Zurich and Lohman: Two Hi-Line Towns in Blaine County, Montana

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Zurich, Montana, taken north of town looking south, 1984.

I have always enjoyed exploring Blaine County, Montana.  In earlier posts I have discussed such famous places as the Fort Belknap Reservation, and Harlem, its north gateway town, as well as Hays near the south end of the reservation and Cleveland, one of my favorite places in the region.  Chinook, the county seat, has been featured in a couple of posts, and I might add another one yet.  then the Chief Joseph Battleground of the Bear’s Paw has gotten a considerable deal of attention, due to the national significance of the place, and the recent improvements to the battlefield from the National Park Service.  Why so much on Blaine County places?  Regular readers of this blog know of my interest in the irrigation systems of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in

Blaine Co Milk River s of Chinook

the early twentieth century.  The Milk River system was an important project, and the towns along U.S. Highway 2 and the Great Northern Railway mainline prospered, temporarily, because of the growth of the system.  Plus the Milk River, in my opinion, doesn’t get the attention of many–and it is a spectacular river valley in many places.

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Zurich, west of Chinook and also abutting the river and the highway, has fared somewhat better.  I have earlier commented on the existing street names–Park Avenue highlighted here–and the hopes for the future of the very names chosen at the turn of the century.  Compared to my visit in 1984, the town has lost business and population over the last 30 years.

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Blaine Co Zurich 1 bank

The Spa Bar still operated sporadically when I visited last in 2014.  I wonder if it still opens its doors today.  I love the name–a sly reference to Zurich, Switzerland, which is internationally known for its many spas.

Blaine Co Zurich 7 Spa Bar

What appears to be an old rural church–or was it a school, or both?–still stood, its gable front slowly coming apart.

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But across the street was the modern Zurich Elementary School–an attractive touch of modern school design in such a small place.  According to the public schools website,

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Zurich had 23 students in 2020–while another internet source said the school was permanently closed.  I hope that has not happened–if the school goes Zurich will be yet another Hi-Line ghost town quickly.

Eastern Montana County Seats: Scobey

Daniels Co Scobey signs

For whatever reason, readers of Montana’s Historic Landscapes have been very interested in Daniels County, way up in the northeast corner of the state.  In previous posts I have discussed the Daniels County Courthouse–one of my favorites–the county’s historic rural schools and Flaxville, one of the most interesting tiny towns left from the homesteading era in all of eastern Montana.

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Today I want to look back at Scobey, the seat of Daniels County, which was established in 1920 at the end of the homesteading era.  Sometimes it is referred to as the most isolated county seat in America.  But whatever its isolation may be, I found Scobey a relaxing, interesting place, and actually took many images.  But outside of the courthouse, schools, the fairgrounds, and wonderful Pioneer Museum, I did not share much with the readers.  This post changes that.

Daniels Co Scobey 5 libraryThe county library, above, is small but busy, a reminder of how important these public buildings can be.  About 5 years ago, the time of my last visit, Scobey still had its own medical center, below, as well as a distinctive post office, different from many in the region due to its modernist style.

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Daniels Co Scobey post office

Much of its past remains, and remains in use.  The railroad corridor had changed–the passenger depot was gone, but historic grain elevators still mark how Scobey was a major grain shipping point for much of the 20th century.

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Historic churches have left deep roots in Scobey.  Below are the Scobey United Methodist Church, the Scobey Lutheran Church (which has a wonderful Gothic altar), and St. Bonitus Catholic Church, another example of mid-century modern in the Catholic church buildings of Eastern Montana.

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Daniels Co Scobey Lutheran

Daniels Co Scobey St Philip Bonitus

The residential area has plenty of vernacular-styled 20th century homes, most from the first half of the century.  I particularly liked the next two bungalows on Timmons Street.

Daniels Co Scobey Timmons St

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Five years ago the business district had clearly weathered the 2007-2008 recession and lots of stores and bars were open, anchored by Independence Bank, another example of 1960s-1970s modern commercial style in Scobey.

