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.

Blaine Co Lohman GN corridorLehman, 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.

Blaine Co Zurich 5 elevators

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.

Blaine Co Zurich

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.

Blaine Co Zurich 4 historic school

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,

Blaine Co Zurich 2 school

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.

Back on the Hi-Line: Hinsdale and Saco

Phillips Co Saco west on US2 showing old road, new, and GN tracks

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

Phillips Co Robinson Ranch w of saco roadside

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.

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Hinsdale School, Valley County

Phillips Co Saco school

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

Phillips Co Saco post officebuildings, 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.

Phillips Co Saco UM church

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.

Valley Co Hinsdale 4 1st national bank

Valley Co Hinsdale 2 bankValley Co Hinsdale 1 bank

The rest of Hinsdale’s “commercial district” has the one-story “false-front” buildings often found in country railroad towns along the Hi-Line.

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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.

Valley Co Hinsdale American Legion hall

Valley Co Hinsdale UM Church 1902

Valley Co Hinsdale St Albert's Catholic

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 return to Cleveland

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.

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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.

MT Blaine County Cleveland Bar

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.

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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?

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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.

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IMG_8349Another 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.

 

Eastern Montana County Seats: Ryegate

Golden Valley Co US 12 Ryegate sign football filed

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.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate elevators signsBut 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 Co Ryegate courthouse

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.

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The intro photo to this post shows the athletic field; the school uses the historic gym below for sports and community events.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate schoolRyegate 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.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate post office

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!

Golden Valley Co Ryegate St Mathias Catholic

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.

Golden Valley Co Ryegate 1

 

Eastern Montana County Seats: Circle

McCone Co Circle sign

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.

McCone Co Circle St Francis Xavier Catholic

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.

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McCone Co Circle school

McCone Co Circle school 1

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.

McCone Co Circle fairgrounds 1

McCone Co Circle fairgrounds

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.

McCone Co Circle streetscape

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.

McCone Co Circle theater

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.

McCone Co Circle bank

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.

McCone Co Circle bank 1980sAnother 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.

McCone Co Circle medical clinic

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.

McCone Co Circle old city hall ND?

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?

Big Timber’s Historic Sweet Grass County High School: 2018 Update

Sweetgrass Co Big Timber school

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.

 

MT Big Timber School 2018 2Then 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.

Gold Creek and Pioneer: bypassed landmarks

Gold Creek overview from school

When I began my fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, there was one spot I was particularly eager to visit:  Gold Creek and Pioneer on the west side of Powell County.  Granville Stuart and Conrad Kohrs both loomed large in the history of Montana; they were associated, respectively, with the two mines.  Stuart was been among the party who first struck gold there in 1858; Kohrs later owned the Pioneer mines.  Plus the two mining areas were counted among the state’s earliest.  Then one winter in 1982 traveling along Interstate Highway I-90 I had looked to the west and saw the faded wooden signs marking what they called the first gold strike in Montana–one of 1858 even before the Mullan Road had been blazed through the area.  Not far away was

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another nondescript sign–this one about the last spike of the Northern Pacific Railroad–it too was visible from the interstate. I had to know more.

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Gold Creek store and post office, 1984.

What I found was not much, at least anything much that could become part of public interpretation.  The folks at the general store and post office, where exterior signs proudly noted that it began in 1866, told me that the granite marker for the Gold Creek strike was on private property–well maintained but something no one was interested in doing more with.  The last spike for the Northern Pacific Railroad was a similar story. Once that spot was all in the national news.  Now it was a place on the railroad right-of-way and Burlington Northern wasn’t interested in visitors being on such a heavily traveled section.

Tailings at Pioneer, Powell Co

The road west of Gold Creek led into the later placer mining of the Pioneer Mining District (established 1866)–with the high mounds of tailings coming from much later efforts to dredge every bit of precious metal from the property.

Pioneer tailings, Powell CoRanchers had taken bits of older buildings from Pioneer and incorporated them into later structures between the mining district and Gold Creek.  Pioneer as a ghost town barely existed then and little marks its past except for the scars of mining.

Log barn E of Pioneer, Powell Co 2

Old buildings grafted into barn, E of Pioneer, Powell Co

Gold Creek, Powell Co

Gold Creek has existed since the dawn of Montana Territory but it has rarely caught a break–its monument about mining is landlocked on private property.  The interpretive markers about the Northern Pacific’s last spike are on the interstate at the Gold Creek Rest Area.  Much of what is there today dates to its last “boom” when the Milwaukee Road built through here c. 1908, but as regular readers of this blog know, the success of the Milwaukee and short lived and by 1980 it was bankrupt. Today little is left except the roadbed, as is the case, almost, in Gold Creek.

MR corridor, Gold Creek, Powell Co

I say almost because the Milwaukee Road located one of its electric transmission buildings in the middle of Gold Creek, along the electrified line. Abandoned when I surveyed the town in 1984, the building has been restored and put back into business.

MR power plant, Gold Creek, Powell Co

Milwaukee Road Electric Station facing the Northern Pacific line.

Two community institutions still shape Gold Creek. On the “far” end of town is the St. Mary’s Mission Catholic Church, built c. 1910, with its original Gothic design still intact.

Catholic Church, Gold Creek, Powell Co 1But the most important community institution (yes, the Dinner Bell Restaurant out on the interstate exit is important but it is a new business) is the Gold Creek School, a rather remarkable building in that residents took two standard homestead era one-room schools and connected them by way of a low roof “hyphen” between the front doors.

Gold Creek school, Powell CoAdaptation and survival–the story of many buildings at Gold Creek and Pioneer.  Historical markers are scarce there but the history in the landscape can still be read and explored.

