Missoula County’s country towns

IMG_8038Missoula County has grown, a lot, since my state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985, especially in the county seat of Missoula and surrounding suburbs.  Yet Missoula County still has several spectacular rural drives, like Montana Highway 83 above at Condon, along with distinctive country towns.  This post will share some of my favorites.

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Let’s just stay at Condon.  The Swan Valley Centre–it was just a general store back in the day–still operates, providing for locals and in the summer the tourists who are flocking to Seeley Lake or passing through on the way to Glacier National Park or Flathead Lake.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club 2The Condon Community Center and adjacent Swan Valley Community Library serve as additional hubs for those living along the lakes and mountains of northeast Missoula County.  Both buildings are excellent examples of mid-20th century Rustic style–a look that, in different variations, dominates the Highway 35 corridor.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center 1Condon is also the base for the Condon Work Center, home to the Great Northern Fire Crew, of the Flathead National Forest.  Here you can take a mile-long Swan Ecosystem Trail and learn of the diversity of life in this national forest region.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley LakeSouth of Condon on Montana Highway 83 is Seeley Lake–a place that certainly has boomed in the last 30 years–witness the improved highway, new businesses, and population that has increased over 60 percent since my last visit in 1992.  Yet it still had places rooted in the community’s earlier history such as the Sullivan Memorial Community Hall–a good example of mid-20th century Rustic style.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley Lake community hallAnd it had added one of my favorite bits of roadside architecture in this part of Montana: the Chicken Coop Restaurant as well as opening a new Seeley Lake Historical Museum and Chamber of Commerce office at a spectacular highway location just outside of town.

Let’s stay in the mountains but go northwest of Missoula to the historic Ninemile Remount Depot of the U.S. Forest Service.  In earlier posts I have praised the historic preservation work of the Forest Service at various places across Montana–30 years ago it might have been like pulling teeth to have forest service managers to recognize the many heritage assets under their jurisdiction but no more.  The Forest Service has done right by many of its National Register historic places, with Ninemile Depot being a particularly good example. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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In 1984 too few of us were focused on resources coming from the New Deal era.  When I was at Ninemile in 1984 I was looking for the historic school house–and was pleased 30 years later to find that it stood, and had been converted into a residence.

Missoula Co Ninemile schoolI don’t recall even thinking about the forest service facility, but here was an entire complex devoted to the forest service’s use of mules and horses before the days of the ATV that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The remount depot is an interesting

mix of restrained Colonial Revival styled offices and residences combined with a early 20th century functional aesthetic for the various barns and work buildings, which could have come straight from the USDA’s standardized plans for farm buildings of that time.

If you want to explore how the New Deal transformed the Montana landscape, the Ninemile Remount Depot is a must stop.  It has a museum about what has and still happens here and campgrounds are located nearby in the national forest.

Missoula Co Frenchtown RR corridor

Frenchtown is a Milwaukee Road railroad town closer to Missoula and the city’s sprawl to the northwest has impacted the town, as evident from the new school complex. When I visited in 1984 the town was a paper mill town.  Waldorf Paper Products Company opened the mill in 1957, but a successor company, Smurfit-Stone, closed the mill in 2010.  At that time the town had experienced a significant population boom, having grown from 883 in 2000 to over 1800 in 2010.

Missoula Co Frenchtown school 2The name Frenchtown dates to 1868 and is a reference to a number of French Canadians who moved here in the early settlement period.  A National Register-listed church, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (1884) marks that first generation of settlers.  Its classical-tinged cupola has long been the town’s most famous landmark.

Missoula Co Frenchtown St John Baptist Catholic NR 3The Milwaukee Road built through here in 1907-1908 and there remains a handful of historic business buildings from the time of the Milwaukee boom. There is one landmark

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from the paper mill days that I recall from my work in 1984–because I stopped here for a break back then: the Alcan Bar–and note the “F” for Frenchtown on the hill behind it.

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Evaro is also northwest of Missoula, more north than west along U.S. Highway 93.  The highway’s four-lane expansion has changed so much of the roadside landscape between this place and Hamilton far to the south.  Yet Evaro still has its c. 1930 one-room school, which is now the community center, helping to preserve this historic building. And its has

IMG_7827another roadside landmark–the Bucksnort Bar, just further evidence to add to the Chicken Coop and the Alcan that you won’t go hungry if you explore the small towns of Missoula County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bridger: Northern Pacific Railroad Hub in the Clark’s Fork Valley

IMG_5650As you head north into Montana from Wyoming on U. S. 310, the first substantial place you encounter is Bridger, named for famed fur trader and early Yellowstone traveler Jim Bridger.  Like its neighbor to the north in Fromberg, Bridger is another turn of the 20th century Northern Pacific Railroad town in the Clark’s Fork River Valley that was much the same from my initial visit 31 years ago.  Its population had remained steady–a tad over 700, about the same as in 1984, and only 150 or so less than its height in 1950.

IMG_5659The town’s grain elevators speak to the formative impact of the railroad.  Here back in the late 1890s engineers followed a well worn and recognized Indian trail–a similar route to what Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians chose a generation earlier as he tried to find safety for his people, traveling from Wyoming into the Clark’s Fork Valley.

IMG_5631The town’s commercial district retains much of its early 20th century look.  Old bank buildings dominate the town center, while substantial 2-story commercial buildings (including properties listed in the National Register) remain, showing how quickly merchants came to Bridger and launched businesses to attract the growing number of homesteaders in the Clark’s Fork River valley in the 1910s.

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IMG_5655That first generation of settlers did their part to build lasting community institutions.  The Bridger United Methodist Church is an impressive example of vernacular Gothic design. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The town library is almost a picture perfect example of what this institution should look like in a small town setting.

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IMG_5636The irrigation ditch drifting through the town park is a reminder of how the engineered landscape of irrigated fields provided much of Bridger’s early wealth and development.  The park itself was a creation of the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s.

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Within the park is a ceramic and brick arch, one of the town’s many examples of public art.  The mural on a side of a store seen earlier in this post is another example while creative metal statues of wild horses grazing or the imposing figure of Jim Bridger himself welcoming visitors at the southern end of the town underscores a local tradition of public art not often seen in Montana’s small towns.

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IMG_5661                     Carbon Co Bridger jim bridger mt 2 - Version 2

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Other historic statements of the town’s sense of community include the 1930s Civic Center, a bit worn today but a center for community gatherings and social events for decades.

IMG_5651Bridger’s schools from the 1960s introduce Montana modernism to the townscape, almost like spaceships landing within the middle of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  Modernism 1960s style also characterize Sacred Heart Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and the Bridger Seventh Day Adventist Church, constructed in 1965.

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St. Paul Lutheran ChurchIMG_5639                                            Sacred Heart Catholic Church

IMG_5649These community anchors date from 50 years ago, so obviously growth has been stagnant, or stable, pick your terms, since the boom introduced in the valley through expanded irrigation projects in the post-World War II era.  But all of the buildings are well maintained, and are part of the sense of overall sense of pride you get from a visit to Bridger.

IMG_5654Bridger has reminders, both in monuments and in businesses, of the deep past of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  It is an interesting place of strong institutions, several National Register-listed historic homes, and local business, and a significant part of the often ignored history of the Clark’s Fork Valley.