how much change would come in the new century.

One last detour came on the drive to see if the absolutely spectacular stone craftsmanship of the Absarokee school remained in place–it did, and still does.

My work in Tennessee had really focused in the late 1990s on historic schools: few matched the distinctive design of Absarokee. I had to see it again.

Like most trips in the 1990s to Billings I ended up in Laurel–I always felt this railroad town had a bigger part in the history of Yellowstone County than

generally accepted. The photos I took in 1999 are now striking– had any place in the valley changed more than Laurel in the 21st century?

Roundup Montana: A town with a plan and on the move

One of the most exciting results of my recent work on the historic landscape of Montana is how many residents contact me with developments–both good and bad but mostly good–as they use their past and historic built environments to build new futures for their families and community.  Such an update just arrived last week from Roundup, the seat of Musselshell County.

roundup schoolA resident reported on the towns decision to join the Main Street program and how a community partnership effort had been formed to guide the process, assuring me that the wonderful historic Roundup school would find a new future as a multi-purpose and use facility.  That update has spurred me to share more images from this distinctive Montana town that I have enjoyed visiting for over 30 years.

Roundup stem of TAs I discussed in my earlier large posting on Roundup, it is both a railroad town on the historic mainline of the Milwaukee Road and a highway town, with a four-lane Main Street defining the commercial district. It is less than a hour’s drive north of Billings, Montana’s largest urban area.  But nestled at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S. 87, Roundup is a totally different world from booming Billings.

Roundup lodgeRoundup store  You see the difference if how false frame stores and lodge buildings from the first years of the town’s beginnings still stand, and how the commercial district is pockmarked with more stately early 20th century brick commercial blocks, whether two stories high or a mere one-story. Yet the architectural details tell you the community had ambitions.  It

roundup 119 Main

was just that hard times came in the 1920s and stayed awhile, despite the best efforts of New Deal reformers who helped to fund the county’s magnificent Art Deco-inspired Musselshell County Courthouse at the end of the depression decade,

roundup courthouse

The bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road in the early 1980s did not help recovery, and it was soon after that I found myself in Roundup for the first time in 1984.

roundup elevatorI found a place then, and still today, that was proud of its past and of its community.  I visited and spoke at the county museum, which was housed in the old Catholic school and included one of county’s first homestead cabins moved to the school grounds. The nearby town park and fairgrounds (covered in an earlier post) helped to highlight just how beautiful the Musselshell River valley was at Roundup.

Roundup museum

Roundup river

Community pride was evident in the well-kept homes of the downtown neighborhood, and I have already posted on the architecturally important modernist Catholic church.

roundup jailThen the public buildings–the school, the courthouse, and even the classically tinged county jail shown above–added to the town’s impressive heritage assets. Of course some buildings I ignored in the 1980s but find compelling today–like in the riverstone lined posts of the modernist Wells Fargo Bank, and the effective and efficient look of city hall.

roundup bank

 

roundup City Hall

Yes when you take a close look at Roundup–the possibilities are there, as the new community partnership effort proves.  I can’t help but encourage this grassroots effort.  Good job Roundup, and I will be there soon enough to grab a float at the A&W and explore how a community moves forward with their impressive past as a foundation.

roundup A&W drive in

Finding new uses for old landmarks: lessons from Red Lodge

Roosevelt school, red lodge

In my Montana travels over the last two years, one of the most interesting, and potentially impactful, projects I encountered was in Red Lodge, where the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation is leading efforts to revitalize the historic Roosevelt School. When, earlier in the decade, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced its interest in the one-room and rural schools of the Treasure State, I worried somewhat that the larger historic schools in small towns and county seats might be forgotten.  Red Lodge showed me that was not the case.

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I attended a historic preservation conference there in the summer of 2016, where the Montana Preservation Alliance used the school’s historic gymnasium as the conference hall–a simple yet very effective conversion.  Gyms had always been community gathering spots, for basketball obviously but also for all sorts of events.  There is always a comfortable feel to these spaces.

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My surprise came when we toured the building.  I thought that due to the name Roosevelt, that the school had been yet another of the dozens of schools constructed in Montana during the “New Deal” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the depression decade of the 1930s.  Wrong–it was a 1921 building, named for former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the champion of national parks and the open rugged west that Red Lodge was very much part of.  Charles Suiter was the architect.  He had twenty plus years earlier worked with the much more famous Montana architect John Paulsen as the contractor for the landmark Montana Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman.

So, the overall context for the school was different from what I had gathered in the past.  Here was an early 1920s community statement by Red Lodge leaders–the homestead boom had already busted, and tough times were just ahead for Montanans but the community then felt it was time for a modern building, with well-lit interiors and well-placed blackboards that did not glare in the sunlight.  And throughout the building there

roosevelt school red lodge 4

Roosevelt school red lodge 2were so many intact details from the time of construction–built-in storage spaces, private restroom stalls, when hallway clocks ticking down the minutes in a day–the place was like a time capsule.

