I had not been to Buffalo in Fergus County, Montana since 1984–some 37 years ago in the summer of 2021. The place dates to the late 19th century with a post office and trading post. In 1908 it took on the town plan you find today–elevation at the head of town along with railroad line and the public school at the other end of town–as it became part of the Great Northern Railroad route between Billings and Great Falls.
The same landmarks I found in 1984 still defined the town. The First State Bank of Buffalo (there was never a second one) was slowly ebbing away then; the bank had closed during the Great Depression, when so many Montana towns from the homesteading boom had their economic life sucked away. In 1921 I was frankly amazed that it still stood, missing a roof and part of a wall but still expressing its small-town neoclassical style with pride.
The Buffalo school was another statement building from the homesteading era, its two-story brick construction expressing not only the need of a rapidly booming place but how the residents valued public education. The school was the community’s statement of pride.
The community church made a statement of faith and community spirit for the 21st century. The town numbers less than 200 inhabitants but actually that number had grown in recent years. The Craftsman-styled church is extremely intact for a 100 year old plus building–the maintenance of the church is a credit to its members.
Not everything was as it had been in 1984. The community hall had fallen on lean times indeed.
But the hipped roof post office–the one civic building–hadn’t changed a bit. Here was a statement of continuity, and thanks to everyone who fought the good fight last decade to keep post offices alive in rural Montana.
In the winter/spring of 2020, a new German newspaper contacted me about using several images from the website taken at Lennep, a small Milwaukee Road Town, along Montana 294 in Meagher County. The newspaper wanted to consider its American counterpoint, its isolated location in Montana, and is history. The editors named the story Ghostown Lennep.
I won’t provide a translation of the entire article, but the author Leon Hohmann provided me a transcript in English, from which I learned quite a bit about Lennep, Montana. The author wrote:
“But the history of the small town begins with another person: Martin T. Grande settled in 1877 in the place that was probably still nameless at that time. This is what history books tell us. He was the first white man in this area an immigrant from Norway who made his living by keeping 3000 sheep. Shortly afterwards, other settlers from Grande’s home village came to the mountain region, worked on his ranch or built their farms.
But this arrival does not seem to have gone very smoothly: A descendant of the first settler reported in an interview that Indians had burned down the first buildings because the border between the area of the natives and the immigrants was moved further and further to the west. Thus the territory of the Indians became smaller and smaller.
In the following years, Martin T. Grande’s ranch became bigger and bigger, more Norwegians came, whom he gave work, and he took an increasingly important position. His countrymen called him “good old patriarch”.
But quite fast the contemplative collection of some ranches and farms became a bigger village. Almost overnight the actual town of Lennep, west of Martinsdale, was built along the Jawbones railway line and served as a small stopover, according to a dissertation on the history of the region. That must have been in 1899. It was also the year that an auditor from the operating company Montana Railroad travelled there and named the place after his German homeland. His name: Johann Wilhelm Fuchs “
Since interest in Lennep, Montana, has an international audience and it has always been among my favorite Milwaukee Road places, I made plans to revisit in 2021–ten years since my last visit–and see the condition of the town.
I started with a resource given a brief look in 2011–the town cemetery, which is well maintained as the Lennep Memorial Park. The names of the early settlers such as the Grande, Hoyem and Hereim families are prominent as are the Thompsons, who were Masons. The wives–not named–of Andrew Berg have a distinctive obelisk grave marker.
Leon Hohmann continued with the story of Johann Fuchs–who became Wilhelm Fuchs in his new adopted town of Lennep, Montana. Hohmann wrote:
“Johann Wilhelm Fuchs was born on September 2, 1859, in Lennep, Sarah Baldy from the Remscheid town archive found out. His parents: Hermann Fuchs from Elberfeld, who was a teacher at the higher citizen school in Lennep, and his wife Elise a born Hilger.
Growing up on Munsterplatz, he was a young adult when he decided to train as a businessman, which was quite astonishing since his father did not have this profession. But Sarah Baldy has an idea why young Johann Wilhlem took this path: Because his maternal grandfather, Johann Wilhelm Hilger, who died only a few months before the birth of his grandson, was a merchant.
The archivist suspects that this Johann Wilhelm Hilger founded the company Gebrüder Hilger with his brother Daniel. Around 1856 the brothers built a large cloth factory in Wilhelmsthal in Radevormwald, where up to 600 people worked at times. After a fire in 1890, the company had to file for insolvency. Later, the cloth factory became a paper mill, whose production was only stopped on November 30 1970. Since then, the main building has been empty and neglected.