Businesses from the first decade of settlement also were part of the “downtown” fabric, such as this historic two-story Masonic Hall and the Pioneer Hotel, which once served as a first stop for homesteaders upon their arrival in Scobey.

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Daniels Co Scobey Pioneer Hotel

There is a persistence in Scobey that is admirable.  The Daniel County Leader, the local newspaper, also has weathered the storm of media change in the 21st century and stands in the heart of town, still undoubtedly serving as a community communication center.

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How I missed these properties in my initial post–well I can’t explain that.  I am sure I had a good reason 5 years ago. But what is really inexplicable to me is why I did not share more of my photos from the Scobey School–especially its football and track field below–

Daniels Co Scobey 1 football

along with more interior images from the Daniels County Courthouse, the one building in Scobey that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Here you see the courthouse’s long hallway (with its National Register sign in the corner), the records vault, the courtroom’s jury box, and the jury room.  Just walking into this place takes me to the beginning years of Daniels County.

Daniels Co Scobey courthouse interior

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Daniels Co Scobey courthouse interior jury room

One property type many people ask about are cemeteries.  Unfortunately I did not have the time to record every tombstone in these places–another time, perhaps.  But I can add to the blog additional images from the Daniels County Cemetery, which lies outside of Scobey.  These images hardly cover everything but they do document what a special place this tiny county seat is, for residents and for visitors willing to go exploring.

Daniels Co Scobey Cemetery

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Denton: Fergus County’s Agricultural Trade Centers

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Fergus County, with Lewistown as the county seat, lies at the heart of Central Montana.  Although gold and other precious minerals were found at Maiden and other sites in the early years, the region grew once the railroads came at the turn of the century.  More than a dozen substantial agricultural trade centers, all connected to Lewistown by the rails, soon surrounded the county seat.  When I surveyed the region in the 1980s, the continued vitality of these towns impressed–and they still deserve a close look today.

Denton Fergus Co

In 1984 I came looking for railroad depots, frankly, but was blown away by the Farmers State Bank, one of the best “strongbox” style of small town banks I had encountered anywhere in Montana.  The town then was in a pattern of slow, steady decline, from a high of 435 residents in 1950 to 356 in 1980.  That rate in most Montana country towns meant that the bank was long gone–but here it remained and stood proudly along Highway 81.

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Thirty years later, the bank building still made its statement of permanence in materials (brick) and in style along the highway.  Indeed, the town’s population had continued to slip downward, especially in the last 20 years, reaching a mere 255 residents in the last census.  But the bank remains–and even has a new addition to the rear of the building.

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I passed by this iconic Fergus County building in late May of this year, just weeks after the completion of its merger with Dutton State Bank (another great building to be discussed later).  All was well: it remained one of Denton’s anchors.

IMG_9896The town’s schools are another important anchor.  The football field (see the first image) serves as the eastern gateway to Denton; the schools are bunched together as though they grew organically from that spot one hundred years ago and have evolved ever since.

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True, Denton and its neighbor to the west Coffee Creek celebrated their centennials in 2013.  And it was appropriate that a granary announced this fact since grain is king here. The elevators standing along the old Milwaukee Road line still boldly state the importance of agriculture to Denton. Even after the Milwaukee ceased operations in 1980 state officials worked with local governments and ranchers to create a new Central Montana line, which kept the elevators running, and in more recent times, has made Denton the western terminus of the popular Charlie Russell Choo-Choo excursion train.

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Schools, a bank, and grain elevators are anchors but Denton also has maintained vibrant cultural institutions from its town library, housed in a brilliant c1960 building, and churches such as the historic Gothic-styled Our Savior Lutheran Church and St. Anthony Catholic Church.

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Residents also have kept the local Masonic Lodge in operation, housed in the 2nd floor of the post office building, which, due to its overall neoclassical style-appearance and corner lot setting, was probably a bank building built shortly after Denton became a town in 1913.

Fergus Co Denton post office and masonic hall  - Version 2