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.

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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

 

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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.

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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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Flathead County’s Gateway Communities to Glacier

Flathead Co Columbia Falls mural

U.S. Highway 2 east of Kalispell has grown into a four-lane highway (mostly–topography thus far has kept it as a two-lane stretch west of Hungry Horse) designed to move travelers back and forth from Kalispell to Glacier National Park.  In my 1984-85 state historic preservation plan work, I thought of Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, and Martin

Flathead Co Hungry Horse HuckleberryCity as one large tourism funnel.  After spending a good part of 2006-2007 working with local residents and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about the heritage and preservation of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–one of the most notorious gateways into any national park–I learned to look deeper than the highway landscape and find some real jewels in each of these Glacier National Park gateway communities.

There is much more than the highway to Columbia Falls, as the three building blocks above indicate, not to mention the lead image of this blog, the town’s Masonic Lodge which has been turned into one huge public art mural about the town’s history as well as its surrounding landscape.  Go to the red brick Bandit’s Bar above, and you soon discover that Columbia Falls has a good sense of itself, and even confidence that it can survive new challenges as its population has soared by over 2,000 residents since the 1980s, totaling over 5,000 today.

Once solely dependent on the Montana Veterans’ Home (1896), which is now a historic district, and then relying on the Weyerhaeuser sawmill for year round employment, Columbia Falls faces a different future now once the mill closed in the summer of 2016, taking away 200 jobs. As the historic business buildings above indicate, historic preservation could be part of that future, as the downtown’s mix of classic Western Commercial blocks mesh with modern takes on Rustic and Contemporary design and are complemented, in turn, by historic churches and the Art Deco-influenced school.

Once you leave the highway, in other words, real jewels of turn of the 20th century to mid-20th century design are in the offing.  In 1984–I never looked that deep.

Flathead Co Hungry Horse 1At Hungry Horse, however, I did leave the highway and explored the marvelous landscape created by the Hungry Horse Dam and Reservoir, a mid-20th century project by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency justified the dam as a hydroelectric power project for a growing Flathead County and as a boost to local irrigation.  The irrigation side of the project–the real reason the agency exists–never happened and Hungry Horse today is an electric power and recreational project.

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Flathead Co Hungry Horse Dam 10I appreciated the vastness of the concrete arch dam–the 11th largest concrete dam in the United States–as well as the beauty of Hungry Horse Reservoir, an under-appreciated tourism asset as anyone in Flathead County will tell you.  But again, I let just the size and impact of the dam distract me from some of the details of its construction that, today, are so striking.

Here I am thinking primarily of the contemporary design of the Visitors Center–its stone facade suggesting its connection to the now covered river bluffs but the openness of its interior conveying the ideas of space associated with 1950s design.

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img_8779I am concerned, however, about news in September 2015 that Reclamation has contracted for updates and renovation at the Visitor Center–let’s hope that the classic 1950s look of the property is not sacrificed.

Flathead Co Martin City

 

Martin City is just enough off of U.S. Highway 2–it is situated more on the historic Great Northern Railroad corridor–to miss out on the gateway boom of the last 30 years, although with both the Southfork Saloon and the Deer Lick Saloon it retains its old reputation as a rough-edged place for locals.

For railroad travelers in the first half of the 20th century, West Glacier was THE west gateway into Glacier National Park.  The Great Northern Railway developed both the classic Rustic-styled passenger station and the adjacent Arts and Crafts/Chalet styled Belton Chalet Hotel in 1909-1910, a year before Congress created Glacier National Park.

img_8785Architect Kirtland Cutter of Spokane was the architect and the chalet design was actually just a smaller scale and less adorned version of the Idaho State Exhibition Building that he had designed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Cutter is one of the major figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Northwest and we will look at another of his buildings for the railroad and Glacier in the next post about Lake McDonald Lodge.

The Cutter buildings for the railroad between 1909-1913 set a design standard for West Glacier to follow, be it through a modern-day visitor center and a post office to the earlier mid-20th century era of the local school and then gas stations and general stores for tourists entering the national park by automobile.

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This blog has never hidden the fact, however, that my favorite Glacier gateway in Flathead County is miles to the east along U.S. Highway 2 at the old railroad town of Essex, where the railroad still maintains facilities to help push freight trains over the Continental Divide.  The Izaak Walton Inn was one of the first National Register assignments given to

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me by State Historic Preservation Officer Marcella Sherfy–find the facts, she asked, to show that this three story bunk house, railroad offices, and local post merited exceptional significance for the National Register.  Luckily I did find those facts and shaped that argument–the owners then converted a forgotten building into a memorable historical experience. Rarely do I miss a chance to spend even a few minutes here, to watch and hear the noise of the passing trains coming from the east or from the west and to catch a sunset high in the mountains of Flathead County.

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