To what extent Johann Wilhelm Fuchs became active in his grandfather’s business has not been communicated. If he did, then probably not for too long. For at the age of 23, he left his home country to start a new life in the United States of America. This is the conclusion drawn from data in the North Rhine-Westphalia State Archive.
He arrived as Johann Fuchs on August 11, 1882, on Ellis Island, New York with two pieces of luggage. He started his journey from Antwerp on the Belgenland I of the Red Star Line as passenger number 23. What he did after his arrival is unclear.
His name only reappears around 1894, when Montana Railroad is founded as the third railway company in the state. At that time, however, he called himself Wilhelm J. Fuchs. He is said to have already planned a train route from Helena to the East with Montana Railroad President Richard A. Harlow. In 1899, in the course of the construction of the Jawbones Railroad, he also travelled to the village of the settlers from Norway. He named the railway station there “Lennep”. Whether he also lived in Lennep is not known, however. His trace is finally lost in 1904 after the operating company of the Montana Railroad had left.”
The buildings that remain today appear to date to the decade of the railroad’s arrival, from c. 1907 to 1917. Certainly that decade marked the height of population and activity here. The wind-swept setting of Trinity Lutheran Church is unchanged. This Gothic Revival church remains the town’s commanding landmark, and remains the active community center. Hohmann noted: “In 1914, the beautiful building was constructed from wooden shingles. The invitation to tender for the church was published in The Harlowtown News on 25 July 1913 with the aim that the construction should be completed by 15 November of the same year. But apparently, the structure of the Trinity Lutheran Church had been delayed. The new building cost 4300 dollars, paid by the Lutheran church congregation, which was founded in 1891.”
The old town general store remains closed, and it has been mothballed to a degree with plywood over damage windows, I suspect. Hohmann wrote about this building: “The train line was necessary for the inhabitants of the ranches around Lennep because the trains supplied the grocery store with food. The goods were not only sold to the people of Lennep, but also inhabitants of the neighbouring villages. Also, the gold-digger camps in the Castle Mountains to the north are said to have supplied from Lennep. At least some hobby historians in American internet forums suspect this. Furthermore, a gravel road connected the village with the Cumberland Mine. Silver and lead were mined there.” The building clearly was a center point for trade and communication. Some deterioration has occurred, but relative minor repairs and a new coat of paint would correct that. The congregation renovated the church in 2016 and at that time added the new porch and handicap access ramp.
The school house–which has not had students since 2011– remains in decent condition although some missing roof shingles could pose water problems. Water and moisture is not the threat in this part of the west as I am accustomed to in the east but a leaky roof is never a good thing. A nearby dwelling has that modern replacement metal roof–it too stood quiet at the time of my visit in June 2021 but appears to be in solid condition.
The dwelling between the store and school, however, is in danger of serious deterioration. Half of its shingles are missing–the deck is not in great shape. You wonder if this building is not the next to disappear from Lennep.
Yet, when you stand back at the church and took back southeast toward the railroad line and town, the view of the buildings and landscape is little changed in ten years. Lennep might be a ghost town but it is still there, as a marker of the impact of the Milwaukee Road on the Meagher County landscape.
A final marker to the east can be found by continuing on Montana Highway 294, which closely follows the old Milwaukee Road corridor for several miles before the track and the highway diverge.
That would be the brick powerhouse necessary to power the electric engines that the Milwaukee Road used in this section of its route. Cows might surround it today but in the early 20th century the brick powerhouses scattered along the line were signs of modernity, of the electric power that distinguished the Milwaukee from all of the other transcontinental railroads in Montana.
I always enjoy driving along US Highway 12 in the Musselshell Valley. It is lightly traveled plus it was the historic route of the Milwaukee Road. Ever since the railroad ceased operations in 1980, the small towns along the line began to fade away.
Shawmut was one of those towns but in 1984 it still operated an elementary school, then about 50 years old, having been built during the New Deal of the 1930s. Towns that retained enough population and commitment to keep their school but had a chance.
Shawmut school district, as shown above, continued to renovate the building and make it last for another generation. The school made it into the 21st century but closed in 2015 due to declining enrollment.
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
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.
Lehman, west of Chinook adjacent to both the Milk River and U.S. Highway 2, has almost totally disappeared as a place along the tracks. What is left of the town–this deteriorating commercial building in 2013–might even be gone today.
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.
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.
What appears to be an old rural church–or was it a school, or both?–still stood, its gable front slowly coming apart.
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,
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.