 

Canyon Ferry and the transformation of the Missouri River Valley

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Canyon Ferry Lake is the third largest in Montana.  A good part of it lies just east of Helena, the state capitol, while the bulk of the lake stretches southward into Broadwater County.  Living in Helena during the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan survey, and often driving U.S. 287/12 which parallels the lake, you would think that the lake and its history would have played a major role in that initial plan.  Such was not the case–rarely did I or anyone else give it much of a thought.  Canyon Ferry Lake in 1984 was just 30 years old–it was not “historic.”

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But its historic impact can’t be ignored.  As part of the massive federal plan to conquer the Missouri River, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944 was justified by wartime conditions–it would create new sources of hydroelectric power–but actual construction did not get underway until the later 1940s and 1950s.  Historians have studied the act’s disastrous impact on Native American tribal lands in the west, and the environmental consequences of building some 50 dams on the Missouri and its various tributaries.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic ditch

For Lewis and Clark County and Broadwater County, you can see the relationship between the dammed Missouri and irrigation, as shown above along Montana Highway 284, and you can find remnants of how the project displaced towns, landmarks, and people along the length of the river. No longer was the Missouri the river that the Corps of Discovery had traversed at the beginning of the 19th century.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic NR 1St. Joseph Catholic Church, perched now on a barren bluff facing the lake, was moved about 2.5 miles east to its present location in 1954.  Originally near the river in what was then known as the Canton Valley settlement, the church building is one of the state’s oldest, dating to 1874-1875 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The proud Gothic styled church is the remnant of one of the valley’s earliest settlements.

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Not far from the church is another remnant of the early 20th century settlement boom during the early 20th century homesteading era after the creation of the county in 1897.  Located along Montana Highway 284 this one-room school is typical of the type found throughout the state from 100 years ago, as adaptive by communities and school boards with the small gable-end extension creating storage space and a barrier between the cold winds of the outside and the inside of the classroom itself.

Broadwater Co MT 284 school

These vernacular buildings and landscapes compare starkly with what the U.S. Corps of Engineers built at Canyon Ferry in the 1950s.  It is a Colonial Revival styled federal village–an architectural choice wildly out of step with regional traditions, and a reminder to anyone that here was the federal government, in the midst of the Cold War, placing its imprint on the land.

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In 1984-1985 I ignored this new public landscape of a school, administrative building, work buildings, and village.  Thirty years later, of course I see Canyon Ferry as a very distinct historic district, symbolic of the entire Pick-Sloan project and a significant example of an architectural aesthetic from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

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The Canyon Ferry headquarters of the mid-1950s is not listed in the National Register but it could be–an evocative grouping of buildings that helps to document that 60 years we were assured and more than a bit arrogant in our power and mastery of technology.  We were convinced hat as we controlled the world, we could also control nature.

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Headlines and Kremlin, Montana that is

Multiple news stories and headlines at the end of 2016 spoke of the federal government’s warm relationship with those residing in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia.  Have no idea of what the federal government’s new relationship with the Kremlin in Moscow might mean, but it did get me thinking that, perhaps, on the off chance, it might bring new federal attention to the Montana Kremlin–a tiny Great Northern Railroad town in Hill County.

Hil Co Kremlin 7 sign

The federal government first impacted this place in 1911 after it threw open the old Fort Assiniboine reserve to homesteading.  The railroad had maintained a stop here as early as 1901 but with the federal opening of new land, permanent settlers came to carve out their new homesteads.

Hill Co Kremlin 2Kremlin never grew to be much, perhaps 300 residents at its height (around 100 today), not because it never participated in the region’s agricultural boom–the decaying elevators speak to prosperity but a tornado and then drought doomed the town to being a minor player along the Great Northern main line.

During the Great Depression, the federal government made its second impact on the town.   New Deal agencies installed a new water system. Funding from the Public Works Administration led to the construction of a new school in 1937-38, an institution, with changes, that still serves the community.

 

Hil Co Kremlin school

Hil Co Kremlin school 1

Hil Co Kremlin possible WPA kitchen?

I have wondered if this separate building on the school yard was built as the lunchroom–it is similar to lunchroom buildings I have found in the South, or was it built as a teacher’s residence.  You find that in the northern plains.

The early history of Kremlin is marked by one architecturally interesting building–this rectangular building covered with pressed tin–when new it must have gleamed in the

Hil Co Kremlin 5 pressed tin

sun.  Note the classical cornice at the top of the roof line–this entire decorative scheme belongs more to the late 19th century but here it is, in Kremlin, from the 2nd or 3rd decade of the 20th century.

Hil Co Kremlin 6 pressed tin

Kremlin’s Lutheran Church (below) in 2013 was holding services every other week in the month, while the Methodist (?) Church had already seemingly closed its doors.  Religious freedom thrives in Montana’s Kremlin, probably not so much in that other Kremlin.

Hil Co Kremlin Lutheran Church

Hil Co Kremlin check notes

Nor would that other Kremlin in the past have cared a whit about the Montana Farmers Union, which has shaped the life and economy of Kremlin and its neighbors for the decades.  That other Kremlin, however, would like the oil………

Hil Co Kremlin 3

The last time Kremlin directly felt the hand of the federal government was in this decade, when the U.S. Postal Service, which had been building new small-town facilities like the one in Kremlin below for a decade, announced that it needed to close hundreds of rural post offices.

Hill Co Kremlin post office

Kremlin residents joined their neighbors in protest: and the federal backed down. When I last visited Kremlin 3 years ago, I mailed a letter from its post office.  Persistence, commitment, community mark the Montana Kremlin–maybe that’s why I would rather hear about this place in Hill County than that other one, which suddenly new decision makers are courting.