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And then there was the third floor masterpiece, the combination library and performance hall.  Classical pilasters framed the stage and added touches of class and seriousness to the space.  Here was a public building that spoke to community ambitions but also community pride.

roosevelt school, red lodge 5Intimate spaces, classroom spaces, grand public spaces.  The Roosevelt School meant too much to be left to the wrecking ball, and the progress the community foundation is making there is reassuring:  once again smart, effective adaptive reuse can turn a building in a sustainable heritage asset for the town. It’s worth checking out, and supporting.  And it is next door to one of the state’s amazing throwback 1960s roadside

Yodeler Motel Red Lodge

experience, The Yodeler Motel, built in 1964.  Step back in time but also look at the heritage-infused future of Red Lodge:  a worthwhile stop indeed.

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Ready to hit the road in 2018

Rosebud town signs, roadside, Rosebud CoIn late may I return to the Big Sky Country, my first visit in two years, when I will once again be looking for changes in the historic built environment as I speed along the state’s

Prairie Co Fallon YS bridge NR and I-94 bridge roadsidehighways and backroads, crossing the bridges over the Yellowstone River, and trying my best to catch as many Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad freight trains as possible, although I doubt that I will ever have such a fun moment than in 2013 when I

Valley Co Vandalia BNSF 3caught this freight along the original Great Northern route while I was driving on the original–still dirt and gravel–road of U.S. Highway 2 between Tampico and Vandalia.

Valley Co Samuelson statues US 2 w of Glasgow 4 roadside - Version 2Certainly I will keep my eye out for Montana’s famed wildlife, although I don’t expect again to see a bighorn sheep outside of Glasgow, especially one being chased by a dinosaur.  I will also stay on the lookout, as regular readers of this blog well know, for the beef–it is rarely a question of where’s the beef in Montana.

Missoula Co MT 200/83 jct roadside  1No doubt there will be both new and older historical markers to stop and read; the evolving interpretation of Montana’s roadside continues to be such a strong trend.

Valley Co MT Hwy marker US 2 before Vandalia turn roadsideAnd through all of the brief stay in the state–perhaps 10 days at the most–I will also stop and enjoy those local places, far removed from the chain-drives roadside culture of our

Matt's Drive-in, detail, roadsidenation, where you can enjoy a great burger, rings, and shake, like Matt’s in Butte, or a good night sleep at any of the many “Mom and Pop’s” motels along the state’s highways, such as this one in Big Timber.

Big Timber roadside motel

See you on the road!

A winter day in Tennessee, fond thoughts of Montana

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There’s been a bit of winter in Tennessee in early January 2018 and my university has been closed for two days due to three inches of snow (that’s no misprint). Days like this one lead me to reflection of my jaunt across Big Sky Country in the cold of February to the warmth of mid-May 1984. I had spent 2 months at my cubbyhole in the basement of the Montana Historical Society, shown below, and I was ready I

thought to hit the road. Wonders of all sorts I would find and here are just a few of the special (admittedly perhaps not spectacular to outsiders) places I encountered.

Just up the tracks from the opening image at the southern tip of Beaverhead County was the Hotel Metlen in Dillon. A grad student recently asked me about it, having come across it while trolling the internet. It sounds like a fleabag the student remarked–I probably didn’t help when I recalled staying there for 10 bucks in 1984. But what a great Second Empire-styled railroad hotel!

It had upgraded during my last visit in 2012–still classy in a dumpy way, if that makes any sense.

On the opposite end of the state, at Thompson Falls, was another favorite lodging spot, a classic 1950s motor lodge, the Falls Motel. Spiffy now but still Mom and Pop and so far away from the chain experience of today.

But as regulars of this blog know, I didn’t care where I stayed as long as beef, booze, and pie were nearby. Real rules for the road. The beef could range from the juicy roadside burgers from Polson (the b/w image) to the great huge steaks at Willow Creek (the yellow tinted roadhouse).

And speaking of roadhouses Wise River Club from 1984 above is still going strong and as friendly as ever. While the owners keep changing at Big Timber–the sign still

chops away and the beer is still cold. That is what you need on the road.

Wait! Pie matters too, represented by the Wagon Wheel in Drummond, above. Southerners do brag about pie, and I believed in that regional myth, until I traveled Montana. I swear that there are most great pie places in a single Montana County (say, Cascade) than all of Tennessee. On cold days I still think of a Montana cup of coffee (always strong) and a piece of grit pie. In 1984 I just needed that one afternoon stop to push on for a few more hours of driving and documenting the captivating landscape of the Big Sky Country.

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