Hinsdale (just over 200 people in Valley County) and Saco (just under 200 people in Phillips County) are two country towns along the Hi-Line between the much larger county seats of Glasgow and Malta. I have little doubt that few visitors ever stop, or even slow down much, as they speed along the highway. Both towns developed as railroad stops along the Great Northern Railway–the image above shows how close the highway and railroad tracks are along this section of the Hi-Line. Both largely served, and still
serve, historic ranches, such as the Robinson Ranch, established in 1891, in Phillips County. Both towns however have interesting buildings, and as long as they keep their community schools, both will survive in the future.
Hinsdale School, Valley County
Saco School, Phillips County
Of the two towns, I have discussed Saco to a far greater extent in this blog because it was one of my “targeted” stops in the 1984 survey. The State Historic Preservation Office at the Montana Historical Society had received inquiries from local residents in Saco about historic preservation alternatives and I was there to take a lot of images to share back with the preservationists in Helena. But in my earlier posts, I neglected two community
buildings, the rather different design of the post office from the 1960s and the vernacular Gothic beauty of the historic Methodist Church, especially the Victorian brackets of its bell tower.
I ignored Hinsdale almost totally in its first posting, focusing on roadside murals. This Valley County town is worth a second look, if just for its two historic bank buildings. The former First National Bank and the former Valley County Bank both speak to the hopes for growth along this section of the Milk River Project of the U.S. Reclamation Service in the early 20th century. Architecturally both buildings were touched by the Classical Revival style, and both took the “strongbox” form of bank buildings that you can find throughout the midwest and northern plains in the first two decades of the 20th century.
The rest of Hinsdale’s “commercial district” has the one-story “false-front” buildings often found in country railroad towns along the Hi-Line.
Local residents clearly demonstrate their sense of community not only through the school, which stands at the of the commercial area. But community pride also comes through in such buildings as the c. 1960s American Legion Hall, the c. 1902 Methodist church (the separated cupola must be a good story), and St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.
These small railroad towns of the Hi-Line have been losing population for decades, yet they remain, and the persistence of these community institutions helps to explain why.
A delightful story in the Great Falls Tribune this week told of a trip in Blaine County, traveling south from Chinook to the Bear Paws Battlefield and onto the almost ghost towns of Cleveland, Lloyd, and Warrick in Chouteau County. In my 2013 survey I went along part of this route and it brought back fond memories. I posted a few images from Cleveland in an earlier post about the Bear’s Paw National Battlefield and its improvements in interpretation in the last 30 years. Today I will merely post a few additional images from Cleveland–yes, Cleveland, Montana–and my travels from six years ago.
The Tribune writers are certainly correct–it really is a beautiful drive, passing historic ranches, early 20th century abandoned log homes like the one above, and various buttes and outcroppings punctuating the landscape. I actually made the drive hoping that the Cleveland Bar would be open, and I could grab a brew and a burger.
Alas, it was shut down, but still there, and its crossroads on Peoples Creek Road was still the primary mail delivery spot for the scattered ranches of the county’s southern end.
Across the intersection of Cleveland Road and Peoples Creek Road was the community school, with its teacher dwelling. I always think how interesting but also how challenging it would be to teach and live at the same place. Should these types of buildings, located in rural communities across the northern plains, be better recognized for their unique contributions to American education and culture?
But of course the real attraction to Cleveland was the stories I heard in Montana in the 1980s about the Cleveland rodeo, and sure enough the rodeo grounds were a mere stones throw from the back of the bar.
Another traveler has posted a wonderful montage of the July 4, 2011 rodeo at Cleveland–truly a community affair. I wish that one day soon I can return when the chutes and corral are teeming with livestock and ranch families from miles around gather for an annual event, whose origins stretches back to the early settlement of Blaine County.
Ryegate, population of approximately 236, is the seat of Golden Valley County. Since it stands along U.S. Highway 12 at its junction with Montana Highway 300, it is a small town that I visit almost every time I am in Montana and making a trek between Billings and Helena. I always prefer the two-lane U.S. and state roads because they give you a sense of immediacy in the landscape that driving interstates do not.
But like most travelers I roar down the highway, perhaps noting the tall grain elevators facing the town proper, and pay little attention to anything else. In a post of four years ago, I spoke of Golden Valley County and its historic landmarks, highlighting the grain elevators, the Golden Valley Courthouse, the Sims-Garfield historic ranch, and the historic town bar in Ryegate. But like the other eastern Montana county seats, Ryegate deserves a closer look.
Golden Valley Courthouse, photo from 2007
Although the depot and tracks are long gone, surviving railroad bed reminds us that Ryegate is a historic Milwaukee Road town, established c. 1910, and became a county seat in 1920 when Golden Valley County was established. As the seat, the town became the county’s center for public education. Ryegate School is still a K-12 school serving the entire county.
The intro photo to this post shows the athletic field; the school uses the historic gym below for sports and community events.
Ryegate received one of the standardized “modern” post office designs from the federal government in the 1970s–the town’s fortunes have remained basically frozen after the Milwaukee Road declared bankruptcy and shut down the tracks in 1980.
In my original posting I ignored a historic church building, below, St, Mathias Catholic Church, which was dedicated and opened in October 1914. From what I know it is the oldest institutional building in Ryegate. I want to research this compelling example of vernacular church architecture more!
Ryegate, like many of the towns along U.S. Highway 12, got the big whammy in the late 1970s of the interstate system being finished and the railroad going bankrupt. The amount of traffic passing through now is a fraction of what it used to be. The historic commercial building below once served different businesses and customers. It is mostly used for storage today.
In my original post about Circle, the seat of McCone County, I focused on the fate of the Gladstone Hotel, a place that I had stayed at in 1984 and a property listed in the National Register of Historic Places as one of the few homesteading era hotels left in the region. I also spoke about public institutions, the fairgrounds, schools, and the excellent McCone County Museum. In the years since I visited and talked about Circle in 2013, I have fielded several inquiries, and people wishing to see more.
Sometimes you wonder how you neglected to speak about obvious landmarks, such as St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, which is among the town’s most impressive architectural statements. It blends the more traditional late 19th century bell tower found at other Catholic churches will mid-twentieth century brick work and large glass block windows.
At least I had an excuse for the landmark across the street, the George McCone Memorial County Library, which in 2013 I could only get a decent side view (image on right) due to a public gathering taking place–one that I do not want to interrupt just to get a photo so the image on the left is from library’s website. I have another reason to return to Circle is the next couple of years! Public libraries are so important, period, but especially so in small towns.
Nearby the public library, naturally, is the large school complex area, with most of the buildings dating to the second half of the twentieth century, including the “spaceship” era of school building from the 1960s and 1970s (immediately above). With this building type educators decided to move away from the standard rectangular classroom and build more flexible circle-designs to encourage innovation and flexibility from teachers.
Just as I could/ should have said more about the schools, I needed to do the same with the McCone County Fairgrounds, a comparatively huge public property on the town’s outskirts. The county fair is almost as old as the county itself, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. That’s right, McCone County was established in 1919.
The fairgrounds, schools, and libraries–I discussed bars in an earlier post– are vital community centers in Circle, as its Vets Club, with that building occupying a strategic corner in town and its glass block windows distinguishing its entrance. As it is true with so many small western towns, regular movie showings are rare to non-existent. The Claret Theater was closed in 2013 and does not appears to have re-opened.
A word about banks. During the homesteading era, local banks competed for the patronage of the homesteaders. When the boom went to bust, the banks closed up business but their buildings, typically well located in the town, remain and ever since different owners have converted these buildings into new uses. A boutique had opened in one of the old Circle banks, seen below.
Since I had visited Circle last some 30 years ago, Wells Fargo has located a new bank, again at a prominent street corner, and contributes significantly to the town’s financial services.
Another new financial services building since my 1980s visit to Circle is the McCone County Credit Union building, shown below to the left of the landmark McCone County Memorial building.
These images are among those I took of Circle in 2013–it was a rather quick stop and I look forward having more time to explore in the next year.
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?
As part of my May 2018 trip to Montana, I stopped in Big Timber to see if anything was left of the historic Sweet Grass County High School of 1905. When I first viewed the large two-story building that rests on a full basement story in the early 1980s, I thought here was a classic statement of public architecture–a building that in its size, style, and purpose matched the ambitions of Big Timber on the eve of the homesteading boom to come. But in 2014, when I took the photograph above, I thought that the school’s days were numbered–how do you find a new purpose for a building this large in a town this small? What were the adaptive reuse possibilities? It was clear that without a new purpose, the historic high school would not survive for much longer.
Then in October 2017, someone set a fire that almost totally destroyed the school building. When I pulled into Big Timber the following May, I expected to see a parking lot or at least an empty lot (the local Episcopal Church had purchased the property). The damaged building was still there, however, giving me one final chance to take an image, one that now represents dreams dashed, and yet another historic building gone from the Montana landscape.